Other types of fantasy setting, part 2, Historical fantasy

Among my favourite fantasy novels are the following that are at least ostensibly set in the real world in historical times with historical cultures and societies.

  • Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, by Gene Wolfe, set in Greece about 479–476 BC
  • The Phoenix and the Mirror, by Avram Davidson, set in the Roman Empire of Renaissance folklore
  • Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, set in China in the late Tang Period (with a fine contempt for research)
  • Damiano, Damiano’s Lute, and Raphael, by Roberta MacAvoy, set in Occitania in the late 14th Century.

Besides that, there’s a bunch of Arthurian fantasy (including Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon) and some Trojan War fantasy and so forth. Mary Renault’s “Theseus” novels, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea are favourites too, and I do recommend them to players as antidotes to vanilla fantasy, but they are too Euhemerising to really count as fantasy. I guess the same might be said of The Mists of Avalon.

What do you think of this sort of matter as a setting or model for RPGs? I’ve often thought that the world Herodotus thought he lived in would make a fine fantasy setting.

I am something of an adherent of Ken Hite’s principle that one should use the real world if possible; several of my recent game worlds have been 20th century (WWII, 1960s, 1930s) with a fantastic twist (resurgent magic, psi, resurgent magic).

One of the reasons I don’t get on with dungeon-bash fantasy is the lack of anything like a civilised society: it’s a core idea that there are people you can kill with no comeback.

Is there room in the middle? To have a fantasy game within a functioning society, and therefore not focused on killing? I think so, and historical models seem like a good starting point; anarchies and frontiers have tended to be ephemeral conditions.

@MichaelCule has talked about the world of Ars Magica (I think it is) running on Aristotelian physics, and I find that a fascinating concept in itself, quite separate from the stories about magicians.


That gives it little appeal to me, too.

I think much of that is the influence of the wild west pulps (which may depict society but often as something for rough men to react against, or to save by not being part of), as well as D&D’s wargaming roots. But even Tolkien has plenty of fights; taking the journey of the Fellowship as an example, the only functioning authority between Bree and Rohan is Rivendell and Lóthlórien, which are basically wilderness forts that can send out raiding parties. Away from there, things can attack you and you can attack them, and the only comeback is if you lose the fight.

There is plenty of popular culture schlock set in the real world with the same assumption.

True, but I think it’s harder to set up. James Bond or Jason Bourne get to kill people, but they’re highly trained rather than random guys off the farm, and it’s generally either in the context of a mission or in self-defence. I’m running a GURPS Monster Hunters game at the moment, which could come close, but not all monsters are mindless and fighting them isn’t always the answer.

When I ran my Roman Empire campaign (the one that inspired Roma Arcana in GURPS Fantasy), I did some looking into Roman history. I had thought that AUC 1000 might be a nice symbolic year. And then I read Gibbon’s comments on how this was a period of cultural collapse, ineffective government, and widespread violence, and I thought, “Perfect for a roleplaying campaign! Lots of adventures!” Well-ordered Shires don’t offer nearly so much occasion for adventurers to pursue their trade; they take a different style of roleplaying.

Of the six books that I took as examples in GURPS Adaptations, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is explicitly not set in “a civilized country,” and the same is true of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and the first half of the Odyssey. Water Margin is set in the Chinese Empire, but focuses on outlaws rebelling against it; Dracula involves the invastion of a civilized country by a being from an uncivilized one. Only Pride and Prejudice is entirely set within the bounds of civilization.

Hmm. Yes, if I came across as saying “I only want to play games set entirely within civilisation”, then I erred.

I’m not saying I want to do exclusively comedy-of-manners, but I do like characters who are more at home in civilisation than in the wildlands (whether that’s an actual location or the activities round the edge where adventury stuff happens). I like a society to interact with, separately from “let’s move on to the next encounter”. I want at least some idea of what the characters do when they’re not keeping the world safe. The vampire hunters in Dracula would be a good example of what I’m talking about: they are civilised people and for the most part they are operating in civilisation, even if the forces of civilisation can’t help them much.

When I think about it, it seems to me that a lot of adventure series have that focus. It’s very much a concern of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example. And in a different way, classic superheroes are carrying on civilized lives (thanks to their secret identities) from which they go out into a savage, violent realm of people in flashy costumes.

Probably makes it easier for the reader (or viewer, or player, or what have you) to achieve immersion, if they can relate in some way to the characters within the fiction. Most people IRL live within the realm of a (supposedly) civilized society; it’s easier to find common ground with fictional characters who have similar experiences, rather than characters who exist completely outside the fringes of society, who spend all their time fighting gribbly monsters in the Gloomy Caverns Below or some such, without having to worry about the dreaded Tax Collector.

Interesting. I’ve usually written that off to the escapist side of the fantasy - sure, your barbarian hero knows that there are somewhere in the world civilised people who worry about such things, but the proper job for a manly man is to keep those weak people safe from the horrors.

And of course players can bring their own ideas. I think it was Peter dell’Orto writing about worldbuilding in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy who said something along the lines of “leave lots of blank spaces, so that when your player says ‘I want a barbarian from the frozen north’ you can easily slot in a frozen north for him to be from”.

That sort of happened in my Worminghall campaign. One of my five players told me he wanted to play a boy raised by dragons. And, well, Worminghall had that name because the original hall that gave it its name was paid for by a dragon’s treasure, so there were, or had been, dragons in Great Britain. So I allowed him to have been raised in a remote lair after his human parents died, and then sent off to Worminghall to learn human-style magic. . . .

The kenhitean miracle of historical fantasy is that there are several frozen Norths known to exist, also at least half a dozen dark Souths and an all-you-can-eat buffet of mysterious Easts.

Well, I’ll be the guy to stick my neck out and say that I generally prefer games and stories that are driven by a society’s internal conflicts, and that on the whole I usually find open conflict against external enemies less interesting, as it affords less scope for choices other than merely tactical ones.

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That was something which went wrong with TSR’s Forgotten Realms in my opinion. They started by stating that certain areas would be left blank for people to detail themselves, only to “officially” fill them in later. Creativity flourishes in the spaces between.


In the past, I’ve tended to run one of each kind, in parallel. The external conflicts suited my players who liked a lot of action, and the internal conflicts suited my players who liked a lot of roleplaying. Though I often had a third that was different on some other dimension:

Boca del Infierno (a vampire slayer in Alta California when it was still Spanish), Manse (an isolated community ruled by sorcerer/aristocrats), Whispers (classic mysteries in Transhuman Space)

Nowhere Fast (low-end supers recruited by the Australian government in the world of the Laundry Files), Worminghall (magic students at a medieval university), Water Margin (a parallel timeline where China ruled most of the world, with England as a princely state under Chinese protection)

Sovereignty (a world where high-end supers were legally sovereign states, and player characters were the NATO emergency team of lower-end supers who dealt with rogue sovereigns), The Foam of Perilous Seas (privateers on the Pearl Bright Ocean in the service of Atlantis)