Saturday, January 7, 2012

My Fantasy Roman Empires

Rome holds a pretty strong grip over all of western culture despite having fallen more than a millennium ago, it is the civilization that all later civilizations aspire to be despite being both repulsed by and attracted to the more exotically barbaric aspects of their culture. The similarities between the ancient Romans and ourselves make them easier to understand than our more immediate medieval ancestors, but the strange differences we find compelling; they are like a distorted mirror of ourselves. We consider ourselves to be more civilized than the primitive, superstitious Romans, but they had some pretty direct comparisons that could be made between their culture and ours, essentially only the level of technology available has changed, and when it comes down to it even that isn't that great a change.

Now, as a medievalist, I am not going to say that technology stagnated and disappeared during the "Dark Ages", it didn't; there was a significant drop in literacy and learning though, and a lot of infrastructure was destroyed across Europe, particularly in the western empire and Britain, with the barbarian invasions and there weren't people that knew how to fix it or the manpower, resources or desire particularly to fix it. Barbarian conquerors didn't know how to repair aqueducts, hypocausts or roads and didn't really see the point for the most part. That said, they muddled through and made gradual, steady improvements to technology throughout the medieval period in fields from agriculture to architecture to engineering; yes, some technologies were lost in the transition from the Roman to post-Roman world, but it wasn't as bad as Renaissance propagandists made it out to be.

I just had to get that out of my system to clear up historical misconceptions about the medieval period, now back to Rome. I am an American and we have a strong connection to the concept of the Roman Republic, and a fascination with it's fall. Every great power since Rome ruled the western world has felt they were the heir to Rome, the Byzantine Greeks had the best claim, since they actually were the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The French under Charlemagne staked their claim to Roman imperial glory, it passed from there into German hands as the Holy Roman Empire, even as the Byzantines still existed. The Russians staked a claim based on the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. The British have made the claim on scantier evidence that they should be the heirs to Rome, apparently just because they were once in the Roman empire and they built an empire of their own. The US makes a claim, more or less, depending on who you talk to and how religious they are, based on our "spiritual" link through our constitutional republican form of government and the fact that we threw out our king. Hell, it's not even just Europeans that want the mantle of heir to Rome for themselves, the Seljuk Turks formed the Sultanate of Rum to claim that they were the true heirs to the empire, in the name of Islam.

Why are we all fascinated with Rome and her empire? For the better part of a thousand years, give or take, Rome represented both civilization and governmental legitimacy, but I don't think that's all of it. The mention of Rome evokes different things to different people at different times, depending on the context of the conversation you are having. Rome might make one think of Caesar, the ides of March and the senate, Spartacus, or the all conquering Legions, or gladiators fighting in the arena, or chariot races, or the the crucifixion of Christ, or orgies; and those are just the popular ones, less popular, but still likely, are Nero fiddling while Rome burns, persecution of Christians and feeding them to lions, Constantine's conversion to Christianity, Caesar's conquest of Gaul, Hadrian's Wall and the fall of the empire (just the west, we always seem to forget that the east held on for another thousand years, give or take). I thinks we are entranced by the differences between us and them, yet enthralled by the similarities. Their paganism, slavery, casual brutality and unabashed sexuality are compelling and repellent to us, as we can easily see by the success of movies like "Gladiator" or television series like HBO's "Rome" and Starz "Spartacus", which is about to start it's third season despite having lost it's star to cancer.

Now, all of this immense preamble is just to explain that this has been a difficult post for me to start to wrap my head around to begin to write; at the dawn of the 2nd edition AD&D era, shortly after our first and only trip to Gencon, when Darryl and I designed our first "Roman" campaign world it started with a single concept: Romans are cool. To elaborate, Romans are cool and everyone has done medieval to death in AD&D, we should start with a classical world setting and the Roman empire in a fantasy form seemed like a cool concept. He and I spent a week or so spit-balling ideas back and forth at each other and created a world where there was, in the fairly distant past, an invasion of humanoids that overran the majority of a Roman/Latin empire on a unique game world. Before the last, core area of the empire was conquered, the priests performed a ritual that actually tore the remaining piece of their empire away from the continent that it had been attached to, and moved it hundreds of miles out into the ocean, where it then survived and thrived. The people; almost all Humans, Dwarves were a player character option also, but they were a re-imagined race, that I have covered before; slowly forgot about their old empire and the humanoids and everything more or less receded into a "Time of Myth and Legend". Anachronistically, they maintained a late Roman republican government, mode of dress, religion, and military technology, but they advanced significantly as seafarers over time to a late renaissance/early modern level of sailing technology, which allowed them to have an "Age of Discovery", which was where the campaign started.

