Monday, April 29, 2019

Settings with Strata: A Quick-Design Method for Historically Coherent Campaign Settings

If you're crafting a campaign setting or designing the adventure locations scattered across that setting, there's plenty of advice online. One good tip, for example, is that the different levels in your dungeons and adventure locations might have historically-sensible backgrounds; a ruined human fortress might be built over the earlier delvings of a dwarven stronghold. Ideally, these pairings should make sense; exactly why was that Fourth Dynasty art gallery built above an ancient kobold torture dungeon? (No doubt it involves some kind of weird performance art; very Fourth Dynasty).

To really make this click, of course, it helps to know something already about your setting's historical background. I've noticed, however, that setting-design advice sometimes advocates the following order of steps:

+ come up with a concept
+ draw a map
+ pick locations for settlements, ruins, and lairs
+ then write a history/backstory for your setting

If you use this approach, and if it works for you, then more power to you; but I'd like to suggest that a different approach could be even more fruitful, and almost as fast.

To me, separating the history and the placement of locations - even more, writing the history after you place the locations - divorces things that belong together, and misses important opportunities for greater cohesion and depth in your setting. 

In reality, settlement locations reflect not only basic environmental geography, but also the continued influence of previous generations' settlement histories. Think of the layered strata that make up an archaeological site; many sites have been reused over periods and centuries. Sometimes this reflects only the recurring appeal of fertile land or strategic chokepoints; in other contexts, however, the cultural significance of an old site may draw renewed settlement (or even provoke furious destruction) from later generations interested in more than just growing food. Ideally, then, (IMHO) placing and designing adventure locations or settlements should reflect the big picture of the setting's history.

But can this be done efficiently, or does it require unrealistic amounts of time? What if you just want to throw together a setting for a short campaign? How many of us really have time to write those 5-page imperial genealogies or 20-page accounts of the Terrible War of Titans From Before the Times That Any Player Character Will Care About? Not me. 

Well, let me walk through an example of the method I’ve been using recently. It can lay the groundwork for a short to medium campaign's setting quite quickly, while adding depth, cohesion, logic, and a lived-in, storied sense to your world in play. As a design method, it’s actually really simple and quite fast, but the fact that so much setting advice online pushes in the opposite direction makes me think that it’s worth me pointing out this approach as an option. Here it is:

+ In just a few sentences, articulate a basic main concept for your setting.

+ Get or sketch a regional map that fits with that concept. 

+ Next, write a very brief summary of your setting’s history; in particular, write a 1-3 sentence description of 3 or 4 eras/periods leading up to the present. 

+ Now, for each of those 3-4 periods, and moving in order from the past to the present (this is important), mark on your map approximately 3-5 locations that were most significant for the history of that period. You can even push it about 7 locations if you want, but don’t think of this as a comprehensive map of all features from that period; just identify the main places of most interest. They can be new sites just built in this era, or there may be continuity of some important sites across periods - but they should make coherent sense in the developing story of your setting. As you do all this, take brief notes narrating the history as you add locations to the map. 

Again, the key idea behind all this is to start in the past, and narrate forward to the present; to build your locations from bottom to top (thinking in terms of archaeological strata). Some sites are created from scratch in every period, but there are often important reasons that old sites are continued, rebuilt, destroyed, and/or commemorated. Let your setting embrace that range of interactions with the past; build from bottom to top. 

Below, I’m going to walk through an example of this process. In terms of creative brainstorming time (and not time spent making the map a bit fancier for the blog), it took me a little under an hour to come up with a narratively-coherent setting with over a dozen places for hypothetical PCs to explore.

CAVEAT: As reader Jorunkun has astutely pointed out, there's a problem with the way I drew my rivers here! I stand by my method for imagining a society's history, but don't be like me, kids ... don't split your rivers! See the comments for more details, and thanks to Jorunkun for this helpful critique.

Let's walk through my approach.  


Ok, here’s my general idea: at the terminus of an important trade-route in a Bronze- to Iron-Age setting with a swords-and-sorcery vibe, two human societies and an aggressive frogman population are vying for domination. One of the human societies (a foreign colonizing empire), along with  the frogmen, have turned to necromantic sorcery (lately, for some reason, I’m really digging the idea of amphibian or fish humanoid villains…that are also undead). 

Ok, there’s my concept. Not the most original stuff in the world, but it is more than enough to get started. 


Here’s one I threw together for this exercise. 

Key features include a pass between the mountains at the map bottom and the river-drainage network that runs up to the sea beyond those mountains.  You may notice that this base map lacks the forest regions that are on the final end-state map. That is deliberate; even though I’m envisioning this setting as heavily forested, I’m assuming that settlements and land-clearing may wreak havoc on any forest borders I might ink in at this point, so I’ll adjust at the end and put in blocks of forests where I think they’d still be when I’m done crafting the setting (if a habitat like that matters during the process, one can always add them mid-flow). For now, again, I just assume that many or most of the big river plain areas visible are thickly wooded. 


Ok, since my setting concept doesn’t require me to lay out a 15,000 year history, I’m certainly not going to do that. Here are the periods that I laid out, in just enough detail to get me going:

Period 1: humans coming over that mountain pass carry tin and amber to exchange with a port-town of far-away sailors (NW coast). Human settlement, dominated by the local population coming from the inland pass, intensifies. Vicious Frogmen live in the northeastern river delta and are avoided by all humans. 

Period 2: Frogmen become numerous and aggressive, and expand in force to the Long Lake, cutting easy human trade downriver. As trade falters, a new foreign nation from overseas conquers and administers the port city on the NW coast. They employ sorcerers and necromancers; in uneasy alliance with the locals, they push back the frogmen.

Period 3: an exiled sorcerer from that city flees to the frogmen and establishes himself as a necromantic warlord over their armies. In a long war with the necromancer, the inland settlements are exhausted and weakened but they finally prevail. 

Period 4/Present Day: Now, in the wake of that war a few generations ago, the coastal city is strong (and wicked), and successor chieftains in the south are relying on their trade goods to put together new, rival war bands to fill the inland power vacuum. The undead and the frogs are still a threat, but they are in retreat or in hiding. 


This is the fun part. What I like in particular is how often doing this surprises me; the story of my setting will take interesting turns that I didn’t see coming, and which fit with but weren’t dictated by my initial concept declarations above. 


1 The foreign port city on the NW coast (let’s name it DRAEL). Its ships have trade connections to gold and exotic goods, which get traded here for inland trade goods coming downriver from the mountain pass.

2 A stronghold at the south end of Long Lake is the seat of princelings who control this end of the trade route. Let’s call this inland culture the KOLOVAD. They have inland access to both amber and tin (from over the pass) and copper (in the eastern mountains here on the map). 

3 The Kolovad princes maintain a fortified caravanserai and boat harbor at the first navigable point below the southern mountain pass. Here, caravans coming over the southern pass unload wares into boats which will take goods to (2) and then on to (1). 

