Monday, May 6, 2019

Brazen Princes: Looking for Feedback on a Bronze Age Setting Idea


So, in recent weeks some of you here or on MeWe have responded to blog posts by encouraging me to write up a setting guide for a Late Bronze Age-inspired campaign. 

Gulp. I, uh, kinda took the bait. 

Today's post, then, is not a general discussion about ancient history and roleplaying, but rather a sneak peek of my Bronze Age setting project (working title = Brazen Princes). To be clear, I'm really fishing for early feedback here; I'm hoping to hear some honest impressions of what I lay out below. Does this sound like the kind of setting you'd want to play or run? Would you be happy to throw some market-level $$$ at a setting guide that made adventures in this world easy to run? I'm quite willing to accept negative or critical or even just apathetic feedback, as I'd far rather hear that now than later :-). 

I have a lot more to say about my vision for the structure of a play-focused, highly-usable setting guide itself, but for now, let me know what you think of this world. The world of Brazen Princes is a land of ancient kingdoms slowly losing their grip, of old, necessary trade-routes severed by angry elemental spirits, and of peasant hordes enslaved by an undead amphibian hive-mind; a world in which amber or lapis lazuli inlays in a blade's hilt offer sympathetic resonance with sun and sky, making the weapon proof against dark elemental monsters. A world where a merchant-ship may carry luxury goods, vital bronze, or strategic astronomical intelligence from wise women who forecast the fluctuating strength of humanity's enemies. It is a realm of arrogant sorcerer-kings nursing old grievances, and of long-oppressed minorities who suddenly find themselves the most essential demographic in the world. Their choices will bring order to the world ahead, or leave it a mess of burning palaces

The Powers

Possibly obvious, but the cosmological worldview here comes from asking "what would it look like for animism to be true, but also a coherent part of a Hebraic monotheistic worldview?" The approach is also slightly flavored, probably too slightly to be noticed, by aspects of medieval Byzantine theology (sorry, I know, I am a serious nerd). The intent is to offer a (to me) refreshing alternative to the usual sword-and-sorcery cosmologies, while still allowing for pretty much everything present in most S&S - and also being subtle enough to just get out of the way if you want to plug in something more to your taste. 

Creation

In the beginning, Creator made the heavens and the earth. To make Creator’s presence manifest to the cosmos, Creator made human beings as Image-bearing viceroys, called to rule with power, balance, and humility. Alas, we had other ideas. . . 

Our ancestral Fall into sin is now only a dim legend, but its tragic effects still shape the world. Yet the oldest prophecies promise that Creator has abandoned neither the world nor us. Our tale, however, is not of the coming age of redemption, but of an older time – an age of silence and waiting, when violence and deceit are everywhere, and goodness seems only a lamp-wick flickering against the darkness. 

The Elementals

The Earth itself teems with life-force. Meant to aid us in the world’s governance, creation’s elemental energies longed for the coming of Image-bearing men and women. We came, but we Fell – and creation learned from us more than it had sought. From our lips, creation heard new concepts: love, cultivation, and music; also falsehood, theft, and murder. 

Some elementals shrank back from us in horror and confusion. Others, though groaning for the unsullied Image, still submitted to broken humanity. Eager to do their part in the world’s ordering, many such elementals took the form of useful objects, artifacts endowed with elemental power and ready for human use. Some few elementals, however, drank too deeply of human darkness…and made it their own. Drunk on our failings, dark elementals wander as murdering fiends, or cruelly dominate those foolish and desperate enough to revere them as gods.

The Flesh-Lords

The weird, necromantic beings we name Flesh-Lords first appeared some seven centuries ago, around the time of the Old Empire’s collapse. Not even the wisest sages truly understand them, though astute scribes do guess at aspects of their origin. They came from a place beyond the world-wall of sky-bearing mountains. It was not their intent to reach our lands; hateful of all fleshly embodiment, they sought to cast themselves as pure conscious spirit among the lights beyond the firmament. Instead, they found themselves among us, still trapped in flesh.

