Sunday, May 14, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons, "Setting" part 2

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have only just started playing again with any regularity, but I still have numerous ideas and want to use my blog as a creative outlet.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

What Have I Got: What a Wonderful World
            I took last weekend off because my brain felt like it was melting from several flavors of stress unrelated to Dungeons and Dragons.  That being said, I want to continue with this series about building a setting for your game.  You know, beyond a single fictional country or having strange iterations of monsters.
            Last time I talked a about some of the advantages and disadvantages of using a published campaign setting like the Forgotten Realms and my own resistance to doing so.  After that I gave an introduction on how to borrow elements from one fantasy setting and why grafting them into a more familiar setting can be creative, but that there is a pitfall to doing so, adding a new element to a world means figuring out how they fit in that world and answering the questions such a mix and match process can produce is where real creativity can be found.
            This week I want to talk about borrowing from history, which as we all know to be stranger than fiction (it’s really not, history is 99.9999…% entirely typical people just have a poor sense of evaluating importance and recognizing strange coincidences when they happen).  And the first thing you should learn when looking at history is the concept of ambiguity.

Borrowing from History: Whose History?
            I have to start by saying that numerous things mentioned here might mean different things to different people.  For instance, whether someone likes a particular setting because of the books they read, the art, the miniatures, or just that it is the only one they know anything about can lead to them having preconceived notions based on the “canon” they hold dear.

            "There is more to 'fiction' than what people have made up," I said.  "And there is more to 'reality' than what happened."
            "That makes no sense," said the sensible person in reply.
            "Stay with me here."

            There is an objective reality.  What happened, to who, when, why, and how.  However, we can only interpret these things thru our senses.  I am only mortal, you are only mortal, and the guys who wrote the historical accounts were mortal, and now most of them are just dead.  History is (more than a little) a narrative about “What Happened” rather than What Happened.
            Okay, so why is this important?
            Fiction often draws on history or interprets it in new contexts.  Famines, plagues, wars, and other historical calamities and minutia gain new weight and context as additional perspectives are uncovered.  Think of how mythologized Egypt was prior to the Rosetta Stone’s discovery.  Imagine if the Rosetta Stone had never been discovered, that aside from the great monuments and seemingly endless murals the knowledge of how Egyptian society would have to be gleaned without the help of all the text they left behind.

This is a rather important object.
If you want to read a little more about fantasy languages here is one of my blogs about the topic.
            Imagine trying to understand the collapse of long dead empires only knowing about them via books.  Vainglorious auto-fellatio texts about how they are glorious and indestructible… And literally nothing about how their piping was made with a metal that brain damaged their leadership into catastrophe.
            Conversely, look at records we have of lost civilizations that only exist as the villains in the history of the winnersHerod’s slaughter of the innocents is referenced nowhere outside the Bible and Rome didn’t feed Christians to lions.  No one knows who the “Sea Peoples” were.  Imagine how many countless tribes were wiped out and their language and history lost forever because someone else decided to make them stop existing.  Want to know why Confucius is such an important philosopher in China?  It’s because his texts were the only ones to escape the intellectual purging that happened after China’s unification.

He was kind of a bastard.
            Something closer to home, there is at least one well known western mythology that only exists now as collections by an anthropologist long after the people who believed the myths had converted to Christianity and the stories were in danger of being lost forever.  The anthropologist, a monk named Snorri Sturluson (shockingly, even with that name, he was not a Muppet) only gathered the stories because he saw them as markers for colloquial phrases and fairy tales.  This was all of Norse Mythology; it was almost lost but for the linguistic curiosity of one guy.

History as Ambiguity: “We were good and they were wicked, so we had to carry out genocide”
            What I am trying to say is that History is a mutating institution that hears many different versions of a story, “We were the plucky underdogs… Ignore the fact that we had slaves and the empire we were rebelling against didn’t”.  People assign different weights to events and how the things that lead up to those events mattered.
            This emphasis is based on personal criteria and often ignore the voices of the people who lived in that time, or those writing the narrative have no records they can use to verify their findings, they can only guess.
When it comes to the Indus Valley Civilization, we don't even know what they called themselves.
They probably had lots of names spoken in a language that hasn't been heard for thousands of years.

            History is a glorious source of inspiration for your writing and world building.  Popular fantasy stories do this all the time and it is not even that hard to see the influences.  A STRONG SUGGESTION, when looking at history as a resource for inspiration keep as much of the ambiguity as you comfortably can.  When characters (or players) don’t know whether they are making the “right” choice, and you don’t know either, that is intriguing, challenging, even educational.
            Sure, the king might be a nice guy, but he is merciless to opposition.
            Sure, the Rebellion wants more democracy in government, but only from the “right kind” of people.
            Sure, the pirates are stealing the government’s silver, but they are stealing from a government that mined the silver with slaves.  What’s more, the pirates aren’t giving that money to charity.
            Is the church righteous?  Or are they controlling?  Is the Prince Charming?  Or Naïve?  Is the peasantry suffering?  Or are they safe?  Why not ALL OF THESE?  Why not NONE OF THESE?

