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. 


  1. This is quickly going to end up one of my favorite new blogs.

  2. Absolutely excellent. This is super useful. Thanks for posting it!

    Also, "archaeologist Cyprian Broodbank" -- I think I'm in love!

    1. You're welcome, and thank you.
      I totally get what you mean about Cyprian Broodbank. :-)

  3. Instructions for Gundobad: 1) Read Yoon-Suin and make a similar thing, but Late Bronze Age. 2) ??? 3) Profit!

  4. Solid cudos on your new blog. All/both of your posts have been solid hits which make the historic fantastic with practical advice on how to bring that to the table.

    1. Thanks. One of the old cliches in liberal arts university education in general, but particularly in anthropology, is the goal of "making the strange familiar and the familiar strange." Pretty clear line from there to enriching the fantasy gaming table, I suppose.

  5. By the way, I find the talk about historical matters surprisingly useful for more than just games attempting to be historically accurate. In some odd (or not) way, it occurred to me this material about the Bronze Age can make for a solid, realistic foundation to an otherwise more fast-and-loose Hyborian Age styled game. Howard himself, after all, wrote an entire essay on the history of Conan's greater universe to add a layer of authenticity and this seems like the kind of material I could see myself using for such a game.

    1. I definitely agree. My own goal is certainly not just to make everybody play in a historically accurate manner (if nothing else, I spend all week in my job teaching people about real history, so I'm ready for some flexibility when it's hobby time!). Verisimilitude is good, but I think what I'm really reaching toward in the past two posts is the fact that history is really complex, weird, and just downright interesting. It's full of dynamics that are actually a lot more fun to think about than just the cliched, 'Hollywood' view of the past. So if there are real-world, complex dynamics that we can lift from one real historical setting and then plug them into a quite fantastic setting like Hyboria, then we can expect to have more enjoyable, enriching play in that fantastic setting. That's a good goal, I think.

    2. If anything, the social complexities of the Bronzw Age (which we tend to forget about, sadly) seems like they would be even MORE interesting next to a legitimate 'murder hobo' who is some foreigner from a faraway land living only by his sword, wits, luck and pillaged money and trickets from a sorcerer's* tower he exchanged for booze.

      *Warning: Sorcerer may have been entirely made up by Barbarian con artist to impress gullible locals.

    3. Ha - nice. Suddenly I'm re-imagining Howard's Conan stories as the 'product' of a mid-level Public Relations firm in Aquilonia... :-)

  6. Great work, there's a real dearth of bronze age settings (mostly because of the late medieval/early modern tone of D&D) and this provides a great way of making such settings work within the framework of the game.

    I think as D&D players with an interest in history, we want the adventuring parties in our games to make sense historically. Instead of having adventuring parties that emulate the heroes of certain genres of fiction, we want parties who emulate groups of people who did adventure-like things during periods of history. We can add a lot of richness to the game, I think, by finding more historical models for adventurers, like this post does.

    1. I like the way you put that about seeking "parties who emulate groups of people who did adventure-like things" historically. Makes me want to write an upcoming post on barbarians inside the late Roman Empire.

  7. Most excellent!

    I'd really love to see you do a similar take on sub-roman / "Dark Age" Britain, sans Arthur.

    1. Oooh yeah that could be cool. That's SUCH a rich but complicated, messy period/place to think about. I will file that one away. I do think I'm likely to write sooner rather than later about barbarians in the late Roman world, which would be somewhat related.

  8. This is some very nice work, Gundobad - both for the historical overview and then guidance for implementation. I've got a feeling that your blog is going to be making its way to the must-read list...