Campaign Settings: Fantasy Greek and Roman
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #405
- Campaign Settings: Fantasy Greek and Roman A New Kind of Classical
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Campaign Settings: Fantasy Greek and Roman A New Kind of Classical
From Hannah L.
If there’s one thing nearly every gamer has in common, it’s that we’ve all fought against evil in one medieval-esque world or another. Be it the Forgotten Realms or some homebrew setting, the average gamer spends about as much time in medieval Europe as the average historian.
The average historian probably isn’t battling orcs or trolls, though, which raises the question of just where those dark creatures were at other times in history? With a little bit of imagination and research, it’s not too hard to port the classic orcs vs. elves epic into a different kind of classical setting entirely: ancient Greece and Rome.
The key to making other historical settings just as exciting as medieval Europe is to remember that medieval Europe wasn’t all that exciting. It was mostly drudgery and unjust taxation and unmitigated filth. And yet, we remember it as a shining age of chivalry, when roving knights on horseback fought for justice and the hand of yon fair maiden.
If we can spice up the dark ages with a little extra magic and heroism, why not classical times? Ancient ages had their own sweeping conflicts and great heroes, and who’s to say there weren’t some shouted incantations amidst the clash of bronze?
The Age of Heroes
This is the mythological age wherein the Trojan War took place, when gods still walked the earth and their children battled monsters. Cyclopes offered bad hospitality, sphinxes blocked travelers with riddles, and the gates of the underworld were open to those who know where to look.
If you’re looking for a high-magic campaign with endless colorful baddies, you can’t do much better than the age of heroes. Prophets and oracles in the hills, sirens and sorceresses on the seas, and demi-gods duking it out over hordes of gold and bronze.
If that isn’t enough for your players, don’t forget about the titans locked-up down in Tartarus, and all the havoc they could wreak if one or all of them got loose. Not to mention the constant disagreements of the gods themselves, endlessly playing tricks on one another, and involving hapless mortals in their deadly games.
If you want to stick with the “authentic” Age of Heroes, there’s always the great forces of Achaean armies and their Trojan counterparts. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, and the fates of all but a handful of those ships are lost to history.
There’s plenty of room amidst the vast, bronze-clad armies for a few forgotten heroes to do their work. And even less is known of the time after the war, when Odysseus was striving to find his beloved home, and Aeneas was striving to build a new one. Not all of the returning soldiers ended up back where they started, and there were monsters loose in the land still.
With all the heroes busy making their way back from war, who was defending the homes they left behind? Bandits were ever a problem, as were scheming traitors who hastened to prepare less-than welcoming homecomings for their returning kindred.
The Persian Wars
If the Persian Wars don’t sound like anything you’ve heard of, think again – the movie 300 is roughly based on one of the battles. While it ignores the entire sea battle, as well as the other Greek forces present, the movie does get quite a few things right – like just how overwhelmed the tiny Greek city-states were against the massive Persian army.
A situation like that is perfect for a band of plucky heroes to come in and aid the underdog. And if barbaric, pants-wearing, garlic-smelling foreigners aren’t a deadly enough evil, what about their foreign magics?
Greece had plenty of home-grown superstition, and the invasion of enemies from other lands meant their gods were invading, too, fighting for dominion of the heavens. Strange gods bring strange magic, and evil, warped creatures the likes of which only true heroes can conquer.
The Peloponnesian War
Once the Greeks fended off the Persians, a golden age flourished. Poets, artists, philosophers and sculptors all flocked to Athens during the Age of Pericles. But scarcely two decades into this boom of culture, the troubles began again, with Sparta’s military presence growing too threatening for Athens to overlook. Bloody civil war broke out, enveloping all of Greece.
Sparta dominated on land, while Athens controlled the seas. Smaller city-states were forced to ally with one or the other of the two superpowers, with few neutral areas free of conflict.
With their love of the military and lack of tolerance for anything else, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to picture the Spartans as a civilization of orcs. Likewise, the cultured, highbrow Athenians who frowned on such narrow-minded barbarism are a few pointed ears away from being typical elves.
