Sunday, October 27, 2019

Looking for Feedback: Anybody Made a Setting Using My 'Settings with Strata' Method?

Hi folks!

A while ago, I introduced my 'Settings with Strata' approach for quickly designing a campaign sandbox (or sandbox-able) setting with historical depth and coherence. Since then, I've returned periodically to a series on how to flesh out the more complex background concepts one might bring to that straightforward approach. I have a number of ideas about ways to flesh this series out even more, including possibly releasing an inexpensive published tool laying out the method and offering various supports to make it even more effective.

But first, I would really love to get some more specific feedback on others' experiences actually using my method. It works really well for me, but that's no guarantee of how it fares for other designers. And I've had lots of positive feedback about the series (thanks!) but it's one thing to file away a cool technique, another to put it into use! (no worries of course - we've all got cool blog tips coming out our ears).

So - if any of you has direct experience putting my method into practice - if you've actually tried making a setting within an afternoon using my approach - could you please offer some quick feedback in the comments? Any success stories? Anything that turned out to be more challenging or vague than you'd hoped? Were you comfortable supplying rich concepts to get the process rolling? (As a professional historian, it's pretty easy for me to find good historical concepts to inspire something in a setting, so this is one of the things I think about as I ponder tools to add to the series).

Thanks! And of course, if anyone's just bored right now, you could always grab an hour and just create a brand-new setting right now! :-) 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Executors of the Royal Will, or ‘Hi, We’ve Inherited Your Kingdom’: Another Alternative Framework for Adventure or Domain Play

Followers of this blog know I like developing historically-inspired alternative frameworks for why PCs are out adventuring - perhaps as semi-free agents of collapsing royal powers or as leaders of a desperate ‘barbarian’ refugee exodus. Nor are those suggestions alone; Dreams & Fevers, for example, has recently done neat work inspired by (among other posts) the medieval diplomatic/exploratory travels of Ibn Fadhlan. Today’s post adds another idea to the pile - this time based on a curious set of events from the second century BCE, in which a dying king literally gave away his kingdom to the Romans in his will. What happened next, I suggest here, could inspire all kinds of great RPG shenanigans. 

There’s nothing new, of course, about using inheritance through a will to spark adventure.  As one recent example, Gavin Norman’s adventure Winter’s Daughter (aff) suggests an alternative adventure hook in which a PC inherits an estate with an ancient burial mound on the property. So I’m not looking to establish some big original insight here, but to enrich existing possibilities with a few fun ideas and a dynamic real-world illustration that could inspire some new paths to domain-level play.


To begin with, the Roman way of handling individual inheritance - if woven into a campaign culture - could be more flexibly game-able than the traditional “turns out you had a noble uncle…” I mean, at some point, footloose PCs ought to run out of suitably endowed but conveniently deceased relatives. In Roman society, however, inheritance normally passed within family units, but could - and often did - involve adoption of a more distant relative, or even a non-relative. Making things still more useful, it was perfectly legit for an adult male to adopt another already-adult male (in a different context, of course, men don’t need to do all the inheritance-managing…) - and to do so posthumously, through a last will. This could also be a surprise announcement; after the assassination of Julius Caesar, the dictator’s will was read out in public, including the surprise announcement that J.C.’s young nephew, Octavian, was designated as Caesar’s heir and adopted son. This out-of-the-blue move suddenly handed the young Octavian influence over Caesar’s loyal troops, and set that teenager on the path that would make him Rome’s first emperor. Talk about advancing from level 1 to domain-level play! 

For a campaign society this custom offers an established way for NPCs to hand over their hook-laden properties over the course of a campaign, but lets the ties with endowed NPCs develop organically. Instead of discovering that your 5th-level Rogue has a noble uncle, this allows a way for the rich noble you’ve been rescuing and buttering up for the past three levels to suddenly name you in his/her will as their (posthumously) beloved child. And why might they do such a thing? Several ideas. First, because they have no surviving heir. Second (more on this below), because they do have other options, but something is wrong or undesirable with those other options. And third, as PCs become more powerful and influential in the setting over time, some NPCs might start currying PCs’ favor by suggesting before death that they are considering leaving something tasty in their will for the PC). [On the other hand, bully NPCs might start pressuring PCs to name them in their wills, too…heh heh].  

