Friday, October 17, 2008

Of Ancient Empires

Every campaign needs Atlantis. Or Rome. Better yet, why not combine the two? That's what I did in creating Hyperborean Thule, but let's back up a little bit.

One of the many things people complain about in D&D is the way that its magic is so codified, with spells assigned to levels. Indeed, the very concept of spell levels strikes many as a metagame concept that's found its way into the implied setting. I think it's a fair criticism, but it doesn't bother me anymore than do level titles (which I love, by the way). Looking at both of these things without any preconceptions, the first idea that suggests itself to me is that there must have been some ancient civilization that was really into systematizing and organizing things and both the arrangement of spells and level titles are watered-down holdovers from these old systems, like the way that late Roman military ranks morphed into noble titles over the centuries or how the dress of Imperial Roman courtiers was adopted and adapted by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

So, in my campaign setting, the Thulians are my "Romans" whose civilization laid the groundwork for the world that came after them. Actually, the Thulians are a bunch of different archetypes. Besides being the Romans when it comes to systematization, they're also the Atlanteans, a mighty civilization whose command of both magic and technology was rivaled that of the Eld, whom they overthrew and from whom they learned a thing or two. The Thulians are also my "good guys gone bad." Originally a remote barbaric tribe from an island to the north -- Hyperborean Thule -- they eventually became the nucleus of a revolt that cast off the Eldritch yoke and held back Chaos for centuries before finally becoming corrupted by it. The Thulians in turn fell prey to revolts, as well as the punishment of the gods, who sank Thule beneath the waves rather than see it become a toehold of the Abyss in the world.

Before the end, though, the Thulians did all the things you'd expect magical Romans to do: built roads, founded cities, researched spells, created artifacts, established laws, collected the gods into a single pantheon, and so on and so forth. This gives me an excuse for any systematic elements of my setting -- I can claim Thulian antecedents -- while the distance in time between the sinking of Thule and the present gives me lots of leeway to change anything I want.

Plus, let's face it: with all the ruins lying around in a typical D&D world, you need magical Romans to explain their existence. The Thulians are mine.

9 comments:

  1. Here’s how (un)creative I am: My Roman/Atlanteans were called “Emorians”.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've gone with keeping the two old empires distinct. My pseudo-Atlanteans were the first the tame magic for use (rather than the traditional elves-did-it-first trope), while my pseudo-Romans were the first to codify it.

    Thus, any magic and/or dungeons left by my "magical Romans" are at least "understandable" to the adventurers. With anything from the pseudo-Atlantean culture, all bets are off. It gives me room to throw in any off-the-wall ideas the bubble up out of the creative stew. Pseudo-Romans just don't grok ray-guns, but Pseudo-Atlanteans do.zzlmrfhs

    ReplyDelete
  3. One thing to think about in relation to spell levels is that they only exist as meta game concepts in relation to classed spell casters. The zero level high priests of the Thulians might have been only able to cast ninth level spells or some random mixture of spells drawn from various levels with no regard for caster level.

    In such a situation, spells might be "ordered" based on their observed results, many of which would vary by effective caster level.

    It is possible that the only thing preventing a first level cleric from casting a ninth level spell is the good will of the deity he follows.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Amityville Mike:
    I've done similar in my most recent games. The further into the past (and the deeper into the ancient dungeons) the PCs delve, the downright weirder and more rule-bending things become. Pseudo-medieval gives way to a baroque late Victorian/Cecil B. de Mille version of 'ancient', gives way to wannabe-Hyborian Stygian necromancies, gives way to Lovecraftian nested demi-planes, warped geometries, multi-planar entities, and (barely) harnessed Chaos.

    None of this was done with a consciously old-school aesthetic, it just seemed right for the game.

    @Matt:
    I always thought of codified spell levels as something with in-game meaning: a function of the observed level of power/control over magic required to evoke certain effects.

    That gives you delightfully flavourful Golden Dawn-ish hokum titles like "Initiate of the Third Circle of Mysteries", "Resplendent Magus of the Eighth Circle". Not to all tastes, but I like it. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  5. The further into the past (and the deeper into the ancient dungeons) the PCs delve, the downright weirder and more rule-bending things become.

    As I read that, it made me think about how weirder and weirder physics gets as science delves deeper and deeper into the real world.

    Are we living in an old school milieu? (^_^)

    ReplyDelete
  6. I always thought of codified spell levels as something with in-game meaning: a function of the observed level of power/control over magic required to evoke certain effects.

    They certainly could be; of course, many spells vary in power by caster level, which makes strict allocation by spell level occasionally problematic, not to mention the randomisation of some of their effects [e.g. 10d6 damage, saving throw negates, etceterea].

    I tend to think of spell levels as a guideline for what is an appropriate power level for player characters of level X, rather than a strict "you must be Y to do X" ruling, but opinions differ.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have ALWAYS loved Character Level Titles (Myrmidon Brock, Master Thief Tellius...whatever).

    It has a sort of regimented guild-like feel to it which is better IMO than "3rd Level" or 7th Level".

    I'm okay with the regimented spells per level thing as well when it's posed as an organizational thing like a Golden Dawn/ Rosy-Cross/ Masonic Level-thing.

    Work it in to the play, and make the system bits actually be in-game bits too. With a bit of imagination it'll fly.

    (*Note: If folks really hate the level/ spell thing...it's not a bad thing to leave it a metagame element and just ignore it. I'm just saying it can be easily worked in if you want to.)

    I tend to have a pseudo-atlantis in my campaigns of some sort: whether a hyperborean numenorish land/ race or something totally alien...either way "races came before and left all these ruins and we're in a sort of dark age learning about our past" is a persistent theme in my campaigns.

    Of course they usually always fell prey to their own devices, plots, magic...whatever which is short for "they got to big for their britches".

    This blog has been an awesome eye-opener for me lately. Stuff I've felt about gaming but kept my cake-hole shut over because I'm often surrounded by the Systemocratic Right and the Laws of GNS and "System Matters" and the policy of Newer and More Efficient is Better.

    I realized something:
    System DOES Matter...if it matters to you.

    If it doesn't matter to you...System Doesn't matter.

    Ultimately it's a personal preference, and my personal preference is perfectly okay too.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have honestly never considered before the idea that levels might be visible to the characters in the game world, o that they might be formalised into a system of titles that people would actually use, with a rigid one-to-one relationship between system mechanics and in-game behaviour. This is a pretty mind-blowing idea for me: it would lead, I'd imagine, to a highly stratified social milieu, where level is more important than race or class in determining pecking order. Oddly enough, GURPS Goblins, one of my favourite setting books, actually experiments with this, but I think in a less radical way. I can see all kinds of political implications to such a thing, bu I think a novel might be a better way to express them than a blog comment. Wow.

    As for the Thulians, it was clear from the start they were lawful as a civilisation (a phrase that borders on the tautological). I'd be more intrigued in a Dwimmermount they'd interfered with during this phase, than one they found congenial in their later, chaotic period.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'd be more intrigued in a Dwimmermount they'd interfered with during this phase, than one they found congenial in their later, chaotic period.

    The idea, at present, is that the Thulians occupied Dwimmermount for the entirety of their empire, from the Lawful period till their final Chaotic fall from grace. Consequently, the dungeons/caverns beneath the mountain show a mixture of influences, from the original Eldritch delvings, to the attempted containment of Chaos by the early Thulians, to the harnessing of Chaos by the later Thulians. And of course, in the centuries since the Fall, others have come in and exercised their own influence over the place, so it's really a mixed bag without a single overriding "theme," except perhaps that unfettered Chaos is inimical to all life and a cancer on reality.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.