Considering the Athenians’ success on the seas, why wouldn’t they be allied with merfolk? The Spartans, of course, were more the sort to consort with ogres and the like. Given that the Greek name for Sparta is Lacedaemon, what does that suggest about other possible allies?
Be it filled with medieval monsters or classical ones, a campaign based around the Peloponnesian war would never be short of enemies.
The Punic Wars
Cato the Elder, Hannibal, and elephants. What more needs be said? Carthage and Rome had been enemies since way back in mythological history, when Trojan hero Aeneas sailed off into the night, leaving scorned Carthaginian queen Dido to kill herself out of shame.
The Punic Wars started with some Campanian mercenaries, and ended with Carthage in ruins. In between, there were naval battles, land battles, sieges, ransoms, raids, fighting that raged across Italy, Spain and Africa, and of course, elephants.
Rome won all three of the Punic Wars, but the Carthaginians kept on fighting. With hundreds of thousands slaughtered in spectacular battles, it’s not hard to imagine fireballs and frost giants in amongst the carnage. If getting a vast army across icy mountain peaks doesn’t require magic, then it certainly requires the kind of superhuman determination of which heroes are made.
The Last Days of the Roman Republic
After the defeat of Carthage, Rome turned on itself. First Marius, then Sulla, seized power as dictators, ruling over Rome. Decapitated heads were hung on pikes around the city, and ordinary citizens feared for their lives. After this bloody period, Rome was anxious for calm, but that calm was to be short-lived.
Caesar, not yet famous, was captured by pirates on his way to study rhetoric. He joked with his captors that when he was ransomed, he would kill them all. Caesar, as it turns out, does not joke. Pirates: bad for ancient Roman trade, great for modern gamers.
Pompey, who would later also kill pirates, first made his name with a series of wars in the east. He conquered lands, set up kings, drew up treaties, and in general was a great military success for quite some time. This history of victory soon became a problem for his enemies in the senate, who disagreed with his populist ideals.
Meanwhile, Caesar was off in Gaul (modern France), vanquishing tribes of barbarians. Gallic druids vanished into the forest after lightning raids, or called upon the power of the beasts to aid them in holding off the invaders. Further off in Britain and modern Ireland, Celtic warlords fought with such ferocity that even Caesar’s hardened armies were driven back.
Back in Rome, Cato the Younger railed against corruption, Cicero made moving speeches, Clodius led street gangs on violent rampages, and Cataline plotted to overthrow the senate. All of these ambitious guys whose names started with C created a turbulent political atmosphere ripe for revolution.
Danger was everywhere, with dark omens in the skies above that mirrored the murders and deception in the city below. Any groups interested in intrigue would be hard-pressed to find a better era than this one in which to play out their schemes.
The Civil Wars
Caesar and Pompey set up a triumvirate with the rich man of mystery, Crassus, and together they ruled – for a time. But after Crassus was killed in a doomed invasion of Parthia, the truce was over.
When the civil war came, it was fought in Spain, France and Africa, not just Italy. Novel settings bring novel dangers, and the poet Lucan has much to say about the witches that ran rampant in Thessaly, feeding off the battle dead.
The dark powers of the witches could call up the spirits of the slain out of Orcus, reanimating fallen soldiers with a life that could not be extinguished by blades alone. Such spirits could prophesize as well as fight. Lucan says that even the gods on Olympus trembled in fear at the witches’ call, hastening to answer their dreadful summons.
Pompey’s son is said to have sought the witches’ help before a key battle against the forces of Caesar. That battle, Pharsalus, was one of the last in a bloody campaign in which vast armies chased each other across the Mediterranean. Pompey led one force; Caesar, the other; and all of Rome sided with one of the two.
If Pompey truly had witches at his beck and call, who knows what magic enabled Caesar to best him? His eventual heir certainly claimed to have the gods on his side; Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, gave the Egyptian goddess Isis credit for his victory over Anthony at Actium.
Cleopatra’s betrayal likely had more to do with it, but between Egyptian treachery and Egyptian magic, Octavian accomplished what his great-uncle Caesar could not, becoming the Emperor Augustus, and ending the Roman Republic forever.
