Irkalla is the name of the Mesopotamian underworld where Ereshkigal and Nergal dwell. The inference in this setting is twofold: that Irkalla to "us" is actually a mischaracterization of this other world.....or possibly the realm in which the spirits of Earth reincarnate in death.
The World of Irkalla
Captured within a timeless age, the people of Irkalla exist in a world not unlike our own in the ancient past, but frozen during an age of classical enlightenment and medievalism, intermixed with the magic and creatures of fantasy. No true renaissance has come to Irkalla; its people seem mired in an ancient sense of tradition, brought about perhaps by the looming presence of truly ancient pagan gods. Some scholars claim that Irkalla is a world beyond time, where these ancient gods have come to savor their own existence after being driven from another realm entirely. Much of the modern religion of Irkalla is dominated by the presence of the Narzahm Empire, a powerful rule of man which has spread its ancient faith to many conquered lands.
Despite the rich religious and cultural heritage of the people of Irkalla, there is little supernaturalism directly evident. Strange creatures, unusual beings and terrible monsters do walk the earth, but magic is a rarity, and sorcerers are looked upon with suspicion and reverence. Divine clerics who can perform miracles are just as rare, and often become the leaders of local cults to the gods they profess to worship. Because of the rarity of magic, some traditional elements common to other worlds are not found here. For example, magical contraptions are almost unheard of. A magical weapon, ring, staff or other such object is always considered a sacred or arcane artifact, usually a relic of the gods, as such devices are usually beyond the ken of most mortal men to make. Although sorcerers and clerics can sometimes make such devices, they are exceedingly rare, and never given away without a significant and often dangerous price.
Ancient gods often seek to awaken the minds of their followers, to unlock the secret keys of magic within the psyche, to open ancient portals to dark nether regions of the unconscious. Mysterious beings walk the lands, spreading mystical secrets both sacred and profane. Some of the only people of Irkalla to rightfully, perhaps, claim knowledge of the gods and their inner workings are the Zepharim, winged men and women who dwell in their ancient sky aeries, and the Mountainfolk of Azcar, who dwell in the distant western continent of Umbrias, creating and caring for the ancient Sky Lines of the Divine Plains of Azramora, where it is said they commune directly with the ancient gods of the sky.
The history of Irkalla is mysterious and mostly unwritten. The oldest tales of the longest-lived kingdoms tell of a time when man first arrived, spirited to Irkalla by the old gods, to save man from a great cataclysm which was brought upon himself. These ancient men say that it was but for the grace of the old gods that man survived, and in exchange, they expected his unwavering devotion and worship. Man willingly consented, grateful to have survived, and began to rebuild their ancient kingdoms from scratch. Indeed, the word Irkalla stems from the ancient tongue, and originally referred to the underworld, the land of the dead. In some ways, Irkallans feel that they did indeed descend in to the underworld, to spiritually die and be reborn in to the new world.
During the earliest period of man’s arrival, he encountered the diversity of races that already existed on Irkalla. The Zepharim were winged men of the skies, and they dwelled in ancient sky-continents and the aeries of distant mountains. Many other beings of a bewildering variety could be found wherever man went, and most all of them were peaceful, or at least prone to regarding their fellow beings with kinship and mutual respect. Unfortunately, with the introduction of militant humanity, all of that changed over time.
Thousands of years have passed since this ancient era. Mankind has spread to all of the four continents (Erebas, the central continent, Urthas the southern lands, Colebras of the frozen north, and Umbrias of the utter west). In some lands he has come to venerate and respect the gods, spirits and strange beings that dwell in darkness and remote lands. In Umbrias, for example, the men of the Azcar and other lands have learned to commune directly with the gods. In Erebas, however, man has forged a mighty empire and conquers all he can. In the utter north of Colebras, humanity struggles against the mighty elements and the strange and inimical beings which dwell in the frozen wastes. In the south, where the land stretches in to a realm of endless deserts, draughts, and unending heat, mankind barely manages to survive, against those entities well-equipped for such harsh domains.
Key Campaign Themes
Irkalla is an ancient world, and men are fairly young to it. There were numerous much older species before man to inhabit the world, and the ruins of their ancient and mysteriously forgotten legacies still stand in the deep wilderness.