So, some options. Alternately, you could go big and just give away the entire kingdom. 


What happened in 133 BCE in the ancient kingdom of Pergamon (in what we would now call western Turkey) was on a whole other level to the family inheritances above. 

Pergamon (sometimes spelled Pergamum) was a Greek-speaking kingdom in western Asia Minor (today, western Turkey). Under its Attalid dynasty, it was powerful, rich, and regionally influential during a good part of the Hellenistic era - the period between Alexander the Great’s death and Rome’s conquests of the eastern Mediterranean, after Alexander’s generals had gone all Game of Thrones on each other, carving up his world into a feuding patchwork of culturally-mixed Greek and eastern kingdoms. 

By the 2nd century BCE, the Roman republic was a growing power in the East; Rome had broken most of Carthage’s strength in the West by ca. 200, had then turned to fight a series of wars against Macedon, and now became progressively more and more involved in the never-ending political struggles of Greek kingdom vs. kingdom. As time passed, Rome’s eventual domination looked more and more likely (especially after 146, when Romans sacked Carthage and Corinth in the same year); but powerful eastern rivals still held out for a long time, and even Rome’s allies clung to their autonomy for many decades. 

Throughout the 150s-130s, Pergamon faced local rivals around its borders, but also paid close attention to the desires of the Roman Senate, allowing Rome to shape most Pergamene foreign policy decisions. The Pergamene king Eumenes II Soter (“Saviour”) died in 158, leaving a young son (Attalus) too little to reign; power passed instead to Eumenes’ brother, Attalus II Philadelphos (“he who loves his brother”). Attalus II reigned until 138, at which point his death cleared the way for his nephew - little Attalus, now crowned (and confirmed by Rome) as king Attalus III Philometer (“he who loves his mother”). 

Little Attalus was all grown up, but was Pergamon ready for him? He was a king of a different sort, given to interest in natural science and physical experiments - more of an eccentricity in his day than this might sound to us. But our ancient sources blame him for deeper problems. Supposedly…

as soon as he came to the throne, [Attalus] began to manage affairs in a way quite different from all the former kings; for they by their clemency and kindness to their subjects, reigned prosperously and happily themselves, and were a blessing to the kingdom; but this prince being of a cruel and bloody disposition, oppressed his subjects with many slaughters, and grievous calamities. Since he suspected that the most powerful of his father's friends were plotting against him, he resolved to rid himself of them. To that end he picked out some of the most brutal and rapacious ruffians from among his barbarian mercenary soldiers, and hid them in certain chambers in the palace; then he sent for those of his friends and kindred whom he most suspected, and when they appeared, he had all their throats cut by these bloody executioners of his cruelty, and he promptly ordered their wives and children to be put to death in the same manner.

The rest of his father's friends that either had command in his army, or were governors of cities, he either caused to be treacherously assassinated; or seizing them, murdered them and their families together. Therefore he was hated not only by his subjects, but by all the neighbouring nations; and all within his dominions endeavoured as much as they could to bring about a revolution and change of government.
Not a record to inspire confidence (though it is possible, as historian Christian Habicht suggests, that this negative tradition “may have been invented in order to make the [subsequent] Roman takeover look desirable.” We can’t be quite sure. We do know what finally resolved any (allegedly) bitter tensions between Attalus and his own people. He wrote a will, in which he gave away his entire kingdom (save the free autonomy of the city of Pergamon itself) as a gift to the Roman people. And then, in 133, he died. 

Mic drop. 

Rome was, ahem, willing to receive the gift. Back in Rome, a young noble politician named Tiberius Gracchus moved that the Pergamene royal treasury be redirected immediately for the financial aid of Rome’s struggling poorer classes (Gracchus would soon be murdered himself as Roman political tensions started getting out of hand). Five legates were sent by the Senate to inspect Pergamon and begin the administrative transfer. Not all Pergamenes (surprise!!!!) were enthusiastic about these events. 

