A thousand years after Alaric the Goth crossed the Alps with his rough alliance of northern tribes and wild, spell-wielding shamans to crush the Roman empire, Europe has become an almost civilised place.
Despite the wars that wash across the continent, the little mountain kingdom of Carinthia remains untroubled and untouchable. Rich through trade and centuries of peace, it owes its success to being the home of the Order of the White Robe, whose legendary hexmasters can destroy whole armies by turning the field of battle into a glittering lake of lava.
Magic is Carinthia’s wealth, its protection and its way of life. So what does a magic kingdom do when it runs out of magic?
If Arcanum has themes, it has two major ones, really.
Firstly, it’s about change.
Secondly, it’s about power.
Change is hard. And when everything you know has been known for a thousand years – it’s how your parents, your grandparents and your great to the nth grandparents lived – it’s really hard. Very few people will welcome it, even when the life before has been difficult and inequitable. There’s comfort in stability and tradition, simply because everyone knows how it works.
So how does it work?
In Carinthia, it works like this: the people’s lives are made easier by magic. There’s magical lights which banish the darkness, there are ploughs and grindstones that turn themselves, there are barges that move up and down the navigable rivers by force of will. All of those things pale into insignificance compared with the single word, peace. Magic keeps Carinthia peaceful – and more importantly, it keeps her neighbours peaceful.
Simply put, if someone declares war on Carinthia, they lose. Badly. The last ones to feel the wrath of the Carinthian hexmasters were the Protectorate of Wien, over a century ago. A straightforward trade dispute left the Wienese forces buried in a lake of solidified lava, white marks on black rock. The hexmasters are the guarantors of Carinthian freedoms, and for this, they take a full half of the taxes raised within the principality.
All the prince has to do is collect the money, open the Alpine passes in springtime and make sure the various magical beasts within his lands don’t run amok. All relatively easy: the rest looks after itself. The guilds regulate trade, the itinerant priesthood conducts the somewhat perfunctory worship of the Aesir, and the earls see the law is kept.
Take away all those certainties, and what are you left with?
You’re left with the secret history of a Europe that never was. You’re left with Arcanum.