Grim Dawn is an AARPG — a Diablo-like video game — released in 2016. It was done by the same general team as Titan Quest, and shares much system DNA with it.
Grim Dawn is grim. It is a steampunk post-zombie-apocalypse milieu, with evil magic and Lovecraftian stuff in it.
This profile presents :
- The basics of the setting.
- The basic storyline.
- A sample, made-up Player Character (a 2-handed physical/lightning Warder).
It is presented in three parts.
- Grim Dawn part #1 – Lieutenant-Repurgator Mardirossian (start there !).
- Grim Dawn part #2 – The Devil’s Executioner cometh.
- Grim Dawn part #3 – Ashes of Malmouth.
- This profile features a sample or customized Player Character. See our video games writeups FAQ for more.
- This profile features tabletop RPG mechanics about the video game’s gameplay. See our video games writeups FAQ for more.
- This profile has S P O I L E R S about the setting and plot.
The setting – Cairn
Cairn apparently used to be a low-fantasy world with goblin-like creatures, knights, trolls, magicians, castles, legendary kings, etc.. But technology marches on, and the setting went through its Industrial Revolution (video). The landfills and pollution are a readily visible consequence.
This is a steampunk setting. That means it features a fantasy version of 1800s technology. However, it is set a tad later than most steampunk work. Though the presence of magic complicates things, you can assume 1870s levels of technological, industrial and societal development.
In US terms, that corresponds to the Old West era and cowboy movies. Frex, houses are planked with stone foundations, and heated by a big black coal stove. Which also means that some of the “weird tech” is similar to that seen in the old Wild Wild West TV show.
But Cairn has a more European vibe, with a mix of English and Germanic influences. The given and family names mostly evoke England, and IIRC everybody is White.
The story is centered on a specific region. It seems to be the Southern tip of a major power, the Erulan Empire.
Magic is an integral part of the setting. There are many energy sources that can be manipulated to create paranormal effects. Howbeit :
- Most forms of magic appear to have been actively suppressed by secret police.
- The “official” form of magic, arcanism, is tightly regulated and organised. Since even it is horribly dangerous.
- Many magical effects are blessings and dweomers where it’s not readily apparent that something supernatural is at work.
Still, it is common for elite fighters and agents to deploy magic. Apparently, any dedicated person can be trained to wield some form of magic. But inborn affinities also play an important role.
Various themes associated with horror pulps writer H.P. Lovecraft are present in Grim Dawn :
- A fundamentally hostile universe where paranoia is amply justified.
- Dark cults of madmen hidden under every stone. These have a marked penchant for human sacrifice, serial torture-murders, brainwashing loved ones, slow monstrous mutations and other horror story tropes.
- Things Man Was Not Meant To Know in the form of sanity-destroying, godlike alien entities. Some are currently dead and/or asleep, but their return would be cataclysmic.
The fatality of evil
Cairn also has a problem with evil. That may be a legacy from said Things Man Was Not Meant To Know having occupied the world in long-dead aeons that again may rise. As the saying goes.
This isn’t perceptible for ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. But it’s a marked trend.
- People indulging in, or forced into, debased acts may physically become monsters. Especially after they die.
- So might people afflicted with insanity.
- Souls can become corrupt and delusional beyond even normal Human capacity. Yeah, *that* much.
- The undead far precede the Grim Dawn. They seem tied with said evil souls never passing on.
- It’s easy for people to become destructively, blindly obsessive about, say, mad science or necromantic immortality magic.
Thus, the narration draws more from horror story tropes than from heroic fantasy (or even low fantasy) story beats.
The Grim Dawn, part 1
One of the ancient horrors that was kicked out of Cairn were the Aetherials. These are beings made of sapient magical energy. These were chased off into a sort of interdimensional dumping ground. But they remained eager to return and have their revenge.
(It seems that the Aetherials were expelled by a pantheon, perhaps led by one Empyrion the Lightbringer, who later mostly left Cairn. Presumably, the Aetherials had to wait for this departure for any plan to return to Cairn to be viable.)
