Friday, January 16, 2015

Early Thoughts on an American Setting for Dungeons and Dragons

In researching how to build an American campaign it has become increasingly clear that many people want to focus on the colonial aspects of our history. Whether discussing North or South America the discussion revolves around the impact European settlers had on the native populations and the destruction to the environment that followed in their wake. Slavery is big in the conversations as are words like "genocide" and "racism." Then the conversations become serious as people discussing these "very serious" topics ask each other how it made them feel and if they better understand the plight of the natives.

What a terrible fucking time they must have in those games.

Anyway, If I am going to build a campaign world in the Americas then I have to reject the things that bore me and ruin the fun of a game set here. Gone then are the suggested themes of slavery, racial tension, religious strife, the plight of the poor, detailed dramas exposing the struggle of women (besides, they're too busy trying to survive just like everyone else to care about voting rights and jobs that no one else has either), and police states slowly supplanting the Republic. Nuance and complexity are mostly gone too as they have no place in an American setting. Pragmatism rules the cultural mindset here with Occam's Razor being the rule rather than a gentle lesson on disentangling our minds from over-thinking our problems. Our cultural heroes are men who cut through seemingly complex problems and dealt with the issues in a direct (often bloody) way.

Pragmatism has to be the fundamental underpinning of all that comes after if the setting is to ring true. Towns and cities are organized as best they can be at the time without holding to their ancient pathways and patters - because there are none here. Old ways have been abandoned with the transition to the New World and that means that new customs built on need rather than tradition are the way to go. No longer do you avert your gaze at the Lords and Ladies (gone too are those titles) because you're too busy trying to carve out a living on your own lands away from such frivolous titles and practices. The rich hold sway not because of title but because they can pay for what they want.

A game set in the Americas has to be different, not out of spite, but because the Americas are different. Unlike Europe the Americas are wild with large portions unexplored even today on both continents. This land hasn't been settled (occupied yes, but not settled) for the majority of its history. Its native peoples are proud and often refuse to just get up and go for the new comers. There are mysteries here too which cannot be found in Europe. Mysterious lost cities rising out of dark jungles and swamps. Strange burial mounds rise high above the forests and ancient drawings for the gods wind their way across the arid deserts. Languages with out writing are spoken everywhere while words written down long ago have had no tongue utter them in more than a thousand years.

For this setting to gain traction there has to be a feel of the wild spaces without the hope of a big, friendly city over the next hill. You have to feel alone out there and be ready for hostile natives that don't take kindly to your explorations (would you if some jackass came creeping through your woods). More than that, though, there has to be a feeling that wealth and power are within your reach. It has to feel like you can win your fortune through daring and cleverness and the world will know your name for it.

Cleverness and hope have to be rewarded and encouraged. This isn't a theocracy or dictatorship - especially out in the wilds away from the watchful eyes of kings and queens across the Atlantic. This is a land that should reward you for your efforts. So if you're smart enough to come up with a way to kill the Hill Giants without exposing yourself to danger than so much the better. Cleverness should be encouraged at all turns as their thinking will be what saves them more often than not when arms fail. As for hope, well, my group is from the United States and we've got hope covered in spades.

Magic will have to be rethought as too much freedom from danger will ruin the setting and allow them to walk over the challenges with mindless aplomb. No, no, no. Can't have that. Gone goes create food/water, light, and all similar such cheats. This game will need to feel like hard mode to get it to run right. Playing here will have to make you think and plan for the unforeseen. It will need to feel dangerous again.

I think this idea is beginning to take hold of me kids.


  1. I would set it during the Luis and Clark era and actually look there for a lot of inspiration. I think some of what you are thinking about would work wonderfully. As for magic add mysticism to it. Make it a native thing that whites can learn but for REASONS are no where near as adapt at it (possibly a natural disconnect from the land).

