Ars Nova is fantasy world based on 14th century Europe. Generic fantasy elements such as magic, elves, ghosts and monsters exist alongside real-world history, historical religions and even historical people. It is the late middle ages, the crusader kingdom has fallen, the Golden Horde has conquered most of Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire is rising, The Travels of Marco Polo is becoming popular, the Inquisition is busily eliminating the Cathar sect of Christianity, and the Pope has moved from Rome to Avignon.
Heroes and adventurers in Ars Nova live on the fringes of a medieval society where most people are serfs or knights tied to the land. Players control characters who have unusual mobility in this world. These will often be characters with secrets to hide, veterans of horrific incidents and members of persecuted minorities. PCs can be mortal (normal humans without magical powers), immortal (fantastic creatures such elves and trolls) or even dead (undead ghosts or revenants who have stayed in or returned to the mortal world.)
Most Ars Nova characters are essentially human. Even monsters and ghosts are humanoid. They or their ancestors were once people like us. Or perhaps we were like them. Characters can also be very intelligent animals, but they will be treated like animals by most NPCs and expected to behave like animals.
Mortals have no magical powers, though witches and wizards may live among mortals as changelings. Also some mortals have the exceptional ability to receive divine assistance with surprising regularity. Miracle workers are generally eccentrics and not priests or clerics. The major mortal religions of the 14th century do not have a desperate need for signs and wonders, and they are wary of potential false messiahs, with some justification.
The religions of Ars Nova are the historical religions of our world in the 14th century, especially in Europe. Because of the power of the Christian church in Europe and the crusades, these religions superficially divide the world into different civilizations or cultures, but the reality is much more complex than that, with variations of each religious tradition scattered across the known world, with tolerance, cooperation between faiths and eclectic traditions in many places.
- Christianity in Europe is roughly divided into the Western or Roman Catholic church and the Eastern or Orthodox Catholic church. Africa and Asia are home to other branches of Christendom. In the 14th century the headquarters of the Western church has moved from Rome to Avignon in southern France. Western christianity is dealing with the end of the crusades and the heretical Cathar sect. Eastern christianity is spread across eastern Europe and parts of asia which are dominated by the Golden Horde whose rulers are often muslim.
- In the 14th century Islam is an important religion in Europe as well as Asia and Africa. The Crusader Kingdom has collapsed, the Golden Horde has officially converted to Islam, and the Ottoman Empire is beginning to form. On the other hand, Christian kingdoms have taken most of Moorish Spain in the Reconquista, except for the Kingdom of Grenada which continues as a vassal of Christian Castile.
- Pagans, Druids and Heathens
- European religions before Christianity are sometimes called Paganism (especially the religions of southern Europe, like the Roman and Greek religions) and Heathenism (especially the religions of northern Europe, like the Norse religion.) These terms can also refer to unorganized folk religion. The Druids were religious leaders of the Celtic people before conversion to Christianity. These older religions have been almost completely replaced or absorbed by Christianity, but they remain an important part of the culture and lore of the people of Europe.
Immortals are the magical creatures who live in the shadows of mortal history. Behind the scheming and conquests of mortal men and women, elves, trolls and other creatures insert their own agenda. Some work to protect their own kind from mortal expansion, others want to influence the development of the emerging renaissance culture and some seek to subvert mortal civilization and rule over humanity as gods.
In spite of the name, most immortals grow old and die. They can be killed by ordinary weapons, although iron weapons are particularly effective for slaying immortals - just like everyone else. Some immortals do live a very long time, perhaps a thousand years or even more. They are called immortals because most mortals and immortals believe that the long-lived immortals have no soul or spirit and therefore no afterlife. Most immortals rejoice in the certainty that they will not be boiled or given a harp to play for eternity but instead rest in dreamless sleep. On the other hand, there are rumors that an immortal could acquire a soul through christening or other religious rituals. As this would be a fate much worse than death, religion can be a very effective weapon against immortals.
Although the immortals are more individualistic than mortals, they are roughly divided into three factions by ancient traditions and history: the Children of Light, the Children of Darkness, and the Children of the Serpent that Swallows the Sun.
- The Ar
- The Ar or "Children of Light" include the light elves and other faerie folk who prize beauty and aesthetics. They are often represented by a golden eagle. The Ar love to exercise power and many encourage mortals to worship them as gods or angels. The Ar specialize in magical powers such as coercion and illusion.
- The Drow
- The Drow or "Children of Darkness" include the dark elves, trolls, werewolves and other monsters who stalk the night. They are often represented by a black wolf. The Drow live by taking and hunting rather than manipulation. The Drow are generally content to provide mortals with nightmares in exchange for a portion of their livestock taken in the night.
- The Mer
- The Mer or "Children of the Serpent that Swallows the Sun" include merfolk, swamp dwellers and other aquatic creatures. They are often represented by a red serpent. The Mer are collectors of treasure and memories. They are sometimes infamous collectors of people too, kidnapping travelers for their stories, labor or breeding.
The famines and plagues of this century are transforming the normally peaceful world of the dead into a crowded, contentious place. The spirits of deceased mortals usually dwell in an unseen spirit world, but some of them remain behind or return as disembodied incorporeal ghosts or walking corpses also known as revenants. Many of the dead are benign and benevolent. Deceased ancestors protect their descendants, and saints do some of their most impressive work after leaving mortal life behind.
- The Blessed Dead
- The dead, typically freed from the burden of trying to live a longer, better of meaningful life, are not as concerned about faith and divine power as mortals. Most are patiently waiting for judgment, rebirth, a final battle or whatever end of the world they anticipate. However, a few blessed dead are miracle workers who continue to channel divine favor from beyond the grave.
- Restless Spirits
- Some dead people are driven by obsession to interfere with the world of the living. Perhaps the ghost or revenant cannot rest until he has avenged some terrible wrong, or perhaps he has no resting place at all and is cursed to wander until the end of days. Guardian spirits might also fall into this category, trying to restore an ancestral property or protect a living descendant.
- Two Knights on a Horse
- Pope Clement V has disbanded the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon - a powerful military order better known as the Knights Templar - and the members of the order now face arrest and trial for heresy. Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, has offered the Templars his protection. (The Scottish king has gotten himself and his entire country excommunicated anyway.) But first the fugitive Templars must make their way across Europe.
- The Cathar Heresy
- Our heroes discover a surviving community of the Cathar faith - and a crusader who is still trying to hunt them down and destroy them. Both sides want all the help they can get.