Monday, May 16, 2022

Early Merovingian Gaul/France: A Great Alternative Template for a 'Vanilla' Fantasy Sandbox Setting

It’s been too long since I dished up a post drawing on my other identity as a scholar! Ironically, for a professional historian, I’m not terribly worried about a little anachronism or historical inaccuracy in my elf-game settings (I save that for my day job). But GMs can only benefit from understanding the structural logic of whatever actual societies might have inspired a setting. The patterns that characterize a society generally exist for a reason; such reasons offer a GM leverage for organizing factions and plot hooks that make organic sense within the campaign world. A little historical awareness can be particularly helpful for livening up that old bugaboo, the ‘vanilla’ or generic fantasy world. Quite often, however, one encounters ‘medieval’ settings that actually evoke early modern or even modern social customs and sensibilities, just dressed up for the Renn Faire.

(For some favorite examples of my thoughts on harnessing real historical lessons for campaign worlds, consider posts on the logic of feudalism, late antique "barbarians," Late Bronze Age palatial society in the Near East, or collapse across history, and maybe check out my background generator for Bronze Age characters, which is on sale this month [affiliate link]). 

In addition to the common faux-feudal medievalish settings out there (or, of course, more 'ancient' settings following the tropes of Swords & Sorcery), there are a number of early medieval-themed settings (one thinks immediately of the ubiquitous Viking-'inspired' game resources out there, or of the more robust Anglo-Saxon-themed Wolves of God from Sine Nomine games [affiliate link] or Paolo Greco's Wulfwald). Early medieval societies offer particularly moody and evocative source material, but the very constraints and smaller scales of those societies may limit some classic dimensions of RPG campaigns. 


However, I don’t think I’ve seen campaigns inspired by the structures of early Merovingian Gaul/France - that is, what is now France (basically) between the end of Roman rule and the rise of the Carolingian dynasty (think Charlemagne). I came here today to say this: a campaign setting modeled at least structurally on the Merovingian realm of the sixth century would offer a really useful template for a fun ‘vanilla’ fantasy sandbox campaign, because REASONS:

I’ll Take My Collapse Medium-Rare, Thanks: 

It’s a Points of Light setting, but with dials to adjust the chaos to taste. We are very much talking about a post-Collapse setting atop the ruins of a mighty empire, with all the mayhem, disorder, and barriers to communication you might desire - but also a resilient society holding on to important elements of the past (with more governmental competence and ability than previous generations of scholarship tended to recognize). 

What?! A Danish warband attacking our sixth-century coast?
And it's mentioned later in Beowulf? But they're shown here in 15th-century gear?
Nah, bruh, the blogger said a little anachronism is ok ... it's the structural chaos that matters!

Zero-to-Hero Progression That Fits: 

From the perspective of RPG design, a Merovingian-style ‘medieval setting’ offers better social mobility than the feudal societies of later centuries, in ways that are more conducive to a typical PC’s career path. Arguably, the setting’s social structures also offer better reasons for an adventuring party to move seamlessly between urban, rural, and wilderness adventures in the service of the same patrons or goals. 

Listen here, Lady!!!
Whether you had me stabbed and then visited me on my deathbed to rub it in or not, you can't make me forget that you're an interesting example of female power and social mobility!

Low-Prep and Build-As-You-Go: 

Compared to later feudal settings, the setting’s built-in political geography scales more organically to match the widening scope of classic campaigns, without requiring the GM to prep more than is needed at any time. Merovingian political structures make it easy to start hinting at high-level faction stuff at level 1 if you want to, or to add those things in on the fly at higher levels without doing violence to the logic of structures you’ve already built. Oh, and remember that wise, common advice to start a hexcrawl campaign with just three hexes and then build out if you need more? Not only would that work in a Merovingian-inspired setting, it would work particularly well. 

Behold your sandbox: Gaul in 587 (de la Blache)

Conquer, Rinse, Repeat: 

You know that thing where some otherwise great campaign settings get permanently hobbled because of the accomplishments of a previous generation of characters? [paging Dragonlance to aisle four, please…] Due to the political geography mentioned above and some Frankish cultural assumptions, a Merovingian-inspired sandbox is innately repeatable between campaigns. In other words, Merovingian-inspired settings would work really well for a ‘living campaign’ world; once you’ve done the work to build your setting, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you want to start a new campaign, but you also don’t have to retcon anything that happened previously. [That may sound like a feature of any decent setting; what I’m arguing is that a Merovingian-inspired setting would be particularly good at recycling, compared to other options]. 

For now, I’m going to drop this as an introductory post to whet your interest. I’ll plan to unpack each of these elements in much more detail soon. Please let me know if this sounds interesting or if you already have any questions! Due to some recent spam attacks, comments currently require moderation, but I'll be happy to process them. 

Happy gaming. 


