Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Imperishable Fame, part 2

Before outlining some of the ideas I have for Imperishable Fame, the Proto-Indo-European campaign setting I introduced yesterday, I thought I'd take a moment to spell out a couple working principles for this project. 

Principle #1: Pseudo-history rather than pre-history

Although I'm digging into linguistic, literary, anthropological and archaelogical material to fuel this campaign, I'm not trying to teach Intro to Proto-Indo-European Studies here.  The point of the exercise is to use this stuff to power a fantasy adventure campaign and as such I have no more loyalty to the source material than a GM running a typical Pendragon campaign would have to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.  In fact if I was running Pendragon (which I have a couple of times) I'd be equally influenced by the films Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The original source material is a vehicle, not the destination.

So, for example, S'mon asked in the comments to yesterday's post "Where would you set a PIE campaign? AIR the origin point is still in some dispute, but I'd suggest the western Caucasus/eastern Black Sea shore area - eg western Georgia and Abkhazia - gives interesting terrain and a variety of options."  The short answer is "somewhere in the central region marked on this map of theorized Indo-European expansion":

But the long answer would actually be "In a mythic realm that inevitably simplifies, mythologizes and just plain screws up the central region marked on this map of theorized Indo-European expansion."  Because the geography involved will be taken as informative rather than prescriptive, so I'm giving myself permission to make changes that serve the campaign better.  And I'm also giving myself permission to make some mistakes and not fret about it.  Similarly, I will make hash with all the other source material, sometimes by intent, sometime by ineptitude.

Principle #2: This is D&D, dammit

There's a fine line between a set of house rules and a whole new game and I can't give you an objective criteria for that sort of thing.  Whether that's because I'm a noodlehead or the simple reality that this issue devolves to aesthetic considerations, I don't really know.  All I know is that when it comes to D&D I have a part of my brain that seems to act a lot like Socrates' daemon: I can tell when something has gone too far, but that intuition doesn't provide much in the way of positive information.  So when I say "this is D&D" what I really mean is "this did not set off my internal 'not D&D' detector".  That means every new mechanical gew-gaw introduced has to pass this simple test.

I could take some time here to outline a best guess as to what constitutes, to me, core parts of D&D.  I'm going to resist that temptation because I really don't want to clog up the comments section arguing these points.  Especially when you could yank any one of those 'core parts', replace it with some 'obviously superior' mechanic, and still end up with something I could recognize as D&D.  I suspect that's probably because D&D isn't a shopping list of mechanics and concepts to be checked off one by one, but rather an operational paradigm/gestalt/synergy/[insert buzzword here].

The other half of the "This is D&D, dammit" principle is avoiding the alienation of players.  I have a great bunch of players who deal with a lot of idiosyncratic shenanigans that, for better or for worse, dot my games.  But I'm not one of those Svengali-GMs with hypno-players that will follow me absolutely anywhere.  I hear the Cult Leader thing is a great gig if you can get it, but my players are pretty much regular people wanting to play regular D&D.  Some days they dig my little experiments with the art form, other days they politely put up with it and get on with killing orcs.  Therefore, any innovation has to pass both my own mental "is this D&D?" filter, but also "will this be the straw that breaks the players' brains?"

Principle #3: No apocalypse

Default D&D is post-apocalyptic in nature.  Full stop.  No qualifiers.  I support this bald assertion with the fact that most campaign worlds I've seen aren't Eberron-style magic-as-tech affairs.  Furthermore, most versions of the game support the existence of artifact and relics as examples of uber-awesome magic items that no PC can make.  And where do you think all those monsters got all those gold coins?  I submit that they are from some long lost (read: Roman) empire that came crashing down on everyone's head.  D&D as Tolkien Plus Howard Plus Swiss Pikemen Versus The Dragon At The End Of Beowulf just doesn't make any friggin' sense without Númenor/Atlantis/Rome lurking in the background.

But in this campaign I am intentionally screwing with the default set-up.  The Tower of Babel?  Hasn't been built yet.  Forget about looting the ruins of Ancient Egypt or Sumeria; Those guys finished building their first cities last Thursday.  And the Great Flood may happen during the course of the campaign.  Furthermore, I'm rejecting Atlantis and Mu, not because they couldn't be of great service to a D&D campaign, but because I'm making an artistic choice to do something else.