We had planned on running this as a dual-DM campaign, so both of us would get some DMing in and both of us would get some playing time in, it seemed like the perfect solution to DM burnout issues, never getting to play/DM, and only having one ready group of players (at the time) that didn't want to have to switch characters for different DM's campaigns. Darryl ran the first game, I got to play my character Gaius Flavius Maximus, Priest of Neptune, one of very few Clerics that I have ever played and a pretty high concept character in his own right. I based him on none other than Gaius Julius Caesar as my inspiration. My thinking when I made him was that Caesar had not really made anything of his life until he was older, so instead of starting my character out as a teen-ager, like most D&D characters, I made him 36 years old. I assumed that he had been in politics and the priesthood back home, before moving to the colonies as a priest and adventurer to advance his career. That would make him older and more savvy and dignified, but still 1st level.

Anyway, I thought it would be a cool campaign, an age of discovery and colonization with Romans and magic. The PCs would get to tromp around the vast wilderness and discover ruins of elder civilizations and their artifacts, kill some Orcs and Goblins, Ogres and Trolls, maybe some Giants and Dragons on their way to becoming masters of their own domains in this wilderness, or using the proceeds of their expeditions to fund their political advancements back home. Anyway, like I said, Darryl ran the first game, and he had us shipwrecked on a desert isle with a single pyramid on it, obviously we needed to search the pyramid for a means of escape from the island. The pyramid, of course, was the tomb of an alt-Egyptian Pharaoh, but not all full of Mummies like you would expect. I don't remember most of the adventure in as much detail as I would like, but I do remember the highlights included being shrunk down and inside an ant farm, a trapped statue of Zeus that shot lightning and a White Cloak that I got as treasure that allowed a Priest to Commune with Zeus once/week.

What I thought was cool from a design standpoint about this world was that all the players were Human, even the Dwarves were technically Human, and that there were only vague maps. There was a pretty decent map of the homeland, and a rough map covering some coastal areas, islands and a little bit inland of the couple of military colonies the Romans had founded, everything else was ready for us to flesh out as we needed or if we wanted to. That was a world designed for exploration and exploitation, for carving out your own domains and ruling them in the name of the empire.

Sadly, part way through the first game, one of the players*, Danny N., mentioned that he knew another guy that wanted to join our D&D group. This guy was Jamie W., Danny gave Jamie a call and Jamie came over to watch the rest of the game that night. After the game broke for the night, we were in pretty high spirits, everyone but Jamie left my house. Jamie spent the next three hours explaining to me in great detail exactly what was wrong with this campaign concept, and how I could fix it. Mostly he wanted me to change it back to standard AD&D, but he also wanted me to let him play a 1/2 Ogre. He so thoroughly drained me of any enthusiasm for this campaign that we never played in it again, much to the disappointment of the other participants. I'd like to think I could give it another shot now, I am older and more secure as a DM, I'd just turned 21 then and Jamie was older than me by a couple of years, plus he really seemed to know his stuff when it came to D&D.