4 Farming villages above (2) support the chiefdom/emerging proto-state here.  

5 Frogmen villages in the delta cluster around a central frog-stronghold. Men know not to head this way. 


A: The Frogmen population expands, and the creatures aggressively push inland along the rivers and lakeshores. They found three new strongholds (all labeled “A”) which cut the river trade with Drael, the coastal port. They raid upriver past the Kolovad princeling’s stronghold, harry farming villages, and infiltrate small frogmen bands into the streams and pools of the southern mountains (mainly along the eastern branch; note the Frogmen settlement icon in the western foothills of the mountains). 

B: As trade along the river is cut, the Kolovad princelings respond by opening an overland route crossing the hills to the Northwest. They build a stronghold and caravanserai in the hills to give shelter, security, and oversight. Nonetheless, trade overall falters as the efficient boat transit is threatened. 

C: As trade falters, the prestige of the Kolovad princelings is threatened. Ambitious Kolovad men controlling the southern boat harbor upriver make a bid for power, cutting off all access to trade goods. Civil war breaks out among the Kolovad communities along the river.

D: Meanwhile the coastal port city Drael, weakened by the loss in trade, falls to a new foreign group: the Iron League, named not only for their command of the grey metal but also for their hard, cruel governance.

The Kolovad march to war? European Bronze Age minis from Foundry.

I’ll end here and add an Era 2.B as this is getting pretty involved.


A: Fighting with iron and sorcery, the Iron League pushes up-river and razes the frogman strongholds that block riverine trade. Leaving those loathsome structures in ruins, the Iron League build their own forts on the opposite bank to hold each disputed river-mouth (both labelled “A”). 

B: In exchange for major concessions, the Iron League arms and aids the Kolovad princeling, helping him crush his rivals upriver to the south. This leaves major bad feeling among the Kolovad but restores order and (forced) unity for now. In exchange, the Kolovad prince surrenders the hilltop caravanserai (B), which the Iron League convert into an academy for their sorcerers. 

C: A rival school of Iron League sorcerers opens their own monastic academy, too, in the northern hills at (C).

D: Finally, the Iron League insists on leaving a garrison to “help” the Kolovad prince at his chief settlements. 


A: Rivalry between sorcerous Iron League factions breaks out into vicious fighting at Drael; the sorcerers’ academies in the hills are both burned and abandoned during this disorder(A). 

B: The chief instigator, a sinister necromancer, is outlawed and flees inland. He gains the loyalty of the inland Iron League garrisons - except at (B), the stronghold on the east shore of Long Lake, which he leaves in ruins, and at (C), the Kolovad upriver boat-harbor.

D: The necromancer then seizes power-behind-the-throne via the League’s garrison at Kolovad (D). This is the last straw for the embittered southern Kolovad, who renounce their loyalty again to the line of their princes. Aided by the Iron League garrison at (C), and sending overland messengers, they make common cause with the main Iron League force at the port city; meeting, their forces confront the Necromancer in battle. Kolovad (D), the old seat of princes, is burned and destroyed as the Necromancer flees northeast to the frogmen. (Remaining Iron League garrisons surrender to their city’s main army). 


The Necromancer fled a generation ago into the swamps of the northeastern river. There are reports (or speculations) that he now leads the frogmen, who draw strength from his dark sorcery. The Iron League, in its port city, has been battered by their own civil disorder, but they probably are the single strongest player in the land - for now. The people of Kolovad have lost their own chief stronghold; a new house of princes is emerging in the south, but leadership remains fraught and uncertain. The land is now dotted with ruins; some are empty save for whining winds; others are places of hungry nightmares. 


So there we are. If you ignore the time I spent gussying up the map to get pics ready for the blog, the actual creative time coming up with that narrative outline took me a bit under an hour. If I had been in a hurry, I likely could have done it in closer to half an hour. In other words, one can come up with something like this from scratch in a fairly short period of time. What do you gain from this sequential, narrative approach to setting design?

Well, for one thing, we now have a mini-sandbox with over a dozen diverse places for PCs to explore and get themselves into trouble. PCs might be Kolovad warriors, Iron League minor nobles, or foreign merchants arriving by ship or mountain-caravan to seek fortune in this strange land. There are ruined academies of sorcery, fallen towers, razed frogmen strongholds, and a burned Kolovad capital city that I imagine is still crawling with the dark and unclean energies released there by the Necromancer - who is himself, no doubt, stirring up unspeakable things in the swampy forests to the northeast. Alternately, if we favor a bit more social-political intrigue instead, there are ambitious prince-wannabes among the Kolovad successors who need strong arms to help them rise - and probably rival Iron League merchant houses in Drael hiring competent muscle to guard and advance their interests. 

Moreover, if the PCs head to any of those dozen-plus locations, I as DM would already have some sense of the general history of the place. Off to dungeon-crawl the ruined sorcerer’s academy in the hills between Drael and Kolovad? Great; it started as a fortified caravanserai, so I should map a ruined structure with animal stables and granaries and barracks - as well as arcane laboratories and archives. Exploring ruins on the east side of Long Lake instead? The razed Iron League fort was burned just a generation ago, so there hasn't been much time for it to be picked clean, or for ancient horrors to set up studio apartments there. On the other hand, when it comes to the ruined frog-stronghold across the river…who knows what awful, older things live in the muck-filled (and maybe gold-filled) tunnels beneath the ruins? 

Finally, of course, I'm free to keep adding as much further detail as I want, including new locations. But everything moving forward would be grounded by the context already established; I have a framework that new puzzle pieces fit into.

Again, in one sense this is a very simple method that you may not find  remarkable. But so many setting-design advice pieces separate history from location design, and I wanted to advocate for the benefit of treating the two together. The other way isn't wrong, but I think this method offers real benefits. Let me know what you think, both of this method and of this impromptu setting! 

Best wishes - ‘Gundobad’

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Ancient War for the Rainy Isles: My "10 Monsters Challenge" Setting

Quite likely, many of you already have seen the “10-Monster Setting” challenge that has been making the rounds in the OSR blogosphere. This is nice timing for me, as I was thinking about writing a post on some aspects of setting design anyway; this offers a nice opportunity to take the setting challenge, then talk about how one might develop it further, hopefully in a subsequent post.  

For now, at any rate, here is my own quirky 10-monster contribution. I haven't made myself use a single monster book, instead drawing from all over or even making up my own content. I quite like the emphasis in this challenge on slimming down, on choosing only specific signature foes (or allies) to flavor a setting - if anything, I tend to like really slimming down on my non-human ingredients, so the list below concentrates my 10 into a few discrete factions. Instead of grouping the critters in the order listed in the challenge itself, I’ve grouped them as they make sense for this setting. 

The hypothetical setting is a rainswept, steep-peaked island archipelago locked in a war that was already ancient when the first human ships arrived.  

Faction One: the Fish-Fiends.
Fishmen [aquatic] crawled up out of the sea uncounted centuries ago, and have contested control of the Archipelago’s rocky coastlines ever since. To spearhead their assaults onto dry land, seven fishman sorcerers long ago committed themselves to a gruesome transformation, becoming [undead] fishman mummy-liches. Even now, they and their undead fish-minions rule entire coastlines from their strongholds. 

