Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Over on the HackMaster forums, the question of campaign settings came up. For his part, Topher presented a rather convincing argument for using a historical locale as the basis for a fantastic setting. He points out that, not only is much of the work already done for you, but such a backdrop is already both highly detailed and believable.

As he mentions, his most recent game is set in a fantasy Samarkand before the rise of the Timurid Dynasty. This is another great contribution, as I suspect many referees (myself included) often neglect the lesser known ancient world as a source to draw inspiring material from. Areas like Transoxania, Bengal and Scythia have always existed on the borders of great empires, but are also themselves the seats of ancient civilization. Transoxania alone saw the rise and fall of countless nations of antiquity which flourished brightly once but eventually disappeared under the sands of time (one thinks of the Sogdiana, Samanid, Kharezmid and Timurid dynasties, to name but a few).

What is perhaps most interesting about these regions is that, not only are they cradles of humanity, but also crossroads and borderlands for very different civilizations and empires. Transoxania accomodated Persian, Chinese, Arab, Greek and Mongol cultures, as well as Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Christian and Muslim faiths. This sort of setting, with its countless variables and a complete lack of the stability found in the neighboring empires, is rife with story potential.

In the future, I'd like to revisit Transoxania in particular, as per Topher's suggestion, as a potential campaign locale. If the readership has similar experience, I would be happy to see this engender a further conversation.


  1. I rip off a lot of elements from historical civilizations, but it's more of a syncretist (i.e., glorified spitwad) approach, a la Hyboria or Mercury/Zimiamvia. I use ancient Greece, the Near East, and Mesoamerica, take the parts I like from each, and add a buttload of S&S, weird fantasy, and "Dying Earth." Which I suppose is completely irrelevant to what you're asking.

    I've often thought of doing something in a "mythical" era of a particular culture (something like Dunsany's Golden Age Spain) but have never actually done so. We did have some fun for a while with RuneQuest 3rd's "Fantasy Europe" but quickly moved to Glorantha.

    My issue with using a historical civilization for D&D would be integrating magic, monsters, and dungeons. I suppose solving those problems is part of the fun, though. Definitely food for thought.

  2. I've not heard of Transoxania, but it sounds very interesting. Scott, when you build your campaign world how do you convey those disparate elements to your players? Do they get it's ancient Greece+MesoAmerica+Dying Earth? Are they up on the references?

  3. I steal lots of ideas from Near Eastern and other obscure Asian cultures all the time. I've never really lifted one completely, but it could be fun.

  4. Oh, sometimes just stealing names adds some color -- I have Dwarven kingsomds in my campaign named Sogdiana and Khwarizm.

  5. Scott, when you build your campaign world how do you convey those disparate elements to your players? Do they get it's ancient Greece+MesoAmerica+Dying Earth? Are they up on the references?

    My current setting is a work in progress, and I blog about it as well as being fairly transparent about my influences, so the players know. Out of character, I sometimes refer to Earth cultures in descriptions (e.g., a helm might be similar to a Phrygian or Corinthian helm, or a barbarian culture might be analogous to the Thracians). Armor includes linothorax, greaves, cuirass, and so on.

    Under normal circumstances, I'd probably describe things in bare terms and let people draw their own conclusions, or just plop a handful of Macedonian miniatures down on the table. As it is, the fact that I blog about it makes the players privy to my navel-gazing without the necessity of me being skilled at description. ;)

  6. If you're doing the Timurid period, I highly recommend Justin Marozzi's Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. http://www.amazon.com/Tamerlane-Sword-Islam-Conqueror-World/dp/0306815435/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1288835349&sr=8-1

    Some reviewers claim that it goes into details rather than giving good analysis, but since it gave me exactly how the soldiers in Timur's army were equipped, I found it incredibly useful for building a campaign.

  7. I'm also running a campaign set in a fantasy version of Central Asia. It is centered around the Tarim Basin along the Silk Road during the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). This region is great for fantasy role-playing: a kind of Asian version of the American Wild West, located on the margins of great empires (China, India, Persia, et al) with many small power centers (city-states, imperial garrisons), nomad raiders, religious pilgrims, merchant caravans, fertile oases amidst forbidding deserts and mountains. For this kind of campaign, I highly recommend Expeditious Retreat Press' A Magical Society: Silk Road. It has tons of useful info for designed a trade route through a fantasy version of Central Asia, including pages of conversion tables for trade goods that can be used in place of monetary treasure (e.g. bolts of silk, herbs and spices, tea, skins and furs, salt, incense, cosmetics, etc).

  8. Welleran: "sometimes just stealing names adds some color"

    You're in good company stealing names from obscure Near Eastern cultures. In the 8th-9th centuries BC, a nomad confederacy around the Caucasus Mountains (just west of Transoxania) was known as the Cimmerians. The name seems to have appealed to Robert E. Howard.

  9. I rarely do a simple "lift and plop" because I find things like "fantasy Rome" to be fairly uninspiring. But I will often take two or three disparate societies and draw extensive inspiration from each in order to force "creative discords" that have to be resolved with each other.

    If you've got piece A from culture X and piece B from culture Y, how do you make the two of them work together? The answer will usually force me to transform both pieces into something new, different, and utterly unlike anything I would have created without deliberately drawing on exterior influences.

    I have a similar experience with using pre-designed modules: Since I don't use a kitchen-sink campaign world, I often have to figure out how to make the module work within the logic of the game world's reality. Resolving that creative discord not only transforms the module; it can enrich the game world in unexpected ways.



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