View Full Version : History of science (and culture) and your campaign

2009-12-04, 11:28 AM
For some time now, I had an idea on how campaigns can be made more vibrant and I would like to share it with you. It is about looking on actual history for inspiration in order to add finishing touches to world.

Two different responses can be immediately made. The first one is that history is over-hyped and that not all campaigns want, need, or can be bothered to have a professional historian standing by in order to be fun. Of course, this is true. All I want to say is how, if one is interested, some things can be framed in a more authentically feeling way.

The second is the exact opposite, that is to say that the idea is not new. And of course it really isn't. From the early days of DnD, cosmology was somewhat based on Aristotelian and early medieval depictions of the universe. The four elements, the concentric circles of the multiverse etc etc are proof. Even more generally, in this forum, the Giant has shown how can one take inspiration from real world historical events. I am a great fan of this technique and it is certainly not mine. But what I want to do is specifically get inspirations from history of science and culture for a campaign.

If you are with me so far and you haven't fainted from my verbosity, I will present my ideas for these specific elements:

Maps, books, art, disciplines and education

The medieval maps were nothing like the ones we have today. They did not aim at represent the world as it is nor where there tools to do so. However, in most games maps are accurate, perfect in their details and lack just the GPS device to be modern. The same in kingdoms and armies: All have large maps that they use in order to administrate effectively or fight a war.

But this is not how it went. Maps often represented the world as it should be, not as it was. Earth was depicted in the shape of the cross or as the bible described it. Generals and administrators did not use maps but relied on local knowledge. Map was something like a symbolic, not an actual, representation. Far more common were the 'periplous', were books described what a traveler would find in a journey by boat to a continent or sea. And of course, fact and myth went hand in hand.

Uses in a campaign:
What if the map of the treasure for the party was created by elves? What if it thus implicitly draws on elven religion and players can't make heads or tails of it? Do they search for an elven scholar?

What if the general of the army wants the party to approach the locals in order to learn about the prospective battleground? What if they have to stop the enemy from doing so? What if they have to race to a distant monastery in order to protect the only 'map' made by humans?

What if the party have to protect a geographical mission (for later dates)? What if they are involved in a dispute within scholars because a school of thought within the Church deems the other heretical for making depicting, non symbolic maps?

What if the party is sent to find a place through using a 'periplous'? Places described are simply not there, information is outright false or strikingly accurate and the destination described is fictional or quire different. What then?

Here things are more mainstream. Everybody knows that books were bulky, handmade and very very rare, acting as sources of power. But it is the conventional view that spells usually go around that problem easily. But what if they don't? Maybe mages can't be bothered to translate books not of their interest. Maybe some are written by heathens and thus kept secret for theological reasons. Maybe they are not just available in a civilization and some scholar needs a tome desperately enough to hire a party to get it. From a foreign, hostile and heathen civilization.
Finally, literacy was really not widespread at all. Only educated people (like priests and nobles and only later, some merchants) knew how to read. By most adventuring parties find notes, directions etc etc everywhere. Why? Maybe peasants are forbidden from learning such things. Maybe a note is already a biased object: The writer knows that whoever finds it will be of a certain social strata. That also means that a message needs to have a courier or a crier to go from city to city.

More coming if people are interested

2009-12-04, 11:53 AM
I've always included that sort of thing in my campaigns to one degree or another. Most of the time it comes down to the trade-off between interesting detail and ease of use. It's a line that you draw in the sand and there's no clear place to draw it, but where you draw it influences a lot of your decisions.

You give your players a map so that the landscape makes sense to them. They haven't wandered around in the country so you can't communicate the experience to them in that way. I wish I could. Maps of places I know always look different than they do inside my head.

Languages is another one. 'Common' as a language makes no sense whatsoever but, like the Universal Translator in Star Trek, it serves a narrative function. So I need, or want, to know about all of the languages and dialects in the world? No. I just need to know who he can talk to and who he can't. You add a few details for flavour and verisimilitude (Orc metaphors always involve food, Halflings count in base 9 because the guy who invented their numbering system had lost a finger in childhood) and you go.

Campaign detail can quickly spin out of control and obstruct the flow of story rather than facilitate it.

But a little of it (however you define 'a little') is great for a more immersive experience.

2009-12-04, 11:53 AM
Another thing about maps... most land-navigation maps at the time were drawn not in actual distances, but in guestimated distances based on time of travel. There were ways to measure the actual milage between towns but they were annoying, complicated, and in many cases not worth the effort it took. So, mapmakers would use travel times and work out rough distances from that. Which means that if there were lots of hills between towns, they'd be represented as being farther apart than if it was a flat plain.

While deep-sea travel would usually use navigation instruments that measured sun, moon, and star positions and were therefore more accurate, a lot of older maps and coastal navigation maps were built off of dead reckoning, so have much the same problems as the land-navigation maps.

Then add into it that a lot of maps had deliberate errors in them. The idea being that since you drew the map, you would know the issues you had built into it and could compensate when using it to navigate. But if someone copied or flat out stole your map, they wouldn't be able to work out your special tricky trade route that cut days off the sailing time.