Faction Two: The High Country Humanoids.
When the Fish-Fiends seized the coastlands, the older islanders retreated to the high country below the peaks. The Grandmother of the Woods - Baba Yaga - wanders foggy highlands in her eerie hut [mythological/legendary critter] and is rarely seen. More commonly seen are her weird servants; the goblins [humanoids] that she called from the islands’ rocks themselves ride on the backs of ogre howdahs [giantkin], showering missiles on foes. Leading their attacks are the surreal, nightmarish jabberwocks [dragon or lizard], dragon-like creatures said to have sprung from Baba Yaga’s stewpot to do her bidding.  

Faction Three: Humans have reached the Rainy Isles en masse twice, first during the Kolobat settlement, then more recently with the arrival of the Western League’s militant refugee fleet. When the League first arrived and began to explore ruined Kolobat settlements, they found several dozen sentient flying carpets [aerial creatures, constructs] of unknown manufacture living in ruined Kolobat towers. Although the carpets have eccentric and whimsical personalities, they have so far cooperated with the League newcomers and are assisting them in their efforts to make the Isles safe for human habitation again. These carpets have become an important military asset for several League lords. 

There are other threats, too, below ground. Lurking in caves and sewers close enough to prey on human settlements are pain- and fear-loving roach hags* [underground creepy-crawly], giant cockroaches with beautiful feminine faces that frame jagged rings of fangs. Men say the roach hag’s bite causes a terrible infection, not of the flesh but of the psyche. Below such beasts which prey upon man are the unlit haunts of Darkling elves [Fey race] who fled from the sun’s light an eon ago. Finally, where the deepest cave-shafts connect to forgotten veins of fire, salamanders [extraplanars] tend their unearthly flame-gardens in the ruins of ancient cities built by no-one-knows-who.

The Rainy Isles are dangerous, but they’re home. 

*On the “Roach Hags” - there’s nothing new about a hideous insectile monster with a human face, but these lovelies just popped into my head a few days ago, and I cobbled together some ideas for creating this awful monster and its ecology. Ewww. 

Friday, April 19, 2019


“The Phoenix on the Sword” - the first published story about Conan the Barbarian - opens at a time when the famous Cimmerian reaver has already trodden “the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet,” and he has become the king of Aquilonia, a civilized land. But Aquilonia’s courtiers, uneasy under a barbarian monarch’s rule, plot against his life. The entire saga of Conan stories is framed not just by Conan’s barbarian identity, but by the tensions between that identity and the ‘values’ of Hyborian civilizations. 

In fact, one of the most interesting settings in which to place a ‘barbarian’ is not so much ‘out there’ in barbarian territory, as it is deep inside ‘civilized’ lands, where representatives of different cultures must negotiate a new understanding of their common ground (or lack of it). For exploring this theme I know of no richer setting than the late Roman Empire, a society that saw barbarians variously hired and fired, loved and hated, recruited and slaughtered, or rejected and integrated, in various ways. There is SO much rich potential for game-able setting ideas to be drawn from the late antique Roman world in general, and in particular from the complex roles barbarians had in that world. But unpacking those ideas requires that we challenge a lot of barbarian stereotypes, seeking something even richer than the easy assumptions.  


But first, a word about barbarians and stereotypes. Here’s how one of the online d20 SRDs sums up the barbarian: 

For some, there is only rage. In the ways of their people, in the fury of their passion, in the howl of battle, conflict is all these brutal souls know. Savages, hired muscle, masters of vicious martial techniques, they are not soldiers or professional warriors—they are the battle possessed, creatures of slaughter and spirits of war. Known as barbarians, these warmongers know little of training, preparation, or the rules of warfare; for them, only the moment exists, with the foes that stand before them and the knowledge that the next moment might hold their death…” 

De Neuville - Wikipedia
Almost everything in the rest of this blog post will push against that simple characterization - not because the historical-accuracy police have arrived to ruin your fantasy fun, but because - for some of you - the issues faced by real barbarians might actually be even more fun to see in play. But I get it. The barbarian stereotype in DnD exists for several reasons, and lots of gamers don’t really want to overthink it; they’re sitting down to play a game about kicking in doors, crushing hobgoblin heads, and looting treasure. And for those games, if somebody wants their Throgdar to grunt at his foes and wipe his drool on his loincloth and break everything and unleash power that comes from his boundless rage, then that is totally fine and I’m not going to tell them to stop. I’ll just be over here in the corner, hanging out with Throgdar’s barbarian cousins, who are...different.


What is a barbarian, anyway? Well, that’s easy: a savage, uncivilized person. Ok then, what’s a civilized person? Well, you know, somebody cultured, advanced, sophisticated. Right then, sophisticated according to whom? Well, err, according to me, I suppose…

The term “barbarian” originates with the ancient Greeks, for whom it meant “someone who does not speak Greek” (note, ironically, that by this definition the Romans to their west started out as barbarians). The joke was that when non-Greeks spoke, the words that came out allegedly sounded like “barbarbarbar…” The Romans later took this concept and used it in reference to the outsiders beyond their own Empire, particularly those from peoples with less material complexity than that seen in classical civilization. Ah, ‘civilization’ - the opposite of barbarism - but ‘civilization’ itself comes from the words for living in a city. To the Romans, being a shepherd out in the hills was its own kind of barbarism, in a sense; to live in marble halls in a city, now that was sophistication. 

The Roman dichotomy of civilization vs. barbarism actually broke down pretty quickly. By the time we get to the late Roman empire, it is in no way accurate to think of the Roman frontier as a thick line separating the lands of civilization from the lands of the barbarians. Rather, one can (oversimplify a little bit and) imagine the world of the Romans as a series of at least four banded zones:

+ the inner Mediterranean core, often dominated by civilians and by civilian Greco-Roman values. To make matters more complicated, each province or region had its own flavor of Greco-Roman culture based on the underlying cultural system there that had been integrated into the Empire. 

+ the outer periphery of the Empire, often dominated by Roman military society, which was itself increasingly influenced by ‘barbarian’ cultures from outside the empire; even civilian groups in this peripheral area, while fully ‘Roman,’ often had values at odds with the ‘softer’ civilian values in the central core. And here too the underlying culture (say, Gallic) led to hybrid flavors of Roman culture itself. 

+ now we hop across the frontier and enter the nearest barbarian territories beyond the Empire. Certain forms of Roman culture are all over the place. For that matter, Roman troops are not unheard of, as Roman patrols and raids are a recurring part of frontier strategy. Roman merchants are traveling around selling wares. Old barbarian men, veteran retirees who spent a career serving in the Roman army, are enjoying their twilight years in their Roman-style villa back home in barbarian territory. Of course, this region is also controlled by barbarian warlords and tribal groups, but many of them are forming and growing through cooperation or rivalry with Roman forces across the frontier.

+ and finally we reach ‘barbarian’ territories quite far from the Empire, where the Romans are a distant rumor. Even here - as in the bog deposits in Denmark that I mentioned in a recent post on treasure - Roman goods may arrive through long-distance trade, but they are reinterpreted and possibly given new roles in local social affairs. 

