5th Edition,  D&D,  DMXP,  RPG,  World Building

From the Ground Up – Ancient Empires

I talked about History, recently, and how it forms the game around itself, creating a realistic world and forming into a greater whole. This time, I want to look at a bit more of the specifics of large, ancient empires and how they form the nucleus of a good history. 

History, at least as we see it, is very long. As people in the world with an almost unlimited possibility for knowledge, and a passing familiarity with a variety of different disciplines, we have a hard time seeing past what we do or do not know, and to what others in past ages know. We know of Egypt, China, Rome, France, Brittan, the United States. Empires that spanned the world, or at least their knowledge of it, and gained great influence over both the people of the time and the history to be written. 

Now, think about how much we know about the empires of the past. Its amazing, really. To put it in perspective: We are as close to the ancient Roman Empire as the Romans were to the Ancient Egyptians. They likely, though we have only the barest of records of it, wrote expansive histories and long treatises on their various theories pertaining to the history, philosophy, beliefs and power structure of their ancient culture. 

The World Before the World Before

Last time we spoke about how the world of the now would be transformed and created based on the former world that lived under the feet of the current population. Now, I’d suggest that, after the thoughts on that empire, that you go one further. 

Take a look at the history of the current world, and simply add a layer. 

Of course, it isn’t that easy. 

So, lets start with building the previous empire, the one that the ground was built on. 

When I start making a historical creation, I like to take a bunch of old, disparate, or exotic cultures and just crush em up together. For example, Take the language of one culture, the political system of a second, and finally mix into it some physical description all your own. it doesn’t always work out that easily, though.

Lets try one.  In this instance, we’re going to make an Egyptian-based culture, but I want to base it on the location and system of government. Egypt was focused on the godliness of its ruler, the river Nile, and completely obsessed with death. I can take any two of those pretty easy and put them wherever I want. Here, we’re going to have a God-king monarch that ruled a river basin. Around him was a wild and brutal wilderness filled with terrible monsters and a different, horrible, culture that was always striving to destroy them. That takes care of political system and setting. Next up, we should create a physical look for the culture, a very basic outline that can be used generically, but will be able to be modified because all people are different. Lets say that these people are stocky, not quite like dwarves, but of similar proportions. A bit taller – maybe 5’5″ or so, would be appropriate. They have broad, cheery faces, a bit darker skin – not bronze-greek, actually darker, with flowing black hair and a small, crisp noses and eyebrows. Next, we have to add a political system. We know that the Monarch is a God-King, but does that have a large effect on the Politics. We are going to go with no. Each city in this River Valley empire was one that generally ruled itself unhindered by the general government. While the Monarch commanded the whole of the Church and religion, his position just didn’t have enough to bring everyone under his heel. That can be the main struggle of the empire – rebelling against the church and ruler because their own merchant powers are strong and valued by the locals, just not by the Monarch. 

This type of culture is going to leave behind monuments, often to both to the dead and the living, as well as great churches and holy places. Its near-civilization ruins will likely be abandoned cities, massive monasteries and great stone edifices of the past, things that the current culture would be able to plunder without much worry. 

Now, lets go a bit further back. Lets take the empire that came before even this, one that is as far away from them as we are, just in reverse. This one should have a different feel, both because it makes good story, and because it makes the world a bit more realistic when different stories are told instead of the same ones. 

Here, we should make something that isn’t as defined by the single river. The first concept that came to mind was a nomadic culture, but that left me with little to use as historical objects, as they would likely have less books, less solid objects, etc.  Lets make it a few warring city states. We can have them live both on the river and around it. Maybe they had tamed some of the forests that have since been lost to the culture on the river. They warred among themselves and fought for dominance, but they eventually ground themselves out against each other that the river culture, starting from the south and moving upriver, could conquer them. This culture can be less detailed because its not the current preceding culture. 

All That Remains

With the two cultures quickly described, you can now start to scribe some background to what happened over time and the lingering effects of what those two cultures brought to the table. 

Culture 1 – the city states wars likelyu brought warfare and calamity, but also left behind great cities and writings. They fought among each other, but at the end banded together to fight, and were ultimately defeated by, the second culture. They likely created impressive structures and cities that have long since been abandoned. These cities are great locales for adventuring, as while the people of the current generation would likely have a decent knowledge of their immediate ancestor culture, it is unlikely they have more than a whisper of knowledge of the first. While they had some cities along the rivers edge for transportation and commerce, these would have been co-opted by the river culture. The ruins most likely to be explored lie hidden among the forests, likely overgrown and overrun. Statues, among the dark shadows of the wilderness, could sit untouched for centuries while monuments could sit crumbling alongside the roads that lead into the interior maintained by traffic and not by any given government. They may also leave great works of engineering, temples, religious complexes, fortresses and other stone works are likely readily visible and reachable by the most adventurous of sorts. They would make great hideouts for ne’er do wells and monsters, too. 

Culture 2- The river culture likely, as mentioned, co-opted the river cities, and these cities would likely have been co-opted once again by the kingdom that now lives there. There would likely be monuments, buildings and structures still in use from the prior age, though likely not for the same reason. A Temple could now be a storehouse, and a fortress could have been converted to a flat where the poor live their squalid lives among the visages of gods either long dead or simply neglected. Reaching further out, there would be areas along the river, that had been abandoned, that hold great crypts and mausoleums. One of the basic premises of fantasy worlds is that the previous empires were greater than the current ones. This makes the general populace long for a better age where the world was more theirs than it is today. 

Filling in the details

What is great about this approach is that the players don’t know all of this at the get go, and what they do know can be proven wrong via in game experience. This gives you great latitude to fill out the details of these civilizations at your leisure, and to change them if the players come up with something better and stronger than you’d thought of. I’ve had this happen multiple times over the course of my Game Mastering career, and I look forward to each and every time. Having the players make a mark on the game, even if its one that they know their characters made, really helps them be part of the world, engaged in the stories and feeling like there is something more here than a simple tale being tossed at them by the referee. 

I hope this helps, and I hope you take a shot at looking way back into the history of your world to make those ancient treasures and ruined necropolises mean more than a simple +1 sword or the house of a necromancer. 

Until next time.