Cultures of Pardem
Speculations about the age of Pardem have no end. Some say the world is billions of years old, riddled with civilizations who advanced too far or too fast, dabbling in arts that would ultimately destroy them. There would be little evidence these civilizations ever existed, and what remained would forever be unanswered mystery. Prehistoric eccentricities abound without explanation, begging for some grand narrative about authors long forgotten.
Others see the world as precisely 5,000 years old, starting at the dawn of THE DIVINE AGE. Histories too fanciful to possibly be true describe a pantheon of gods who walked among mortals, directing their lives, structures, and cities. It is said they concocted the world as a blank canvas that would one day be a monument to their benevolence. The mortals of Pardem were commanded to construct that monument, over generations of service to these gods.
To that end, the various gods gifted mortals with all sorts of practical advantages; enchanted weapons, holy magicks, and above all: Culture. The gods prescribed the layout of holy cities, equipping them with the benefits of foresight. Unlike the hodgepodge towns that sprawled into being, these cities had hospitals, easily navigable roads, and planning that made life in the city a world apart from the treacherous outlands.
Empire was inevitable. Centered on worship of the gods, the fledgling empire titled itself and the pantheon they followed the same name: THE DIVINE. They spread far and wide, building cities wherever the sun shined. The Divine was the able to quell the squabbling of all the tribes and loose factions they met. They put aside their differences for the greater good the gods demanded of them. The dwarves carved, the gnomes crafted, the elves cultivated- everyone in these holy cities did their part to recognize The Divine.
The humans, eager to prove their worth to the gods, to other species, and even to other humans, were most responsible for the Empire's geographic expansion. As Clerics and Paladins, they advanced the front lines of Divinity through war, seizing the lands of heretics and heathens. As Rangers, they patrolled the Outlands between great cities, preventing insurrection. They set fire to the fields of godless Orcs, flooded the caverns of pagan Dwarves, flayed the skins of abominations like Tieflings or Dragonborn. They paraded Divinity across oceans and deserts, mapping the world as they marched ever forward.
They were unburdened by questions of purpose or meaning. The humans of the Divine were emboldened by the presence of gods who walked among them. If something was wrong, the gods would surely say so.
And so they did. Several times gods called for the destruction of cities or people that strayed from their divine designs. Some magicks and practices were considered unclean, attracting the ire of the gods. Of course, the gods had long since left, if they had ever existed at all. The destruction and ire was delivered through mortal hands, in great armies that trampled most heathen cultures.
Over time it became apparent that, to survive, every single heathen would have to work together. This effort was due, in large part, to a Drow by the name Tesser the Shade. With diplomacy and fanciful language, he inspired those that had been shunned or mutilated or abandoned by The Divine. He led the formation of an alliance in direct opposition to The Divine; HEATHEN.
Celebrating the wild aspect of Nature and a carefree life the was specifically spontaneous and unplanned, Heathen was home to the worlds most skilled artisans and dueling fighters. While ordered formations and practiced techniques were well and good in open battle, the improvisation and adaptability necessary for bar room brawls eluded practitioners of The Divine.
Indeed, both sides saw each difference as a mark of superiority- where one was flexible, the other was firm. Where one was ornate, the other was rugged. Where one was unstoppable the other was immovable.
The Fall of The Divine Empire
Without their gods alongside them, The Divine aged poorly. While they were never outright conquered, they found themselves continuously ceding ground to their enemies. It was not feasible to straddle the world and keep the armies marching and keep the cities stocked. Eventually, the noblest followers retreated to places they could keep without a fight.
Any lesser group of people would find these lands untenable- crops wouldn't grow, beasts fed on flesh, the heat or the cold or the swamp was all consuming, depending on the outpost. But it was precisely these places that survived, because of how inhospitable they were.
No Heathen coalitions or unaligned packs of Goblins or Owlbears would venture to these extremes. These bastions were over engineered, the idea being that if The Divine could survive here, they could survive anywhere.
Alas, they could not survive everywhere.
The fracturing of the Empire was a slow process, one which left many beings 'falling through the cracks'. Some of the excommunicated, some of the frail, and some who simply did not want to leave strayed from the faith. While their leaders and icons left them, they remained in cities they could never upkeep themselves.
Since they were not members of The Divine, but not wild or barbaric like Heathen, the last vestiges of The Divine reorganized themselves as THE DEVOUT. Their laws were far less severe, and while they considered some form of worship compulsory, they were amenable to the idea that there might gods outside their pantheon.
One by one, holy cities across the world lowered their gates and integrated with the commonfolk, many of whom had left Heathen once the threat of Empire had ended. While The Devout communicate across vast distances and have strict ideas about nobility and order, they are not one nation, directed to expand or police. They see themselves merely as mortals, trying to live a life worth living.