Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sage Advice: The Real World™

Instead of building a new fantasy world from the ground up, why not place your next game in a real world setting and take advantage of earth history?  That's today's topic.  As usual with these other Saturday columns, I'll cull the opinions of some RPG writers and publishers and take a look at the popular positions.  The Real World™ argument reduces to four major points - resonance, accessibility, depth, and aesthetic choice.

Kenneth Hite is a writer I enjoy, and I've heard him postulate this basic rule; if a story can be told in the real world, then set it in the real world first.  Only exclude the real world as the primary choice when it's absolutely impossible.  The first argument supporting the position is resonance.

...My fundamental setting design policy was: "Use Earth." It's better mapped, better documented, and just plain weirder than anywhere else. At least start with Earth. But more importantly, as I've said on half a hundred panels and plenty of times in print, saying "Kragar the Liberator was secretly in the pay of the drow" is just not compelling. Nobody really cares, even if they dutifully read the forty pages on Kragar the Liberator earlier in the book. But saying "Abraham Lincoln was secretly in the pay of the drow" is compelling. The players (and GM) bring something to the table when I say "Abraham Lincoln" or "King Arthur" or "Hitler" that they don't when I say "Kragar the Liberator" or "Kragar the Lost" or "Kragar the Mad."
--Ken Hite (from here:  Setting is My Business)

There's a lot to unpack in that paragraph; Ken's context was pointing out how 40 pages on "Kragar" still create a less compelling story than using a real-world situation with a twist.  No fantasy villain holds a candle to the horrors of Josef Stalin, Adolph Hitler, or Pol Pot.  Our lifetime of experience and education provides a resonance with these figures nearly impossible to achieve in an RPG setting.  I'd argue some novelists might get there with some of their well known creations, but they have a lot bigger canvas with which to work versus the RPG designer.

This leads us into the issue of accessibility.  Basic knowledge of historical figures and time periods is enough to engage with the ideas of the setting, no need to indoctrinate the players with heaps of game world lore to get them up to speed.  "Here's a book to read on the history of Eberron, see you in a few weeks after you've mastered it enough to pick races and classes".  ZZzzzzzzz.  Alternatively:  the reason the Romans built Hadrian's Wall was to hold back the primordial snake men of Northern Scotland; you are all starting as Roman soldiers posted on the frontier.  Got it?  Good.  Let's start rolling up characters.

So we've established that The Real World™ is more accessible than the typical fantasy RPG material, and situations will have more resonance; how does it compare to those pages and pages of background in a typical fantasy campaign setting?  We'll pick on the Forgotten Realms, since there are probably enough RPG books and novels to fill up a series of large book shelves.

From Ken's quote above, we hear that Earth "is better mapped, better documented, and just plain weirder than anywhere else."  The first place I encountered this idea, after starting to read some bloggers, was over at Alexis's place:  Campaigns with Depth.  I promptly went out and ran a Frankish Dark Ages game on the Saxon Frontier, using AD&D rules, and it was richer for it.  If you do get lured in by the Siren's Call of Overdevelopment and Detail, you can't go wrong with The Real World™.  Between the library and the internet, Google Earth and Google Images, there's no lack of material.  Instead of recycling cliché RPG material like the Realms, pull actual situations from history that will replace the clichés with veracity and realism.

The final point of view on using The Real World™ for your D&D setting comes your way courtesy of LOTFP and the Grindhouse Edition Referee's Book.

It is suggested that you use as “normal” a campaign world as possible. If monsters and magic are everywhere in a world, then fear and terror becomes harder to portray.
--James Edward Raggi IV

The idea here is that the contrast between the banality of the mundane world, and the added elements of the fantastic, supports a specific aesthetic ideal.  For Weird Horror, you're striving for fear and terror, but even in a standard fantasy game, integrating Elves and Dwarves and various humanoid groups into the fringes of your alternate Earth creates interest.  It's a variation of the expression, if everything is special, nothing is special; magic and the fantastic have greater impact in a world when they're rare on an alternate Earth.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out some of the counter arguments to using The Real World™.  There's the argument of mastery; the DM will spend too much time researching historical details for veracity, and if they don't, the educated players in the group (who might know more about a given era than the DM) will lose their belief in the game world if it doesn't match their expectations.  The more compelling argument, from my  perspective, is when the constraints of using The Real World™ don't allow the DM to create the types of adventures and locales they want; at some point, the needs of a High Magic, High Fantasy world with air ships, flights of dragons, demon empires, and golden kingdoms of elves creates too much dissonance to exist in a world that followed the patterns of Earth history.

I'll leave the readers with this thought; the argument for using the Real World is that it has resonance, is accessible, and has more depth of detail and history than any RPG book.  Is it any wonder that Tolkien extends such a long shadow over standard fantasy gaming?  One could argue that Middle Earth is so well-read and well known, that it meets the test for many of the reasons put forth for using Earth!