So rather than any kind of split between a ‘civilized world’ and a ‘barbarian world,’ we should imagine the landscape between an empire and its neighbors as a spectrum, where cultures flow across military frontiers, and the “civilized” troops watching over the frontier may have just as much culturally in common with the barbarians across the border as they do with the senators back in the old core cities. 

To make matters more complicated, we won’t really comprehend the late Roman world unless we understand ethnicity as fluid and flexible. Every semester in one of my courses, I ask my students a question that may sound ridiculous: “How many of you chose your ethnicity?” Dumb question, right? 

Well, in contemporary North America, we tend to conflate race and ethnicity, so that we often envision ethnicity as tied to biology, tied to your genetic background and to the skin color that it produced. Of course, genetic differentiation can be enormously important for social grouping, and nothing here is meant to deny that. But ethnicity is not inherently racial or biological. Let’s ask the august to clear this up for us. Ethnicity = “an ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, and the like.” In other societies, those other features - culture, religious identity, language, etc. - have often been more important as markers of who-you-are or who-is-in-and-who-is-out. 

So, back to my question about choosing ethnicity. To date, I have only ever had one student say “yes, I chose my ethnicity!” In his case, his life-story brilliantly illustrated my point. His father is Serbian, his mother Bosnian; as he noted, “If I go to a cafe in Sarajevo, I can talk to the staff and get service, but if I tell them my family name, they won’t serve me.” Waking into that cafe, that person has an identity that can’t be pigeonholed by his physical appearance, that isn’t betrayed by his accent; but his name is a marker of identity so influential that it alone signals whether he is “in” or “out.” 

If you can imagine that many communities define themselves primarily according to flexible, non-biological identity markers like language or religion or naming practices or clothing fashions - all things that are not permanently fixed but can be chosen and changed - then you can “get” the complex ethnic dynamics that affected Romans and barbarians in the late antique world. 

For a brief time during the 5th century CE, the crime of wearing trousers within the city of Rome was punishable by exile (you aren’t wearing trousers right now, gentle reader, are you?!). This is because trousers were a barbarian fashion (never mind that the Roman army had already borrowed this fashion during service in Germany), and anxieties were rife about people signaling or (gasp) even picking up barbarian identities. In 6th century Constantinople, youth street gangs started wearing mullet hairstyles - because they thought it made them look like Huns. In the late antique world, plenty of Romans flirted with barbarian identities. In fact, if you were to ask a Frank (in early medieval France) what happened to all the Romans in their territory, they’d likely tell you that their Frankish ancestors slaughtered ALL the Romans when they arrived and conquered Gaul. In reality, however, the Frankish conquerors were a minority group who assimilated into a much larger Gallo-Roman majority population - but the reverse happened, too; over time, conquered Romans simply “became” Franks and then forgot that their own ancestors were Roman. Ethnicity is fluid: Romans can become barbarians, and barbarians can become Romans. This means (uh-oh) that even if Throgdar is still wiping his drool on his barbarian loincloth today, his children might be wiping olive oil off their togas tomorrow. 


Despite that ethnic flexibility, at any given moment the “barbarian” label could remain a powerful marker of difference, and trigger serious prejudices against outsiders. It’s quite easy to find “us vs. them” moments in late Roman history. Some of them could inspire RPG campaigns that would make any Trogdar proud! In the 3rd c. CE, for example, hundreds of years before the Franks would conquer Gaul, a band of Franks was defeated by Roman troops, enslaved, and transported across the known world to form a slave-labor crew in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). But these audacious Franks revolted, hijacked a ship (sorry: commandeered, it’s a nautical term), and then sailed their way all across the Mediterranean, out the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar), up the Atlantic coast, and back home. Wouldn’t that make a fun campaign! Other “us vs. them” moments were more sobering. One of the last great pagan senators in the late Empire once wrote a distraught letter to a friend, complaining about his newly-purchased barbarian captives…although this senator had spent good money on this band of enslaved captives so that he could have them slaughter each other in gladiatorial games he was sponsoring, the ungrateful foreign captives had the temerity to commit mass suicide at night in their holding pen so as to deny him the pleasure of exploiting their deaths. And, of course, there are other stories of horrifying atrocities committed by “barbarians” against Romans. 

What really stands out in late Roman history, however, is how often barbarian and Roman lives were instead intertwined in complex ways that might involve cooperation and mutual dependence as well as conflict and destruction. These provide thought-provoking fodder for a very different, very complex kind of RPG campaign. Let me illustrate these dynamics with a brief, whirlwind narrative of the long travels and travails of the 4th- and 5th-c. Visigoths. 

I’ll start with a spoiler alert: in 410, the Visigoths under Alaric sacked and plundered the city of Rome. They must have been, well, barbaric enemies of civilization then, right? It’s not so simple…A Roman (Arian/Homoian) Christian missionary, sent by a Roman emperor, evangelized the Goths north of the Empire in the 4th c., and invented a Gothic alphabet so they could become literate in their own language. Thus they were already literate practitioners of a Roman faith when, late in the 300s, advancing Huns from central Asia pushed the Goths and others into flight. Many Goths arrived en masse at the Roman Danube-River frontier, seeking not invasion but asylum and the right to enter peacefully as refugees. There was nothing too unusual about this; Rome had been welcoming barbarians into its service for centuries, and had a good track record for peacefully assimilating such immigrants. In this case, however, the Roman officers sent to administer the immigration settlement decided to profit personally from the transaction; according to our sources, they began demanding the Goths’ children as slaves in exchange for food (including ‘dogs as food,’ again in trade for their children). Now, if history teaches us any lessons, surely one of them is “when a giant armed mob of thousands of desperate barbarian refugees are asking politely to come in and serve you, don’t alienate them and threaten their children.” Responding to Roman corruption, the peaceful Gothic entrance devolved into a proper military invasion. The emperor Valens marched north but, in his haste to win glory before reinforcements from the West could reach him, he overcommitted and soon perished with most of his army at Adrianople. Although Roman reinforcements did manage to pacify the situation in the next few years, the Goths were now loose as a mobile, militant force inside the Balkans. 

One of the Gothic children at the time of the Danube crossing was Alaric - who would grow to become king of the Visigoths. Alaric came of age as a displaced outlaw-refugee inside the empire, a commander of barbarian violence - but therefore also a potential asset to be exploited by Romans for their own ends. Some years, Alaric and his men acted like bandits, sacking Balkan cities and threatening Roman communities. At other times, Alaric entered into the service of Stilicho, a half-Roman, half-Vandal barbarian warlord who dominated the West Roman court in the early 400s. For some time, in fact, Alaric functioned essentially as a private military contractor working for the west Roman court against the other, east Roman regime. 

In 408, the ‘generalissimo’ Stilicho was outmaneuvered politically by a hardline anti-barbarian faction at the western court. Stilicho fell from the emperor’s favor and was put to death, but he had held command of a private army of about 30,000 mercenary soldiers. Unable to catch this private army, the new hardliners in the west settled for butchering the wives and children of the entire 30,000-man force that had served Stilicho. 