The most obvious place this decision creeps into the campaign is in terms of treasure and magic items.  Coins haven't been invented yet, so treasure will be mostly in terms of things like household goods and jewelry done up in precious metals.  Many hoards will come with claimants to ownership, like all the people who got up in arms (literally) about Smaug's treasure.  Look at it this way: if a dragon kicked your grandpa out of the house, wouldn't you want the family heirlooms back no matter who slew the damned thing?  At the dawn of time, few manmade objects would be ancient enough to have their legal claims of ownership rendered indeterminate.

Under this plan the initial array of magic items would be limited to manmade stuff only a few generations old, which could invoke the same 'Hey, I'm the rightful heir of your treasure!' problem, or stuff made by the gods and given to humanity as a boon.  Retrieving the Axe That Totally Shoots Lightning Bolts And Was Made By The God of Thunder from the bad guys seems like a pretty good way to score some of that there Imperishable Fame.  The upside of the initial paucity of magic items is that I would make item creation easier than most pre-3.0 games.  There's no Staff of Wizardry lying about from the bygone days of the Lich Empire, since there never was a Lich Empire, but I am totally onboard with a PC magic-user being the person who created the original Wiz Staff.

Spells would work the same way, since there aren't any musty old spellbooks lying around.  In fact, there aren't any spellbooks at all.  The core campaign culture is completely illiterate.  M-U's take the form of epic poets who have memorized a vast corpus of magical lore and spend each morning meticulously loading their short-term memory with the passages they will recite for the day.  That means you can only steal a spell from an M-U by overhearing them casting it.


  1. Anonymous11:22 AM

    What I want to knnow is what's up with the yellow strip between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Expansion went through and around but nobody stayed. It's where Georgia and Azerbijian are today. Have those people always been that badass or grumpy that no one wanted to be neighbors?

  2. So your M-Us are 3.x Bards? Interesting.

    Will you have a criteria for how to handle the vast piles of monsters lifted from Folklore that is explicitly not North-Central Asian?

  3. GSV, if I'm not mistaken, that yellow strip was either under water or unfarmable marshy wasteland at the time of the PIE expansion.

  4. If you going for pseudo history look at the cultures that created the megalithic structures that dot Europe. Plus the Neolithic Stone Age cultures produced a lot of artifacts like Venus earth mothers that could be useful for treasure.

    In fact at the time period you are talking about a good deal of the earth is still in the Neolithic so you got some interesting possibilities there.

  5. Anonymous12:35 PM


    I'm digging both the concept and the proposed area for the campaign. Will you be looking for/ basing things on an appropriate but approximate map of the area during that time (including sea levels) and filling in your details or will things be more vague... mountiains here; seas here, here and here; spooky forest here, etc...

  6. Jeff, this is all insanely cool.

    I'm assuming that requiring the players to create characters whose names are the unpronounceable wads of phonetics which are PIE reconstructions would be a straw that would definitely break their brains. :)

    "The shortest, simplest name I can have for my character is *GwhRth2mr the Mighty???"

  7. BTW, are you going to go all Marja Gimbutas and assume that Old Europe is full of peaceful goddess-worshippers whose asses the PC's descendants will be handing to them continuously over the next few centuries?

    That'd be kinda cool. Well, it'd be especially cool if they weren't as wussed out as a patriarchal brain might assume, and their goddess culture had forms of magic that, while subtler than dyaus-pitar-type warrior magic, were something the players had to watch out for... I'm thinking of the terrifying magic of "The Snow Women" in Fritz Leiber's "Swords and Deviltry"....

  8. this campaign will fill in an important gap in the timeline necessary to prove my "every campaign is just part of one long game" theory.

  9. I submit that they are from some long lost (read: Roman) empire that came crashing down on everyone's head. D&D as Tolkien Plus Howard Plus Swiss Pikemen Versus The Dragon At The End Of Beowulf just doesn't make any friggin' sense without Númenor/Atlantis/Rome lurking in the background.

    Can I get an "Amen?"

  10. If you haven't already done so, you might like to read Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. There are a bunch of books in the series, and although they all more or less stand alone, it's probably best to start by reading that one — which was the first of them.

  11. I love it. Love the illiteracy angle.

    I'm working on a campaign based upon Graham Hancock's theories of an elder civilization, ca. 10,000 BC.

