Thoughts on Setting

Most RPG fantasy settings resemble, at least to one extent or another, medieval/Renaissance Europe. This isn’t by accident; most of the literary antecedents of the genre are similarly set (think the Hyborean Age, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth), and doing so allows the designer to rely on standard tropes so as to not need to explain each and every little thing in terms of culture and technology. Players are going to universally understand what a sword is, and can picture in their minds’ eye what mail looks like. A European-based setting is just easier.

There have been exceptions throughout the years, of course. Skyrealms of Jorune (mentioned in a previous post) went out of its way to shake off the European-ish expectations of its audience by creating an entirely alien world out of whole cloth. Some settings are deliberately modeled on Asian or African cultures (the excellent game Bushido comes to mind), but are usually set historically (even if it’s a “fantasy history”), rather than a brand-new locale that merely resembles an Asian culture (TSR’s Oriental Adventures being an exception; it’s pseudo-Asian Kara-Tur was indeed analogous to the various pseudo-European settings out there).

Especially given the fact that I want to do a more folkloric treatment of setting, I find a pseudo-European approach to be perfectly in line with my needs. However, as a student of history, I find that many settings are missing what I would consider to be unique and necessary elements that made the Middle Ages what they were. These are Rome, Christianity, and the Threat From Outside.

A central theme of the Middle Ages was the attempt to recover the glory of the Roman Empire. It has been said that Medieval Europe suffered from a collective inferiority complex because they were unable to match the achievements of the Romans in architecture, military prowess, political achievement, and art. Some fantasy settings have expectations of lost civilizations, but they are often too remote from the “present” to have a cultural impact (in fairness, this is often deliberate, to allow for a sufficient sense of mystery when exploring the ruins of such civilizations). But in Medieval Europe, Rome was imminent. From Scotland to the ends of the Mediterranean, examples of Roman buildings, roads, aqueducts, etc. abounded. Classical literature was well-known to most people who were at all educated (one reason the neo-Classical nature of the Renaissance was able to express itself so thoroughly was that it wasn’t unknown to the culture-at-large). The largest cities in the world were founded and in large part built by the Romans. Even Charlemagne’s coronation was an attempt to re-establish the Roman Empire on a political level.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the very ancestors of the Europeans were the ones who had caused the downfall of the Roman Empire in the first place, and suddenly found themselves squatting in the middle of an Imperial infrastructure they had no idea how to maintain. The Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, the Goths, Vandals, etc. were all, to a large degree, the founders of Medieval Europe. The Gauls, Romans, Britons, etc. were pushed to the sidelines. So in addition to their collective inferiority complex, the more educated amongst the people had a nagging sense of guilt about having caused it all in the first place.

The second defining characteristic of the Middle Ages was Christianity. In the context of a fantasy RPG setting, it is not the specifics of Christian doctrine that are important (although, if one were inclined, a very credible “fantasy version” of a Catholic Church could certainly be designed), but rather its overall role vis-a-vis the culture and history of the region. Christianity presented a break with both the religion and culture of the pagan peoples. Starting in the Roman Empire, Christianity soon spread to the invading Germanic tribes, causing them to abandon their hereditary faith in favor of the new one. As each tribe had originally practiced a variation on Germanic (or Slavic) religion unique to their particular tribe, the effect was a certain homogenization. Where the Saxons had their Woden, and the Goths their Weodon, and the Vandals their Wotan, and so forth, now they all had “God”. But the conversion, at least up until the time of the Protestant Reformation and even beyond, was never complete. Folk-customs and the practice of witchcraft maintained at least some of the pre-Christian beliefs in the living memory of the common folk, and created a dynamic tension between the “official” Christian Church and the impossible-to-kill memories of the ancient faiths. As late as the seventeenth century, Bishops were posting laws against various pagan practices.

It should be pointed out that monotheism is by no means required for such a thing. It is entirely possible that one, more organized, form of polytheism, could perform the same function. It’s a subtle point, sometimes lost in the stories, but in REH’s Conan novels, the faith of Mitra is said to have done much the same thing among the Hyborean kingdoms, but never completely. Ashura, Set, and other gods are still around, even if the faith of Mitra frowns on and opposes them.