    Given this setting supernatural should be easy to do especially if culling from Canadian French, Native and American settler folk lore. Adding in some traditional. Northern European and Celtic folklore works as well given the much earlier Norse and Irish fisher settlement of the Canadian north east and current suggestion of possible westward movement.

    ... Sorry, I've given this some thought ...

    1. No, no, I'm really digging where you're going. Although the only thing I don't like about the mysticism is that I've never really enjoyed anything that wasn't an across the board feature. Breaking anything up by race just feels . . . I don't know? Funky?

  2. I'm all for including elements of Native American mythology (or any mythology, really) into a campaign world, but playing a campaign actually set during America's westward expansion would make me pretty uncomfortable.

    I run games so that my players can live vicariously through their PCs: beating the odds through some combination of cleverness and violence. That suddenly becomes a lot less appealing when the supposed protagonists are playing out a dark chapter of human history from the wrong side.

    You say you don't want to get caught up with the social issues of the time, but the setting you describe casts the PCs as the harbingers of those issues. They are colonists, itching to explore and make their fortunes in the unexploited wilds, and ready to deal with any "hostile natives" who try to interfere.

    Tolkien has been criticized for describing (good, victorious) humans as white, and (evil, defeated) orcs as dark-skinned slant-eyed mongols. This feels similar, except that in this case, it's the white guys picking the fight... and the enemy is *literally* a historical victim of the violence you're depicting.

    1. Charles, a couple of things. (1) Seriously dude? You're going to go directly into the whole genocide of the native population after I expressly wrote that I had no interest in going down that road. Come on man. (2) I hate that Tolkien argument and dismiss it entirely as people looking for something to bitch about because they want to project their own issues onto everything.

    2. You expressly wrote that you had no interest in going down that road... then you describe a campaign that is pointed exactly down that road. It sounds like you want to take a traditional campaign setting, change "elf" or "goblin" to "Native American", and ignore the fact that what you've just created is morally charged.

      I'm not trying to make this a personal attack on you. I read your stuff. I like your stuff. But I think you are failing to consider the historical baggage that inevitably comes with a setting like this. You're not playing out some epic war from myth or legend. You're talking about a period of history whose consequences have *not* been smoothed out by time.

      Can you imagine running a setting like this with a Native American at the table, perhaps with relatives living in some god-forsaken reservation? Tell me that's not fucked up.

    3. I don't understand why it has to become an Us versus Them thing. I think the original post is pretty clear that is not the intent here.

      You want this sanitized for PC purposes? How about the continent is mysteriously uninhabited with nothing but ruins and remnants from some past civilization? Ah, fine, but then everything has to change and it might as well be a completely made up place with no historical precedents at all. Shoot, that seems to miss the point altogether. Hmm. I'm evidently not sensitive enough to others because I think a Native American at my table would number 1: Be my friend. Number 2: If he is my friend then he's gong to love being a Native guide/shaman/warrior/whatever that has no problem taking his enemies scalps be they evil white dude or evil hill giant or dirty rotten double-crossing government official. Is the word cathartic?

      Then again, I'm no doubt missing the point of all of this. Wtf?

    4. Andrew Davis wrote: "I don't understand why it has to become an Us versus Them thing. I think the original post is pretty clear that is not the intent here."

      I don't really think that's Charles' point. Rather I think that he's having a hard time separating the reality of what happened in history from a fantasy setting where I would have players exploring the world and focusing on their interactions instead of the wider real world implications of such things. After all the game is focused on the party and not on a government that can actually accomplish such things. Besides, it's more fun to talk about the early explorers who went out across the Appalachian mountains, then further west, and their adventures than the steady removal of native populations through brutal political policies and broken treaties.

      Seriously, though, who wants to explore that side of things any way. Ugh. That would just be the worst game to play ever.

    5. Charles McEachern wrote:"You expressly wrote that you had no interest in going down that road... then you describe a campaign that is pointed exactly down that road. It sounds like you want to take a traditional campaign setting, change "elf" or "goblin" to "Native American", and ignore the fact that what you've just created is morally charged."

