At the end of last month’s exciting episode, I mentioned that I’d started dividing my ideas up into five general culture groups. Before I start working on the broader aspects of the world, let’s take a look at the specific groups that I know will inhabit it.
Based on my list from the last article, I already know that this is a huge, decadent Empire: corrupt bureaucracies, jaded nobles, dogs and cats living together—you get the idea. I want the Empire to have an “East meets West” kind of feel, so when it comes time to start working out details, I’ll probably borrow from the history and mythology of places like Greece, Russia, and Turkey. Although the Empire is the most powerful political and military force on the planet, it’s beginning to collapse under its own weight. The people on the Empire’s frontiers are ruled in name only, and were conquered in recent enough memory that there are still pockets of strong anti-imperial sentiment. In addition to the political tensions, I decide that the Empire was founded nearly 1,000 years ago. That gives me a millennium on the horizon according to the imperial calendar, and millenniums always bring out the crazies.
The Pseudo Britons
It was a book about King Arthur that started this world-building exercise to begin with, so it only makes sense to throw some Arthurian goodness into the mix. This culture will have lots of customs and mythology centered around quests (my “quest magic” idea from the initial brainstorming session will obviously find a home here), ancient magic, trials by combat, and all the other Round Table-y stuff. Since I did the whole “file the serial numbers off history/mythology” thing in my last fantasy game, I don’t want to just borrow directly from the Arthurian tales, so I throw a few things mix things up a little. For starters, I decide that the society is matriarchal and polygamous, which should add some interesting twists to the classic Arthurian love triangles. I also decide that I’ll downplay the Christian themes of the later tales in favor of a more pagan feel, with lots of fairies and Celtic elements.
Picts are cool. If you don’t believe me, watch the scene from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves where Alan Rickman talks about them (he calls them Celts, but they sound a lot more like the Picts to me). Even an evil bad-ass like Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham seems disgusted and a little creeped out by these guys, so you know they’re hard to beat when it comes to bloodthirsty savages. Vikings often fill a similar role. In the words of George Carlin, “if they can’t steal it they’ll kill it; if they can’t kill it they’ll burn it; if they can’t burn it, they’ll fuck it.” The idea of crazed, tattooed raiders from the north who eat their own dead is just too much fun to pass up. While these guys rely primarily on fast ships and savage head bashings to terrorize the civilized world, they also use a type of magic based on tattoos that I might also tie into the berserker concept when I start working out details.
I was reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose when I did some of my brainstorming, so there’s a lot about books and learning and knowledge in the notes. Not surprisingly, I ended up lumping these together into one group. I decide that there are two major factors that have helped these guys stay out of the Empire’s control: a mountainous, island home that’s easy to defend and superior technology. This is a society of scholars, scientists, and inventors. To keep the monk connection, I decide that these guys are probably monotheists. I’m also thinking about throwing in a Jedi-style order of holy warriors.
More traditional Gypsies got lots of attention in my last campaign, so I decide that the ones in this world will be seamen who roll into town basically create an entire city in the harbor. I’m leaning toward them being merchants of the open seas, but an offshoot group who travel the major rivers of the world is also possible.
Putting It All Together
You may have noticed that most fantasy worlds have a default starting point. One reason for this is that the author or designer can create a lot more detail by focusing on a particular area of the world. It also leaves the edges of the world vague and mysterious, with plenty of room for surprises when it comes time for the protagonists to travel to exotic new places. Finally, it allows for lots of supplements (or follow-up novels) that detail the rest of the world. That’s just good business. Even though I’m not sure how (or even if) I’ll be using this world once it’s finished, I still need to figure out a starting point, to give me a bit of focus if nothing else.
Fortunately, the five cultures that I’ve created so far suggest just such a starting point. The world focus will be on the borderlands of the Empire, where the Empire’s control is weakest. The Sages and Pseudo-Britons are coastal island nations on the Empire’s frontier. The Empire has previously tried to establish footholds on these islands, but have consistently been repelled by the superior technology of the Sages and the strong leadership, clever tactics, and solid steel balls of the Pseudo-Britons. The fact that the Empire’s relatively weak navy kept it from making full use of the cavalry that it used to take over the rest of the continent also contributed to its failure to conquer the islands. Since I don’t want imperial warfare to be a major focus of the campaign, I decide that a succession of weak princes, rebellions from the conquered tribes on the frontier, and the Empire’s own internal problems (remember, it’s in decline) has kept the islands relatively safe for a few generations.
That leaves the Picto-Vikings and the Sea Gypsies to work into the mix. The Picto-Vikings, are a constant thorn in the Empire’s side, raiding its coastal towns and attacking its ships, but are too far away (and too scary) to do anything about without first establishing a foothold on one of the coastal islands. They also raid the Pseudo-Britons regularly, but tend to leave the Sages alone for the most part. The Sea Gypsies are natural targets of the Picto-Vikings, but trade with all of the other groups and therefore try to avoid getting mixed up in warfare or politics.
Now that I’ve got a decent idea of who some of the major players in my world are, it’s time to start looking at the big picture. I’ll hold off on that until next time.