It is whispered by those who might know, that the Emperor was truly outraged at his assassination. Even at the moment when the Silver City was being ransacked, half as much by the Emperor's own army as by the invading horde, Emperor Fauldus Exaltian, now known as "Fauldus the Last" or "Fauldus the Fool," refused to believe it was more than a minor spot of civil unrest. "Lop off a few heads," he reportedly told an advisor, "and the rest of the scum will simmer down." Of course, it was his own head that ended up being lopped off, sent flying from his shoulders by the axe of the barbarian warlord, Avrang Half-Orc — in response to Fauldus's ill-considered taunt of "You wouldn't dare!"
When the Silver City fell, the last pretense of Imperial order fell with it. Having plundered the greatest shining jewel of Imperial wealth, Avrang's horde broke into smaller pieces and scattered across the land, slaying whomever they chose and taking whatever they wished. Civilized folk fled the countryside for district capitals, hiding behind the walls of fortresses that had not seen true war for decades or even centuries. The demi-human races retreated to their traditional strongholds — dwarves and gnomes in the mountains, elves in the deep forests. Only the halflings remained among humankind, many driven from their rustic villages before the whims of the bloodthirsty horde to become wanderers, others creating enclaves within the human habitations.
In the wake of the barbarians came the constant companions of war: plague and famine. The population dwindled, roads fell into disuse, whole villages and even towns were abandoned and fell into ruin. Monsters, once kept in check by Imperial wardens, once again grew bold and became an ever-present danger in the wild. What had once been Imperial districts reverted to individual realms, often abandoning their neighbors or even fighting over precious resources or ancient squabbles.
Not all has been lost in the fifty years that have passed since Fauldus's death; the Brotherhood of the Morning Star has endeavored to find and preserve what scraps of knowledge they have been able to, and several small bands of would-be knight-protectors have gathered in an attempt to bring safety back to the land. But these groups are small and badly out-matched by the threats they face; they are also hampered by the whims and vagaries of local political or cultural climate. Those few still living who remember the days of civilization do their best to pass on the lore of the time, but their numbers are thinning and, as must always happen, a new world is emerging from the ashes of the old.
The game begins at Fellhollow, a large town set at the crossroads of what were once two major trade routes, although only one of them, an east/west route known as The Pilgrimage, is still much in use today. Fellhollow is the largest town in the immediate area, being roughly two weeks' travel away from Argenti (the Silver City, former Imperial seat of power and still the largest city in this part of the continent). As for what your character is doing there, that's up to you: they may be coming or going, they may be a native.
All standard D&D races are allowed, although any other than humans or halflings must be from somewhere other than Fellhollow originally. Aside from a few halfling-dominated neighborhoods, there is very little in the way of non-human population inside Fellhollow itself. There is a small elven refuge in a valley roughly four hours' ride from Fellhollow, made up primarily of high elves and wood elves. There are no active dwarven settlements at all in the vicinity, although there are the remains of one: the ruins of a small, supposedly cursed and haunted dwarven fortress sits on top of the reputed location of a mine, long abandoned. Any dwarf characters will know a bit more about the dark history of this fortress, and may have come to Fellhollow specifically to look into it.
Any non-standard races (catfolk, sirfox's beloved gnolls, etc.) will require a bit of convincing backstory as to why they're here. No level-adjusted races are allowed. If you want one that's normally level-adjusted (e.g., drow), a 1st-level friendly variation will have to be written up.
Just about any standard D&D classes are available, although some may need tweaking to fit the house rules. Clerics, paladins, monks, or other characters normally associated with a religious order or other organization will have fairly limited resources in that regard — the primary churches of the old Empire were Pelor and Hextor, but both have become somewhat diminished since the Empire's fall and the druidic faith (revering Obad-Hai) has gained prominence in the countryside. There are cults to just about any deity you can think of, but they tend to be very localized. The most prominent temple in Fellhollow is actually devoted to Fharlanghn, lord of roads, although just about every house is likely to have a druidic charm or two hanging over the door.
The Brotherhood of the Morning Star is also an option for monks, clerics, and wizards. Although not a church per se, many members of the Brotherhood are devotees of Boccob or Corellon Larethian. It's entirely possible that some are under the sway of Vecna, as well.
I'm not going to be using this much. Classes with alignment restrictions or codes of conduct will still have to live up to those, but the terms will be fairly broad. 90% of the population is pretty solidly "neutral," even if they may have tendencies in one direction or another. That said, your friendly GM is pretty solidly in the "neutral good" category himself, and thus is likely to have a general bias in that direction when it comes to setting up adventures — so if you set your character up as a kitten-eating Satanist who murders other PCs in their sleep, you may find them encountering difficulties.
Equipment and Magic Items
Mechanically speaking, the general level of "stuff" will probably be pretty standard. But in terms of "special effects," a lot of what are normally thought of as magic items are actually just going to be high-quality (but mundane) gear. Something like a +1 keen greatsword or what-have-you will mechanically be the same, but will not be glowy, nor be identifiable with detect magic. This is just a flavor thing — I'm not going to be "hiding" treasure from you by describing it as mundane junk. If you come upon a "mundane" +1 keen greatsword, I'll definitely tell you that it's an item of quality, although it may require a Spot check or something depending on the item. This way, the game will still feel "low magic," without being thrown out of balance. (Note: In the case of monsters who have DR only bypassed by magic, these weapons will not count for that purpose. On the other hand, you'll be getting +1/2 level bonus to your damage rolls, which will help you punch through in those situations. Since very few monsters are immune to criticals or sneak-attack damage any more, there are plenty of other ways to overcome DR as well.)
Also, I'm going to say right off the bat that you're not going to be carrying around bags of holding or other magical means of toting around tons of stuff. When you loot monsters and whatnot, I'm going to simply list whatever they may have that's worth carrying off, rather than every piece of gear they may be wearing or every knife they may have tucked in a boot. If you really want to take the time to strip every goblin naked and sell their gear for scrap, you have the option — but it'll take time and be a logistical nightmare. In most cases, just assume that their helmet is dented beyond repair, their sword is bent, and the only thing they had worth taking was a pouch of silver coins.
It's up to you guys whether you know each other at the beginning of the game or not. It is presumed that you're "up for adventure," for whatever reason — the game will start with an introductory scenario that boils down to: "Fellhollow has a problem, they're offering a reward to anyone who can solve it, and you've stepped up to the plate." Whether you're doing that out of the goodness of your heart, or because you're strapped for cash, is up to you.
There will be more to this later, I just wanted to get these initial thoughts down. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Anyone? Bueller?