Here’s a preliminary summary of the setup for our Burning Wheel game. This is subject to revision/contradiction, and i encourage comments (both from the players and any other readers).
What we know so far: The elves are the old, sophisticated civilization. They’re the vorlons. They brought man up from savagery (maybe even from pre-sentience?), teaching him fire and agriculture and tool making and medicine and law and, well, everything. Very much the benevolent parental figures. They truly loved man and wanted humans to prosper and grow and be happy and all that. However, at some point in the rememberable past, humans started wanting to know things that elves didn’t think they should know.
Allegorically, it’s like how you want your kids to learn all the good, important, useful things in the world, but you’d prefer them not to learn about LSD and speed and ecstasy—they should just take your word for it that those are bad things, and there’s no need to try them out. And then there are the things that maybe you don’t even tell your kids about, figuring they’ll never even run into them, so there’s no need to even tell them that they’re bad. And then, one day, your kid comes home with a book about blood sacrifices to improve societal health.
So, anyway, not too long ago, the humans started chafing at the benevolent dictatorship of the elves. The elves, of course, saw this coming, but a combination of denial, optimism, idealism, and resignation stopped them from doing anything about it. After all, who wants to actively stunt their children’s growth, right? You want them to not only do as well as you did, but better, if possible—give them every opportunity. Of course, sometimes the letting go part of the children growing up is very hard. Especially when they want to do something that you “know” is “bad”. But then, part of growing up is precisely the need to outgrow the shadow of your parents, and, on some level, the elves knew this, and knew that it would eventually happen, in some manner. But that didn’t mean that, as a society, they could bring themselves to just accept it, and not fight that inevitability. “Besides, maybe this time things would be different. After all, humans are different than elves, and we taught them well, didn’t we?”
Eventually, humans developed both the knowledge and the gumption to start exploring on their own, learning things the elves had never taught them, and perhaps had never themselves known. Humans invented the beginnings of modernity: banks, a merchant class, factories, 3-field crop system, surplus goods—the underpinnings of industrialization. And other modern-ish concepts, in other fields. Printed books. Banditry and smuggling. (Yes, the elven-governed society was more-or-less crime-free.) This was probably the time when human conception of the natural world shifted from the elven “noble savage” viewpoint of being just another part of nature, to the Western viewpoint of nature as a “resource” to be utilized. Things like local lords issuing permits to a specific guild to harvest the trees in a forest, in a large-scale, systematic way. The elves, of course ,objected: “You don’t own the trees—you can’t decide who owns them.” “So you own the trees?” “No, of course not.” “Well, then you can’t say I don’t own them.” The sort of clashes that seem to be staples—at least in fiction—when an ownership society confronts a non-ownership society. Tragically, it goes a lot like when pacifists try to oppose militants.
At some point, relationships went sour. Maybe some humans used force, not realizing that the elves would only ever nag, but would not actually act to stop the humans. Maybe some elves decided that they had to put their foot down, and actually did act. Probably a little bit of both, catalyzed by some misunderstandings and/or accidental violence. It escalated to all-out war.
The war was a very messy, emotional, horrible thing. Human and elven societies had been very close-knit, and heavily integrated. It’s not like, say, the relationship between feudal Japan and China. Much more like the relationship between, um, university faculty and university students at a very small liberal arts college, where everybody knows everybody else, and the professors do things like host class in their living room, and show up at undergrad parties. So, it was the whole “brother against brother” sort of conflict, like a civil war or revolution. The sides split almost entirely along racial lines, but for most people there were people they would consider family on the other side of the line. And, of course, there were a few elves who sided with, and fought alongside, the humans, and vice versa.
The war ended 4 years ago. The elves are dead. [Well, ok, there are probably a few survivors here and there, but not enough for a society anymore.] So humanity won. Yay. Society actually came through the war relatively intact–it helps that the elves didn’t believe in razing cities, or engaging in other acts of mass destruction. So, other than a population dip among certain age groups, the fallout is mostly emotional scars. Lots of them. Guilt is definitely high on the list—humanity just wanted freedom, not genocide. Any surviving elves get the double whammy of both realizing that they could’ve prevented this by letting humanity go, and living with whatever acts of desperation the elves resorted to near the end.
Numbers certainly helped the humans, but the real edge, the thing that made it a true victory, rather than a Pyhrric victory that didn’t leave enough of humanity to carry on, or mutual destruction of both sides through attrition, was sorcery. Sorcery—as opposed to natural magic—is one of those big technological advances that the elves would’ve preferred humanity never to discover, and perhaps one of the catalysts for the conflict. In any case, it’s a new-ish thing. It’s still relatively rare, and heavily restricted. Only a few places to learn it, and only a few people have real sorcerous power—even among those who know magic, they mostly are minor wizards, with a spell or 3, none of significant power. Sorcery is the 1950s nuclear technology in this world: sure, it brought us the horrors of the A-bomb and is poised to lead to mutually-assured annihilation, but it also ended the war “bloodlessly”, and it’s going to bring us limitless free energy, microwaves for everyone so you never have to cook again, and flying cars! Or, you know, the sorcerous analogues. Sorcery was heavily advanced from a new discovery to a powerful force in the equivalent of the Manhattan Project, and, as a result, really powerful sorcery is still mostly confined to a few people–those who participated (and survived the war), and those who’ve learned directly from them. There’s probably only been enough time for roughly 1 “generation” of wizards since the war, so all the really scary wizards know each other, at least by reputation. IOW, there hasn’t been time for the apprentices to train their own apprentices, yet.
[In mechanical terms, we may also allow unlimited helping on sorcery, if that is necessary to make sorcery sufficiently scary. Haven’t digested the sorcery rules in sufficient detail to see if, as they stand, blowing away whole civilizations is already plausible.]
Speaking of mechanics, capital-F Faith hasn’t been discovered yet. We’re leaving it “in”, so a character could take the relevant traits, etc., and even start out with it—but it would be a new thing. The elves didn’t go in for that sort of belief system, so the humans had nowhere to learn it from, and a sound society (due to elven circumscriptions, and the absence of other, negative, behaviors/beliefs that the elves had very carefully not taught humanity), so less of a “need”.
Other than elves and humans, i’ve suggested that roden are a part of the setting. So far, nobody has either validated or rejected that suggestion. I’m thinking that orcs would also fit in, on the fringes of the elf/human society. Perhaps the humans were unaware of them until the elves were defeated, because either the elves kept them at bay, or the orcs steered a wide berth around the elves.
The current state of society is one of transition. Humans are figuring out, completely on their own for the first time, how to run things. Right now, the once-united civilization is beginning to show cracks. Nationalism is a new “discovery”, as each large societal unit (fiefdom or duchy, essentially) is beginning to flex its muscle and expand its influence, and conflicts over resources and domain are beginning to occur. Without the elves for contrast, previously-insignificant cultural differences are being seized upon to create “us”es and “them”s. And, of course, most of these proto-nations have “the bomb”—and those that don’t are doing everything they can to either get their own war wizards, or ally with those who have war wizards. Plus, of course, the internal fractures due to growing pains, societal changes, and differing attitudes to the recent war.