Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Weird, the Normal, and the D&D

So the Gamer ADD is hitting me hard.  I've been reading the new Weird Fantasy thing and this idea of converting Chaosium's Lovecraft Country sandbox has been ricocheting around my cranium, and my typical Gamer ADD risk mitigation strategy - parking the idea in the Junkyard - didn't work the first time out.  I wrote an article a while ago on Gamer ADD management strategies - mitigation, acceptance, avoidance and transference.  Parking an idea in the Junkyard until the time is right hasn't failed me yet!

There were lots of interesting comments yesterday about "What is the Weird?"  The thing I come back to is the general agreement that Weird needs Normal for contrast.  I have a hard time with Normal in a regular D&D world.  Normal is all about mundane, every day stuff; a fantasy world is built to instill a sense of wonder.  Normal is in the mind of the players - the default elements of the world need to feel familiar for the players.  (Sword and Planet, get the heck outta here - don't let the door hit you on the way out).

Alright, you say - just make your D&D world low magic, an analog to a real-world historical period so it feels grounded.

I find myself coming back to two periods in particular - post-Renaissance and the Roman Empire.  The historical Dark Ages and the Medieval periods seem too provincial and claustrophobic; the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman world and the Renaissance world supports a lot of the elements that modern folks take for granted in the world - autonomy, freedom of movement from place to place, a merchant class, inns and taverns and restaurants, mail and communications, commerce, and a degree of sophistication in culture and government  that creates art, theater, and politics.  An alternate earth in those periods could be made to feel "normal" to a modern sensibility - the Renaissance perhaps more so than the Roman world.

So I'm kicking around the idea that my sparse, Lovecraftian Weird Fantasy sandbox will either be placed in the South of (fake) England or France during the Renaissance, or will be at the height of the Pax Romana.

The Renaissance gives you overseas travel, the beginning of the Age of Sail and the colonization of distant places; there's definitely a pulp vibe to discovering vile cults in distant jungles.  I've previously remarked that the thing I miss the most when doing a standard D&D Dark Ages sandbox is the sea travel and exploring distant jungles or lost islands - it just doesn't fit the Medieval theme.

Chaosium has a whole Cthulhu expansion built around Rome (Cthulhu Invictus); it takes mythos entities and maps them to the creatures and stories of Greek and Roman myth (and vice versa).  Scrolls and relics, gods and new religions poured into Rome from the conquered territories and hinterlands; this would provide lots of opportunities for adventures involving cults, artifacts, and "books" of forbidden lore right in the capital city, let alone putting the campaign on the frontier and dealing with the unknown earth beyond the rule of law.

The game would be low magic D&D, most likely LOTFP rules, and draw heavily from Realms of Crawling Chaos and the Mythos stories.  While the Black City is still my main focus, I think I'll start keeping a second brainstorming notebook while I work through these ideas and see if one of them has mental legs.

I thought about going full circle and making the Viking Age a setting for both a Lovecraftian sandbox and the Black City megadungeon in the same milieu.  The world could be presented as low magic, gritty, and "realistic".  However, the tone of the Black City as a campaign dungeon, the gold-rush nature of having a sprawling ruin with lots of active adventuring parties plumbing the depths in competition, means supporting so many of the tropes of D&D that the dissonance might be too much for me.  It's awesome fodder for a D&D campaign with a touch of Lovecraft; not so much for a Lovecraft game that just happens to be using D&D rules.  But I'm brooding on it.

Anyway, next up, some more table-related items for the Black City (building the megadungeon project is still the top priority).


  1. If you're interested in the intersection of the weird and classical Rome, check out the short story "The False Prophet" by David Drake--or any of his other works set in that era.

  2. I have visited the Viking Age as a setting for sword & sorcery games for years now, and I have had a lot of success infusing it with the Cthulhu Mythos. The main setting I have used for this mash-up is northern Scotland and the Orkney Isles. The folklore is pre-loaded with a lot of weird elements, and is dripping with atmosphere. Here is a link to a few posts I made on this setting:


  3. So I know your underlying issue here is with familiarity. And maybe you and your group feel familiar with ancient Rome or Renaissance/post Renaissance Europe (my own feeling is both can be plenty alien, but that's me, not you). So what I'm about to say might just be totally irrelevant, but.

    autonomy, freedom of movement from place to place, a merchant class, inns and taverns and restaurants, mail and communications, commerce, and a degree of sophistication in culture and government that creates art, theater, and politics... overseas travel, the Age of Sail and the colonization of distant places... vile cults in distant jungles... lost islands

    The Islamic world, 700-1700. Or, frankly, anywhere outside Europe during that period, since the whole concept of the Medieval is a bit of Eurocentric fetishism that just doesn't hold true for the rest of the world. I can see that this might not be compatible with your familiar/Weird goals if you think of it as Arabian Nights and that means gonzo to you, or if it's just not as familiar to you as Rome. I'm mostly just frustrated with the fact that, for a lot of gamers, the imaginable world still ends at the Landstrasse.

    Jungles & lost islands doesn't fit the Medieval theme? Maybe I read Beowulf through too much of a Homeric lens. For me the literature both of discovery and of the Crusades is exactly that, though, from Skraelings to Mandeville to Prester John to Cathar enclaves to Phantom islands of the Atlantic.

  4. You raise a fair point, Richard - I'm equating familiarity with a Western historical period that supports a degree of sophistication and autonomy, but it may have existed in other times/places. Unfortunately, those will still be exotic to the players; it'd be like the Sword & Planet game - everyone is too busy learning how things most different (the sense of Wonder) and not why this one thing is threatening (the Weird). One could play up the 'alien' aspects of the Renaissance or ancient Rome just as well, but they seem easier to make familiar to the modern world, albeit with hand weapons. (ie, Look! They have toilets, too!)

    I'm with you that one can find exploration stories in the Homeric age and the Medieval period, but I tend to discount them as great (historical) D&D settings because of the limited commerce. I touched on it a bit in an older post about "wild frontier play". Many of the tropes of D&D (meeting in a tavern, rumor gathering, wandering the countryside, buying the latest gear, making your own decisions) need overhaul in a time without inns and taverns and freedom to wander.

    I've played historical games in the past by making everyone attached to a noble household (in a Dark Ages game) or making everyone king of their own small city-state (a Homeric D&D game).

  5. @Shane - I got a chance to read your Orkney posts, that's great stuff. The piece on the Orkney myth cycles (and tying them into the Mythos) got a lot of ideas rolling around.

  6. Cool, man! I am glad you found it helpful.

  7. Please check out my novel in progress, The Acts of Simon Magus, an epic historical fantasy which explores the roots of the original Gnosticism through the eyes of the original Antichrist. Here is the draft for my Indiegogo campaign, including video and link to some readings. I am think of perhaps making it into a roleplaying game; any thoughts? http://simonmagus.com/indiegogo