Monday, February 14, 2011

Game World Inspirations: History


This is going to be the first in a series of posts about the inspirations for my homebrew campaign setting, the World of Samoth. 

I started working on this campaign world decades ago, back when I was a Freshman at UC Riverside studying to be a Biomedical Engineer.  Yeah, that “career-path” didn’t last too long.  But that’s another story.  But, back to my Freshman year at UC Riverside.  I hated it.  I was living in the dorms and missing all of my friends, who were roughly about 45 minutes away, but really without a car they may as well have been on the other side of the country.  I also decided very early on that I hated Biomedical Engineering.  Choosing that major was a mistake, one chosen based solely on the fear that I was a Senior in High School and hadn’t chosen a major yet.  In the back of my chemistry book was a section called “Careers in Chemistry” and one of them listed Biomedical Engineering as being field that combined Chemistry with graphic design in order to design and create prosthetics.  I thought to myself, “I’m getting decent grades in chemistry, and I have a good graphic design background.”  So, that was my decision-making process for choosing that major.

So, flash forward to December and Winter Break.  I’ve been pretty miserable, not getting along that well with my dorm-mates, and deciding that I hate chemistry and math, because, as it turns out, I wasn’t very good at them.  So, I come home for Winter Break excited to see my friends and chat with them about my plans to switch majors and probably schools as well.  And what happened?  On the Sunday before I was to start my break in earnest, I got sick.  Really, horribly, almost deathly sick.  With… chicken pox.  CHICKEN POX.  I’d never had it before.  It turns out that someone in our dorm hall also hadn’t had it and got exposed somewhere, and ended up giving it to the four people in our hall who had never had it before.  I was one of the lucky ones.  For those of you who don’t know and think that chicken pox is no big deal, all I can say is that, the older you get, the more serious it is.  I was 18 and I still have scars from some of the pock-marks. But, really, what this meant was that my entire break that I planned to spend hanging out with my friends was instead spent inside, mostly in bed, just feeling miserable and being ticked off that nothing seemed to be working out for me. 

This was in the days before Internet access, 500 cable channels, DVD rentals, and ubiquitous video gaming, so I was just kind of bored sitting around at home.  I was digging through some old stuff in my closet and came across notes for a D&D campaign I had started back in high school.  I had ultimately scrapped the world, but one particular country in that world stuck out to me.  It was a pseudo-medieval India country called, at the time, Sikham, which I later changed to Verundhi.  At the time, there really weren’t any good fantasy RPG campaign settings featuring a good India-inspired country.  There still aren’t.  I decided to take that one country and create a campaign out of it.  I spent the rest of my winter break going through the only resources on India we had at our house, which included a 1960s-era World Book Encyclopedia series, and yet another more “modern” encyclopedia series from Funk & Wagnall’s in the 1980s that my mom had acquired week by week with “stamps” from our local Alpha Beta grocery store.  My research was rounded out by an almost 30 year collection of National Geographic magazines stretching back from the early 1960s to the late 1980s and the section on “Indian Gods” in the 1st Edition AD&D Deities & Demigods. 

So, what does all of this have to do with “history” as an inspiration for my World of Samoth game?  Well, during that Winter Break I became obsessed with trying to find out as much as I could about historical and mythical India and trying to infuse that knowledge into my campaign world.  I found research that I thought would be interesting in the context of a fantasy RPG, such as an Indian martial arts form called kalarippayattu, the different castes, mythical beasts, the thuggee cult, and religion.  I created dozens of NPCs and started fleshing out the country into different regions and created a back-story involving a demonic take-over of the southern portion of the country and a young and inexperienced empress who was looking for help from foreign dignitaries to stabilize her empire. 

Eventually, I got better and returned to UC Riverside for two more quarters before transferring to Cal Poly Pomona where I eventually got my degree in Marketing.  My best friend, Brian, also went to Cal Poly and we took a lot of classes together, including a World History class that we needed as one of our liberal arts credits.  Our class was taught by a crazy old guy from somewhere in Eastern Europe (it might be Romania, but I honestly don’t remember) named Ilia P. Daikovich.  I remember he wore the same dark blue pin-striped suit every day and had such a thick accent that easily half of the stuff he said we completely missed.  But, in this class, which used the book History of World Societies as its textbook, I came up with hundreds of ideas I could use in my campaign world.  I approached the class as a seminar on “Ideas for Your Campaign World.”  This first class focused on ancient societies from the Fertile Crescent up through ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome.  I remembered liking these subjects as a kid, but it was great to get a more in-depth look at these cultures and come up with ways of using them idea-fodder for my campaign.  So it happened that after the quarter, I signed up for Part 2 of the class, which focused on the Medieval, Renaissance, and Age of Enlightenment eras, even though I didn’t need the credits for my major.  I figured, I was already here at the University, so why not take advantage of it to get some more information?  Brian didn’t take that class with me, so I stuck it out on my own.  But, taking those history classes helped me in many ways, not the least of which was to help raise my GPA since I got an A in both classes. 

Between classes at Cal Poly, I used to head over to the library and I did a ton of additional research on world societies for my campaign world.  During this time, I’d come around to the idea of wanting to expand my campaign world beyond just the India-inspired country.  I had the whole idea of the empress of Verundhi calling on the leaders of other countries for help, and I wanted to figure out what those countries were like.  Nowadays, I would probably just leave this detail unexplained until it naturally unfolded in the course of play, but back then, my campaign world models were things like the World of Greyhawk and Dragonlance, where everything was codified and explained.  I eventually went on to details dozens of countries, along with religions, societies, language trees, and a bunch of other details that we’ve barely scratched the surface of in over a decade of play. 

One of my players, Cal, has basically noted that the map of the world and the corresponding countries bare more than a passing resemblance to Europe, Asia, and Africa.  And, he’s right.  That’s kind of the point.  I have countries inspired by medieval Spain, 1700’s France, medieval Russia, Dark Ages Germany, Renaissance-era Holy Roman Empire, medieval India combined with colonial-era India, ancient Sumeria, ancient Egypt, medieval African nations, and more.  Although the countries are inspired by their real-world counterparts, they are of course different from the presence of magic, fantasy races, and the other trappings that make for a fun RPG.  I also decided to give them all roughly the same level of technology, despite all of the different eras of history that I used for inspiration. 

That gives you an idea of where the World of Samoth got its start, and also one of the main sources of my inspiration for building the world.  Future “Inspirations” blogs will get into other sources like fiction, comics, movies, and other game worlds.  I’m also going to go dig out all of my “proto-Samoth” game worlds and track their development, because I think it would be an interesting experiment to see how those former stalled campaign worlds came to influence my current one. 

That’s the start of my story.  What about the worlds you’ve created over the years?  What was your main source of inspiration?

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