Arcanists (magicians using aether) eventually stumbled upon the long-forgotten Aetherials. They foolishly thought to use these spirits for power, which opened the door.
At first the Aetherials simply possessed animals to scout around and orient themselves in a world of matter. Then they found the fracture lines in Human society, and possessed notables to prepare an invasion.
They worked for years to sabotage everything, and set up a societal collapse on D-Day. But it was indistinguishable from persons in charge being incompetent and unempathic.
The Grim Dawn, part 2
The main weapon when D-Day came were cadavers. Human corpses can easily be possessed en masse, thus making for a great terror weapon. Using pre-positioned stockpiles, a sudden zombie apocalypse could devastate everything. Meanwhile, possessed officials would ensure that badly counterproductive responses took place.
This gigantic terror strike was the Grim Dawn. It occurred months before the game starts.
The resulting post-zombie-apocalypse situation evokes a mixture of The Walking Dead and Mad Max , albeit with lower tech and more Pickelhauben . But as the game unfolds more and better-organised survivors are found, and Humanity attempts to regroup and strike back.
However, the Grim Dawn was but one step in the Aetherial plan…
The official, 2-minute trailer is mostly about in-game action. But it conveys typical visuals and atmospheres for the setting.
More about the ordnance
Since that tends to be relevant to adventuring…
Firearms, part 1
Firearms found early in the game evoke the 1850s and perhaps the 1860s, but with numerous throwbacks (such as large pistols looking like flintlocks). As the story continues and more powerful weapons become available, they resemble guns from the 1870s and 1880s.
In-game, all are perfectly reliable, fire in semi-auto mode and never need to be reloaded. We are going to assume that this is a gameplay convention, common in AARPGs. For instance, black powder pistols in Torchlight did the same.
And as usual for level-based RPGs, we’ll assume that there aren’t pistols that just happen to be a hundred time more powerful than others. These differences are exaggerated for gameplay purpose.
Instead, low-level equipment can be represented by weak calibres, poor reliability, mediocre ammunition capacity, etc. within the bounds of credible firearms types.
Firearms, part 2
These assumptions mean that you can simply use our most excellent Old West firearms article. The “late West” section about turn-of-the-century weapons is out of scope in most cases, but there are steampunk prototypes that draw inspiration from these guns.
Once we have an article for earlier black powder weapons, that’ll cover obsolete muskets, wheellock pistols and the like desperate survivors might use for lack of alternatives. You can also see our improvised firearms article.
Some weapons have a magazine sticking out underneath. But one assumes that it’s an integral magazine rather than a removable box magazine (“clip”).
Firearms, part 3
Some military gear is seen but not used in the game, including :
- Fairly powerful explosives.
- Cannonball-firing cannons similar to those seen in the US Civil War.
- Gatling-style hand-cranked, rotating-barrels machineguns.
- Large contraptions that look like a multi-barreled black powder cannon. One guesses that it allows for multiple cannonball shots before having to reload the whole kit.
Body armour and melee weaponry
Grim Dawn body armour is better at stopping bullets than Earth historical body armour was. It presumably includes layers of ballistic fabric, not unlike old Kevlar vests. This doesn’t quite stop the impact, but it prevents penetration. And heavier armour used in tandem with it can diffuse the force of the hit.
This in turn means that melee weapons remain in much wider use than what you’d expect. Well-armoured, magically-reinforced troops can take a fair amount of mundane gunfire, so combat has a much higher chance to degenerate into a melee.
And though high-end body armour is difficult to penetrate, a large, heavy weapon wielded by a strong person can find a way.
Oddly enough, crossbows are also still in use. But their performances are akin to that of firearms. They’re repeaters with a fast action.
These seem to be a niche weapon. Perhaps it’s easier to enchant crossbow bolts, making them better-suited to deliver light speciality warheads.
More about magic
There are many schools of magic, drawing from different extradimensional energy sources. In practice, the focus is more on how you *counter* these energies – fire, cold, aether, chaos, vitality drain, lightning…
Few things are explained about magic in-game, and it seems that the same is true diegeti… crap, *in-universe*. Sorry. A likely conclusion is that a lot of magic is done by rote, without understanding the principles and entities involved. But it works.
