Campaign Design: Historical and Fictional References

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on February 28, 2009

In the last article we dealt with the Next Steps in campaign design, today we’ll discuss various campaign settings, historical periods, novels and talk about the themes that exist within the fantasy genre. This is my favourite part of design as it’s where you get to really dream about the different possibilities. Make sure you have your notebook handy and any of the Resources that you’ve collected to help you along the way. You’re bound to have more than a few flash insights at moments that you aren’t actively working on your campaign world and you’ll want to jot them down for future use.

We’ll start things off with a look at different historical periods and how you could incorporate them into your game.

Historical Periods

This period in history saw the rapid expansion of civilization. There was a huge emphasis on learning as evidenced by the writings of Socrates and Plato. Arena battles were a common occurrence and served as regular entertainment. Slavery was a common and accepted practice of society. If a world spanning empire is a theme that you’d like to draw upon then this time period should provide plenty of information for you.

Perhaps a tribe of Hobgoblins have been expanding their territory aggressively. The conquered towns are offered slavery or death. The PCs may be slaves who rebel against their masters. Alternately, perhaps human civilization is just establishing itself and the PCs are the heroes fighting for survival and dominance.

Movies of note:

  • 300
  • Ben Hur
  • Gladiator
  • Spartacus
  • Troy

The Dark Ages
This period in history gets a bad rap. It has the misfortune of following the Roman Empire and it is generally thought that much learning was lost. While this is generally true there was still some advancement. This period is where we get much of traditional Dungeons & Dragons culture from. It was the time when the legend of King Arthur was born and the epic poem Beowulf was written. This period also led up the Crusades when many of the knightly orders were created.

The PCs may be part of an army that is on a greater crusade. Perhaps there is a continent-wide war raging and the party finds itself caught in the middle of the events. Vikings are raiding costal villages and have recently become bolder. The PCs are sent to investigate and discover a more sinister threat.

Movies of note:

  • Beowulf
  • Excalibur
  • King Arthur
  • Kingdom of Heaven

The Renaissance was a period of learning and advancement. This is a period that favours the Bard in the D&D sense of the class. The ideals of chivalry were advanced and the Church had a prominent position in society.

The PCs belong to a Holy Order that has recently returned from a successful crusade, however the true evil has been at home all along. New and wonderous magical discoveries have been made by a wizard of great renown. The PCs are hired to investigate or steal the discoveries, but to what end?

Movies of note:

  • Elizabeth
  • Elizabeth: The Golden Age
  • A Knight’s Tale
  • Shakespeare in Love

Oriental Culture
I’m not going to profess to be an expert in this setting and it isn’t one that I’m fond of playing in. However, the concept of Samurai, Ninja’s and Ronin warriors is one that can be fun to play in.

Perhaps a Samurai Lord was murdered. Upon investigating further a mad priest has raised up a host of mummy monks and plans to overthrow the emperor.

Movies of note:

  • Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • The Forbidden Kingdom
  • Hero

Official D&D Settings

The Forgotten Realms
The flagship game world for D&D, the Forgotten Realms are a mish-mash of many different ideas. What you will find are Kingdoms like Cormyr, Magocracies like Thay, City States like Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate, and Asian influenced cultures. In short you can find a little bit of everything in the realms and this isn’t a bad thing. The overall feel for the game is fantasy, not high fantasy but a typical fantasy setting.

I think of Eberron as the dark horse of campaign settings. It’s not the primary D&D setting, which is evident by the fact that we are still waiting for the 4e source books. Also, it’s a darker setting. While the world is large, it’s also much more cohesive than the Forgotten Realms. Eberron is described as being a dark noir setting that focuses on action, placing the PCs in a post war period. The setting is also very magic rich. Many of the elements of modern society are incorporated and explained with magic. Such examples include the Lightning Rail, Airships, and House Sivis sending stones.

If you are looking for horror in D&D, look no further. Ravenloft dishes up the dead and the demonic for you in spades. A read through the old campaign books or Expedition to Castle Ravenloft can provide plenty of inspiration.

Fantasy Novels

A look through your local bookstore will reveal plenty of fantasy novels to pick from. I’ll highlight a few below that are well worth reading.

The Black Company by Glen Cook
The Black Company is a mercenary army. The setting of the novel is bleak and war torn. I often think of this novel as being the grunge element to the fantasy setting as I felt gritty and dirty as I read it.

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
A Song of Ice and Fire is a great look at a decade or two of a severely dysfunctional kingdom. If you want court politics to play a large part in your campaign I highly recommend reading this series.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Of course we have Tolkien, the standard in fantasy literature. The Lord of the Rings pitches good versus evil in an epic battle. Jealousy, greed, fear, rage, love and laughter are all relevant as Tolkien presents his epic story. If you’ve only seen the movies, which are good, I recommend you pick up the books. The language is rich and serves to inspire.

Where do you draw your inspiration from when thinking about adventure or campaign design? Are there any movies or novels that have inspired your gaming sessions? Share them with us as we’re always looking for a new idea, book or movie.

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1 Wyatt February 28, 2009 at 10:36 am

In my Spirits of Eden campaign setting my main inspirations were Indian, Ainu and aboriginal culture with a mix of contemporary politics and cultures. I tend to draw inspiration from lesser-used eastern mythologies like the Hindu and japanese Ainu cultures (which makes it a bit harder to track down info and inspirational sources at times, at least for Ainu). I also like tropical and South American culture.

2 Wimwick February 28, 2009 at 3:23 pm

@Wyatt. Thanks for stopping in. I’m not that familiar with Hindu or Ainu cultures, which is why I left them off the list. I didn’t want to make any errors. The idea of contemporary politics is an interesting way of mixing things up, yet still giving the players something familiar to work with. I find that mixing up moral or ethical questions with political consequences really keep the PCs on their toes and makes for some interesting role playing.

Is your Spirits of Eden setting available to read or download on your site?

3 Wyatt February 28, 2009 at 11:47 pm

It’s on my site, yep, what’s been done so far anyway! It’s posted to the pages at the top.

4 JEB February 3, 2010 at 3:49 am

A must read for any low-fantasy rogue setting: “the Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch …
I prefer using standard material that I modefy to suit my campaign goals … Right now I have a Campaign centered in Cormyr with Netheril and Shar as the main antagonists …
A friend of mine runs a Ars Magica semi-historical setting, centered on the Viking expansion in the British Isles … Who knows … maybe the Battle of Stamford Bridge will turn out differently this time (I’m Norwegian so it would be fun if it did) …

5 Chaosmancer August 14, 2011 at 5:45 pm

There are some other book series that would make great resources. Anything by Raymond E Feist, while it already has it’s own rpg, would be great for getting epic level ideas from.

Also I’m in the very beginning stages of a campaign and I’m considering incorporating some ideas from the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind.

I’d also like to say I’ve just started reading your blog ( I like going back to the beginning of things :P) and I’ve seen some great stuff that I’ll try and bring into my gaming groups. Thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge

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