The Civil Wars would be a great setting for a horror game, with brother turned against brother and black magic stalking the shadows. Zombies are fun for everyone, and while there’s no recorded account of zombies fighting in any of the major battles, who’s to say they didn’t?
It doesn’t take a classical historian to create a dazzling, accurate-enough ancient Greek or Roman campaign, just as it doesn’t take a medieval historian to write a D&D adventure. Between the monsters of the mythological age and the manipulative schemers of the civil wars, there should be something for everyone.
If the Greco-Roman pantheon isn’t exciting enough, there’s always the Egyptian one. Many Egyptian gods migrated to Italy between the fall of Athens and the rise of Rome, and if there’s any pantheon sure to cause chaos, it’s that one.
The Greeks and Romans might not have had all the weaponry familiar from medieval campaigns, but most of the classical armory should seem familiar. And if your ranger just has to have that crossbow, so what? It’s hardly surprising the gods would gift their champions with strange and deadly weapons.
The classical world provides endless possibilities for great campaigns. All you need for a convincing campaign is to know just a slight fraction more about the time period than your players do. And, of course, creativity. May I suggest calling on the Muses? Bona fortuna!
A Brief Word From Johnn
The Wire is a Good Show – Keep Your Game Local
A friend at work lent me his “The Wire” DVDs seasons 1-4, and it’s a great show with good characters and writing. I’d rate it for Mature viewers only, and it’s a fictional “Baltimore drug scene, seen through the eyes of drug dealers, and law enforcement.”
One thing in particular caught my attention: the local nature of the story. The writers successfully kept me glued to each episode, but the story was told within just a small number of locations, and with simple plots. The brilliance was in the great characters and their interactions.
GMs take note. You don’t need to crawl the whole world (and have to do all the planning that goes with it) or manage three simultaneous plot arcs, to make your games and stories fun. Focus on NPCs and the PCs. Let them drive encounter set-ups. Go deep into what makes them tick and create barriers that cause characters to take actions.
As a creative exercise, while you need to kill some time one day, imagine an adventure that takes place in just five locations. The PCs bounce around between the locations until they achieve their goal. How would you keep the adventure interesting? How could you use NPCs to keep the game interesting? What kind of conflicts and encounters would be fun to play?
Perhaps location #1 is the PCs’ home base, and #5 is the villain’s headquarters. In between is contested ground, though the villain’s minions and the PCs are able to travel to each other’s home turf.
What could you GM in such a tight environment?
Temple of Elemental Evil Campaign on Hiatus
One thing huge time crunches and family emergencies do for you is challenge your priorities. Recently, I’ve had to spend a few weeks away from the gaming table, and upon my return I realized I was burnt out on GMing my ToEE campaign.
One sign I’m burning out on a campaign is less frequent play dates. When I’m passionate about a campaign, I’m successful in battling through the reasons why a game session might be cancelled, and we end up playing more often. When I’m struggling to keep interest in a campaign, even small obstacles to getting game days together will win.
With ToEE, we’ve gamed very little so far in 2008. So, I bit the bullet last week and chatted with my players about it. We’ve decided to put the campaign on hold, which is secret code for “probably not going to play it again,” but who knows what the future might bring.
I’m a free GM again and excited to be considering a new campaign! Though it was tough to finally reach the decision to cancel the game, I’m eager to put game sessions together again. I’ll let you know what we decide to play next.
Have a gaming-full week.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Body Language Tips
From BFN Richard
This is just a brief word on body language. I know it sounds like a seventies advertising phrase, but I find a DM can create great effects through subtle use of basic body language techniques, especially when he starts to get excited.
For example, if an NPC is supposed to be shifting control from the PCs to himself in a relaxed environment (e.g. pub negotiations), leaning back slightly or putting one foot onto his knee conveys this easily. Avoiding eye contact, or hiding his hands or part of his mouth, is a great way to simulate lying or nerves. A finger at the side of the face can be skepticism.
The best part is playing other races. Who says they have the same body language as us? This is a great way to bring out the almost natural enmity between strange creatures.