Knowledge about unauthorised types of magic has been forcefully suppressed by the Erulan Empire. The primary examples are the Inquisitors of Luminari, who also confiscated untold quantities of artefacts.
They further broke unauthorised cults, and a lot of magic seems to be drawn from the patronage of gods. But this seems more akin to how magicians in the Marvel Universe draw energy from mystical entities, than to any sort of prayer.
*Furthermore*, it seems that the vast majority of these gods have gone incommunicado in the distant past. It’s still possible to draw energy from them, but they no longer manifest or intervene.
Magic – path of the aether
The academic, official approach to magic is based on aether. Aether seems to be an otherdimensional form of energy. It can warp reality, and horribly mutate living beings.
The word is a typical steampunk reference to the old “aether theory “. This was a real-world hypothesis in 1700s+ physics that turned out to be completely wrong. But it seemed sensible at the time.
In the world of Cairn, aether is something that exists and can be tested, manipulated, experimented with. The local version of “publish or perish” is thus for an arcanist to give their name to a new, reproducible form of aether manipulation – a spell. The highest honours are for those spells that are breakthroughs.
Aether being hideously dangerous, Erulan Empire arcanists placed a strong emphasis on hierarchy and discipline to keep everyone under control. A rogue arcanist can do incredible damage ranging from mad biology à la Doctor Moreau or Frankenstein (due to the teratogenic and mutative power of aether) to the equivalent of massive irradiation and fallout…
*Plus* the risk of unwanted and/or deceptive otherdimensional contact.
Magic – the hidden path of the witch-gods
The Hidden Path was created by three successive rogue arcanists. Their forbidden research had them hounded and tortured by the authorities, but they each found sanity-shattering secrets. These turned them into inhuman, horrific “gods”.
The three Witch-Gods seem to be relatively modern creations, not something lost into the distant past. That they have proved that their path can bring immense power attracts unhinged arcanists and wannabes.
In practice the Hidden Path kills, maim, drives insane, mutates, tortures, mentally cripples, etc. most aspirants. It’s a complete horror show of corruption and descent into paranoid, murderous, self-mutilating madness. The Grim Dawn made it even worse as cultists attempted to progress further down the Path to gain enough power to survive.
The witch-gods did communicate with their faithful, with an interest in growing their power base in Cairn. However, with the Grim Dawn they suddenly went incommunicado.
The Witch-Gods confer eldritch magical energy, which is different but no less dangerous than aether magical energy. Eldritch energies are also associated with creatures that are essentially demons.
Magic – coven witches
Some witches and warlocks aren’t aligned with the witch-gods. They explore the use of eldritch energies on their own. This has drawn the horrific enmity of the witch-gods, who consider the eldritch their turf.
The coven seen in-game has thus renounced its research. Instead they focus on offering shelter to people (primarily women) with an affinity for eldritch energy. But these ladies still know a lot about such magics, and unlike many witch-god cultists they are reasonable and sane. If wary.
Magic – the dying god
This Thing Man Was Not Meant To Know is all about blood and unity through death. Its brainwashed cultists want to return people to oneness through conversion and/or murder. Their god endows them with magical powers relating to blood, chaos and life force manipulation.
Ch’thon (no relation) had a stronger presence on Cairn in the distant past. But it was chased off by an unclear set of gods. It has been trying to return ever since, but the Empire’s inquisitors and secret police kept hounding cultists into deep clandestinity. Before the Grim Dawn, most ordinary people did not even recognise Ch’thon’s name.
Millions of litres of Human blood, poured across dimensions, would be necessary to revive the dying god. The Bloodbound cultists consider this an exciting, holy challenge.
The Dying God’s Herald, the Voice of Ch’thon, was once summoned back to Cairn. This led to incredible slaughter, but the Herald was narrowly taken down.
Magic – the forgotten gods of man
Other hidden cults worship lost gods. This may be the pantheon (pantheons ?) that chased Ch’thon and/or the Aetherials before departing.