Convinced that their attempts to escape embodiment should have succeeded, these beings assumed that the fault lay not in their goal but in their methods. They tried again and again, casting their collective minds into ever-newer forms. At last they concluded that spirit must be adequately prepared to separate from flesh, and that flesh must be suitably modified to aid that process. Ever since, they have become crafters of flesh, dabbling in the arts of transmutation and necromancy, experimenting wantonly on themselves and upon all whom they enslave.

Whether they were ever individuals, or always shared collective hive-minds, is unclear. They are at least three beings. Thinking as a single mind, an entire army of embalmed humanoid frogs now rules most of the Land of the Lotus. The Amber Route in the far west is menaced by undead fish-men, and the Catacomb Lords in the mountains north of Gharit share both leather-winged lizard forms and a single consciousness. With each new defiling mutation, those who set out to escape the gift of embodiment become only more what we call them: Flesh-Lords.  Their inhuman tyranny is a stench in the land.

The Blockade

A century ago, the elemental energies of the Inner Sea assembled in council. The Old Empire that had ordered both human society and elemental cooperation was long gone, but the sea’s surface still crawled with human ships: vessels full of slaves, of pirates, of merchants’ wares sold using false weights, of darts and blades that ate lives in the name of one kingdom after another. Men on ships offered worship to the sea, pushing it away in disgust, while others bent to serve dark elementals or even the necromantic Flesh-Lords.

At last, the sea could take no more.  The sea-spirit council pronounced Blockade against human shipping, threatening to sink any human vessel. They suffered only one exception. All across the Inner Sea, around the edges of human empires, the sea had observed small flotillas of boat-people, desperate refugees pushed out by war or oppression and left without even a patch of land to call their own. These floating bands the sea-spirits marked, placing the sign of the wave on their bodies. To the Wave-Marked and their descendants the sea granted passage-right; any ship with one Wave-Marked human aboard would remain safe. Any other ship, to this day, is attacked and destroyed within an hour of its setting sail. Thus human shipping was quieted, but not stilled.

The Blockade and the unexpected prominence of the Wave-Marked have transformed the politics of the Inner Sea. This is now an age of crisis and of falling thrones, but also an age of new dreams for those once oppressed.


The Nations

The default assumption is that Player Characters belong to one of the Wave-Marked bands, but their adventures may take them to many exotic lands.

The Death-Land of the Frog and the Free Nomes

Animated by a single hive-mind, an undead frogman army has gained control of most of the Lotus-Realm, an ancient land of fertile fields under brooding, bejeweled tower-tombs. To fuel its arcane Flesh-Lord engines, the Frog sucks even the sun’s warmth away, leaving much of the Death-Land sunk in a perpetual night lit only by stars. Beyond the Frog’s rule, a few human Nomarchs still refuse to bow the knee. Can the Free Nomes unite to hold back the undead Flesh-Lords, or will their own squabbles and ambitions prove their ruin?

The Five Houses of Hadd

Using chariot technology borrowed from the steppes, the House of Hadd once brought stability to much of the East. Since the Blockade, however, pressure from beastmen, Flesh-Lords, and Wave-Marked raiders has broken the region’s unity. Now, five successor ‘rump states’ – each claiming to represent the legitimate House of Hadd – alternate between bitter warfare and mutual defense through ever-shifting alliances. A few generations ago, the Frog almost crushed the Five Houses; only a fortuitous raid on the Death-Realm’s tombs by a large Wave-Marked band forced the undead legion to withdraw. The Houses of Hadd were spared, but another hammer-blow could come at any time.