For example, a creature tells the truth but uses the body language for lying. The PCs might assume he is lying when he acts this way, and it costs them. If they go back for revenge the damage to their reputation could be enormous. After all, the creature didn’t lie.
More Body Language Tips
From Riina Stewart
Mimic People’s Body Language
Copy the body language of the other person to seem more interested, socially competent, or powerful. This one can have different effects depending on when you use it, but it always creates a feeling that the person is interested and listening.
You might think it will look obvious, but it doesn’t (as long as you don’t go too far). People do it all the time in ordinary conversation to signify they are interested in what someone is saying, or that they like them.
This has the effect of putting people off-guard when used at odd moments. The best effect I ever put it to was in playing an extremely powerful and socially competent NPC interrogating a shifty, powerful, and cheeky PC. This made the PC feel totally out of control of the situation (for a change), because there was no way the NPC could like them, but yet they behaved as if they did.
Watch Where You Sit
If you are sitting higher than the players it will create an impression of power. If you sit lower, it will make you seem subservient. This is not easy, though, if you game at a table (I game in the lounge room, there’s nothing to obscure body language then).
Learn About Body Language
Body language is a subtle and powerful thing. It has been said it accounts for most communication between people, but yet people often don’t notice it consciously. Here are a few tips gleaned from here and there:
- Fidgeting makes you look nervous
- Sitting with your legs apart, leaning back (especially if male) comes across as confident or aggressive
- Gesturing with your hands palm down makes you look authoritarian
- Slumping down in your chair makes you seem timid, especially if you wrap your arms about yourself and cross your legs
Avoid Overdoing It
The more you use a mannerism for a particular NPC the more it becomes caricature. You’ll realise you’ve gone too far when the players start making up silly jokes as to why the NPC is always doing it.
In a game I was in there was a powerful, vampiric mage who rarely spoke and often sat with his forehead resting on steepled fingers. The GM did this once to often, and much to his annoyance, we started making up jokes about how it was actually a faery curse that made him do it, or that his fingers were actually attached to his forehead (accompanied with mimes of him trying to pull them off). Initially, the mannerism had made him seem mysterious and thoughtful, but it just became a way for us to laugh at one of the scariest NPCs in the game. The scarier the NPC the more the players will want to joke about them.
Free Virtual Mixer Board For Sound Effects
Just wanted to tip you and all the roleplayers about the amazing audio tool called Mixere.
It’s a free virtual mixer board helpful for playing multiple audio samples at the same time. I use it for playing sound effects during roleplay sessions, while using Winamp for music. Please do check it out.
Maintaining Party Cohesion
In regard to keeping the party together, I’d like to throw in my two cents. I am currently running a Star Wars Saga game that is set outside of the movies. It’s as if the Sith Wars never happened, and the Jedi are so concerned with wiping out the Sith that they are no longer the bastion of good they used to be.
The party consists of a disinterested smuggler, a mercenary bounty hunter droid who revels in killing, a Sith apprentice whose aspiration is to control a star system, and a Jedi who is just like in the movies, only incredibly naive.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m allowing dark-side in this game. My dark-siders are experienced players, and I only had to lay down one rule:
Ask not, “What would my character do,” rather, “What can my character do that won’t destroy his personality or the game?”
I’ve found everyone does not need to be working toward the same goal – only moving in the same direction. The party is investigating a super-evil devil (I’ve mixed a little Cthulhu in here). One PC wants to gain enough support to “ride the wave” of the devil’s rise to power. One wants to gain enough information to break up the devil’s organization from the inside. One wants to help his own organization claim the victory they seek over their rivals and the devils. And one just follows the trail of money: killing whomever is worth the most.
There will be a point when each party member has to choose sides, and they may not choose to fight together, but the goal here is to keep them all in the story (and approximately the same location) until then. What happens at the climax could rend them asunder (in which case it’ll have been one heck of a ride and we’ll start a new campaign) or bring them even closer together.
The point I’m trying to make: if you’re not happy with your group’s cohesion, is it possible to change your definition of “cohesion?”