One human pantheon
The men of Irkalla brought with them their gods, who are considered the first gods by most, though the dwarves and other more ancient races know better. This pantheon is effectively the ancient Mesopatamian pantheon of old Sumeria, and the people who have believed in these gods for thousands of years now claim that they were descended from the true faithful of man’s early years. As the story goes, the gods carried their fondest worshippers with them to a new realm, called Irkalla after the afterlife of their beliefs, where they were safe from an ancient terror. That terror is generally believed to have been the destructive rage of Tiamat and her monstrous offspring, though others feel that it was the villainy of Ereshkigal that might have driven the gods to this new world.
The gods are remote and mysterious
Followers of the gods occasionally receive visions and dreams from their deities. Drug induced hallucinations can lead to divine revelations and prophecy as well. The gods, however, never physically manifest upon the mortal plane, unless, on very rare occasion, they channel their presence through a mortal form (possession).
Irkalla is a low-magic world. Few magic items abound, although they do exist and are impressive when discovered. What this means is that while a local town may have a hedge wizard, be wary if there is also an alchemist; you might be drinking real mercury, and not a health potion! Furthermore, it is mortals who are the movers and shakers of Irkalla. Gods have never physically manifested in the land, and chances are if something claims to be a god, it’s probably not. The movers an shakers will be the priests, warriors, and men of politics who have their own ambitions and interests.
Limited access to other dimensions
Irkalla is distinctly hard to reach through planar travel, and even harder to escape. For practical purposes, there are believed to be only four planes of existence: the mortal world, the afterworld, the dream world, and the prison world of the Monstrous Gods. The Dream world is where the gods are believed to dwell, and can only be reached through meditation, visions, and dreams. The afterworld is best reached through death, though descending deep enough in to the earth can lead to portals, and there Nergal, Ereshkigal and other dark gods dwell. The prison world is believed to be a separate portion of the dream world, a place of nightmares corrupted by Tiamat and her dark spawn. Though Tiamat is believed to be the creator goddess, she is also believed to seek the destruction and rebirth of the world, and so she and her spawn seek forever to send out their dark influences in to the mortal world from this realm, that they might cause its destruction and allow Tiamat to escape once more.
Bronze age technology
While it is sometimes found as forgotten or lost technology (often found from the ancient ruins of lost cultures) all current technology in the world is comparable to classical iron-age (around 300 A.D. earth time) and more sophisticated devices and discoveries are considered arcane knowledge.
Humanity is the dominant
While the various intelligent beings of the world all exist in some numbers, humankind’s arrival on Irkalla led to a massive imbalance in the world ecology, and humankind rapidly expanded to fill the gap. As such, with such an expansion happening so far in the ancient past, only the very long-lived species can remember a time when humanity was not dominant.
World steeped in antiquity
The world of Irkalla has a history that goes back millions of years. Indeed, the best historians have ascertained that the ages of man are the very recent in Irkalla’s history, even though man has been on the planet for ten thousand or more years now. Ruins over one hundred million years old, sometimes containing the mutated descendants of forgotten races and even more ancient, terrible secrets have been unearthed.
A vast and ancient wilderness
Throughout the world are vast and unplumbed wilderlands, throughout which the diaspora of sentient beings are thinly dispersed. When warfare and conflict erupt between species, it is not for lack of breathing room. The world gives a sense of being ancient, and the great expanse of emptiness that pervades much of the world is evidence of the land’s eagerness to reclaim that which men and their civilization have so rudely impinged upon.
Vast and Unpopulated
Irkalla is an immense world. It is so large that the need for resources is easily satisfied by moving over the next hill or range to seek them out. The domain of Revarik, once a united kingdom but now fragmented in to a series of city-states spread out over a 900x500 mile region (about 450,000 square miles). There are perhaps no more than 100,000 humans in this region, which works out to about 4.5 people per square mile, though it is much lower than that when you factor in that most of this population dwells in one of five major cities.
