Friday, April 8, 2011

[Gray Box Project] Yes, But Which 13th Century?

I'd like to take a moment before continuing with my sectional analysis of the Forgotten Realms Gray Box to share a few of the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head since I started reading the books and occasioned by other blog posts and media.

In my last post, I mentioned the Introduction of the Cyclopedia of the Realms stating that the Realms are "a world very similar to the Earth of the 13th and 14th centuries." I also mused that one could make imaginative hay with the fact that we're not told whether that's the 13th-14th century AD or BC. (Or CE vs. BCE, if you like.) I was being somewhat facetious with that point, yet the idea started to gain some traction in the days since. There were a couple thoughtful and insightful blog posts that cropped up last week on the subject of when D&D is precisely. Trollsymth's answer - "neverwhen" - suits me fine, as far as vanilla D&D goes. But then again, I can get all my "neverwhen" action playing Pendragon and Dragon Warriors. So where does that leave my approach to the Realms? Then over on ChicagoWiz's blog, the subject of his idea for setting a D&D campaign in a world inspired by Sumerian mythology came up in posts and comments around the same time. More grist for my thought mill. I started looking up the 13th and 14th centuries BC and liked what I saw.

If studying something called the "Volga Battle Axe culture" was as FUCKING METAL as it sounds, there'd be a lot more archaeologists in the world, myself included
Then I went to see Your Highness today. All I can really say is that they've finally made the perfect Dungeons & Dragons movie, for good and for ill. It's as if the spirit of a thousand game tables spontaneously created this movie, complete with tons of inappropriate humor and awkward pacing. It's not perfect as a movie (as most critics seem to be pointing out), but as an encapsulation of vanilla D&D you really can't do better. The set dressing, costumes, and overall look of the movie is particularly well done. And in taking in the visuals and the implied setting and genre assumptions, I realized I'm pretty much okay with not doing vanilla D&D with the Realms. It's almost as if Your Highness nailed that whole scene so perfectly, I don't feel the need to go any further in my own imagination.

Of course, nothing's carven in stone, but I'm pretty much set on taking the following approach to all future posts in the Gray Box project: Each post will effectively be split into two parts; one part will discuss what's in the books and what's literally there, while the second part will discuss how I'll be adapting the material for my Bronze Age Realms variation. Because, seriously, the 14th to 13th centuries BC rocked.

Let's count the ways: the apex of Egyptian civilization under Rameses II and the craziness of Akhenaten and Nefertiti; the high-water mark of the Mycenean civilization and the (putative) dates of the Trojan War (at last an excuse to sit down and read Age of Bronze!); the writing (according to some traditions) of the Bhagavad Ghita; the rise of the Ancient Pueblo people; the Shang dynasty in China; the rise of the Assyrians; the arrival of the just goes on and on.

As others have pointed out in comments to the "When is D&D" posts linked above, there's actually a lot in D&D RAW that supports a Bronze/Iron Age setting. Many of the monsters are taken from that time, the political structures tend to be more of that era than of any sort of quasi-medieval setting. The polytheistic nature of D&D religion is very Bronze Age, and the Realms even features gods walking among mortals. And you really can't beat the visuals:

Any period that justifies more chariots and elephants in my D&D is okay in my book. I like the Howardian vibe of the Bronze Age, too. I'm considering reskinning goblinoids as competing hominids and "sub-men" still functioning at neolithic or paleolithic levels. I'm not going to do a full-on swords 'n' sorcery vibe, though. Might as well still be gaming in the Wilderlands if that were the case. But neither am I going for strict historical fidelity. My aim is some mythical sweet spot in between the two. I'm going to attempt a Bronze Age vibe in my adaptations rather than going for strict historical analogues ("Cormyr=Egypt," etc.). But inevitably some regions will be more reminiscent of a certain region than others (I'm picturing the Amn/Calimshan regions having a strong Indian vibe, for example, and my Dwarf citadels will likely bear a striking resemblance to cliff dwellings). Nor will I be strictly beholden to Bronze Age fidelity. I'm thinking of giving the elves at least Iron Age tech, if not higher (counterbalanced by an Imperial Roman/Melnibonean decline and decadence, of course). And what civilization referenced in the Introduction existed eons ago to leave behind all those magnificent ruins? And what was their tech level like?

As I mentioned in my post evaluating the cover art, there's a definite Bronze Age vibe to the Forgotten Realms logo itself and the mysterious rider on the cover of the box. Modeling that rider and the barbarians in the setting on the Kimmerians and proto-Teutons is really a no-brainer. So in a way I feel that taking the Realms (back) to the Bronze Age is, in a way, tapping into those initial impressions of the setting I got the first time I laid eyes on the cover over 20 years ago.

Oh, and once ChicagoWiz gets around to putting out that Sumerian megadungeon (which we all know is going rock, by the way, so get cracking on it, good sir), I'll have my own personal Waterdeep...
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