Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why I Stopped Exploring in Pseudo-European Settings

It's always been odd to me that whenever I sit down to a game of Dungeons and Dragons that I'm expected to be playing in a pseudo-European setting where the social pressures and standards for morality of an imaginary Europe (typically England, but not always) are the accepted practices that I must follow. The problem, however, is that I am not European so mocking their ways has always been an issue for my own delicate sensibilities as the effort tends to make me inconsistent and heavy-handed. Which for a Dungeon Master is a terrible practice to ever engage in.

About nine years ago I moved my game away from the pseudo-European worlds that have dominated my friends campaigns and solidly into a mock Americas world where I am intimately familiar with the social mores and interactions of its many peoples. At first the move was a difficult one as most of my players came into the games with certain expectations built around the inherited European background, but once I was able to break that notion from them the games really started taking off. 

We were able to leave behind the expectations that our world was locked into the same steady march that always accompanied pseudo-European campaigns and were instead able to explore the vast richness in a world that was barely explored with indigenous peoples, both kind and hostile, waiting in the vast expanse in front of us. The sort of people who made those treks into the wilds of my pseudo-Colonial Americas are the very type of people that all of us grew up telling wild tales about. We are now Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, and the countless frontiersmen who explored the lands we call home. Our natural disdain for authority in all its multifarious forms isn't an automatic derailment of the setting as we hurl our insults at whichever heavy-handed prick comes to the fore to tell us what we're to do - instead its an asset that rings true in our worlds.

Europe may have it's knights but we've got cowboys, Indians, pirates and the explorers that everyone grew up dreaming about being. We've launched explorations west and fought ancient civilizations while searching for golden cities that may never be found. And we've searched for buried treasure along the coast; all the while fighting against the repressive powers from lands we've only heard about in stories and books.

Playing at home, here in the Americas, has allowed me a wider freedom to explore the legends and wild tales that have dominated the consciousness of these lands since it was first discovered by the white man. It's a freedom that I never found in Europe and by bringing it into my games it's allowed my players to stop worrying about the setting and to really start digging into the world about them. 

What about you?

17 comments:

  1. I have been working with one at the fringes of the Roman Republic. I find working with a campaign grounded in history has richer background material than any setting could privide. For your colonial American campaign, do you use Teddy Roosevelt's The Winning of the West as source material? Much of the time line is post-colonial, but his treatment of the competing cultures and powers provides lots of adventure ideas.

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    1. I use the wide variety or tall tales, imagination, and the twenty or so books I've read on the colonization of the Americas.

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  2. Very intriguing post. It begs several questions...

    Is it a fantasy Colonial America we are talking about here, or is that merely its feel?

    My fantasy games are (in addition to rare) either set in an actual medieval place and time (Denmark, 1213 or Japan, 1114), or on my homebrew D&D world of Aerth. Aerth is a parallel Earth, with nations and people that correspond to all the same ones we have in the real world (for the most part - there are some adjustments).

    The feel of Earth is that of a Superhero game, with a multi-national organizations of adventurers going around protecting people, fighting monsters and villains, saving villages from cataclysms, etc. One does not stay in one place for very long, and as such, the PCs are exposed to a wide variety of terrains, weather conditions, native flora and fauna, ethnicities and cultures are a constant basis.

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    1. "Is it a fantasy Colonial America we are talking about here, or is that merely its feel?"

      That depends on the group exploring the world at the time. I usually switch things up based on how my players want to play. Usually though the game has the feel of Colonial America with heavy doses of the mysterious elements that have made up a large part of the tall tales that color our collective folk lore. Then I just make things up as it become important. :)

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  3. ive ununtentionaly done this except i dont feel entitled to use australian mythos because it would offend some aboriginals i know - they expect me to not name enities or depict them without permission - planet psychon came from this and urge to mix gamma world and dnd with no traditional or cultural religion from history - as for my exile setting it is a colony still unexplored with hostile inhabitants and most of the colonists are criminals, cultists, rejects or treasure hunting opportunists - it's not specifically Australian but it is informed by our history

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    1. I had been figured out that Planet Psychon was informed by the real world but I could never figure out where it was using as its inspiration. Pretty cool, Holmes!

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  4. A large chunk of my last campaign was adventures in the new world that took the players from uptight pseduo-puritain eastern frontier, to searching for cities of gold in the far west, tramping through tropical jungles, and dealing with decadent doms in their haceandas and pirates.

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    1. Great minds think alike (and I always know I'm on the right track when I'm on the same path as you are)!