The etheric Spirit World is important
The spirits are the only direct form of phantasmal and otherworldly communion known to the diviners and mages of Irkalla. As such, all divination and secret lore makes its way to and through the spiritual medium of the ether, and mastery of this form of divination becomes a significant factor in magical lore. Wizards can “listen in” on the etheric waves and commune with chatty spirits to discover what their sorcerous neighbors are up to, for example. Long distance communication between two diviners is possible when the right mechanisms for sending and receiving messages are created. Nonetheless, the malign and dangerous spirits of the etheric realm like to make victims out of these mages as often as help them.
Magic is powerful but rare, and accepted by most civilizations
Magic is a mnemonic force, an energy of unknown nature (probably a form of etheric essence which soaks through in to reality) that can be harnessed by various mechanisms or devices used to channel the energy properly. Runes, spell incantations, pentagrams, and glyphs are common mechanisms. The actual nature of the vessel is not necessarily important, but the means by which the mage focuses to harness the ether is. Rune stones and other sacred or magical objects are exceptions. These are physical objects which act as persistent conduits for etheric energy. Anyone who learns to focus on the energy of such a rune can tap in to it and use it, even unlearned commoners. Still, such stones are rare and prized, for they exist only in nature, the ancient ruins of lost empires, and occasionally materialize spontaneously. No one can make them.
Because of this, magic is not feared or even very restricted by most civilizations. It is considered a fact of life, one that is respected by those who can not use it and guarded by those who do wield it. Still, magic is a rarity. The ratio of magic using people to those who are without is roughly equivalent to the ratio of geniuses to common folk, though intelligence is no factor in magical ability.
Exploration is common
Thanks to the Narzham Empire’s long standing focus on exploration and discovery, the tradition of explorers in the world remains strong. In addition, the legacy of ancient and lost civilizations, as well as the seemingly endless trackless wilderlands, prove to be an irresistable temptation to the inordinately high number of wanderlust-stricken adventurers.
Irkalla’s maps are tabula rasa
But for the graces of the Royal Cartographer’s Society of Narzham, as well as the salvaged relics of bygone ages, less than ten percent (estimated) of the known world is mapped, and considerably less of it is recent or accurately charted in any meaningful way. The job of working as a Royal Cartographer is a lucrative an dangerous profession. The edict of the emperor under which the RCS operates is sufficiently funded to spur many risky, if potentially profitable ventures in discovering and charting new lands, but the mortality rate is exceedingly high.
There is no absolute moral power
Irkalla is a world of ethic ambiguity. There is not defining power of good or evil, save as decided upon in the minds of men. No spell can ever speak to the nature of good or evil in a man’s heart, nor is the world a place divided by chaos and law, as with some other fantastical realms. Nonetheless, the presence of the inimical and unknowable Force suggests a strong, destructive embodiment within the universe that some consider a source of evil, though in truth it might merely be the lack of any regard for mortality and the mundane realm that makes this Force so ominous.
When running adventures in Irkalla, it is extremely important to be reminded that the ethical and moral dilemmas can not, and will not ever be solve through simple use of magic. Like the real world, ethics and morality are relative and culturally derived dilemmas.
The religions of Irkalla are amalgams of ancient earth mythology
The world of Irkalla is rife with entities which stride forth from the mythology of humankind. Some are similar, some direct, and some not at all familiar to traditional Earth mythology, and there is a certain mystery as to the true relationship of these beings to our Old Earth.
A modern human visiting Irkalla would notice that the religious beliefs of this world appear to have been frozen at around 3,500 BC in our own time line. The significance of this would seem to be that this is roughly the period in time when humanity reached Irkalla, presumably by planar gate. The greater mystery is: why has religious belief and thought remained the same ever since? The Irkallans believe in the same gods now that they did thousands of years earlier, with almost no change to the core pantheon and man’s perception of it. This is an unusual, almost supernatural dedication to a specific faith.
The strongest movers and shakers of the world are legendary, but not gods.
The spirits are an ephemeral presence, and those who espouse godhood still must act through mortals. As such, the great figures and heroes of the world, the villains and perpetrators, are mortal men (though some learn the secrets of long life). Epic beings do not exist in Irkalla, as such. Likewise, there are no true demigods or divine beings in physical form walking the realm. Powerful beings that can be mistaken for gods do exist….but even they bleed.
It is also believed that some gods will manifest through possession, taking over the body of a loyal follower, to speak or act using their corporeal form as a vessel.