Oddly enough, I spent much of the 2nd edition AD&D era gaming with Jamie (and Danny, who I should really blame for this I guess), most of it as a player, but also as a DM, and I never let his attitude poison me towards a campaign afterwards, so I guess it was just the effect he has the first time you meet him, like I gained an immunity after that. Also noteworthy was that he would NOT leave, I literally stood in my doorway with him for over an hour trying to usher him out that night. He kept me up until almost 3:00AM and I had to be to work at 7:00AM the next morning. Oh well, there are so many Jamie stories, some good, some bad, Lance likes to say "There's a Jamie in every group", I add the corollary "If you can't figure out who it is, it's probably you". I haven't seen Jamie now in probably over a decade, we just fell out of touch, I did see his parent's at my parent's Christmas party this year though, and I hear he's doing well. He is married and has a daughter, they told me, which was rather shocking news to all of us that knew him back in the 1990s.

My second Roman campaign came about in the 2nd edition AD&D era too, this one was in 1995 or 1996, it was after TSR put out the Roman Campaign Sourcebook and probably inspired by my "Roman" semester of college. I was living with Mona then and she was the only player** that played in both Roman campaigns. I spent a while constructing this world, a fantasy analogue of the Mediterranean for my Romans to live in, and unlike the first Roman campaign, these were explicitly Romans, not just maybe Romans or parallel development or whatever that was left completely unexplained, these guys had been seeded here, Garnia/Stargate style. They were not the first humans seeded to this world, ancient Egyptians had been, but they had been completely conquered by goblins***, who, over generations, exterminated them. There were also extensive Dwarven kingdoms at the mountainous east end of this alt-Mediterranean.

This campaign also only lasted one session, but I learned a lot from it. First, it's possible to have too much cultural realism in your AD&D games. My girlfriend, now wife, Mona hated the world because it frankly sucks to be a woman in a realistic Roman world, your adventuring possibilities are quite limited. Second, just because it's in a TSR published HR series book doesn't mean it's a good idea to use in your game, the first couple of HR books were pretty good, but the later ones were rush jobs pushed out on the same cookie-cutter mold, just with different cultures/time periods. GURPS supplements are much better and they're still not perfect. The one adventure I ran there I used a heavily converted B series module that took place in the city of Specularum, which I had standing in for my Nova Roma. I don't honestly remember the bulk of it, but the highlights included a lisping Goblin slave NPC at gladiatorial ludus and Lance's character leaping through the seat in a public toilet into the sewers to evade pursuit.

The second Roman campaign had the advantage of my more extensive education and a TSR sourcebook to help me out, I eventually retconned it into Garnia proper at the western edge of the mega-continent and made the Dwarven kingdoms at the east end of the alt-Mediterranean sea just the western edge of Khazarak, the maps fit together perfectly as though I had planned it that way from the start, all though I had not, and the similarity in theme; Humans transplanted to a world where there are monsters and magic works, was identical to the origin of Garnia proper anyway. I never set another campaign in that area, but I always liked the idea that I could. There was a compelling "Dark Continent" to explore to the south of the alt-Egypt the Romans had conquered anyway, a huge Congo basin/rain forest/jungle area I had planned to stock with ancient pre-Human lost cities, wild savage Goblinoids and dinosaurs. I still like the area, but I clearly need to rethink my plans for keeping strictly to historical Roman social values, particularly with regard to gender roles. Mea culpa. I also need to redesign based on what I think is necessary rather than some TSR design specs, not a problem there I have been designing and redesigning stuff for Garnia for a long time now.

*I actually don't remember who all of the players were in that game, or what characters they played, I do remember that my wife Mona was a player, but that was long before we started dating and her boyfriend Bill N. played too, Bill and Danny were brothers. So with me, there were at least four players, but I really think I am forgetting at least one player.

**The other players in this game were Lance and Marty.

***Who then adopted/assimilated to their culture and were in turn conquered by the Romans. Goblins had originally enslaved the Egyptians and ruled over them as a master caste, unfortunately for the Egyptians, Goblins are largely carnivorous and breed quickly, and while they managed to ultimately civilize them, it was too late to save themselves from extinction at their master's hands.


  1. I still have that adventure - just saw it the other day...

  2. No kidding! How were we supposed to get off the island? Do you remember who, if anyone, else was playing? More details please, feel free to write a whole post about it, I know it doesn't technically pertain to Garnia, but I would like to see more about it and see how well my memory jibes with the adventure. Also, do you have any of the campaign notes?