Fantasy roleplaying games, as a rule, are set in fictional medieval or early-Renaissance Europe. There’s certainly nothing limiting them to that setting, though; Dungeons & Dragons alone has featured settings derived from the ancient Middle East, China and Japan, and South and Central America. The ancient world, the medieval, and the modern era have all been covered.
What hasn’t been considered so well is the span of time between the early Renaissance and the 20th century. Aside from a few stabs at Victoriana (either gothic or steampunk-style) and a handful of Wild West-themed games, the pickings are fairly slim.
That’s a shame, because there are any number of potential settings in that span that would make for a gripping game. For instance… consider the year 1806.
In 1806, the Americas are still a wild place. Thomas Jefferson is president. The United States, having won independence from Britain within living memory, is still only tentatively established on the world stage. The Louisiana Purchase has been completed, but exploration is ongoing; in March, the Lewis and Clark expedition will reach the Pacific. The expedition will reach St. Louis, Missouri on its return trip on September 23, roughly two months after Zebulon Pike sets out on a separate expedition to explore the west. Back in the east, in Philadelphia, the first legal case related to a labor strike was underway; the case decided that shoemakers who had organized to strike had engaged in an illegal conspiracy to raise their wages. (The precedent would stand until 1842.)
Most of South America remains Spanish territory, but discontent with Spanish rule has been growing since the American War of Independence. In 1810, it will explode; many South American nations will claim independence, as will Mexico. Spain’s control will completely evaporate by 1825.
In Africa, the British seize the Dutch colony at Cape Town in early January. British naval power is predominant in the world; Nelson’s victory over a French and Spanish armada at the Battle of Trafalgar the previous year had cemented their control over the seas. An uprising in India does little to trouble the British empire.
In Europe, however, the outlook for Britain turns. Trafalgar had put an end to Napoleonic France’s hopes of invading Britain, and early in the year, the British achieve several victories against France, including a decisive victory at Maida in early July which prevented a French invasion of Sicily. In September, Prussia, along with several minor German states, declares war on France. The Prussians were considered perhaps the greatest military force in Europe at the time. Napoleon, however, moves quickly, and France sees a chain of swift victories in October. By October 14, France occupies half the country; on November 24, the last Prussian force of any size surrenders. Napoleon moves on to attack Russia, gaining some early ground that will lead Russia to seek a peace treaty in 1807. The loose coalition between Britain, Prussia, and Russia has all but disintegrated by the end of the year, and in November, Napoleon issues a decree barring the import of British goods into European countries allied with France. This is mostly ineffective, though, thanks to British smuggling efforts.
It’s an era of exploration and warfare. The weapons are muzzle-loading pistols, rifles, and swords; cannons are common both offensively and defensively; great sailing ships, some carrying upwards of 100 guns, rule the seas. Merchants cross the ocean regularly, but it’s still not a sure process; the journey is long, and one bad storm can spell the end for a ship and its crew. The golden age of piracy is past, but incidents continue; in particular, the Barbary pirates are still active, though they’ve learned to avoid attacking British ships. (The United States also has a treaty with them, as of 1806, but the pirates will abandon it in 1807.) Though they’re not the threat they had been, the Barbary pirates continue to raid until 1830.
The early 1800s are, in short, an ideal setting for a game. Adventure and conflict are everywhere. How might we apply fantasy tropes to the year 1806?
Well, for one, the existence of dragons and other large flying creatures might lead to the formation of an “air force” of sorts. (The Temeraire books by Naomi Novik present an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars where just that has happened, and are well worth reading for inspiration.) Adding a third dimension to war could change the course of battles; of course, dragons and other large creatures will also need a strong supply line to feed them, or else a commander willing to ravage the countryside in order to forage for sufficient food. If Napoleon has fire-breathing dragons, perhaps Nelson might be defeated at Trafalgar… unless the player characters can implement a countermeasure!
Magic on a broader scale is a touchier matter; you might find you need to limit what’s available to players. Tossing a few fireballs or lightning bolts probably isn’t an issue, when rifles and cannons can cause similar devastation; on the other hand, if you’re planning on running a game where the focus is on surviving and exploring the American west, then you don’t want teleportation or flight spells to be too common, nor magic that cures disease or creates food. It might be best to make magic a lost or archaic art; those few practitioners known to exist would be highly sought-after and jealous of their secrets. Perhaps magic simply isn’t a respectable profession for a gentleman (as in The Magicians and Mrs. Quent — although that novel is not set in the Napoleonic era). Or perhaps magic in this world is a more primal force, uncommon among “civilized” nations where science and reason have taken stronger hold, but still common in “primitive” areas.
Of course, enchanted objects created in earlier times might still remain, and might even be an incentive for a character to focus on melee combat rather than firearms — magical swords are still relatively common, while magical pistols are harder to come by. Or imagine the impact of a small company of heavy cavalry, all of whose horses had been outfitted with horseshoes of the zephyr.
Humanoid monsters aren’t terribly difficult to work in, either. Imagine recasting the Napoleonic Wars with dark elves playing the French part, boiling out of their underground realm to capture a Prussia-analogue surface kingdom within a matter of months. Or perhaps the militaristic hobgoblins suit you better, or the ersatz Napoleon might be a lowly kobold with great ambition. If you prefer a little more moral conflict in your game, the slave trade was still in full swing in 1806; make the targets of the trade another species, rather than African humans. What do the characters think if dwarves are the slaves? Or maybe something less sympathetic, like goblins? For that matter, what do they think of colonialism, if, say, the India-equivalent is populated by elves? Do their characters cheer the taking of Cape Town from the gnomes?
There are a lot of things to think about, to be sure. But if you’ve been feeling the urge to try something different in your next game, you could do worse than to start out with “The year is 1806.”
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Categories: Launching a Campaign, Philosophy and Rants | Comments (3)