A rebellion flared up, led by Aristonikos - a man who claimed to be an illegitimate son of old Eumenes II, Attalus’ long-dead (and much more popular) father. Whether true or not, his claim swayed many in the kingdom’s rural districts. Aristonikos assembled an army, its ranks swelled by an appeal to slaves, and this motley force managed to crush the first Roman army sent to destroy it. But the Romans kept coming, and Aristonikos was defeated in 130; by the mid 120s, Rome had pacified the kingdom, handed some poorer eastern districts off to new client kings, and incorporated the rich tasty bits into a new Roman province, “Asia.” The Attalid kingdom of Pergamon was no more. 


You can see this as the basis for a pretty gnarly RPG campaign, right? Actually, I can see the premise behind multiple types of campaigns. 

You like your grimdark? Fine, don’t change anything. You’ve got a fantasy kingdom; the last king was a monster; his cruel caprice and posthumous benefaction has handed his fractured realm over to an outside power; your PCs are agents of that outside power. You can go full Glen Cook Black Company with this if you want. 

My own tastes run closer to the gritty-but-still-heroic. Here’s the kind of campaign this story makes me want to run: you’ve got a fantasy sandbox kingdom. The place is torn by factions and threatened by some serious, subversive, hidden evil. The last ruler of Dynasty X (or what have you) knows that if he/she lets succession run its normal course, then The Bad Guys Are Going to Take Over the Realm. And this must not come to pass. So, regretfully, the last monarch signs a will handing their kingdom over to the care of a neighboring power, which seems to be led by a decent chap.  And with the will comes a warning about how the kingdom is not just a loot-rich toy box, it has a dark evil needing cleansed, yada yada yada.

Enter the PCs. They’re agents of the outside power. They’re like the legates sent in to check out the kingdom and prep it for transfer. So from session 1 they are dealing with a kind of domain-level play; it’s not theirs, per se, but they have some measure of authority to start directing its affairs. 

Only…it’s a mess. 

Part of the populace is frankly relieved that the outsiders are there. These folks will be a pool of support on which the PCs can draw for aid. But many others want nothing to do with The Bad Guys Who Threaten the Peace, but they also aren’t happy about these upstart foreigners showing up to usurp the place. This means the PCs' actions are going to push this demographic one way or another. Show strength, show compassion, solve this groups’ problems in a healthy way, and you can sway them over to the side of the new Law & Order in town. Act like jerks, or just get defeated too many times, and these masses will swell the ranks of whatever rebel or ambitious noble stands up against the new regime.

And oh, there will be rebels. Because behind everything, there actually is a Big Bad sowing seeds of destruction. Maybe it’s an evil cult. Maybe it’s a band of aristocratic lycanthropes. Maybe it’s just the jerkiest of noble alliances. But something not immediately visible really is planning to overthrow the kingdom themselves. Unless the PCs stop them.

And finally, there will be pressure from back home. Not everyone back home cares about the sinister problems the PCs are uncovering. They care about tax proceeds, or whatever other agenda moved them to accept the royal bequest in the first place. So PCs will have to negotiate demands from back home, weighing how far they can push the locals to keep their own masters happy - and vice versa. 

In this kind of setting, you can start out with a variety of low-intensity missions (bandits are seizing taxes! go stop them!) and wander through other types of jobs: the people in that town might support our cause - if we broke the ancient curse that flows from the necropolis beneath their walls! … We don’t know which of the kingdom’s five lords is a werewolf - can you find out? Etc., etc. And you can build up to a final confrontation with the BBEG. And (as I like to impose) you can have a meaningful campaign ‘victory’ or ‘failure’ condition - either the realm will get stabilized (preferably under your patron’s rule, but let us know if you come up with a better idea, PCs…) or it won’t. 

What do you think? Does throwing PCs into the fantasy equivalent of Pergamon, 133 BCE sound like a good premise for engaging play? 

Happy gaming - ‘Gundobad’ 

PS - this post contains an affiliate link (aff) to DriveThruRPG. Using such affiliate links helps support Gundobad Games. Thanks!