Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Let's talk setting atmosphere.

What kind of setting do you like to DM?

Me? I'm a “Late Dark Ages - Early Middle Ages” kind of guy – say 900 AD to about 1200 AD. This is the age before full plate armor. Personally, I prefer that my players not have access to anything more substantial than half-plate, but you can well imagine how hard that edict is to enforce! So full plate armor is my one “exception to the rule.” It's an “exception” in that plate armor and gunpowder co-existed for quite some time (the 16th Century saw the "arrival" of flintlocks), but I absolutely do not allow gunpowder in my game.

So, what type of setting do I like to DM?

I can best answer that question by quoting from the book: "1066 The Year of the Conquest," pages 12-19. This is the year that William the Conqueror invaded England. These particular pages describe “life” in the village of Horstede, which existed at the time of William's invasion and was located only a very few miles from where William's forces actually landed. I reprint the information here, for your consideration:

"A village was surrounded by a fence, and its land by another outer fence. Beyond that were miles and miles of primeval forest and heath, empty and wild . . . For ordinary people, to see the nearest town might be the event of a year or even a lifetime, and to meet a stranger was a nine days wonder. If a traveler approached the village, he blew a horn before he crossed the outer fence to show he was coming openly. . . .

"Within his own village, an Englishman knew everybody and almost every tree and animal. . . . But he had no conception of a map, no mental image of the shape of the country as it might be seen from hundreds of miles above, or of the relative positions of places in it. . . . He lived in a world that had his own village as its center. . . .

"Conversely, the news of the outside world that came into the village was vague, brought by peddlers, or filtering down from mouth to mouth from the house of the Lord, or rumored at the occasional district meetings. . . .

". . . The Thane, whose name was Ulfer . . . was the only man in the village likely to travel far . . . he had to appear and share judgment of crimes and disputes in the hundred court, which met once a month, and perhaps in the shire court which heard more serious cases twice a year. . . .

"Horstede was less isolated than many of the villages of England . . . Horstede people could reach the outside world without much trouble if they wanted to. But isolation, imposed on most villages by distance, was also an attitude of mind. There was no reason for them to go to Lewes (12 miles away), except on an annual expedition to sell the produce they could spare; no reason ever for them to cross the river to the Roman road (2 miles distant). No doubt when they did go to town they felt out of place and a little apprehensive, like any country people, and were glad to get home again. . . .

"There was one link that joined Horstede to the social system of England, but it was not the town, it was 'the hundred.' Though rule at the top was autocratic, the English of that age were great committee men. Horstede, and any other village, organized its own affairs at a village meeting, a moot, and if they had a problem they could not solve they took it to the hundred moot. Above that was the shire moot, and above all the witena gemot, the embryo parliament which advised the King. . . .

"One senior citizen of Horstede would therefore ride out once a month . . . to attend the hundred moot."

I invite you to keep in mind that this description shows village life as it was approximately 500 years after the supposed reign of King Arthur, who historians now believe was based upon a real – though minor – Saxon king.

This information helps us to appreciate that in our own real history “ordinary people” – the simple farmers and fishermen – did not travel very far from their place of birth during their entire lives. In addition, the inhabitants of the “village” did not receive all the "latest news” and what news of the outside world they did receive was usually distorted in some form, or fashion. All of this helps us to appreciate that the population was rather thinly spread out. Also, as was shown above, the isolation that the villagers experienced was – to a considerable extent – self-imposed. It was an attitude they, themselves, had. The “ordinary people” of the village couldn't have given a wandering traveler directions to London – they had no idea where it was in relation to their own village.

In my game world, the population is just as “thin” as it was during the time of William the Conqueror, and the “ordinary people” just as “out of touch” with the “greater world” lying outside of their immediate environs. That's the type of setting that I like. In my opinion, it makes for a much better “hero” generating environment. It makes it rather easy to conceive of the people living in such remote isolation – during a time of crisis – as spending much of their time wondering just “who” was going to rescue them from “the Orcs” threatening their existence? Or were they about to be wiped out? After all, the villagers in question are not warriors, or fighters – they're just farmers; tending their flocks, their herds and their fields.

And so, in my game . . . along comes a “hero/heroine,” the proverbial “knight in shining armor," who receives the “hero's welcome” he/she will so richly deserve. This is the game I play, sans 21st Century morals and sensibilities. The people of those times simply did not “see” things the way we do today. Consider the "Slavers" modules; it would be easy for some of the people of our time to be offend by those, even though no offense was or is meant. That's simply the way the world worked back then and that time period is the game's over-all setting.

I try to incorporate as much of that atmosphere, that “feeling,” into my game as I can. That will bring us around to languages in the next post. Given Horstede's isolation, it is doubtful that any of it's citizens were bilingual. "Common" anyone?

So, how do you play it?


  1. Nice quote from 1066; good book! My fantasy campaigns tend to be -- in my mind, if not in the mind of the players -- more in the early to mid-1400's, minus gunpowder.

  2. Then I shall assume, sir, that you too are not a fan of 2e Monstrous Manual's "Giff!" I avoid Planescape as well. Though a fan of Greyhawk, I don't like the idea of a crashed spaceship in the Barrier Peaks. No science, no gunpowder. And please, next time sign your name, so I know to whom I am speaking!

    And thanks for reading!

  3. I incorporate most of the same societal concepts as you describe, Mystic, but, since this is a fantasy world, I do allow full plate armor. I haven't incorporated gun powder, but may allow it in special circumstances - like a scenario in which the PCs run into Myrland... ;)


    1. Har, har, har! That's why I don't use Myrland either!

      We each play the game our own way, SirXaris, and we all know that. But like I said, I'm strictly a Sword & Sorcery type guy . . . no science. Personally, I don't like mixing the two. But the important thing is having fun with it. You need to match the players to the DM, both need to enjoy the same kind of game, or someone will be unhappy.

      Then no one's happy. Thanks for reading!