Yeah, that one is worth pausing over. 

Understandably enraged, Stilicho’s now-disavowed troops defected and joined Alaric’s army. As time passed, and as Alaric advanced across Italy, runaway slaves also swelled his ranks. Note that this means that the “Visigothic barbarian army” that sacked Rome in 410 was actually a much more diverse, even motley bunch, consisting not only of actual Goths (whatever that means; remember that Alaric’s generation grew up inside the Empire) but also of other soldiers, some barbarian and others Roman, along with slaves of many backgrounds. Over time, ALL of these people could “become Goths.” 

Alaric had been promised support by Stilicho, and he still needed to feed and maintain his men. So he sent messages to the court (stacked with hard-liners, remember) and demanded the back-pay that Stilicho had promised him. That may sound like a total non-starter, except that Alaric was asking to be given a Roman title and office and provincial command, essentially assimilating him into the Roman command structure. To clarify, Alaric was asking for a (very profitable) way to make peace with the imperial regime, so that he could keep his men happy, work for the Romans, and get on with life. The hardliners at the court said no. Even though they didn’t have enough military strength available to stop Alaric. So Alaric did exactly what you’d expect him to do under the circumstances…

That’s right, he lowered his asking price, demanded a much less prestigious provincial command, and tried again to mend fences with the Romans. Variants on this pattern went on for some time; eventually, after Roman officials clarified that they had sworn a sacred oath that they would never, under any circumstances, collaborate with Alaric, and after another barbarian military commander unsuccessfully ambushed Alaric’s army (rightly or wrongly, Alaric thought the Roman court had put him up to it), Alaric had had enough and he sacked Rome in August 410. The sack sent panic and shock around the Roman world, but in many ways it was a largely symbolic event for the empire as a whole; the court and capital were up north at more-defensible Ravenna. For the citizens of Rome, some terrible things happened, to be sure; but if anything, the Gothic sack of Rome stands out as “a kinder, gentler” plundering, by the standards of antiquity. The Goths let it be known that they would spare anyone who took refuge in a Christian church. Certainly, the Goths treated Rome much more gently than the Romans normally treated cities they sacked. 

Alaric died not long thereafter. In his place, his brother Athaulf led the Goths. During the Sack of Rome, the Goths had kidnapped a Roman princess, Galla Placidia, sister of the western emperor. Galla and Athaulf apparently fell in love; they married (in a Roman-style wedding) and had children together; for many years, Galla’s (apparently fairly happy) life among the Goths remained a sticking point preventing renewed negotiations with the now-softening imperial regime. Finally, after Athaulf’s death, Galla was returned (and married off, much less happily, to a Roman general), and the Visigoths finally got their sweetheart deal ca. 418 - rights to settle in Aquitania, in southern Gaul, where they would govern in the emperor’s name and stand ready to supply the empire with troops when needed. They actually held to their side of the bargain - for a while - and sent critically-important troops to help turn back Attila the Hun’s invasion in the 450s. Of course, in the 460s and 470s, as western order finally fell apart, the Goths turned Aquitania into the center of a conquest-kingdom in their own name, and they held Spain until the Muslim invasions centuries later. 

Although this offers only a postage-stamp version of their story, one relying on a lot of oversimplification, for each step in this narrative there were other barbarian groups experiencing something similar. Some surged against the empire, and broke against its defenses. Others were quietly assimilated into Roman society (or the Hunnic empire to the north), and forgotten. Others carved out their own territories, only to fall prey to other ambitious barbarian regimes. In each case, however, barbarian groups in the late Roman period were fairly ephemeral things, groups that might or might not share some kind of core identity, but which certainly could change A LOT over time, and whose membership might wax and wane and become very flexible indeed. 


So how does any of this craziness help us at the gaming table? Well, there are probably a million cool things to do with all-barbarian parties - here, I’m going to propose just one possibility. And I’m deep enough into all this to indulge some delusions of grandeur, so I’m going to get all avant-garde and try to coin a fancy-pants (new?) subgenre tag: the swords-and-sojourners campaign concept. 

In ‘meta’ terms, I’m thinking of a campaign arc that reads like the Visigoths’ long, precarious, unpredictable journey from desperate refugees to conquering kings on Roman soil. In more concrete, mechanical terms, I’m imagining a campaign that is part procedurally-generated sandbox, part hex crawl, part social/intrigue system (again, partly procedurally-generated), and which incorporates a kind of domain management from the first session at level 1. You start the whole thing by creating a small band/tribe/clan/host that is in serious trouble - starving, on the run from one evil empire and falling into the hands of another - and you make all the PCs members of this mobile group of desperadoes. Domain-management, then, with a difference; where you end up is less important than finding somewhere to survive and thrive; your people form the domain that you’re managing and protecting. The goal for the campaign is simple: do whatever you can and must to protect your people, and ideally to build a better future for them. Your goals might include survival, material well-being, political independence, and cultural autonomy. Fail, and your entire people-group will be exploited and probably snuffed out. Win, and today’s worried refugees might be tomorrow’s kings. 

At low levels, the motivation for ‘adventuring’ might be something like: ok, your band of 200 half-starved refugees has successfully crossed the border and now is camped out in frontier province X. The local governor has made it clear that he will look the other way and tolerate your presence - if you agree to do a few risky jobs around his territory that he’s not wanted to bloody his own garrison against. So off go the players for a traditional dungeon-crawl plundering run or monster-hunting session, but instead of ‘we want to get rich’ the stakes are ‘if we don’t pull this off, our people will get chased down by cavalry squadrons, but if we pull this off, maybe we can settle down here for a few winters.’ And wherever the PCs and their people go, the DM can roll on random tables to figure out which imperial officials are active there, what kinds of tolerances, vices, wants, prejudices, and opportunities they will face there, etc. So in one sense this is like a traditional sandbox hex crawl; however, discovering an area’s social challenges and possible patrons in the are just as important, or more important, than simply exploring land to see what’s out there.

With a dedicated group such a campaign could go on endlessly. On the other hand, I think this is one setting concept where the Night’s Black Agents or Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign structure could make sense - play will occur over a predetermined number of sessions (say, 10). Structure the campaign in 3 “Acts” - 3 sessions of low-level mollifying local governors, then move on to more serious stuff, and face really epic challenges by the final Act. And between each Act you could roll up or create new major setting-changing events; major wars and rebellions around your current refuge, shift in imperial regime that alters attitudes toward your people for better or for worse, etc. If you haven’t reached some minimum target of prosperity by the end of your current Act, your people are going to be in much greater risk come the next Act.

To make this really work, you’d also want to establish multiple paths to victory, or at least multiple end-states. Non-negotiably, one possible end-state should be the total defeat of your people (you can lose this campaign, and badly). Others might include getting assimilated into imperial culture and gaining their titles; another might involve pushing for real autonomy, carving out your own kingdom, but with all the political/military conflict and baggage that would entail, too. Players have meaningful choices and must determine what kind of end-state they want, and how much they’ll risk to get it. 