The Port of Gharit

Through this city’s gates and across its docks flow all the riches of the world’s far corners. Since the Blockade, Gharit has remained one of the few wealthy ports safe from sacking by Wave-Marked bands – mainly because Gharit’s ruling elite recognized the new reality very quickly after the Blockade. For several generations, Gharit has invited prominent Wave-Marked princes and warlords to protect, and profit from, the city’s access to trade. Sooner or later, most Wave-Marked mariners will pass through Gharit. Some of these will ask why other men, and not they, profit more from the city’s trade – and whether such a glittering port really should remain protected…

The Catacomb-Lords / The Endless Steppe

High in the peaks north of Gharit, Flesh-Lords devising new forms plunder both the bones of ancient princes and the fossilized remains of archaic beasts. For all the terror their bone-and-leather wings inspire, these lizard-fiends are no closer to their escape into the stars above. Even further north, the mountains fall into seas of rolling grassland, where barrow-building chieftains master the arts of chariot warfare and trade prize horses for bronze and other goods from the south.

The Courtly Wilds

A southern and a northern peninsula protrude into the Inner Sea’s center, narrowing the sea to a strait. Those peninsulas once held the greatest court-cities of the Old Empire. Perversely, when that Empire collapsed, these lands also fell hardest into chaos and madness. As more and more of the Empire’s subjects gave themselves over to darkness, men fell into beastlike ways, slaughtering and even devouring one another. Today, burned, artifact-rich ruins of the old courts are haunted by deadly bands of centaurs and beastmen – whose forebears, some sages claim, were once human.

The Labyrinthine League

When the Old Empire fell centuries ago, some of its nobles escaped to the islands of the Thalassocracy. Their sorcerer-wanax kings long dominated the Inner Sea – until the Blockade reduced these princes to fuming, scheming prisoners in their own island palaces. But some powerful sorcerer-kings have maintained the ancient network of labyrinth-stations by which the skilled can travel from location to location. Linked by the maze-network and hungry for vengeance on usurping Wave-Marked, the sorcerers of the Labyrinthine League work in many lands to disrupt the new order and reclaim their lost power.

Sha-Utar and the Sage Mothers

Not all the Old Empire’s refugees fled to the islands, and not all dabbled in sorcerous arts. North of the Inner Sea, some escaped into the remote mountains of Sha-Utar, and found welcome there in that land’s quiet, matrilineal villages. Sha-Utar is a peaceful land where men tend sheep, work metal, hunt, and protect the borders, while women learn to farm terraces by hoe or teach the deep lore of stargazers. Using ancient stone observatories, it is the Sage Mothers of Sha-Utar who calculate, season by season, the forecasted celestial movements that will drive the waxing and waning strength of the Flesh-Lord armies. Only able to calculate these fluctuations precisely with a few years’ warning, the Sage Mothers routinely send emissaries to the lowlands, advising any queens or kings of goodwill as to times when the Flesh-Lords will be most dangerous and aggressive, or most vulnerable to human counter-attack.

The New Empire of Mednash

Somewhat isolated in the Inner Sea’s southwestern corner, Mednash is a land of broad rivers that flow down from copper- and ivory-rich mountains. Though Mednash teems with peasant hordes cultivating the river-plains, an oligarchic cabal of four great merchant families rules the country, passing the kingship from family to family in a jealously guarded rotation. Their claimed title – the ‘New Empire’ – is partly premature impertinence, but Mednash is expanding, contracting with Wave-Marked allies to project their wealth and influence abroad. The Mednashu maintain a colony across the sea to the north, from which they have attempted for several generations to gain control of the Amber Route.

The Amber Route


This region in the far west is dotted with old barrows and treasure-mounds, not all of which may be safe to plunderIf these lands were only full of probably-cursed treasures, barbarian tribes, and feuding princelings, no one would pay these lands the slightest notice. But through these lands runs the Amber Route, so they are important indeed. For centuries, luxury goods shipped from even beyond Gharit have passed north on the Amber Route for exchange with tin and amber, both essential for the survival of the civilized thrones back east. Mixed with copper, tin allows smiths to create the bronze weapons needed for royal wars. And sun-gold amber (like sky-blue lapis from the east) is also militarily significant; sympathetically bearing the warmth of the sun, amber inlays on a bronze blade allow that weapon to cut into the forms taken by elemental spirits. Where dark elementals prey upon humanity, a brave hand grasping an amber-and-lapis skyblade is an essential help. The Amber Route is therefore a region of key interest to the great rulers, and the barbarian princes along the route often receive "merchants" who are in fact agents of the various thrones scheming for control of the amber trade. 


