I've also blogged here about a 'Settings with Strata' project on game-able sandbox settings that don't take forever to design, but do have deep and coherent backstories (see here and here). In my most recent post on this topic, I suggested charting one faction's changing fortunes from age to age. I wrote:
Most simply, one could think of the transition between each period as either RISING/GROWING POWER/STABILITY, STASIS OR STAGNANT POWER/STABILITY, and DECLINE OR COLLAPSE IN POWER/STABILITY. Heck, you can even make that a die roll if you want to discover the history as you make it. If this seems useful then what I may do is for each of those three kinds of trajectories - up, sideways, down - present random-generation tables with commentary discussing real-world types of such processes, not as straightjackets, but as loose guides to the kinds of effects each type might have, and other dynamics that might go along with it...Today, I'm going to tackle 'downward' movement - often defined, whether rightly or wrongly, as decline or even collapse - since it's so dear to the OSR and RPG world, and because I find it so interesting. But I'm going to be a little bit ornery first, opening with some caveats. If you stick with me, I'll hand you a tool below that will hopefully be useful for design - but please be clear that it also oversimplifies how these things seem to work in real life.
SHOULD WE DECLINE DECLINE? SHOULD WE BREAK DOWN COLLAPSE?
What does it mean for a society, let alone a civilization, to be 'in decline'? 'Decline' is a tricky and controversial concept. First, what exactly are we measuring, and how do we measure it? Second, to what extent do our answers depend on subjective philosophical or aesthetic judgments? And what other factors - maybe quite positive factors - might co-exist with alleged signs of 'decline'?
Today, most historians recognize that claims that a certain society 'was in decline' often rest on assumptions in hindsight rather than an objective measure of stability. I mean, if the Roman empire fell, then it obviously declined first, right? Not necessarily. Assuming that decline precedes collapse = assuming that collapse can't happen suddenly, unexpectedly (different scholars would argue both sides, but the point is worth raising). Moreover, conversations about 'decline' often veer into territory that is quite subjective. It was once customary for historians to talk about 'vulgar, barbarized' late Latin, as if the fact that the Latin of the later Roman period didn't measure up to the grammatical standards of the early Empire was a clear sign of cultural and literary decay. Now, think about this: if you're a native speaker of English, do you routinely speak like Shakespeare or the King James Bible? No, you don't? Ok, is that an obvious sign of the cultural decay of our civilization? Well, no, actually, it's just a sign of the normal development of a spoken language over time. Historians now recognize that organic changes in the Latin language should not be used as evidence that Roman culture was 'in decline.' To be clear, none of this means that aesthetic judgments are impossible or automatically off the table, but those making them need to be clear on their subjective nature even as they make them.
Nor should we assume that one kind of decline will always parallel other signs of weakness. Traditionally, Greece's cultural golden age is seen as the period before Alexander (late 300s BCE). After the Hellenistic period, which had its own glories, Rome conquered the Greek east piecemeal in the final two centuries BCE. One might expect that Greek culture would now be a goner, since Greek political autonomy at any high level was functionally stamped out by Roman rule. But nope; Rome, the great military power, was so taken with Greek culture that Roman aristocrats fell all over themselves to assimilate Greek culture into their own. One Roman poet went so far as to note that captive Greece was now taking captive her own fierce captor (Rome)! Thus, a period of total Greek political eclipsing was also a period in which Greek culture remained prominent and influential. In fact, Greek culture remained well-rooted enough that when the Roman west fell apart centuries later, it was Greek-speaking 'Byzantines' (as we call them) who carried on the torch of 'Roman' traditions. My point: don't think that 'decline' lets us make blanket statements about what societies experience in periods of weakness.