These cults tend to hide in out-of-the-way locales as closed communities similar to, say, Jonestown . But they’re like normal cults, not complete horror shows like the dying god cult or the witch-god worshippers.
One early example in the story are Father Kymon’s community, worshipping the cleansing fire of Empyrion the High God. They hid for decades in the Old Arkovian desert. But they saw the Grim Dawn as a call to arms to fight evil such as the Bloodbound.
Another early example is worshippers of one Ishtak. These date back from Old Arkovian times. They sought to escape the Fall of Arkovia by hiding under what is now Burrwitch.
There are hints that the gods in the setting — with the possible exception of Ch’thon and his “generation” — were once mortals.
Magic – Erulan gods
The Erulan Empire’s official religion features at least three gods – Menhir, Oleron, and Mogdrogen. These are also capable of granting magic powers.
But at first glance, this is much less impressive than what the witch-gods promise. And it also seems that the true knowledge about these gods was suppressed to become institutionalised churches.
It is possible to train in their ways (perhaps by meditation at sacred sites), but this looks more like knacks than fearsome magics. Exceptional people can get lots of mileage about these abilities, but it doesn’t really look like spells.
Magic – astrological power
This is an important source of power in Grim Dawn. Nothing is explained about it. What we know :
- There are shrines in the wilderness. They are abandoned and unconsecrated. Some have been deliberately desecrated during the Grim Dawn.
- One of those is clearly tied to Mogdrogen, a Human god. It would *seem* that these shrines were devoted to the departed gods, a long time ago.
- Somehow, the Player Character is able to reconsecrate these shrines. This seems to require offerings, meditation and rituals. And in some cases, destroying heavily-guarded wards put in place around the shrine by enemies of mankind.
- Reconsecrating these shrines allows for drawing considerable power from the stars. Attuning to a given constellation allows for magical abilities, ranging from the discreet to the highly pyrotechnical.
- Apparently, the Player Character is in an unique position when it comes to harnessing sidereal powers and putting shrines “back online”.
- Many of the constellations symbolise the departed gods, but others are animals, archetypes and other stuff you find in Earth constellations.
- Real Name: Lieutenant-Repurgator Kerann Mardirossian, née Kerann Anne Constantine.
- Other Aliases: “Tank Lady” (nickname from several children in Devil’s Crossing), “the old crippled bitch” (self-awarded nickname), “the Taken”, “the Devil’s Executioner”.
- Marital Status: Widowed.
- Known Relatives: Lévon Mardirossian (husband, deceased), Karni Constantine (daughter, deceased), Emmanuel Mardirossian (son, deceased).
- Group Affiliation: Former officer in the Repurgator Special Unit.
- Base of Operations: Devil’s Crossing. Formerly the central precinct house in Arin Berd.
- Height: 5’7″ Weight: 132 lbs. Age: 43
- Eyes: Grey-blue Hair: Black, with dark grey strands.
- Other distinguishing features: See the Description section.
As the soundtrack for this profile let’s have some atmospheric duduk music. A duduk is a traditional Armenian oboe.
Powers & Abilities, part 1
Lt.-Rep. Mardirossian is a competent and experienced police detective. She’s also a SWAT expert, highly trained to engage both ordinary and paranormal suspects. Lastly her training in anti-supernatural tactics, and her police experience, give her some occult expertise.
Her combat experience might be her most noteworthy asset. She was the only person on the force with nearly 20 years of tactical experience. She’s good.
She’s specialised as an assaulter, usually working with a shotgun and a sledgehammer. The sledgehammer was nominally there to deal with locked doors, but got used in combat.
Mardirossian also has a chilling, intense presence. Were it not for her job, many would think her a mighty witch or a powerful, lifelike revenant.
Mardirossian has suffered a number of wounds during her career. The two most notable ones are a missing eye, and a badly damaged leg. However, she has some tailor-made gear to deal with the second.