Thanks for reading. I have LOTS more to say, but let me know whether it sounds worth saying. :-) 
- 'Gundobad' 

11 comments:

  1. Wow, talk about loads of scope! I love that, while some parts of it are identifiable as early Mediterranean culture, the whole still comes across as a unique world rather than just a tweaking of the real world or the standard fantasy world.

    I've toyed with the idea of building a bronze/iron age campaign before (though probably using British and Irish myth and culture) but the thing that always put me off was having to curate the list of weapons, armour and other adventuring equipment so that it was at least vaguely era-appropriate while not estranging the players. Is that something you've looked into for this project yet?

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    1. Thank you, I really appreciate the feedback.
      Regarding equipment...a lot of that, to be honest, can be handled just with abstraction - I mean, to a certain extent it all depends on whether one really wants to distinguish between "swords" and khopesh-blades, etc. ... :-) (But if one does want to, a nice place to get acquainted with period weaponry is here: https://ospreypublishing.com/bronze-age-greek-warrior-1600-1100-bc-pb
      Beyond weaponry, are you thinking of other equipment/adventuring supplies? Many were already around in Mediterranean Bronze Age societies - I mean, poles, nets, ropes, spikes (just not iron), etc. were there. What kind of constraints do you have in mind?

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    2. To be honest I was mainly thinking of armour. You're right, from a game mechanics point of view a short sword is a khopesh is a short sword. But the old D&D staple of full-plate armour- would old bronze armour count? Is bronze noticeably softer than iron such that it'd require a lower AC? What about the laminate-linen breastplates that Alexander the Great's army wore (probably still too modern, come to think of it)?

      That said, that book recommendation would probably solve all those questions, thanks for that!

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    3. I'm in no way an expert on metallurgy, but here are some thoughts:
      + my sense (and again my actual personal expertise covers much later, Roman periods) is that bronze armor could be very effective. One of the big problems with iron vs bronze is not that bronze is a crummy metal, but rather access; iron is all over the place, but it took a long time for metallurgy to develop the skills to smelt iron successfully. Bronze, however, requires an alloy of two metals from far away, so it is both harder to procure and therefore easier to restrict. Note that once the Iron Age began, bronze did not vanish; lots of classical Greek armor was still made out of bronze even when the weapons were iron (I'll comment on the linen breastplates below).
      + that being said, Mycenaean warfare included quite bulky Bronze Age versions of something that we could best call 'ancient full plate' (it's not full plate, but for the period it's a pretty good analogy).
      + moreover, any failings of bronze as a metal for armor would be offset by the fact that the weapons attacking said armor also were made of bronze. So in game terms, the whole thing scales pretty well, IMO. I like running Into the Odd, anyway, which has a nice armor system that isn't very fine-grained, so the minute differences would altogether vanish.
      + the linothorax - the laminate-linen breastplate that you mentioned - is interesting. A few years ago some archaeologists released an experimental study of that kind of armor. They found (among other cool things) that it is easy to make, very lightweight, and VERY effective - they shot arrows at their home-made armor and even had one of the archaeologists wear the armor while being shot at (uh, don't try this at home, kids...). If I remember correctly, they concluded that the linothorax was an excellent and almost 'democratic' piece of equipment (I'm using that term in a loose and quite anachronistic sense) and that when people wore the heavier, hotter, more expensive bronze breastplates, it may have been to signal their importance and wealth rather than for primarily defensive reasons.

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  2. Nice project!