Instead of thinking about 'cultural decline' we are on firmer ground if we focus on something easier to measure, like a society's overall political, social, or economic complexity. That is the kind of thing one can actually track a bit more confidently. Compare a traditional Inuit hunter-gatherer band to the array of groups you'd find at noon in Manhattan. Any judgments about comparative 'cultural value' would be subjective, but no one should doubt that Manhattan possesses much more complex economic and social networks. We know today that between about 300 and 650, economic networks and political institutions lost reach and complexity everywhere across the former Roman world (whatever we also think about the massive cultural changes that occurred across that period). That gives us firmer ground than changes in art or language for debating the possibility of decline - or even collapse.
But collapse is generally less extreme and total than portrayed in popular media. Against popular conceptions of fallen civilzations with no legacy beyond wind-swept empty ruins, contrast the fact that despite Rome's 'collapse,' late Roman law, late Roman language, and late Roman religion have remained culturally influential ever since. If many Classic Maya cities fell into ruin around the 9th century CE, it is also true that the Maya remain today, living in the same region. It turns out that some form of continuity almost always (ok, maybe ALWAYS) has followed collapse, to an extent that some scholars want to do away with the whole idea of collapse. That goes too far, in my opinion - we can still track and try to explain those massive reductions in socio-economic-political complexity - but if you have a 'collapsed' society, that may just mean that a loss in overall population and an abandonment of certain settlements (or types of settlements and political systems) has severely changed that groups' way of life.
Collapse rarely has one, easy causal explanation. Why did so many Classic Maya cities (apparently) 'collapse'? Well, there's a strong case that climate change played a key role, but also that climate change alone wasn't adequate; change also seems to have involved the failure of old political ideologies, possibly exacerbated by climate change, but also a whole bunch of other factors, including the specifics of trade route locations, ground-water depth variance, etc., etc., etc. Whatever causes collapse, it is generally complex.
Collapse has winners as well as losers, whether outsiders or just the downtrodden and less privileged under the previous system. The fall of your empire is probably a big step up in the rise of somebody else's, and the collapse of your institutional system probably liberates a bunch of people on whose backs you built. Yet despite all of the above, collapse is real and sobering. It generally involves net increases in suffering, and can lead to degraded material quality of life, withered social and cultural networks, loss in local technological ability, increased political instability, and population loss. So it's hardly a thing to celebrate - though, again, if you're scraping by in a Roman salt mine, a little 'increased political instability' might be the best news in a long time. (My early post on the Late Bronze Age collapse highlights the tension between these top-down and bottom-up perspectives).
Having done some due diligence for those caveats, let's turn to...
D8 REASONS YOUR EMPIRE (or whatever) MAY HAVE DECLINED/COLLAPSED
It is perfectly viable to throw together a bunch of dungeons and ruins and NOT tell your players (or even yourself) why that old kingdom fell apart. That mystery can be part of the fun and is, after all, realistic in terms of adventurers encountering unknown ruins. But sometimes you want a better understanding of how things got there - or maybe you're using this to supplement my Settings with Strata quick-design method for settings!
Here are 1d8 broad problems that may have threatened a society in your campaign world. Again, 1d8; but if you want a more plausible and interesting crisis, then I suggest you roll twice, embracing how complex collapse tends to be. Create a toxic mess that combines not one but two or more major threats to your imagined society - like a plague that decimates your population but also unravels the trade networks on which your political order depends.
This list is not meant as comprehensive, but it gives you lots to play with.
- Political change, external (conquest, forced regime change)!
- Political failure, internal (especially failed political ideology)!
- Economic woes, internal!
- Economic woes, external!
- Plague/disease pandemic!
- Pressure from gradual environmental change!
- Environmental catastrophe!
Now let's walk through these in more detail, thinking both about real examples and also applications for fantasy worlds.