A “swords & sojourners” campaign could harness late Roman-barbarian interactions very well, but there’s no reason to limit the idea to that sort of setting. Any context with a mobile, militant, underdog group would do fine. (There is lots of potential here for those palace-burning Late Bronze Age groups I talked about last time, too, of course!). 

What do you think? Would a swords-and-sojourners sandbox campaign be fun?


On this Good Friday 2019, warmest regards and best wishes to each of you; and to those who care for such things, I wish a blessed Good Friday and Easter, in the name of the champion of widows, orphans ... and sojourners.

[Quick title credit - the second half of this post’s title riffs off Thomas Burns’ 1994 book Barbarians within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, ca. 375-425 AD.] 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Of Bronze, Burning Palaces, and “Certain Kinds of People” - More Musings on Archaeology for RPGs

Ok, there’s a lot packed into what follows, so here’s a snapshot/abstract to help determine whether it’ll interest you. First, I briefly describe the peculiarly connected-but-limited world of the Late Bronze Age (LBA) Near East, then discuss that world’s collapse into anarchy at the dawn of the Iron Age. After that I roll up my sleeves and identify some game-able principles for campaign concepts inspired by that setting - a setting in which:
+ movement and communication were essential, but…
+ the mobile population was very limited, and…
+ those who traveled freely had tremendous power to reshape the status quo.
Those principles, I suggest, could support some rich campaign concepts. 

Thirty-five centuries ago, more or less, Late Bronze Age (LBA) societies of the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean formed a network of tightly-controlled, military-powerful, diplomatically-interconnected, palace-centered kingdoms. For hundreds of years, from the 16th to the 12th century, the rulers who oversaw the LBA palatial system basked in the golden age of pre-Iron Age imperial power. These were the heady days of New Kingdom Egypt and of that realm’s potent Hittite rivals, and of upstart Mycenaean kings pushing their way too into the international order. 

Ramesses II storms a Hittite fortress
(public domain, Wikipedia)
Although major conflicts certainly did occur (see above) the LBA is marked more by cooperation between the great kings. Diplomatic correspondence, peace treaties, royal marriages, and lavish exchanges of rare goods helped bind the powers together; quite simply, the powers-that-be that ran the palaces helped prop each other up. 

In part, this was because each of the great powers had something critical to offer to the others. Bronze was the military metal of choice; its separate components (usually an alloy of copper and tin) were rare and came from limited, distant sources. Other goods, like lapis lazuli, were equally rare and helped project the kinds of wealth and prestige that spoke to each regime’s legitimacy. Each regime wanted access to goods found far from its own kingdom; by trading peaceably with each other, the Great Powers maintained the essential flow of rare goods from palace to palace. 

Yet movement itself was quite limited. Economies were dominated by the top-down, redistributive oversight of the palaces. Much long-range shipment of trade goods was essentially diplomatic, passing from court to court in the hands of kings’ servants. More independent merchants existed (as they had before the LBA) but their activities now cut against the dominant political structures. Despite the pomp and the scale of war between kingdoms, the real threats often came not from outside…but from below. 

Then, in the 12th c. BCE, most of the palace complexes across the E. Mediterranean and Near East were destroyed. Something like a Dark Age ensued; in Greece, the political collapse was so complete that the Mycenaean word for ‘king’ fell out of use; the later Greek word for king comes from a Mycenaean word that means something like “overseer of a town” - the closest thing left to central authority among the ruins. But why and how did such a drastic collapse happen? 

Well, um, scholars are still trying to figure that out…even in the last two years, leading synthetic studies tend to list a bunch of different causes, note that these causes probably all contributed something, and then admit that we can’t really figure out exactly what happened (this is through no fault of that group of archaeologists; the relevant evidence is extraordinarily complex and even contradictory). Earthquakes, climate change, rebellions, invasions, ‘systems collapse,’ etc., etc., etc. Lots of factors possibly snowballed together to produce the Late Bronze Age collapse (but if you want to learn more, I’d recommend Eric Cline’s accessible book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed). 

But one piece that increasingly seems important to scholarly explanations is the role of mobile dissenters pushing back against the ways the palatial system stifled their interests. The mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’ have traditionally taken a lot of the blame for the Collapse. In reality, we don’t know exactly who those guys were, and we don’t think they cleanly explain the collapse on their own. However, it does seem increasingly likely that many palaces fell in part because they alienated armed, mobile bands of people who had opted ‘out of the system’. From the controlling perspective of the palaces - that is, from the perspective of the scribes who left us written sources - these guys sound like marauding thugs [here, have a mental image: “ancient hippies forming outlaw motorcycle gangs” (no doubt some of you GMs are now thinking of your murderhobo PCs)]. From their own perspective, however, these dissenters may have seen things quite differently. Merchants, entrepreneurs, freebooters - the line between those identities can blur easily in troubled times - these people may have seen themselves as responsible champions rejecting the tyrannical restraints that fossilized the international order to benefit a thin elite crust. As I was taught quite early in my historical studies, where sources portray an empire or a civilization ‘falling’ somebody else often saw a new opportunity arising. As archaeologist Cyprian Broodbank argues in a deliciously memorable and ambivalent statement, we should abandon “the rhetoric of catastrophe, and instead [think] of burning palaces as problem-solving and enabling moments for certain kinds of people.” 

These guys see burning palaces as problem-solving moments.
(Wargames Foundry miniatures)

Now, if you’re reading a fantasy RPG blog, I’m pretty sure you already know “certain kinds of people” who might see “burning palaces as problem-solving and enabling moments.” I am, of course, talking about your PCs. 


The LBA palatial system (and its collapse) could make a wonderful setting for a fantasy campaign in its own right. Here, however, I’d like to identify ‘game-able’ aspects of this setting concept that could transfer neatly into many other kinds of settings. Below is a workflow for thinking up just such a setting or campaign concept. I don’t think the individual steps here are hugely original, but they do fit together pretty coherently to model a campaign concept harnessing the tensions that (probably) tore the LBA palace system apart. 

Trade for profit is nice, but we need something essential. Identify one or more reasons that communication, connectivity, trade, and movement matter to this setting. Why does the status quo absolutely depend on ‘the mail getting through?’ [Notice that I said ‘the status quo’ rather than ‘the fate of the world.’ Saving the whole world as a mailman is certainly fine if you want, but there’s also rich potential in a situation where different factions might or might not want to maintain the status quo - more on that below.] 

Here are just a few possibilities, from the mundane to the weird:

+ Run with the LBA palatial example - exotic trade goods from far away are needed to prop up the local regime’s reputation, and/or they provide essential ingredients for necessary military technologies (e.g. bronze)

+ Troop movements between military allies are essential to keeping “the bad guys” at bay

+ Without regular food shipments, public order in the cities will completely break down (e.g., the city of Rome drew on overseas shipments of provincial grain for centuries, and riots invariably followed any supply disruptions)

+ An ancient volcano towers over the capital city. No problem, since a monthly diet of Bloodstone tribute cast into the crater keeps the volcano pacified. Of course, the nearest bloodstone mine is 1,000 leagues away…

+ Every summer and fall the Mothers Literate speak new riddle-barriers to block the Passes of Venom, and every winter the dark things beyond guess the barriers down. From the cave into which she vanished 8 generations ago, Lady Thesaurus whispers a new riddle each Midsummer’s Eve…leaving only just enough time for the Mothers Literate to make the long journey to each of the dark mountain passes before the snows fall. 