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    2. Here's a couple old blog posts on it if anyone wants a look:
      http://aeonsnaugauries.blogspot.com/2011/10/months-of-adventure.html
      http://aeonsnaugauries.blogspot.com/2011/08/map-of-new-lands.html

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    3. mO.Om

      I'm in. Don't get creeped out as I stay about exploring this stuff.

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  5. Interesting. I am curious about some of the socio-economic details. what is the approximate tech level? (gunpowder? steam engines now or in the foreseeable future? etc) Is it actually America, in that the European powers are still out there somewhere meddling either overtly or behind the scenes? About what year does it correspond to? or do keep that vague so anything between say Jamestown and the California Gold Rush is fair game?

    Are there still monsters & magic? or are they downplayed in favor of real world elements? How do the typical American attitudes & social mores of your players mesh with their (presumably) mostly chaotic-good "Rugged Individualist" type characters? How to they interact with things like slavery in the south, extreme religious intolerance in the northeast, and the vast disparity of lifestyles between the wealthy eastern elites and everyone else in a supposedly classless society?

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    1. "What is the approximate tech level?"

      Typically just around the invention of the matchlock. Although we have used more modern weaponry.

      "Is it actually America, in that the European powers are still out there somewhere meddling either overtly or behind the scenes?"

      Yes, though I have run campaigns where the European powers keep to themselves and let the 'New World' tend to its own.

      "About what year does it correspond to?"

      Typically mid 1500s though I have advanced and shrank back from that time period when I'm playing a more 'historically accurate' campaign.

      "Are there still monsters and magic?"

      Absolutely.

      "How do the typical American attitudes & social mores of your players mesh with their (presumably) mostly chaotic-good "Rugged Individualist" type characters?"

      Most of the people I play with are naturally fit into the rugged individualist type. We might not all live in the woods anymore, but almost all of us grew up in the country up on the mountain. To put it another way, I think I'm the only one who doesn't hunt.

      "How to they interact with things like slavery in the south, extreme religious intolerance in the northeast, and the vast disparity of lifestyles between the wealthy eastern elites and everyone else in a supposedly classless society?"

      Unless they want to find it out I typically handwave slavery away much as I do in my European campaigns. Oh, and religious intolerance wasn't ever confined to the Northeast.

      As for the rich vs. poor thing: they rob them and set fire to their homes.

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    2. Sounds like fun.

      "... religious intolerance wasn't ever confined to the Northeast."

      No, it wasn't. But New England was initially colonized by groups that wanted to escape the growing trend of Tolerance in England, and laws forbidding them from inflicting their special brand of crazy on themselves and their neighboring communities.

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    3. That's an interesting way to describe it. I kind of dig it.

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  6. I ran a homebrew world with some elements of Norse ans Greek cultures mixed in but that's still very psuedo-Europe. I find it hard to get away from because my players and myself are all pretty used to Tolkien style fantasy, and just introducing a more fairytale aesthetic as I have tried was pretty weird for them. Before 3e dragged us back into D&D, we did a lot of historical (pirates, wild west, ancient Rome, etc.) as well as sci-fi and supers, so psuedo-Europe hasn't felt too boring. It also helps that several of us are history buffs and one player is actually from Europe.
    Still, I look at EPT and other stuff that breaks the mold and I am tempted to try it. In fact just stumbling across this the other day (http://myfarog.org/about/) made me feel a little ick-factor at being so Eurocentric. (The linked site seems to be blowing some racist dog whistles, if you know what I mean)

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    1. It's by Varg Vikernes. Those aren't dog whistles so much as they are steam whistles. He's a convicted murderer, he has been convicted of "inciting racial hatred", and he's pretty much a douchenozzle.

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  7. I've been moving toward a more 18th-19th century American/Canadian/Mexican West sort of fantasy, at least for my own interests. Part of the idea, to me, is also to deliberately disconnect the fantasy from some of the more difficult aspects of our real history, in an attempt to bring some of the better parts of our modern views into the mix (much as fantasy is generally disconnected from many of the views of the actual Middle Ages). As such, I am not really interested in the European powers, though I tend (I've noticed) to place Civilization in the east and to an extent the south. Like most fantasy excludes gunpowder even in eras that probably should have it, I tend to exclude any source of power that isn't based on muscle, wind, or water energy - no steam engines (and thus no "steampunk"), but sailing ships, windmills, and waterwheels are around. This allows me to keep the focus on the people rather than the gadgets.

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