      The difference is that I can have a setting where I'm killing orcs, goblins, elves, or whatever sort of fantastical creature I come across and not confuse it with a real culture or people; for me an orc is just an orc. Now I don't think you actually have that problem (though some people do) but I think that you're taking this further than I am in practically every way. For me the game would focus more on the exploration that the players participate in and not in the removal of native populations - that's the key difference. Where you're seeing the wider implications of what would happen in reality, this is a fantasy game that I don't have to explore or realize such things in the campaign or wider setting.

      "I'm not trying to make this a personal attack on you. I read your stuff. I like your stuff. "

      Thanks Charles! I like you too (and I never thought that you were personally attacking me).

      "Can you imagine running a setting like this with a Native American at the table"

      I've got a couple of people who are mixed and they're all fine with it.

  3. A previous campaign strayed into the "the new world" a fictional knock-off-America for a while and what worked for it was embracing being colonial explorers and treasure hunters. You only have to be a little nicer than the conquistadors were and you look like a pretty nice guy by comparison.
    The good thing about a fictional knock-off America is I could have native peoples that weren't any actual historical folk.
    here's some of the posts from that time in that campaign:

  4. I can understand people's sensitivity to these issues and the desire of some to examine these issues through role-play. I remember a game, I don't recall the title, where all the players were playing Southern gentlemen but one of them is secretly mixed race and one is a vampire. It sounds interesting but it is really the kind of thing that I think appeals primarily to college age white guys wanting to walk a mile in someone else shoes because they don't really know anyone different from themselves. For me, I don't need that sort of role-playing experience. My wife is African-American and we live in Tennessee. If we want to “see what is like” to experience real bigotry, we just go shopping or out to dinner & a movie together. It isn't constant but we can always count on one or two assholes. For us, role-playing is an escape. It is probably part of the reason my wife prefers fantasy to other genres. That said she loves Westerns (El Dorado, Rio Bravo, the Dollars trilogy, Red River, McClintock & Hell on Wheels are some of her favorites) and if she ever expressed an interest, I would run something in that vein but I wouldn't shy too far away from reality. I would dial reality back far enough so things wouldn't stop being fun but still something to be dealt with.
    As for indigenous peoples, one thing that is often forgotten in the USA's dominant culture's rush to idolize our victims is that they were humans not ideals or abstract concepts. If someone ever needs a reality check, check out the episode of African American Lives with Professor Gates where he looks into Don Cheadle's ancestry. Don's ancestors were enslaved by the Chickasaw. They walked the Trail of Tears with their masters. From the show's transcript: “When the Civil War ended, the Five Civilized Tribes refused to liberate their slaves, claiming that as self-governing nations they were not a part of the United States and were not subject to its laws. … In 1866 the United States government made treaties with the native people in Indian Territory requiring them to emancipate their slaves and adopt the freedmen as citizens. The Chickasaws were the only tribe that did not fully comply. They freed their slaves but did not offer them citizenship in the Chickasaw nation.” 1866 is 3 years after the emancipation proclamation. The shows researchers “found a letter written by Jonas Wolf, the Chickasaw governor, in 1885. He explained the tribe's views succinctly: "The Chickasaw people cannot see any reason or just cause why they should be required to do more for their freed slaves than the white people have done for theirs. It was by the example and teaching of the white man that we purchased at enormous prices their slaves and used their labor and was forced by the result of their war to liberate our slaves at a great loss and sacrifice on our part and we do not hold or consider our nation responsible for their present situation."” Not a lot of remorse in that quote except for an economic loss. Also, indigenous peoples where happy with the help of colonists when it came time to kill up some of the other indigenous people when they were their enemies.
    I would encourage you not to shy away from the reality of the time but keep in mind that this is party-scale rather than grand scheme scale. In that sense, party scale is like individual scale. There were individuals who accepted indigenous people as equals just like there were colonists who believed in abolishing slavery as soon as their feet hit the shore (The Quakers for instance) & there were free African-Americans regardless of what the big picture was. Above all, you know your players. You know what constitutes fun for them and you know what would make the game “too serious” to be fun. It can be interesting to touch some of those dark places in our history but it shouldn't be done as a form of self-flagellation for the sins of our ancestors.