Making movement essential to the status quo becomes much more interesting if we assume that most people don’t or can’t travel, even if they want to - so that essential movement depends on a very small minority of the population. The LBA palatial system offers a setting in which the socio-political structure itself inhibited movement. That’s fine, but in fantasy gaming we can come up with many more interesting reasons to limit travel quite severely. Here, again, are examples.

+ Why are 1 in 100 humans born with weird birthmark-tattoos of eyes peering through leaves? Well, you see, long ago the Fey Court tired of our unlimited incursions into the Wild…it’s the Fey who ‘gift’ the Leaf-Mark, and it’s the Fey who kill any human found in the woods without a Leaf-Marked escort….To be human now is to live an isolated life in the civilized island-pockets that dot the landscape. To be fey-marked, however humble your origins, is to be an essential lifeline between settlements.

+ First-King thought that drowning the Necromancer would fix things, but now the Necromancer Maritime commands legions of the drowned. Any ship crossing the archipelago is destroyed and its crew joins the undead below - unless that ship is crewed by a descendant of Garros the Mariner, whose memory the waves themselves refuse to sully.

+ Traveling up and down the World-Tree is complicated - except for the Wind-Friends of House Uivan! Thanks to their ancestral alliance with the Duke of Winds, Uivan’s hardy retainers float up and down in boats stitched from Yggdrasil’s leaves and blown gently by the winds. If you need to reach another branch anytime soon, then you need to talk to House Uivan. 

Those may be weird examples, but they illustrate a concept where a very small group has either a monopoly or a major competitive advantage in long-distance movement. Trade and communication in this setting really depend on the goodwill of that minority group. If we make the PCs all come from that minority group, this opens up various possibilities. First, this kind of setting makes the humblest, weakest Level 1 PC important but not overpowered. If you want to run a high-powered, modern-edition kind of DnD, that’s fine, but if you prefer a more OSR flavor (as do I) then this concept makes every PC a special snowflake - simply because the setting depends on people like them - but the PC can also be a weak, vulnerable learner who remains in real danger in the world. Second, if (oh, my bad, when) a PC dies, a replacement can be drawn from the same population group, with a ready-made backstory explaining why this newbie would also want/be able to travel and adventure, why the existing PCs would welcome the newcomer (if 1% of the population can travel, just how choosy can you be? :-), and why even kings and great lords would hand this newcomer important missions, starting on Day 1.  

Let players know up-front exactly how the powers-that-be depend on people like them. Establish clearly and early on what the consequences would be if the status quo were to fail. It’s your call, of course, whether the status quo is inherently good and must be protected by heroes, or whether the status quo just benefits some people and is much more questionable. Maybe the status quo is actually unambiguously evil and the PCs will want to push back at every step. Whatever the situation, make it clear that the PCs’ unusual role gives them leverage for shaping that status quo.   

The mobile minority are the special snowflakes, right? However weak, however inexperienced, their ability to move where they want - or to refuse orders and escape to somewhere else - makes them ‘movers and shakers’ in your setting. Think of the 3 Musketeers; although they aren’t super-powered, and although they aren’t really the leaders of France, their secret exploits become essential to the machinations of the high powers in the land. I’ve seen this analogy used to discuss 13th Age’s icons system, which could work really well with the concept I’m describing here. Flesh out a few Big Names in your setting who will strongly pressure the PCs to act either for or against the status quo (for example, think of a Pharaoh and a commander of a Sea Peoples squadron…). For best results, add some ethical tension between the personal qualities of the Faction Icons and the overall character of their cause…if your status quo is clearly good and defensible, then figure out a reason why that renegade lord’s offer to hire the PCs is actually compelling. Now, briefly outline each faction’s plan to change the setting (something like Dungeon World’s Fronts/Threats system would work well here). Each faction is looking for allies among the mobile minority. If your PCs do nothing, what things will the factions do anyway, and what will those actions do to the setting? 

Your campaign setting comes with built-in tensions and limits, and powerful people are working to shift those limits in one direction or another. There’s no need to plot out every contingency; just create the problems, put things in motion, make it clear to your players that actions will have consequences, and then offer the PCs jobs and the freedom to figure out the choices they are comfortable making. Then sit back, roll dice, and wait to find out whether your PCs, too, are the ‘certain kinds of people’ who ‘see burning palaces as problem-solving and enabling moments.’ 

You might want to bring along a fire extinguisher. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

If Only We’d Never Taken that Treasure: Some Musings on Archaeology and the OSR

Dream and Fevers recently posted on how the real Viking Age offers richer fodder for RPGs than the common, content-thin stereotypical vision of that period. I had to nod reading that post, as I have just been teaching a course this term on Viking and Anglo-Saxon history and archaeology, so I could only give this sentiment a hearty Amen!!! In fact, there have been multiple times in the past year, while lecturing on some aspect of ancient/medieval society, that I’ve been struck by something that I’d like to see at the RPG table.

So why don’t I discuss some of them? 

Today’s post explores ancient treasure-hoards and the various ritual roles of Iron Age hoards and weapon deposits in northern Europe - then asks what would it change if looting that dungeon might cause trouble for the realm? 

Right, so I'll take this +1 sword and the gold, you take the silver...
we'll give Bob the clay pot since he's in the bathroom...
(British Museum)

Especially in OSR-world, where XP-for-treasure is fairly typical, few things will brighten the eyes of an average dungeoncrawling party like a big pile of treasure. Carting that loot away is a goal, an end; a resolution. In many old stories, however, snatching buried treasure can create problems. In Beowulf, a runaway slave’s theft from a dragon’s hoard provokes the ancient beast and sets the stage for Beowulf’s final, tragic arc (you can see the influence of this scene on Smaug’s wrath after Bilbo troubles his hoard, too). So treasure may have angry guardians (pretty standard fare in dungeoncrawling, of course) or the treasure itself may be cursed - also a pretty traditional feature of RPG hoards, not to mention the Rhine-Gold or, um, this other thing that Bilbo found once. 

But there’s another way to get in trouble for hauling away treasure, and it has to do with the reason the treasure got stuffed underground in the first place.  

In real life, ancient treasure-hoards are common enough to inform archaeology in important ways. In Roman archaeology, we tend to identify coin-hoards by the apparent intent of the hoarder; for example, between savings hoards or emergency hoards (based on various aspects of the composition of the hoard). As the names suggest, a ‘savings hoard’ is like a hidden piggybank, a nest egg squirreled away somewhere - and then never retrieved by the owner, perhaps because they died before coming back for it. An emergency hoard is more like oh-no-the-barbarians-are-coming-so-throw-the-stuff-that-really-matters-in-a-jar-and-bury-it-behind-the-woodshed - and you can probably see why that kind of situation might also prevent the owner from getting home safely to recover the hoard. 