This is an articulated frame made of lightweight metal, made to measure. It is clamped around Mardirossian’s bum leg. Custom-built shock absorbers can then be quickly screwed on.
While it’s less pain-relieving than using crutches, it is way more convenient in the field. The shock absorbers allow her to walk, run and even clumsily jump. Doing so is painful, but Mardirossian has a high pain tolerance. And walking is merely uncomfortable – if she’s careful to rest her weight on her good leg.
The shock absorbers are a flat design, so it can be worn under armour. This implies using oversize armour, but adding padding around her good leg is straightforward.
The purse of doom
Her large, tough leather handbag has a steel cage infrastructure to protect the content. It closes with a padlock. It’s not light.
It is filled with the sort of things you’d find in a lady’s handbag, plus the sort of things you’d find on a police belt, plus occult supplies, plus a stash of medical drugs. The inner cage is there to protect the more fragile recipients.
The drugs she uses on a daily basis include antiseptics, morphine, chloroform (as a sleeping aid), artificial tears, purified rock salt (believed to help resist possession), prepared chamomile (as a better-than-nothing antidepressant and mood stabiliser) and a few others. There’s also a backup, telescoping walking cane. And gunpowder. And a pair of honing steels.
The occult supplies include a police kit to determine whether a person is fully human or an impostor. For instance it has a blessed silver disc. These trigger an allergy when pressed against the skin of a sufficiently chaos-infused warlock.
There’s also a locket with tiny portraits of her family. She’d wear it as a pendant, but that was against police safety regulations.
Ride the lightning
Mardirossian was taught fighting techniques that use arcane energies. In the parlance of her land she is a kakhard p’vot’voriki. This means she can wield a force that resembles a mixture of electricity and life force. Using this sort of abilities isn’t rare among elite fighters.
During her career as a Repurgator, these abilities were useful but not spectacular. The best part probably was contributing to her lightning reflexes, which saved her life on multiple occasions.
It also allowed her to charge her weapons with pseudo-electricity. They thus could hit harder, especially in a prolonged battle. Which was useful when dealing with tough non-humans and people with supernatural defenses, such as cultists of Ch’thon (probably not that one).
However, these become much more powerful after her possession.
History, part 1
Kerann Mardirossian is originally from Arin Berd, thousands of miles away. It is a harsh land with a long history. The city has existed in some form since far into prehistory. The locals are reputed for their toughness.
They need it. With so much history, the area has accrued much magical fallout from ancient curses, out-of-control magic and the like. The Arin Berd police department is all too experienced in dealing with ghastly menaces from millennia past.
Okay, 3, 2, 1, let’s jam
Kerann Constantine was kicked out by her family over her sex life at age 15, and pregnant by 16. After she had her daughter, she hanged around the Arin Berd clubbing scene. She auditioned as a backup singer for short-lived, small-time bands. But she eventually fronted for better bands.
Kerann married Lévon, the oud player and co-vocalist of the most successful band she ever joined. But the birth of their son became a problem. Raising two children with gigs income was impossible. Kerann landed some more gigs as a dulcimer or trombone player, but that wasn’t enough.
Both Lévon and Kerann attempted to get police jobs, via contacts of Lévon’s uncle and his second cousin. Kerann was hired, but Lévon failed an important written test. Still, between Kerann’s pay as a sort of in-precinct paralegal clerk and Lévon’s gigs, they could survive.
I think it’s time to blow this scene
Two years later, the transfer of a murderous possessor spirit at the precinct broke bad. A witch’s ward ruptured, the spirit shot out, and it possessed a fellow clerk. The powerful thing massacred the nearby paralegals.
Among others the murder spirit slew Arman, a police lawyer with whom Kerann had been having an affair. Enraged, Mrs. Mardirossian rushed the monster. The thing slashed at her face with spectral claws, taking out an eye and most of a cheek. As it cackled, Kerann got back up and ripped its throat open using nearby scissors.
As she furiously stabbed the prone monster’s eyes and face, it left its current body and attempted to possess Kerann. It didn’t work, and she strangled it with her soul.
