Thursday, August 09, 2018

Tékumel Shock Syndrome Turned Up to 11

I’ve moved to the ubersuburbs of Seattle recently, so far out you’ll probably need a boat to find me. (You could take a bridge, but that would probably be the long way around.) Thankfully, with the burgeoning popularity of D&D, it didn’t take me long to find a group. The first two people we talked to wanted to learn 5e, so 5e it is. (For now…)

I prefer bespoke campaigns and one of the players said he wanted to play a character with some Aztec-ish cultural aspects. Fine by me; they’ll be fantasy-Aztecs, naturally, probably with tamed dinosaurs and bronze if not iron tools, but I’ll also vet this stuff with the player since I don’t want him thinking I’m making fun of his ancestry.

While I was rolling this stuff around in my head, I came across this interesting article about setting your game shortly after some sort of systemic cultural and geo-political collapse. Neat stuff, and the author makes some good points. After all, that Common tongue had to come from somewhere, right?

More on that stuff later; in a post on G+, Kasimir “RPG Pundit” Urbanski chimed in about his true-to-history (but with the magic folks believed in at the time) setting, Lion & Dragon. Now, first off, Urbanski’s absolutely correct; a true-to-history medieval Europe is incredibly alien to modern suburbanites. If you’re looking for a truly different setting, you can’t go wrong with history. But the reason most folks play in pseudo-medieval RenFest fantasy is because everyone knows the lay of the land. The more alien you get, the harder it is for players to act and invest in the setting. I call this (unfairly to Empire of the Petal Throne, but it’s the first place I encountered this sort of thing) Tékumel Shock Syndrome. And while I’m sure Lion & Dragon is pretty cool, it’s something that’s going to show up in spades if you play there.

If I say we're playing a campaign inspired by the Arabian Nights and Orientalist paintings, that's pretty easy for players to wrap their heads around. I show some pictures, explain how camels differ from horses, everyone gives their character an exotic-sounding name, and we're off to the races.

If I say we're playing in a historically accurate Fatimid Caliphate, well, that's a bit tougher, but most folks in a Western suburban environment feels confident in their ignorance of what that means. So they’ll lean on the DM to help them flesh out the details. With some work and dedication, we could get a game rolling, and I imagine such a campaign would be a rewarding experience.

When you start talking about historical England during, for instance, the reign of Richard the Lionhearted, there’s no lack of cool adventuring opportunities, but it’s what people don’t know that they don’t know that’s going to cause trouble. They’re going to be a bit freaked out when told they have to witness their friend deflower his bride and possibly testify to the consummation in an ecclesiastic court, for instance. If they find an inn (which most towns won’t have; even a “tavern” was often a home where the missus had brewed a large pot beer that would look more like stew to modern eyes), they’ll almost certainly be sharing not only a room with strangers, but a bed. Most people live in literal one-room huts. In Scandinavia you might still have folks living in long houses, which are just multi-family one-room huts. (Yes, just one room. No interior doors or walls, so no privacy, no separate bed room, and in the winter you’ll have the animals in the house with you.) They’ll have read something about Magna Charta enshrining the whole “jury by peers” thing, but that’s during John’s reign, and even after that many medieval trials seem as nonsensical to modern eyes as Zak’s “trial by pie” thing.

In short, if you want to do historical correctly, it’s going to take time and effort and a lot of open-mindedness on everyone’s part to pull it off. But if you do, you’ll certainly have a campaign to brag about.

As for me, I’m thinking my Aztec-esque dinotopia is ruled by dragon demi-gods. ;)


faoladh said...

Aztec dinotopia sounds fabulous.

I live in the ubersuburbs of Seattle, in a place that you need a boat to find me or else take a bridge to go the long way around. I'm now wondering if you're in my general area now. Bremerton? Port Orchard? Bainbridge Island? None of these?

trollsmyth said...

Langley on Whidbey, so a wee bit further north and much further, I suspect, out in the Styx.

faoladh said...

Ah, yeah, that's a bit of a walk.