Lastly, Europe viewed itself as a land beseiged. The designation of “Christendom” was a way to define the problem of us-vs.-them, where “them” was first the Muslims, and then the Vikings, and then turned to an internal problem which eventually erupted into the witch-hunts. Even though Europe itself was beset with internal struggles for power, wealth, and prestige, it was also the target of invasions from the Moors in Spain (penetrating as far as southeastern France until Charles Martel stopped them), Turks in the Balkans, and Vikings in northern Europe. The Popes responded against the Muslims with crusades and counter-attacks, and the Vikings eventually were victims of their own success, founding kingdoms in England and Ireland that were eventually absorbed wholesale by the locals (but not before re-energizing the same with their pagan beliefs, which were of course related to those practiced by those whose lands they were invading; the Anglo-Saxons’ religion wasn’t too far removed from that of the Vikings).

These are, of course, sweeping statements, and as such represent only the broadest themes that a European-themed campaign might entail. There were many other factors involved in European history; dynastic, cultural, economic, etc. But in terms of designing an RPG fantasy setting, three central themes I would include would be:

  1. Ancient civilization. A fallen civilization, with a higher level of culture and technology (or, at least, which is perceived to have had such) than the present, existed and the dream of re-attaining it fires the imagination of at least some.
  2. Cultural upheval. A religious or cultural schism with the past has caused a break with ancient traditions, and is striving to establish itself as a worthy replacement for those traditions. It need not necessarily be religious in nature; it could be the conversion from monarchy to democracy, for example.
  3. External existential threat. There exists a threat (or threats) to the entire society that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to pose a mortal threat to civilization itself. This forces a certain level of unity which probably is at odds with the normal workings of politics.

In game terms, any of these themes presents a practical impetus for adventuring. Exploring the ruins of the vanished civilization, with an eye not only to plunder but to discovering and recovering some of their wondrous knowledge. Dealing with the practical implications of the conversion to the New Faith (or New Dynasty, or whatever the New is that is replacing the old). Fighting against the External Threat, joining a crusade or fighting a defensive action against an invasion. I like the idea that these sorts of rationales for adventuring are implicit in the setting itself and stem from its own internal history and the implications that stem therefrom.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Setting

  1. What interests me about your post here is the Roman bit, and the fact that in the medieval setting, Rome was very much still present in the form of the Byzantine Empire. Now, true, it had largely withdrawn from Western Europe and was culturally distinct, but both the powers of Western Europe and the Byzantines themselves considered Constantinople and its empire a seamless continuation of Rome. I think that would make for an excellent addition to any setting: the debauched remnants of the former greatness. Come to think of it, sounds a bit like Tolkien's Gondor. Hrmmm.

  2. Or Gygax's Great Kingdom. 😉

    I pretty much agree with all this (maybe not some of the psychologizing). One of the things that I have found interesting in this current OSR is the great emphasis on "weird fiction" and the ignoring of medievalism. I love CAS and all those, but D&D just works so darn well for a medieval setting.

    My reaction was my current Onderland Campaign, which is mant to evoke Anglo-Saxon England during the Heptarchy. It's been fun finding parallels for the Church and the Romans without just changing the names.

  3. I think that's an excellent point about Byzantium, and it also brings up once again the impact of the religious change (the Pope in Rome vs. the Emperor in Byzantium, each vying as the inheritor of the mantle of the Roman Empire, not to mention the would-be Western European political successors like Charlemagne). If one didn't want to introduce that level of ambiguity, there's always Melnione to look to; the Empire has been cut away, and only the decadent and degenerate center remains, dreaming of regaining past glories. That could be a workable model as well…

  4. I'm trying some of the same things with my "Nine and Thirty Kingdoms" setting, or at least the assumptions behind it. An ancient empire, but not too ancient, with structures and (as LCM suggests) descendants as reminders of the former glory. Some widespread religion, not necessarily a cultural break with the past, but definitely a driving an unifying force (although you're making me reconsider whether it should create a cultural break…) And outside elements seen as enemies of the faith.

    Beyond that, though, I also want other medieval elements. A feeling of vast wilderness and isolation. More language fragmentation. Less literacy. I'm still mulling over the central concepts I need to create a proper feel.

  5. At the time and place RPGs were invented (and even now, to a large degree), there are three things that were resoundingly present in the real world outside most gamers' windows:
    1. Christianity
    2. Daily life in a conquering empire.
    3. An existential threat from outside.

    I wonder if the demand for escapism is what keeps these things out of many game worlds.