    So, I guess you have to ask yourself a few things: Who are you writing this for? DMs? Players? Both? The answer to that would obviously really change what your approach is.

    There are many potential approaches, but this is what me, a random internet guy, would like to see, as a DM: more books like Yoon-Suin, Stars Without Number, or Veins of the Earth, (possibly the Gardens of Ynn?) that don't dictate to me the specifics of the world in any really binding way, but rather that give me a general flavor and then a whole lot of tools to quickly generate ideas.

    What I don't need: more variations on the Mystara Gazetteer model from back in the day, which lists out a huge number of specifics. Or, even less helpful, the Half-Baked Novel, basically people's scrap world-building notes. There are tons of settings books like that.

    Or as another example of too-much-info, see the History of Space on p121 of Stars Without Number. I basically ignore that kind of thing, the timelines an specific events and stuff. Fortunately that section is short, cause on page 129 you get the good stuff, Sector Creation, quick ways to generate lots of locations with adventure hooks baked in.

    Read Yoon-Suin. The things that are great about that setting is that very little is spelled out. Like really only a few things: There are slugmen, who are rich, and there are crab men, who are slaves, and maybe a few other things, mostly ignorable or not, to DM taste. Almost everything is cooked into the tables, meaning that the world generated is unique though still recognizably in the Yoon-Suin setting. Persons, Places, and Things--tables of all that, and boom, the lore basically writes itself. Ain't nobody got time for lore. (Well, I don't anyway, I have friends who eat that stuff up.) You already have a lot of lore up in your post--it's good lore, for sure, but in the end, I think for me anyway, it's not *my* lore--part of the draw of DMing for me is that I'm ultimately the lore arbiter. (Though I let my players have a wide rein there too, especially on good Int rolls.)

    I guess, in short, my hope would be: start with the tables. Tables, tables, tables. Leave the lore stuff to the very last and very least, if you even need it at all. My not-so-humble two cents. I look forward to seeing what you cook up!

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    1. Hey, thanks very much for the substantive feedback, which I really appreciate. I am studying Yoon-Suin, along with Red Tide (a fantasy version of Stars without Number, essentially, by the same author) as well as SWN and the Midlands Low-Magic Fantasy Sandbox setting as some possible role models. I will cheerfully note that even Yoon-Suin indulges in a 17-page fictional lore-dump, :-), but I take your point overall.

      I think that I gravitate toward something kind of in the middle. To my taste, Yoon-Suin pushes toward random tables a bit more than I'd prefer. That being said, I completely understand why GM-binding lore-dumps all over the place are bad news at many tables. The lore that I put on my blog comes in at about 2.5 pages in document form, and there's not too much at all more that I want to add in terms of overall setting lore.

      I've articulated the following project goals for myself:
      + provide one or two 'micro-gazetteers' (if you will) that each focus on a region within the broad world I've described (probably starting with the Amber Route, modeled on Urnfield/European Bronze Age societies plus a kind of Mesopotamian-meets Carthaginian colonizing power);
      + make something that a busy GM could use to run a short campaign of 4-8 sessions with minimal prep, through some pre-made adventure content and location design, but...
      + make the same product flexible enough to support a sandbox approach for GMs who want to run that way, and leave big gaps that GMs can use to fill in their own preferred modules or own content;
      + finally, I've realized that I'm not really motivated to create a 'clone' mimicking real-world Bronze Age societies (there are already some decent things that do that out there); rather, I'd really like to present a setting that evokes those societies but instead unpacks some of the historical social dynamics I discuss on my blog, albeit in a fresh, fantastical setting. This means that I don't need to duplicate the cults of Canaan, per se (which frees me from too much lore on the one hand) but I do want to have the depth to explore some interesting social relations - which does require me to have a certain level of fixed content, otherwise it just falls apart.

      Anyway, I am taking your feedback seriously and I appreciate your input. Cheers!

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    2. Nice, like I said, really looking forward to this project. Have you had the chance to DM with any of the books you listed? (If so, I am jealous, I've only ever gotten to work with Yoon-Suin. SWN is still a far off dream.)