Now, whether we’re thinking of a savings hoard or an emergency hoard, both approaches assume that the hoarder’s intent was primarily economic; the hoard’s coins had monetary value and the hoarder wanted to preserve their own access to that value.  That should seem sensible, but even for the Romans, we continue to debate whether the ancient economy functioned in ways parallel to a simplified modern market system (in my opinion, the market-forces side is winning that debate, but that’s a conversation for another time).

But what if a hoard was buried for non-economic reasons? Transactions that involve economic value also can happen primarily for ritualistic cultural and social reasons. This becomes more important when we look, say, at hoards and treasures buried in Iron Age northern Europe, far to the north of the Roman frontier, by people whose concept of wealth was not governed by monetary assumptions and for whom a market framework is much more questionable. There is a long Bronze Age/Iron Age prehistory of imported Mediterranean artifacts - treasures and luxury goods made by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans - heading up the Rhone-Rhine corridor into northern Europe. Once these goods reached the north, they were often handed out to loyal followers by chieftains who controlled the trade routes. In fact, the ability to control those trade routes was an important part of holding power - not for tax profits, but because the symbolic prestige attached to southern luxury goods had its own value, its own power - in particular, the power to honor, reward, and motivate armed retainers by ‘paying’ them with such tokens of prestige. [The principle is the same as giving out gold and rings to retainers in Anglo-Saxon literature - but in this case the treasure is foreign and its value is tied explicitly to its exotic nature and its derivation from a higher-prestige, powerful, more technically-complex society far away). 

Ok - RPG application point one - if your setting has the stereotypical savage barbarians living on the edge of the map, consider that they might actually be more integrated into your setting than you’ve assumed. Rather than being fanatical isolationists, those barbarian chiefs may depend on access (by trade or plunder) to ‘civilized’ goods in order to prop up their own position as warlords. And imperial, ‘civilized’ culture may already be reshaping those ‘outsiders’ in all sorts of hidden ways. In this kind of setting, a looted treasure’s value might depend less on its nominal ‘gp value’ and more on its cultural weight and the level of heroic retainer that it might suitably attract. 

Great, but what does any of this have to do with buried hoards and murderhobos hunting gold? 

Well, consider: if these northern Iron Age societies didn’t use a monetary system, but southern treasures were quite valuable for social-political reasons, then why would one stuff them underground, or cast them into a bog or lake? Why, as seen in some sites in Denmark’s Illerup Valley, would people take prestigious, valuable Roman swords, break them, and then throw them into a lake? 

One explanation for some of those treasure-depositions looks quite plausible: as payment…not an economic payment, but a honor-binding, social contract-forming payment to the power(s) believed to be active and associated with that bog, lake, etc. In other words, if such foreign luxuries could honor and bind powerful men to one’s service, then why wouldn’t the local spirits or divinities be just as interested in such a bargain?

Now let’s apply this to your fantasy rpg setting. You’ve got a whole landscape chock full of dungeons which are themselves chock full of ancient treasures. Maybe some of those are savings hoards or treasuries of archaic lords who fell in battle and never came home. Maybe others are emergency hoards buried by those old kings’ subjects before they fled. But others…well, some of those treasures were left behind quite deliberately, in an age even before the mountains had chosen their homes…left by chieftains who sealed bargains with fey and elemental powers to shape the land itself as they desired. That fertile vale with the river that never floods its banks in springtime? Purchased 1,000 winters ago, sealed by the hoard under that dungeon. That limestone plateau that hasn’t dropped a sinkhole for 3 dynasties? Look to the gold littering the cenote bottoms. 

Enter your murderhobo, gold-and-XP-hungry PCs. 

Loot the wrong dungeon, and that river-valley will flood next spring with the fury of a water elemental scorned. Snatch gold baubles from the cenote well, and the Hall of 10,000 sages will collapse into a hole in the earth itself. And kings know this. They know that there are ticking time-bombs out there that might or might not wreak havoc in their realms. Some kings guard fiercely against this threat; others seek to exploit it. 

Former site of the Hall of 10,000 Sages...oops!


In this kind of setting, here are some possible scenarios:

+ What if finding the treasure was the start, not the end, of the adventure? The foe across the eastern marches is arming for war; to make things worse, in a village square one day’s march from that frontier, builders uncover a bronze pot full of ancient golden trinkets. The jar is inscribed with the name of an ancient sage. The king panics; nobody knows what this treasure does, but it must do something. If the PCs can get to that old sage’s buried archive, research what his hoard was meant to do, and get back in time to prevent enemy raiders from disturbing the hoard, then the king will pay handsomely (and let them keep the hoard…if doing so is safe).

+ Sabotage…by treasure: asymmetric warfare on a whole new level! The Tyrant of Flame Hill has armies too powerful to defeat and cruelty too fierce to describe. All the land lies under his violent rule. But an old legend claims that a treasure buried under his mountain fortress ‘turned off’ the volcano beneath that castle. If the PCs can sneak in and steal that treasure, the tyrant may be overthrown by the fire elementals that rest dormantly beneath him (yes, this is just like Mount Doom, but the goal is to sneak the treasure out! :-).  

If you’ve made it this far, please leave a comment and let me know whether this discussion has been interesting and useful - or not - and whether it seems accessible or too technical. If this kind of approach is helpful, then next I may explore the nature - and downfall - of ‘international communications’ and palace systems in the Late Bronze Age Near East - a system that offers an interesting model for RPG campaigns where PCs are ‘special’ and can shape the whole setting even without being individually super-powered. 

Thanks for reading!

  • ‘Gundobad’ 

Welcome One and All - Inaugural Post for a New Blog!

Yes, it's a gaming blog, but what kinds of savage geekery should you expect here? 

I’m a professional ancient/medieval historian who teaches at the university level. I’m also a geeky gamer with interests in:

+ role-playing games: I started in D&D decades ago as a youngster and, like many, have returned to the hobby in these latter days. I spent some years focusing on Dungeon World/World of Dungeons and other PbtA and ‘story games’ - and I retain many great lessons from that scene - but have since taken a hard, decisive turn to the principles of ‘old school’ play (often characterized as OSR). Currently my go-to rpg system to run is the sublime minimalist Into the Odd by Chris McDowall (and various ItO hacks). 

+ wargames: as a busy working parent I have little budget or time for highly complex, lengthy games. Yet I still love pushing units around the battlefield - so you’re likely to see me playing simpler but fun and still interesting games like titles by Nordic Weasel Games, Ganesha Games, One-Page Wargames, etc. I am a sucker for GW’s W40k setting, but I use more streamlined rulesets for the play itself. 

+ history/archaeology/society/culture/etc.: probably a bit obvious given my profession … but worth noting that these interests also color my gaming habits (most directly, I suppose, in designing rpg settings and situations). I’m likely to weave such things in here on this blog. 

Thanks for reading; I hope this blog can offer the same enjoyment and fresh ideas that others’ blogs have done for me.