When I think about Dungeons & Dragons my visual input is generally led by images of fantasy and that fantasy is in turn led by our visual interpretation of the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages. This was the period that has led to tales of crusading knights, kings in castles and superstitions about Merlin the ever famous magician. When you look at the artwork for D&D you will notice the influence from that period and it is the general stereotype we love to jump into when we start to travel across imaginary worlds. It is very seldom that the setting for the game is changed and even though we are using our imagination to build the world’s our players traverse, we limit our imagination to this style.
We automatically go to the assumption that armour will vary from leather to plate-mail and everything from daggers to great swords will be available. Everything from the clothes to the buildings and even the music is engraved in our minds courtesy of fantasy literature and movies. But what if we break from that normality?
Life as we know it.
Our history as a species spans many centuries and encompasses a vast amount of cultures which is almost never used in fantasy roleplaying games and there is no reason why you shouldn’t. If you take the movie Troy as an example for the world style you make use of, you can visualise a vastly different world. In that era there are no suits of metal armour but instead armour is made almost exclusively from leather. There were no long or great swords but instead you had spears and a gladius (essentially a short sword) to safeguard you in combat.
Your entire monster range could change to suit the mythology of the period encompassing minotaur’s and hydras and of course the deity aspect would shift entirely to the pantheon of Zeus and Hades. By simply going back in time you can create a unique experience for your players which breaks the mould.
Back in my day.
One of the more interesting games I ran was in a Viking or Norse setting. The pantheon of Odin and his crows took centre stage in a created world after I watched Beowulf, which was a massive influence on the visual aesthetic I wanted to paint. I limited things to a degree by not allowing certain classes such as paladins, wizards and warlocks but instead focused on the lore of druids and bards as it was more fitting.
I did research on the weapons of the time and the armour they wore and then streamlined my world accordingly. One of the most interesting pieces of information I found was the lore surrounding the Dökkálfar and the Ljósálfar which in D&D, are Dark Elves and Light Elves. Trolls are also a huge part of their mythology and I built them up as a civilised faction that wars with the ice giants, both of whom are kept in check by the Valkyries whom serve Odin.
This was just the foundation of the world I created, and it grew over time as I dug deeper into the legends of the Norse warriors and their conquests.
25 years later.
I have created many worlds in 25 years, and everything was influenced by something. Be it a movie or a book there is always an influence that drives my creative.
There was a series I recently watched, Carnival Row, which took the entire philosophy of fantasy and flipped it around by utilising very real-world elements to drive the story. There is a big play on xenophobia and a refugee crisis which is something close to home in our current reality. It was a fresh take on something familiar and I instantly found my mind wondering on how I could have this strange, yet dark world take form in a setting for a campaign.
As a storyteller I am in a constant state of incoming influence from anything I watch or read but there is something familiar and natural about our factual history and lore. There are a multitude of pantheons from various cultures all with their own tales of heroes and villains that you can look to for influence. Then make it your own by throwing fantasy and history together.
With nothing more than a pencil and some paper you can build the basics of your universe, and with Google and Wikipedia you have all the resources you would ever need to research various elements. Always remember that almost everything we see in fantasy came from a historical culture in our history, all you have to do is look for it. Make bold changes that define your world and don’t be afraid to remove elements if they don’t make sense. So go and be influenced and break the mould, don’t limit your world creation to what we perceive as standard fantasy and let your imagination lead the charge with historical research on culture and lore.