Wednesday, August 7, 2019

2019 RPGaDay 6: Ancient

In most RPGs, especially fantasy, the idea of ancient things affecting the current time of play is pretty common. Ancient civilizations, cultures, myths, legends, artifacts...these all can create a central focus to any fantasy (sci-fi, horror, etc.) game. But there is one element about that that recently struck me as odd. And it's something I had never thought of before.

As a History major, I am well aware of two things. One, that history has a direct effect on today. There is a reason that the phrase "History repeats itself" is a common saying. The other thing I learned is that History is not always accurate. This is particularly true about ancient history.

In Ancient Greece for instance, historians performed a very different role than they do in the modern age. When we think of historians, we generally think of people who record and document facts, statistics, and biographies in order to preserve that knowledge for future generations. And for the most part, that's true. But, in ancient times, the people who documented events like wars and battles, and even political lives, were often motivated by more imperfect goals.

A good example of this is the Battle of Thermopylae. Most people today can give you the basic nuts and bolts of it: That 300 Spartans held a narrow pass against thousands of invading Persians for several days. That version is based mainly on the Spartan retelling of the events. But, as we have read by other, non-Spartan writers of the relative periods, there was MUCH more to it. The 300 Spartans were accompanied by a thousand or more helots (Spartan slaves) who most likely also took part in some degree. Plus there is evidence that there were Thespians (no, not the actors), Thebans, Arcadians, and members of several other Greek nations present as well.

So, why does the Spartan version concentrate so much on only the Spartans, to the point of baring falsehoods about the rest of 4000+ Greek army? Because they needed to. Sparta was a relatively small nation. They had good, fertile lands, and an enviable physical position. But they were surrounded by people who invaded them and raided their resources. So, the Spartans developed a very militaristic society in response. And part of that was fomenting their reputation as the ultimate warrior nation, to be feared and avoided.

Now, there are whole volumes of debate about the veracity of these Spartan claims to military superiority. But that's not the point here. The point is that whether factual or not, the reputation of Sparta has lasted for centuries, and crossed continents to influence cultures that have never encountered any element of them directly. How many US high schools have the Spartan as their mascot, for example?

Ok, so how does this relate to your fantasy RPG? Well, maybe that ancient myth that is the center of your latest quest revolves around an event that didn't happen the way the scholars say it did. Or maybe that legendary warrior wasn't actually a real person, but an amalgamation of warriors who each performed the heroic deeds attributed to the legend. Imagine how such a revelation would effect the player characters. Or how it would effect the politics of the nation whose power rests on the shoulders of a lie.

That sounds like it would make for some interesting gaming, IMHO.

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