      So, thinking about lore--I think the thing I like about Yoon-Suin's lore is that it's not binding, it's not specific. It's just flavor (lots of flavor) but no hard quotes on T'oth the Blood Toothed, who in the year 1389 after the War of the Space Hag, made a pact with Yggoth the Cold, etc etc etc.

      I think the thing about tables that I like is that it helps me as a DM answer the questions What Now? and What Next? I don't know what kinda things happen in a Fantasy Bronze Age market. I don't know what kinda mythical asskicking might pop up in a Fantasy Bronze Age scrub desert. The tables help me quickly develop the scenario.

      Anyway, I'm tuned in and ready for the next Gundobad broadcast!

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  3. Yes, this does sound like a setting I'd like to run, because I like thoroughly built, quasi-historical worlds and think the Bronze Age is underrepresented in the RPG market. In particular, I find what you intend to do with religion and the Flesh Lords interesting.

    I would expect that your historical expertise will shine through in the details of the setting - for example, what do settlements look like, what kind of equipment is available, and at what price.

    As others have said, I would suggest you try to express your setting in the form of tables, templates, and processes for the GM to generate their own (sandbox-y) game. The less prose, the better.

    My personal tastes run more toward the historical than the fantastical, but many in the OSR skew toward high fantasy and weirdness, as with Yoon Suin. Maybe you could somehow tier or key-word monsters, spells, and magic items to make it easier for the GM to dial fantastical elements up or down?

    Given the fragmented nature of the RPG market, I think it is best if the product is system neutral or easily adapted, and no less useful piecemeal than as a whole.

    But, yeah: Godspeed!

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  4. Just two more suggestions:

    If you are tweaking things like classes, races, etc, a good way to introduce both the mechanics and the setting specifics is to do a sort of life-path system, where you make character building and level-up choices step by step. Shadow of the Demon Lord does this well, I think.

    Also, you will need good, evocative b/w art because ancient civilizations are harder to imagine than the usual quasi medieval fare. Denis Loubet might be a good inspiration, especially his work on the Ultima 4 / Ultima 5 booklets.

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    1. Thanks very much for those detailed comments and ideas. What I envision sits closest, perhaps, to 'normal' sword and sorcery settings, just with added depth on a number of social dynamics. In keeping with that parallel, I have in mind a human-PCs, low magic, no special snowflake classes added in, kind of affair. Because I run Into the Odd, I already lean toward using equipment items for the magic system (Arcana, or Cyphers in Numenera), but in my case those equipment pieces would be living elementals that have taken useful forms for human benefit (or harm).

      I'm curious what you'd think about a strategy I'm considering to cut prose and bulk but still make this thing playable. Most fantasy GMs have heads chock full of archetypes (ok, let's be real and call them stereotypes :-). Why not use those beneficially? I mean, if I wanted to describe a Bronze Age warrior chiefdom along the Amber Route, I *could* write a 400-page guide to culture and customs that I don't have time to write. Or I could say "imagine Celts, except they're not actually Celts yet" or "imagine Cimmerians or some other sword and sorcery barbarian tribe" - and then lean hard into showing "except here are 5 or 6 ways that THIS group is really different from what you have in mind, and how Bronze Age chiefdoms differed from Iron Age ones." Use tables or prose or whatever to highlight how this group specifically differs from the stereotype, and then just let each table's preferred stereotype fill in the rest of the details (does this tribe drink mead from its enemies' skulls? Do they wear golden torcs and arm-rings? Are they ritually tattooed? Is their hair dark and their moods mirthful and melancholy? I don't know and I don't have to care, if you want your version of them to do so then go for it). Essentially, trying to focus most on the places where I can add real conceptual density, and then just painting by numbers on everything else so that GMs can go with their gut on other things. Does that make sense?

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    2. That to me seems like a worthwhile approach!

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