  1. If I wanted a crash course on merovingian france what should I read/watch besides wikipedia?
    Would Wolves of God be a bad system to run Merovingian france in?

    1. Thanks for your interest! A couple readers were asking for further-reading tips, so I've combined my feedback in a follow-up comment - just look below.

      To address your question about Wolves of God: I should note that I know a bit about the WoG system and tables, but not much. Based on what I know, I think it could work fine with some tweaking. However, Merovingian Frankish society had a LOT more continuity with the Roman past, a lot more urban continuity, and a greater and earlier degree of socio-political complexity than did Anglo-Saxon England. Part of what I hope to unpack in these posts is that a Merovingian-themed setting could offer you much of what the better-known Anglo-Saxon settings offer, while ALSO offering you the ability to play around with 'bigger building blocks' at the same time.

  2. I am very interested in reading more blogs about this subject. I'd also love some reading suggestions if you have them. And don't sweat the academic stuff, I studied history in grad school so I welcome such readings!

    1. Thanks for your interest! A couple readers were asking for further-reading tips, so I've combined my feedback in a follow-up comment - just look below. Cheers!

  3. Thanks for the interest, folks! In terms of recommendations for further reading, here goes:
    + first - as I tell my university students - Wikipedia is a terrible place for them to finish their research, but it *can* provide a decent place to start, at least to begin getting their bearings.
    + To get a feel for stories from Merovingian history, the most famous primary source is the sixth-century churchman and historian, Gregory of Tours. The Penguin translation of his history is adequate for these purposes and accessible. (The Penguin one is titled **History of the Franks**, which isn't really what he called his historical work, but that name has kind of stuck).
    + Back when I was in grad school, the go-to (English-language) intros to Merovingian history were some survey texts from the 90s: Ian Wood's **The Merovingian Kingdoms** or Patrick Geary's **Before France and Germany**. Those are now both dated, but would still offer a good and accessible scholarly intro to the topic within a single cover.
    + For those looking more more current material and willing to engage more specialized texts, there are options!
    + My top recommendation for a short scholarly survey now would be Raymond Van Dam's ch. 8, "Merovingian Gaul and the Frankish Conquests," pp. 193-231 in **The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 1: c. 500-c.700** ed. by Paul Fouracre (Cambridge, 2005).
    + For those who really want to nerd out, collect your Monopoly money and advance straight to: Effros & Moreira, eds., **The Oxford Handbook of The Merovingian World** (Oxford, 2020).
    + There are many more specialized studies and monographs on various sub-topics. One that I'll likely refer to in a coming post is Allen E. Jones, **Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul: Strategies and Opportunities for the Non-Elite** *(Cambridge, 2009).

    1. Serendipitously, I just read the Smithsonian article on Brunhild and Fredegund:

  4. Nice!
    I've been thinking of making essuria/denagoth in the world of mystara as a kinda proto France, so I'm excited for this series

  5. I've read your text with great interest, as I am a fan of all games medieval and especially Dark Ages. Actually wanted to ask do you want to write a setting (or mini-setting) for this. Speaking about RPG books there is AD&D 2ed Charlemagne or German compendium for Castle&Crusaders with a number of information about German tribes and early kingdoms and many beasts from legends and folklore. Highly recommended if you want to play your own Nibelung.

    1. Thanks for your interest!
      The AD&D Paladins of Charlemagne book technically addresses a period just after the one I'm covering here, though I haven't read it so I don't know how well it could transfer across. I haven't seen that C&C German compendium, but that's a good tip.
      Regarding writing my own mini-setting: I will see. I don't know that I have the time for something really substantial. However ... I will admit that I've *already* written a little mini-setting to illustrate one corner of the kind of realm I'm discussing...perhaps I'll include a peek at that at some point in this series. :-)

    2. Thanks for the answer. This C&C supplement is "Codex Germanicus".

  6. Please continue exploring this topic! I was involved in a rules playtest with Alex Schroeder that was set in a Merovingian-era fantasy alpine region and it was really great.

  7. This interests me. Please continue. For example, what does arcane magic look like in this world? Divine?

    How would you integrate dungeoncrawls? What monsters would you highlight? Which monsters would avoid deploying? Would you use XP-for-gold? Or perhaps a Renown system for advancement?

    1. Thanks for your interest - I'll hopefully answer at least some of these questions in subsequent posts. :-)

  8. I’ve always liked games based on actual historical periods, even if they play a little fast and loose with things. Flashing Blades for example, set in 17th Century France was a favourite game in the 80s/90s, for example. Wolves of God is something caught my eye a while back, but I’ve yet to find an opportunity to use it. Definitely interested in seeing more on the Merovingians: from what you’ve described it sounds a very interesting setting indeed.


Unfortunately, recent spamming attacks necessitate comment moderation prior to posting. Thanks for leaving a comment - I'll get to it shortly!