As Mardirossian was hospitalised, the Chief of Police offered her to join the Repurgator Special Unit. This elite cadre of detectives handled the worst supernatural cases. Somebody who could resist possession like… that was a choice recruit.
Get everybody and their stuff together
Kerann Mardirossian spent two decades as a Repurgator, making First Lieutenant. While disliked by her colleagues and seen as a none-too-sociable hardcase, she was respected for her excellent results.
Kerann became an expert on one of the worst cases of the Repurgators – the Simonians. These immortal young lovers murdered little children out of spite over being sterile. They had been killing children for at least 650 years in Arin Berd.
Whenever stopped, the Simonians would kill themselves. Their bodies would be mystically recreated in the highlands near Arin Berd on the next full moon. Then they would return. Keeping this immortal evil suppressed was a Sisyphean task. At best the police could hope to curtail the body count before a brief respite.
On one occasion where she destroyed the Simonians, Mardirossian was shot point-blank with a shotgun. Her right leg was permanently crippled. But she continued working using a crutch.
When the Grim Dawn occurred, Lt.-Rep. Mardirossian had been detailed, alone, to a place where absolutely nothing happened. As the undead poured out and the police and military disintegrated from sabotage, Kerann rushed back to the burning city to protect her family.
She was too late. Her children and husband had been among the first possessed by the invaders in the area. The Aetherials had a strike force dedicated to neutralising the ABPD’s Repurgation Tactical Unit through such means.
Mardirossian was unable to bring herself to destroy her loved ones. In her anguish, she became vulnerable. After 20+ years, an Aetherial finally possessed her.
This character profile continues in part #2.
Game Stats — DC Heroes RPG
Early in the game, the character plays very differently. Key equipment, skills, devotions, etc. aren’t there yet. This means very different tactics and different stats.
Mardirossian (early post-possession)
|Dex: 05||Str: 03||Bod: 04||Motivation: Responsibility|
|Int: 06||Wil: 05||Min: 07||Occupation: Ex-officer|
|Inf: 06||Aur: 04||Spi: 07||Wealth: 005|
|Init: 021||HP: 040|
Enhanced Initiative: 02, Lightning: 04, Regeneration: 02, Warp: 04
Bonuses and Limitations:
- Lightning has No Range, but can be Combined with weapon attacks (and use their Range and AV).
- See the next set of stats for more about Warp.
Artist (Singing, dulcimer, trombone): 04, Charisma (Interrogation, intimidation): 07, Martial artist: 04, Medicine (First aid): 03, Military science (Demolitions, Field command): 03, Occultist: 05, Thief (Stealth): 03, Weaponry (Melee): 05, Weaponry (Firearms): 05
Iron Nerves, Language (Hayeren), Luck.
Creepy Appearance (Scars, wounds and haunted look), Guilt, MPR (One-eyed, Range penalties worsened by one Genre), MPR (crippled leg, needs at least a cane), MPI, Serious Rage, MIA toward Frankness/Bluntness, Misc.: not entirely fluent in English.
- Battered lever-action varmint carbine [BODY 03, Projectile weapon: 04, Ammo: 08, R#04, Drawback: Very Long Reload].
- Scrap metal two-handed sapper axe [BODY 04, Enhance (EV): 02 (cap is 07), Descriptor: Slashing, Recommended STR 03].
- SCROUNGED REINFORCED LEATHER [BODY 02, Blunting: 01, Damage capacity: 02, Enhance (Cold RV): 01 (cap is 05), Enhance (Bludgeoning, Piercing, Ballistic, Slashing RV): 01 (cap is 06), Lightning immunity: 01, Stealth Penalty 2/1, Bonuses & Limitations: Damage Capacity has the Full Recovery With Infrastructure Bonus.]
- Backup revolver [BODY 03, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 06, R#02, Rec. STR 02, Drawback: Long Reload]. No spare ammunition at this time.
- Healing potions [BODY 01, Damage capacity: 04, Bonus: Consumables-based recovery (+1)].
Source of Character: Grim Dawn video game.
Writeup completed on the 6th of November, 2017.