The Ruins of the Earth Empire (3.5e Campaign Setting)
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The Planar Handbook provides for the use of alternate material planes, which I have always used as a nice way to bring together the myriad of campaigns and worlds I've made. What follows here is a my way of telling people why there are alternative material planes. I happen to be a science-fiction sort of person, and this is my way to bring together modern, futuristic and traditional fantasy campaigns, giving players a chance to play around in another setting with their own toys.
The Earth Empire
In the depths of time immemorial, humans had created technology that allowed them to spread across galaxies. Whenever they encountered an alien species they could not enslave, they exterminated it, saving its DNA for later experimentation. Over the course of a millennium, the Earth Empire, as the humans called themselves, spanned hundreds of galaxies. The races enslaved were innumerable: lithe and graceful nanotech engineers (elves), short and stout metal workers (dwarves), gifted mechanical engineers (gnomes), slight and agile house-servants (halflings), and all manner of vicious creatures raised as pets or for entertainment in blood sports. Countless worlds were terraformed to provide an earth-like habitat for their residents.
What made the Earth Empire so successful was not craftiness that no other race had, or even a daring that no other species maintained. The gift of the Earth Empire was a complete dedication to its expansion, and a lack of empathy for any that got in its way.
Among the Earth Empire's greatest technological feats was the ability to create new dimensions of existence, realms that broke the laws of physics wantonly. They had created entire planes dedicated to individual elements, consisting of nothing but fire, earth, water, even chaos incarnate. However, scientists dreamed of pushing the limits even further than previously dreamed. They worked to create a plane that did not follow any known conventions, a dimension that would be utterly alien to anyone from the "real" world.
What they created was the Far Realm, a plane of existence far removed from anything else ever conceived. This alien real would prove to be the Earth Empire's downfall. From the depths of its madness arose a plague that spread by mere proximity. Within months, virtually the entire Empire was stricken, slaves and citizens alike. The last survivors dubbed it the Hellfire Plague. It victims suffered from delirium, burning pain, markedly increased aggression, and ultimately, complete memory loss. The last weeks of the Earth Empire were spent in utter chaos. Star craft were lost to the infinite void of space, space stations collided with worlds and madness-induced riots spanned the entire dominion of the Empire.
In the centuries that followed, the survivors roamed, yet again reduced to simple, animalistic survival. Many worlds were lost as the last of its formerly sentient occupants starved. However, with hundreds of galaxies, and billions of stars, there were those who managed to beat the odds, and lived. They evolved and adapted to the landscape, while the evidence of their former Empire crumbled around them. Civilization on these worlds started anew, each with no memory or evidence of their bygone glory.
The Earth Empire's one lasting legacy are its enemies. Even its former slaves still harbor a distrust of humans, buried so deep it is second nature to distrust humans.
However, the Earth Empire left a more imminent threat: The Rescriminate, the last race the Empire was in the process of exterminating. This insectile race is likely the Earth Empire's only equal in determination. Before it's encounter with the Empire, the Rescriminate's only driving goal was expansion. However, the horrific losses suffered at the hands of humanity has left an indelible scar on its hive mind, and a new, almost undeniable directive: the extermination of every last human, and all that slaved for the Empire's war machine.
One of the Empire's oldest enslaved races, now known as elves, waged a particularly valiant defense against humanity, using a set of microscale robots that could replicate a series of seemingly impossible effects, ranging from jets of fire spouting from mid air to summoning terrifying warbeasts.
Once under the command of the empire, these nanites were improved by the slaves and spread throughout the Empire. In order to keep accidental use of the nanites to a minimum, each of their effects could only be triggered through a series of commands and gestures, which increase in complexity depending on the desired effect.
With the fall of the Empire, the use of the nanites would have been forgotten, and only sporadically rediscovered. Often, many misattribute their new-found powers to a divine power, or even more arcane arts. Of course, as the ancestral creators of the nanites, elves do have a greater affinity for them.
At the greatest edges of the Empire, there were a few who managed to avoid the rest of the empire, until at last the worst of the Hellfire Plague had passed. Many were lost trying to reeducate citizens who had lost their memories; they were either struck down out of fear by those they tried to help, or they succumbed to the Hellfire Plague the savages now carried. Others fell to the Rescriminant's implacable armada, and still more fell by their own hand, committing suicide when they lost all hope. A precious few still remained, and many of these succumbed to the madness of their isolation.
The last survivors knew they could not interfere with the others directly, nor could they fight off the Rescriminate on their own. They played their last card, and fled into dimensions of their own creation. In these worlds, they set up personal paradises, and resolved only to interact with the survivors through the manipulation of nanites. In their dimensions, they found a way to extend their lives, and with the control of the nanites, they were omnipotent.
Many began to play as gods, choosing their champions among the rebuilding societies to lead the groups they felt were fit to rule. In a number of cases, their interests conflicted with one another, and these conflicts culminated in battles of (ahem) biblical proportions. A few of the Earth Empire's survivors played the role of demons and devils, fighting the efforts of the others to create organized societies, and sowing the seeds of chaos amongst the fallen citizens.