  1. I actually did something very similar to this with my (published) Traveller setting, Outer Veil ( Instead of being set in about 5,000 AD hundreds of parsec away from Earth (as the Official Traveller Universe does), my setting is set within about 30 parsec radius around Earth in 2159 AD, merely 148 years into the future. So most cultures and institutions would be quite familiar to the average player. Instead of trying to imagine what the Shugili had cooked for the business dinner with the Naasirka executive, you can easily describe the Caviare being served at the meeting with the Tirovski-Yang Consortium exec. And so on.

    But back to fantasy, a game set on historical Earth needs mature players, as certain kinds of immature "history lawyers" will use an historical Earth setting as an excuse to argue over the colour of the livery of servants in the court of Charlemagne...

    Anyhow, you are tempting me to pursue my idea for a campaign set in 20,000 or so BC, during the last ice Age, with "lost" civilizations of men and Neanderthals (AKA Dwarves) running rampart over earth using Mammoths as beasts of burden and war. Sure, there is not much "historical" material about these imaginary swords-and-sorcery societies, but the geography, climate and 99% of the flora and fauna would be easily researchable.

  2. I have used the real world many times for inspiration in RPGs. Maps of real places never leave you wondering "what's over there?". Real cultures have produced all sorts of wonderful foods, beliefs, costumes, weapons, etc. I have some great lizard men styled after Pacific Island peoples. Hobgoblins on wargs have replaced Huns on horses.

    One of the best fantasy Westerns I have read drew me in with the cover blurb "it all began when the dead got up at Shiloh." Bam! Anchors things immediately in time and place.

  3. In his old Suppressed Transmission column Ken had a number of historical campaigns. My favorite was his "Ring of the Lords" idea where Otto I was actually using the relics of Charlemagne to become the Anti-Christ and a group including members from various European groups such as British elves, Scandinavian dwarves (and vikings), werewolves of Germany, and so on would have to escort the last Merovingian heir to defeat him.

    All drawn from real history and real legends.

    The first place I encountered this idea, after starting to read some bloggers, was over at Alexis's place: Campaigns with Depth. I promptly went out and ran a Frankish Dark Ages game on the Saxon Frontier, using AD&D rules, and it was richer for it.

    Now I have an urge to run a campaign of adventure beyond the Wall (Hadrian's Wall)...perhaps the delves would be ruins left after the Antonine Wall was abandoned. Set circa 350 with Pictish and Saxon invasions you could even have proto-Arthur elements, especially if you moved it up 50 years. 100 year up (450) and you're firmly in Arthur territory. Still, at 350 your characters could have a chance for one of their number to be (or father) Ulther.

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  5. Herb - I don't have much of Ken's GURPS stuff, but those Suppressed Transmission columns look pretty interesting. Are they mostly system neutral, easy to use ideas for Call of Cthulhu or historical fantasy?

    Omer - the prehistoric game could be like the Hyborian Age; it's a neat idea to mix in the mega mammals.

    Dave - "it all began when the dead got up at Shiloh" - exactly!

  6. Beedo: Some examples of Suppressed Transmission columns: "Using Alternate History in Any Campaign", "Six Flags Over Roswell" (six alternate histories in which UFOs crashland in various places), "On the Whole, I'd Rather Be Invisible: The Philadelphia Experiment", "Emperor of the Air: Norton I", "Hite's Handy Field Guide To Ultraterrestrials", "Stalking the Wild Manticore", "History on the Rocks: Alternate Ice Ages", "Templar America: Red and White Across the Blue", "A Night to Embroider: Who Sank the Titanic?", "Who Ya Gonna Caul? The Benandanti!", "Libertatia or Death!", "Plumb Weird: Sacred Geometry", and so on. Those are just from the ones included in the two collected volumes.

    It's a widely useful collection of articles, ranging from things for specific games (GURPS and CoC weigh heavily there) to general ideas about High Weirdness in campaigns to oddities of history to a whole series on Shakespeare's plays.

  7. "One could argue that Middle Earth is so well-read and well known, that it meets the test for many of the reasons put forth for using Earth!"

    True, but I think a lot of people think about Middle Earth through the lens of 'the standard D&D world.' So I'd expect a game that was set in Middle Earth to get one of two reactions: "It's weird how different it is even though it's got elves, dwarves and hobbits," or "It's full of D&D-isms and doesn't feel like Middle-Earth."

  8. PS Off the top of my head, no clerics or D&D-type thieves (although there are characters like Gollum and Wormtongue), and most parties would be entirely members of the same race/species.

  9. PPS I've been toying with the idea of making an RPG-like board game where every character is an existing historical or fictional character (similar to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), for similar reasons.

  10. One of the reasons I found Ars Magica so compelling was the very fact that it was set in the real world.

    It's a compelling argument. Perhaps I'll run my OA/Masks of Nyarlathotep conversion in historical Japan after-all.

  11. Following the inspiration of Niven's Burning City novel, I have set my campaign in the "ancient" Southwest, a dawn of civ milieu with multiple competing colonizing human groups struggling for dominance with each other and with the humanoids/demihumans and dragons that inhabit the land. It is pretty cool to campaign on the map you live in, imagining Storm Giants building dams on the Colorado River, Mind Flayers underneath Chaco Canyon, that kind of thing...