1. Political change, external...So, the Mongol hordes, or the Roman legions, or the armies of Sauron, or whoever, show up and politely inform you that:
This is pretty low-hanging fruit, a classic way to get rid of one faction and replace them with another in your campaign history. Keep in mind, however, that political-military conquest rarely stamps out any culture and usually involves significant continuities with what came before. When Alexander the Great snuffed out the Achaemenid Persians, that actually amounted to a coup at the top, in which Alexander forcibly replaced Persian leaders with Macedonian ones but held on to many existing Persian systems of rule. When Rome conquered Gaul, many elite Gauls died, but their descendants soon learned to marry Gallic and Roman identities, and got busy being fairly loyal Gallo-Romans. When Normans conquered Anglo-Saxon England, the end result was a language with a lot of French influence that we still call...English. When Mongols brutally conquered half of Eurasia, they tended either to stand off and delegate a lot of messy governance to locals (as in Russia) or they themselves got more or less assimilated to local culture (less in China, more in the Middle East).
2. Genocide! Uh, ok, but what if the newcomers kill everyone? Yeah, genocide is hideously ugly and also all too real. That being said, it is worth noting that genocide, although tragic, is also rarely if ever completely effective (thank goodness!). Massive depopulation has happened all too often across history, but the rule of thumb generally is some form of population continuity albeit with decreased numbers and/or cultural prominence. In a purely fantasy world, of course, one can imagine hideous sorcerous ways to snuff out entire peoples, so there might actually be more (terrible) room for empty, windswept ruins in a S&S world.
Worth noting; where some kind of depopulation and cultural apartheid has happened, the result may be that later generations think a genocide happened, when really the losers just interbred and culturally assimilated into a politically dominant group. In the early Middle Ages, some in France thought their Frankish ancestors had killed off all the Romans, when in fact the Gallo-Romans and Franks (and many others) mostly had merged culturally and biologically.
3. Political failure, internal...Sometimes a whole social-political system can collapse without outside help. Some scholarship on the Classic Maya collapse(s) suggests this was important in the 9th-century Yucatan. The particular nature of Mayan sacred kingship in that period typically emphasized rulers' role in guaranteeing divine provision of rain and fertility. When the helpful rains stopped coming, the kings' own propaganda worked against them, and there are archaeoogical signs of settlements that violently overthrew that kind of king and experimented with other forms of governance. In the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Mediterranean, as I've discussed before, the particular form of the dominant palatial system may have fallen apart under its own weight. Find the weak spots and the tension points in your setting's political systems, and you don't necessarily need a Sauron to spark a systemic collapse (though adding a Sauron in can't hurt, either...).
4. Economic woes, internal...unlikely to cause collapse on its own, but economies are never actually isolated from the rest of human experience. In pre-modern societies, overall wealth was closely tied to agricultural production, so environmental changes (see below) could ripple easily into economic problems. Being able to pay for food for the troops was a constant concern for the imperial Roman government. In addition to the food-supply problem, another problem involved the bullion supply of precious metals. In a society where money is tied to the actual (perceived) value of gold, silver, etc., the minting authority has limited ability to deal with fluctuations in metal supply, and limited ability to spread wealth around through devaluing the currency. In Roman history, some periods (most infamously the 3rd century CE) saw the official 'silver' coinage debased by replacing some of the silver with more and more lower-value metal, until the coins were almost black, and visibly worth hardly anything like the coin's nominal value. This bought a little breathing-room for government expenses, but they could only push people so far before they would refuse to accept such coin for payment. We have an increasingly good history of the money-supply of major European regimes during the medieval period, too; when the mines ran dry, states had little choice but to experiment with alternative sources for coin-bullion - or squeeze extant wealth-holders (the Church, nobles, etc.) to get more of their shiny stuff back into government hands. Such measures can exacerbate other tensions, helping erode the stability of an overall system.
5. Economic woes, external...all the same caveats apply here, but in this case the tension is lack of access to foreign goods that are important for a society or for its dominant system. The palatial system in the Late Bronze Age is a strong example - foreign luxury goods helped prop up rulers and foreign bronze components helped arm their troops. Loss of access to foreign goods - whether because a military defeat severed a trade route (see problem #1), or because a key river shifted its course (see problem #7), or because a foreign trading partner suffered its own collapse, could cause trouble to ripple internationally, with unpredictable consequences.