  12. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Interesting stuff!
    The total lack of literacy (and lack of coinage) puts, I think, a very strong emphasis on the role of objects in the game and in the culture. Objects as fetishes, carriers of information (spells?) and power and stories as they're passed from one hero's hand to another... Decorated pottery, f'instance, is of importance not only because archaeologists are able to find a lot of it, but because all the incisions, painting, and applique knobs form a system of "external symbolic storage" which is the closest thing to writing -- and the elaborate painted decoration on pots can act as transfixing and enchanting labyrinths of symbols... including, perhaps, spells?
    Whoa. Getting carried away there; more prosaically, No Tavern Signs: people and institutions like that have to be signalled in some other way.
    Also, there's a powerful role possible for experts in pyrotechnology -- pottery and metallurgy -- as magicians (as well as the bardic aspect).
    I also appreciate your 'pseudo-history' point; indeed, very bad or outdated scholarship often makes for better fantasy than rigorous academic stuff...

  13. Jeff, you might want to look over Clive Barker's "Galilee".

    The major plot-driving characters in the story were a squabbling family of godlings who originated in a mythic prehistoric version of the Eurasian steppelands.

    This may be relevant to your interests.

  14. "post-apocalyptic" in this broad sense is implicit in the term "medieval," isn't it?

    The project sounds really interesting as a fantasy setting: pretty much everyone in human mythohistory has Mightier Ancestors - the Old Testament, the Sumerians, the Vikings, Qin Shi Huang. It's arguably a cornerstone of magical thinking that things were better way back when, that proximity to the Time of the Gods/Big Bang means awesome immanent power. But that power is problematic for weaving comprehensible stories, and fantasy, unlike religious creation stories, pretty much always takes place in some time with solid, recognisable ground beneath the feet, a middle "back then," closer to but not in the High Mythic - so I guess you get a sort of fractal wonder thing going on, where every point on a continuum from God-time to man-time is after the golden age but before the present base-metal age.

    So I wonder; are your PIEs "modern?" making their own way in progressive, eschatological time?

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Re: post-apocalypse being the default setting of D&D, I heartily agree and would submit that this is why so many attempts at "D&D in space" have failed. The default space opera campaign places us during the rise or peak of galactic/stellar power.

    "Sword & Planet" science fiction, which is post-apocalyptic space opera, will succeed on this basis.

  17. Hmmm... only "young" dungeons. Makes me think of this rare SFW Oglaf

  18. I recall reading somewhere the that the Indo Europeans measured their wealth by how many cows they had.

    I might be misremembering there, but the idea of the PCs doing all that daring do in a relentless pursuit of more cows appeals to me.

    "Sure you got that nifty lighting bolt throwing axe and everything, but you hardly have any cows at all. How can we take you seriously?"

    Guess what?! I got a fever, and the only prescription...is more cow!!


  19. Ed: How about, instead of Gimbutas-style Old Europeans, Europe is populated with the fading remnants of the elves? The Indo-Europeans are coming to replace the elves as they fade off to the western isles, neatly explaining the relatively quick and nearly complete domination of Europe by IE language speakers. Of course, the problem there is that it ends up resembling the apocalyptic myth that Mr. Rients is trying to avoid too closely. Hmm…

  20. Anonymous5:25 AM

    Well, I'm posting some thoughts about a stone age campaign for pathfinder on my blog. Made some random tables for creating random tribes of random stone age people - this could be usefull in a early history campaign of any system as well - but here's the catch: it's in german...

  21. Anonymous11:29 AM

    "D&D as Tolkien Plus Howard Plus Swiss Pikemen Versus The Dragon At The End Of Beowulf just doesn't make any friggin' sense without Númenor/Atlantis/Rome lurking in the background."

    That was awesome.

  22. I was reading Imperishable Flame since post 1.
    Imperishable Fame... meh.

  23. druids.

    Druids with blood-soaked altars.


    YES. Cattle is wealth. "An ogre has been raiding in the area, and has stolen many cows, chickens and sheep. If you kill him, you may keep a tenth of what he has taken as your reward."

    My goal in such a campaign would be to make my character rich enough that he could start adding how many cows he has to his name. "I am Grognar Twenty Cows!"

  24. Anonymous3:05 PM

    I like "Twenty Cows." What about basic resource stockpiling like the Settlers wood-sheep-ore-wheat-clay thing? None of those are really transportable. Then again, there are no market towns to buy from and no valuable goods to buy in them.

    Or are you going more advanced, to the point where there are incense and ivory and gems and gold, and the trade routes to support their transit?