  6. One thing I must admit–at this point in my life I am basically a gaming voyeur–I have not run or played in a campaign in well over a decade. That being said, I am glad there are places like this for intelligent discussion of gaming, its history, its relationship to history, and its antecedents. The most successful campaign I ever ran was basically a direct calque of the high middle ages–complete with Christian Church (called Theotrian, in the campaign) an encroaching alien culture (the followers of "The Prophet") and the remnants of a former grandeur. I threw in pagan religions (some druids, some norse types, and some Cathar calques) at the margins of society. I will be the first to admit that this was perhaps the least original and laziest campaign setting ever, but, for whatever reason (dumb luck, I suspect) it was wildly successful and it ran for three years of great excitement and great fun. Now, was it the presence of the elements talked about here? They certainly had something to do with it. The crusades-style storyline presented some really amazing moral choices for the players–and in the long run, they found themselves more and more allied with the dwindling pagan sects and trying to keep both the "Christians" and "Muslims" on a sort of even power keel. Anyway, I've rambled too much–but I thought I should share that. Thanks.

  7. I agree with your three missing elements and while not the sole reason for creating my Majestic Wilderlands I deliberately included them to set it apart from Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms.

    1) Rome or Ancient Civilizations

    Having layers of ancients civilizations really helps in dungeon dressing. For an arbitary locale you can look in your history and see what civilizations had an impact and stock your dungeon accordingly.

    For example on the Moorraker Moorlands, a old underground Dwarven Hold was refrubished as a cavarvan waystop during the Human Dragon Empire, later used by Tharian Horse Barbarians Bandits during the Empire's collapse eventually occupied by Orcs passing through the remenents of civiizations.

    2) Christanity
    A compromise solution I found that works is the idea of a culture believing they are the chosen people of a deity or small pantheon (a duality or trinity). Other gods exist but they don't worship them only the chosen god of their people.

    Combine with a dynamic culture that opens their arms to converts (think Gauls allowed to become romans), and eventually becoming a dominant culture. You have something that fills the role of Christantity but still works in a polthestic mileau. Set the campaign after the collapse of that culture's empire and you nail #1 and #2 in one fell swoop.

    In my Majestic Wilderlands this role is filled by the Ghinorians who believe they are the chosen people of the Goddess Mitra (yeah, yeah I know. However Mitra is a goddess in my setting). Their colonies spread to nearly corner of the Wilderlands and they readily absorbed native cultures if they accepted becoming Ghinorians. Eventually their Empire collapsed setting the stage for my present day.

    3) External Existential Threat.

    Whatever brings down the dominant culture should fill the roll. One thing to remember you can use non-human (orcs, goblins, etc) as well as human threat. I did both which makes the general decay issue a lot more serious. So not only you got these folks in the middle of a crumbling infrastructure they can't maintain. You have both a threat of humans coming in and knocking them over replacing them as rulers. And you got the Orcs and other humaniods threatening their very existance as a people.

  8. The main question I've been asking as I read these entries has to be: Do you want a fantasy game or a historical fantasy game?

    Seems to me like you might just be better off with the latter. Why bother coming up with some gobblegook names for a Rome stand-in or for clones of various Germanic tribes when you can just use the real deals? As a bonus, your campaign world is already exaustively mapped and detailed. 🙂

  9. Will– that's just the problem. I don't want to do an historical fantasy game, and my intent is most certainly not just to have the "Remean Empire" and swap out a couple of names.

    I'm trying to get at the essential essence of what made ancient Rome significant in medieval Europe, and try to come up with something that encompasses that same place without just being "a Rome stand-in". If I can figure that out, perhaps I could achieve the same effect with a different implementation.

  10. I've been successful in my current 'Willow Vale' campaign in creating something that to me feels very Dark Age medieval, with the Unified Church (of the Unconquered Sun), the Fallen Empire (Shar, named after Charn in the CS Lewis book The Magician's Nephew, not the Eberron city), and the External Threat (the faith of Baphomet and its fanatical Kalaran adherents). I did it by paying attention to the mood and feel of literary sources, in particular CS Lewis' Narnia, Tolkien, and the Song of Roland, rather than to historical fact. And I created a reality based on what people believed, not what modern historians tell us. No enlightened Moorish Spain, my Baphomites sacrifice virgins on black basalt altars.

  11. My process of setting creation was kinda the opposite of the 2e-TSR approach of taking an historical period and excising anything controversial,prejudiced etc. I run the prejudice to the max. I say "OK, you guys worship The Unconquered Sun. You are Good. Those guys over the mountains worship Baphomet, the Horned Moon. They are Evil."

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