6. Plague/disease pandemic...Bring out your dead! Highly infectious disease has the potential to wreak massive, massive damage on a society. Or not; note that Y. pestis ravaged what was left of the Roman world in the 6th century, but a later form of the same disease (as 'the Black Death') killed off perhaps 1/3 or 1/2 of Europe's population in the 14th c. - but Europe bounced back and dominated the globe within a few centuries. So pandemics are not necessarily silver-bullet civilization killers. But they have potential to act with other factors to really tear things apart. Note that plagues will not be very serious unless they spread; and they will only spread widely if they touch a society that has fairly sophisticated transport networks linking dense concentrations of vulnerable human beings.
As with genocide, plague presents a uniquely dangerous threat in a fantastic world, where more-than-purely-epidemiological concerns might affect the spread of a disease/curse. The whole idea of 'a zombie plague' reflects this - imagine if those affected by a plague not only fall out of your society, but turn into enemies actively working against it...
7. Pressure from gradual environmental change...I think no book has shaped popular conceptions of collapse more than Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I also think that is unfortunate; Diamond's core idea, that 'ecocide' - self-destruction through environmental abuse - has been a key factor in historical collapses - turns out to be ... well, probably very wrong. (Diamond is so opposed by many professional archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians, that you can even buy a counter-book of papers from a whole academic conference organized just to rebut his theories!). This is not to say that environmental change is unimportant historically for collapse - quite the contrary, in fact - but 'ecocide' as framed by Diamond and earlier scholars actually seems to clash with the available evidence almost wherever we look in detail [the issue is further complicated by present urgent concerns about environmental change: climate change, species extinction, pollution, etc., etc. etc. But saying that ecocide doesn't seem to have shaped past history doesn't actually get us off the hook today, because humanity never before has had the capacity to shape the earth's biosphere on the same scale that we have today. The future remains an undiscovered country].
Ok, but it looks more and more like some kind of environmental trouble - even if naturally caused, rather than manmade - has played key roles in many societies' collapses. Palaeoclimate data for the late Roman period now help us better understand what happened to one of history's greatest empires. As mentioned earlier, Classic Maya collapse looks very, very complex, but drought seems to have played some kind of central role. As noted above, in pre-modern societies economics was usually tied closely to food production, so any serious degradation in agricultural output meant bad news for those feeding the troops.
Thus, gradual deleterious changes over time can mean really bad news for your campaign setting's current masters. This might take many forms: climate change affecting heat and rainfall; the slow movement of rivers across the landscape (this is more likely to affect a single settlement than an entire society's wellbeing), silting up of important harbors, ice sheets advancing or retreating, etc., etc. In a fantasy setting, too, where the forces of nature may have very conscious agents or spokes-things, this could get really interesting.
8. Environmental catastrophe...BOOM! 'Vesuvius erupts, everyone dies' may not be a fair GM statement, but it certainly makes a dramatic way to change your setting. Here, again, we're likely dealing with crises that affect a locality more than an entire civilization, though the destruction of some key nodes might have wider ripple effects. Shift to something like (the popular understanding of) Noah's Flood, and you're talking a real society-killer. In a fantasy setting, the sky really is the limit for what you can throw at your world. But note that in real life, we humans are peskily resilient; even supervolcanoes turn out to be a part of the human experience.
I hope this has helped inspire some ideas about ways to cause trouble or 'downward change' for your campaign setting backstories. If this helps - or not really - please be vocal and let me know in the comments, along with thoughts on what could make this stuff more directly useful.
Best wishes, happy gaming, and watch out for plagues that weaken armies so foreign conquerors can sweep in, or maybe bullion shortages that prevent paid maintenance of key harbors, leading to regime collapse, or...well, it's your turn now.