  5. when people peak of the plight of the indigeonous-peoples they often seem to forget they are speaking of peoples...they were not all one unified nation or culture, they were just as capable of having good and horrible people among their ranks and were indeed often and naturally in conflict with each other.
    War and conquest is never noble to starving orphans no matter who killed their parents and drove them from their home.

  6. So, I've considered the idea of using the US as a gaming setting (and I stole the idea from a game that a friend was playing in, so clearly lots of us have considered this idea). My thinking was to set the game in the distant post-apocalyptic future, which would provide lots of nice ruins to explore, plus setting gags about modern technology in a fantasy setting, and magic based on the writings of the great J.K. Rowling and such. It has the added advantage of avoiding the colonial issues.

  7. Who says the players have to take the roles of the settlers/colonists/explorers/invaders? Why can't they be the indigenous folk, dealing with these strange and powerful newcomers--or even with rival native peoples? Central and South America had some pretty elaborate cities, after all. For inspiration, see the movie Apocalypto.

  8. If you haven't already, you might want to check out as a source for the setting. While the blog focuses on game material based off the culture & myths of the Pacific Northwest, the themes of survival and the fear of losing your humanity in its pursuit commonly found in these myths seem to fit with where you are wanting the setting to focus. The blog doesn't have a ton of posts but there are some really cool ideas and a lot of really interesting monsters.

  9. I once started putting together a campaign based on the idea that a group got separated fro the Lewis and Clark expedition.. and wondered of into mystical america.. a place liek our own but where all the legends are real... I dropped it but after reading this I should pick it up again,

  10. Hey Charles, I think the concept you're looking for is the "Turner Thesis". From Wikipedia:

    "The Frontier Thesis or Turner Thesis, is the argument advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that American democracy was formed by the American frontier. He stressed the process—the moving frontier line—and the impact it had on pioneers going through the process. He also stressed results, especially that American democracy was the primary result, along with egalitarianism, a lack of interest in high culture, and violence. "American democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier," said Turner. In the thesis, the American frontier established liberty by releasing Americans from European mindsets and eroding old, dysfunctional customs. The frontier had no need for standing armies, established churches, aristocrats or nobles, nor for landed gentry who controlled most of the land and charged heavy rents. Frontier land was free for the taking."

    You can easily build a game along "American" lines using this idea, even in a setting as old-skool as the Forgotten Realms. I would argue that R.A. Salvatore's use of Icewind Dale is fundamentally "American" in its rejection of society in preference to a frontier mystique. The idea is that you have men against the unclaimed wilderness, that society is back there, and we're out here, trying to live "free". The same theory runs through the backbone of Robert E. Howard's Conan, which is why Conan comes across as an "American" character, rather than an American interpretation of a Germanic tribesman.

  11. I know that this analysis of the Caves doesn't stand up if we consider greenskins and "chaos" as being "fey aligned" rather than as proxies for less civilized indigenous peoples, but I think that Democracy in America would be a valuable resource in fleshing out such a setting as the one you're talking about. The Turner Thesis Dan mentioned above is encapsulated within it a lot of De Tocqueville's thoughts on American culture but does not include his thoughts on the consequences and influences of such expansion of a technologically advanced civilized/settled people on neighboring unsettled and non-agrarian cultures.

  12. I'm from Oklahoma and have had actual Native Americans playing in many of my games (from the Seminole, Cherokee and Choctaw tribes). In my experience, you white people get way more worked up about this type of thing than natives do. Native American gamers are there to game, not whine and maunder.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Closing Comments.

Due to the influx of spam comments on Dyvers I am closing the comments. I'm not currently doing anything with this blog, but I don'...