The Lost Golden Age

One of the other themes inherent in the game is the idea that the past was a golden age, and those in the present are aware of it, and seek to either regain it or obtain its treasures for their own use. This is one of the reasons that treasure-stuffed dungeons abound; they are remnants of a spectacular past when the construction of such things, and the hording of such wealth, was possible. The creation of mighty magical artifacts, and the striding of the very gods themselves upon the earth was not unknown in days of yore. Today, however, the best that man can hope to accomplish is to discover the resting place of those mighty artifacts, and the relics of those holy men who worked true miracles.

This is a theme that resonates with our own history, as many cultures in Medieval and later times viewed ancient Greece and Rome as just such a lost Golden Age. In a time when simple sanitation was nearly non-existent, the idea of a civilization advanced enough to create aqueducts sufficient to see to the needs of cities of hundreds of thousands of people, or the creation of enormous stone monuments or roads that endured for a millennium after their builders were dead, was a powerful attractor.

In a fantasy campaign, this can be handled in a variety of different ways. Political leaders seek to recapture the lands and powers of their predecessors. This is a theme that looms large in Medieval and Renaissance history, when emperors such as Charles the Great sought to be “the next Roman Emperor”, not to mention the Popes seeking to fulfill that very same role, and the establishment of the “Holy Roman Empire” which, entered as it was in Germany and only occasionally in possession of the city of Rome itself within its territories, demonstrated the pull of the ancients even in circumstances that differed greatly from the historical model.

The idea of recapturing lost knowledge and technology of the ancients is also a powerful theme upon which the game master can draw. As mentioned above, the creation of the more powerful magical items is an art that is more properly left to ancient times, and the creation of artifacts and relics doubly so. Still, the hunt for the secrets of such manufacture can be an inspiring theme for a campaign, whether driven by an individual or an entire organization dedicated to such scholarly pursuits with real-world implications.

It is possible to take this even further and postulate that the ancient world was one in which technology as we know it today was known and put into everyday use. Indeed, advanced weapons, robots, computers, and even spaceships would be seen as merely another sort of magic by the inhabitants of a world where the art of technology is the stuff of legend. This need not lead the campaign into the realm of the post-Apocalyptic, which is in and of itself a different genre of role-playing game, but if the ancient world is placed sufficiently back in the distant past, beyond history and legend and into myth, the discovery of a rare artifact from that dimly-remembered time will seem even more magical.

(This is an expanded section of the Adventures Dark and Deep Game Masters Toolkit, which will be included in playtest version 1.1, hopefully to be released soon.)

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.

9 thoughts on “The Lost Golden Age

  1. The theme of the lost Golden Age is one I always thought fit best for D&D. And it is a theme I love. One of the most telling changes from "old-school" to more "modern" FRPGs has been the abandonment of this theme, replaced with the Present Age being the true Golden Age. For example, cities with continually lit lamps to light the streets at night, city shops filled with all manner of magic items (right off the shelf) for the right price, etc. I see a strong connection between the lost Golden Age and the drive to explore old ruins, and changing the theme changes the game, sometimes imperceptibly, into something else.

    As an aside, I note that the theme of the lost Golden Age is not constrained to those who came after the Greeks and Romans. The Iliad itself has as a central theme that the ancient Greek and Trojan heroes who populated it were stronger, better, faster, wiser, etc. than the audience, and many of those heroes not only had divine blood but also spoke with the gods. You can say the theme is as old as adventure itself. Great stuff.

  2. When our current age of technology comes crashing down I'm sure our rough and ragged descendents will view this as an age of miracles and magic. Thank goodness for modern man's inability to comprehend the absolutely terrifying abyss whose edge we dance upon.

    When I work at designing a campaign based on the ancient Suel Imperium I try to work with the concept of magic made mundane and a total obliviousness to the impending doom that hangs over their entire civilization, while having characters from the current day Flanaess stare at their surroundings in jaw-dropped wonder and a desire to find the nearest exit before the sky falls.

    Good times, good times…

  3. Good post. Lost Golden Age is a very compelling sorta vibe. I really like the Warhammer 40K spin on it- the setting is the far future and there is some very high-tech stuff, but the idea is that humanity is in a dark age and use of technology is a guarded and secret art which is bound by ritual and religion.

  4. I liked this passage a lot, but I'm not sure that medieval people were aware that the ruins that surrounded them were Roman.

    For example according to, "Saxo Grammaticus, for example, argues that giants had to exist, because nothing else would explain the large walls, stone monuments, and statues that we now know were the remains of Roman construction" – and Saxo Grammaticus was one of the great historians of his time.

  5. Fading Suns played off the lost golden age in space vibe too.

    Certainly my fantasy world has people and cultures that look back to a lost golden age, when the gods were in their heavens and all was right in the world.

  6. And it's very inspiring to decide WHAT felled the might!

    Invasion from outer dark? The abuse of magic? The loss of knowledge? Some terrible natural disaster? A divine punishment? All of the above?

    Great stuff 🙂

  7. That's more or less how we do it in our game. The 'those were the good old days' motif of Tolkien and gang. I have thought a couple times about turning it around. Imagining the world now is actually advanced and powerful scientifically and technologically, with folks yearning for a simple time when life was simple and magic was simply the gap filler. That would reflect the post-industrial age, that has seen every generation grow increasingly starry-eyed in its admiration for a pre-modern era, usually defined as sometime around when Rome/Christianity stepped in and screwed everything up with its rules and laws, and a time when people rollicked in the hills, made love under the stars, lived in harmony and peace, and even such things as human sacrifice and ritual torture were done with joy, happiness, and mutual respect. I don't know if it would transfer well into a D&D setting, but I have kicked it around.

  8. Good post. The idea of a better time swallowed up by the mists of the past is one that seems omnipresent in all cultures, certainly. In Greyhawk it is explcitly written into the setting (at least as far as the level of magical achievement is concerned) with the Suloise and Bakluni with the Invoked Devastation and Rain of Colorless Fire perhaps being the apex of their abilities (which, ironically, led to their subsequent Fall from the Golden Age).

    Blackmoor, on the other hand, seems more dependent on the idea of advanced technology as "magic," especially the way Dave Arneson ran things in his campaign. (Barrier Peaks doesn't really qualify for this since the technology found there is of alien origin.)

    In other words, the idea of a lost Golden Age, in various iterations, certainly speaks to the human heart. So who is to say that there isn't one back there somewhere in pre-history? 🙂

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