I recently saw the excellent History Channel documentary “The Dark Ages”. It got me thinking about the broad sweep of history as it applies to Europe, and how such a big picture might be applied to the RPG setting.
Painting with the broadest possible brush strokes, and starting quite arbitrarily at 1 CE, the history of Europe can be broken down thusly (and bear in mind this is very rough; the time frames are necessarily arbitrary and the trends described within thumbnails):
Imperial Era (1st – 4th cen.): Highly developed urban areas, strong central authority, relative peace within national borders, relatively high standard of living and leisure time for most people. Travel for tourism, knowledge of foreign lands is widespread. Widespread trade and commerce. The Roman Empire is at its height, having brought prosperity and stability across the Mediterranean and northwest Europe.
Dark Ages (5th – 9th cen.): Fragmentation of central authority, depopulation of urban areas, lawlessness within and between national borders (where they exist), subsistence economy, little leisure for most individuals, widespread illiteracy, loss of knowledge. Knowledge becomes almost completely localized. Little trade. The Roman Empire has fallen, with most of its accomplishments and knowledge lost, and its former lands overrun by barbarians who set up their own petty kingdoms and short-lived empires on its ruins.
Middle Ages (10th – 14th cen.): Consolidation of central authority, growth of urban areas, peace within national borders, standard of living increases among certain classes, growth of literacy and rediscovery of knowledge. More stable nations form out of the chaos of the Dark Ages, and further incursions of barbarians and foreign powers are halted. Large-scale contact and trade with other cultures begins. The Roman Empire is seen as a Golden Era.
Renaissance (15th – 17th cen.): Highly developed urban areas, strong central authority, relative peace within national borders, relatively high standard of living and leisure time for most people. Travel for tourism. Discovery of new knowledge, including new (hitherto-unknown or inaccessible) territories. Commercial and cultural innovations thrive among the nations established during the Middle Ages, which form relatively stable cultural (if not political) units over centuries-long periods of time. Beginnings of nationalism.
This general schema could be applied to a generic FRPG setting very easily…
Imperial Era: Elvish Empire is at its height, having brought prosperity and stability across the continent.
Dark Ages: The Elvish Empire has fallen, with most of its accomplishments and knowledge lost, and its former lands overrun by humans who set up their own petty kingdoms and short-lived empires on its ruins.
Middle Ages: Stable human kingdoms form out of the chaos of the Dark Ages, and further incursions of humanoids and other foreign powers are halted. Large-scale trade and contact with other continents begins. The Elvish Empire is seen as a Golden Era.
I particularly like the idea that different races represent what on Earth were different human tribes or nationalities. Elves replace Romans. Humans replace Goths and Vandals. Orcs and Gnolls replace Vikings and Tartars. Not adapting their specific cultures, but taking their historical roles. There could even be an outpost of the faded Elvish Empire tucked away in a corner somewhere, taking the role of Byzantium. I could also envision Halflings being ubiquitous, playing the role that agriculturally-bound serfs did in historical Europe (I’ve always preferred a more Tolkien-esque version of Halflings as bucolic stay-at-homes than the more modern versions of D&D have presented).
8 thoughts on “Historical Patterns as RPG Inspiration”
I really like using historical patterns in adventure/world design. The concept of Population Pressure and resulting migrations is one I’ve used to great effect. Having the Demon Horde pushing the Hobgoblins who are pushing the Goblins to moving into human lands provides a ready-made set-up for all kinds of adventures.
Using Ethnology and elements of historical regigions is also very interesting. Why do the Swamp Orcs only raid at certain times of the year (they worship a deity with specific holy times that correspond to seasonal changes, and they need sacrifices to ensure that things go well).
From what I’ve heard, the decline of literacy and loss of knowledge that supposedly took place during the Dark Ages is mostly a myth, and that the “darkness” is more a reflection of our lack of knowledge of the period. But, don’t let that stop you for using it as inspiration for an RPG setting.
But why start at 1 CE? You could have the rise of the Elvish Empire from a small city state, and how it defeated its major rival as it grew to power, etc., all as part of your history.
Oh, absolutely right about the history of the setting not starting at 1 CE; that was just where I was starting my thumbnail sketch of history.
I had thought the same thing about literacy in the dark ages until recently; turns out that outside the clergy literacy really was a rare thing (Charlemagne was actually a rarity in that he could read and write, apparently). Still, such details matter little if I’m just using it as the basis of a campaign world, as you say.
Nice to see you here, Eric!
I designed a setting somewhat along these lines once. For my base points I selected 1200 BC (rough historical time for events of any historical Trojan War) and 700 AD (roughly when we start to know about the first English kingdoms).
I cast Troy as the destruction of a human Empire (the Hittes and Egypt both suffered collapses around then) by returned Elves (they had disappeared long before man even showed up and thus were a mysterious lost civilization). One human city state intermarried with elves and their mixed royal family became the patricians of a “Rome” analog, which later collapsed.
As a tangent, you also hit a point that buggs me about many fantasy settings, both RPG and literary.
Look at the amount of change and development you listed in 1700 years. Yet many have 1000 year old kingdoms facing their first threat in ages. Their equivalent to Rome is 5,000+ years in the past, which is longer than recorded human history. Why hasn’t a more modern society developed?
Hail Sir Grognard, this is a GREAT idea. Gary himself surely had some of this in mind when he developed the Greyhawk world, but I think you’ve already covered that topic before. I’m trying my best to develop an OSR – vibe homebrew game and this concept would fit quite nicely into it; this was a very helpful article! Unfortunately, I’ve been trying to get that game off the ground since November and every other week I’m dealt another delay with my player’s wackadoo personal schedules and have given up on it. If I ever happen to find a different group of players, I think I’ll steal—er, borrow this excellent concept of yours! Thanks.
I figure 576 CY = 1375 AD
This is a perfect example of how real-life politics and history can provide inspiration for fantasy writing as much as can sci-fi or fantasy literature.
Greyhawk arguably already shows this historic pattern, and even does it a couple of times. The first Imperial Era would be that of the Baklunish and Suel empires, the first Dark Age would be the Great Migrations as the Suel and Oerids compete with each other, the Flan and various nonhuman races for survival and living space, and the first Middle Age would be the rise of several different states, most of whom became protectorates or provinces of Aerdy and Keoland.
You could even say that a second Imperial Age starts as Aerdy and Keoland are both at their height, and then a second Dark Age starts as Keoland’s imperial phase ends and the Great Kingdom starts to decay. The second Middle Age might start after the Turmoil Between Crowns and the secession of the Iron League from South Province.
I can even see parallels between the decline of Aerdy and real-life Rome. Their declines both came from many of their later emperors being idiots or sociopaths (or both, in some cases!) even as many of their former client states try to reflect the empire’s glory (the Holy Roman and Byzantium Empires each claiming to be Rome’s successor, while countries like England and France try to capture some of that same pomp and majesty in their own monarchies; countries like the Shield Lands, Furyondy and Nyrond all try to live up to the old Aerdi ideals and heritages, while Northern Aerdy and Ahlissa each claim to be the Great Kingdom’s successor.)
I hope you do more of these kinds of posts, Mr. Bloch. They’re some of my favorites.
Note that only the western half of the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. The Eastern half stood for approximately another millennium until A.D.1453, although the final couple of centuries after Manzikert were, well…
This contrast, a fallen half and an intact half, provides for an interesting campaign setting, especially in the areas where the 2 halves meet. An intact but diminished Empire and up-and-coming kingdoms trying to encroach, with the usual assortment of opportunistic creatures that move in.
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