I Realize This is Getting Really Speculative: Here is Some More of That
            What does a Dungeons and Dragons setting based on certain eras of history mean to you? 
            What does the European Renaissance mean to you?  Does it mean that the political power is merchant princes like the Borgias trying to take control of the Catholic Church to extend political control from the City state where all their wealth sits?  Does it mean a return of the "enlightened" past of Ancient Greece and Rome, with a romanticism of some bygone era via the translation of old texts and the advent of the printing press causing a cultural revolution?

To many this image might be the perfect encapsulation of everything they want to know about the Renaissance.

            Is it the Inquisition in Spain, doling out pain and suffering under the guise of piety?  Is it Columbus going to the West Indies, hitting by blind luck a previously unknown source of slaves and later silver?  Is it fighting off the Ottoman invasion of Austria, which includes such figures as John III Sobieski, who was called the Savior of Christendom and the Lion of Lechistan, who is one of those guys in history that does not get enough attention?  The Portuguese taking over trading hubs in the Indian Ocean via gunboat diplomacy before gunboats were really a thing?
            History, especially something as vaguely defined in a temporal sense as the Renaissance of Europe is a massive number of events that could evoke so many different things.  Let’s try another, but be even more broad.

            Ancient Egypt I would argue is the most iconic thing in the world because (if for no other reason) their monuments have stood the test of time.  When building a setting here what do you emphasize?  I am certain if you tell your players that you took inspiration from Ancient Egypt they are going to wonder where the Pyramids are, who the Pharaoh is, and is there a playable race of people with jackal heads.  Be prepared to answer these, and be prepared with some twists on what they expect.
            What does the ruler ship of the God-King Pharaoh look like?  This is going to be the first thing I would think to answer, and I don’t mean “is it covered in gold” because of course it is covered in gold.  What I mean to point to is this, “Is the Pharaoh good at his job?”  Not necessarily a good person, just whether he is good at being Pharaoh.  Because in real life, a lot of inbred and suboptimum rulers held that position.  It was a problem, and if you want the campaign to have an element of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be listening to the inbred man-child who wants to destroy the world”.

FYI: King Tut had some issues related to his un-forking family tree.
Also, he was probably murdered (I am guessing because they needed a fresh king).
            How about something people do not often talk about?  Let’s focus on the culture clash of exploring the Mediterranean and the Nile?  The Nile was such a reliable source of clean water and rich soil, and such a potent means of carrying lots of cargo thru the kingdom that it was the CORE of the Egyptian culture.  But, Egypt was not the only people to use the river, it goes deep into Africa and searching for the source of the River was the basis of real life mad explorers who died of all kinds of horrible diseases and wild animals.  There were tribes of people who looked and acted very different from the Egyptians, and all of this ignores the other developed civilizations of Greek City States, Assyrians, Persians, and all the other middle Eastern and Northern African peoples who dealt with the Egyptian culture.
            Is it just about the Gods?  Beyond that, how true to myths are we going to get?  There were (as a result of having contact with so many people and existing for thousands of years) more than 160 gods and permutations of those gods in Egyptian culture, to say nothing of the religions that creeped in from other countries.  Imagine having a cleric of Zeus going on adventures in Egypt, or Someone who worships the animal totems of sub-Saharan Africa.  How religion affects your setting might not just be important for the player who wants to be a cleric, but is also important for religious wars, cults, intrigues, and what kind of treasure and artifacts people will find.

            Is it about mysterious evil creeping in from the desert?  There is no discussion about Egypt without discussion of the Sahara Desert.  A vast, lifeless stretch of sand that is the world’s largest desert.  Adventures in a desert setting are hugely fun to me.  Unlike underwater adventures they introduce environmental concerns but do not introduce too many additional rules (3D combat underwater is exhausting), and the idea of just wandering off into the scorching nothing and finding what remains of a windswept temple full of wealth seems like the perfect iconography for Dungeons and Dragons.
            Keep in Mind, what we think of as Ancient Egypt is so long a period of time that Cleopatra, the most iconic ruler in the history of Egypt lived closer to the Moon Landing than the creation of the Great Pyramid.  The scope of their culture is diverse, strange, and at the same time you can still see what remains of it because they seemed to have a philosophy of, “Build it to Last”.

The Beg for Attention: Next Time
            Last time I focused on taking from well-known fiction.  This week was about taking from history.  Next time I will look at mythology, which I have mentioned but it definitely requires its own entry (let’s be clear, religion in Dungeons and Dragons could be a series of its own, but I will focus on the basics and then come back to it down the line).
            Also, check out some of my book reviews.  "Starship Troopers", "NPCs", and "Out of the Silent Planet".

Random Survey from Facebook

            I belong to a Facebook group that is all about Geekery and has the umbrella of Dungeons and Dragons, I posed a pole to the group concerning this cool bit of real life jewelry and asked them what such an item would do in the context of a fantasy world.  Here are some of the results.

First Impressions 5th Edition
            I GG’d my first 5th edition game yesterday and it went off really well.  I am still learning the rules and unlearning terms like, “make a will save” but overall my ability to tell a story in the game seems to be holding true even after more than a year without doing anything.  I decided to go with the basic story of, “liberate a monastery from cult and undead” (this is a Franciscan/Gregorian chanting monks, not kung fu monks).
            I like the art for the undead.  The one that took the cake for these initial encounters has to be Shadows.

            3rd edition (and I dislike to speak ill of an artist’s work) had a lacking bit of art.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

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