Friday, May 10, 2013

Game World Inspirations Friday: Liavek

It's been a while since I've posted about some of the inspirations I've used to craft my home campaign, the World of Samoth.

So far, I've talked about a variety of things like Earth History, Conan's Hyboria,  and game worlds like the World of Greyhawk, Dragonlance's Krynn, and the old B/X "Known World."

Today I move more in the direction of literary fiction sources and cover a book that fits into the shared-world concept: Liavek.

The first book in a series (it's fantasy, so of course it's a series) is called simply Liavek, and it was published in 1985. I probably picked it up right around then or a bit later at my local used book shop in La Verne, California, where I was living at the time.

When I read this book, I was exposed to several ideas for the first time:

  1. Shared Worlds. The book states right on the cover that it's "In the bestselling tradition of THIEVES' WORLD." I knew what Thieves' World was from having seen reviews of some of the books in Dragon Magazine but my knowledge stopped there. I didn't realize what this blurb on the cover meant was that this was a shared worlds book - essentially a bunch of short stories, all by different authors, which all took place in the same world (in this case, all in the port city of Liavek). That kind of stuff is old-hat now, and I've read many other books with this format, but back then, nearly 30 years ago, this was all new to me. 
  2. Non-European Fantasy Setting. By this time, I'd read quite a bit of Conan stuff so I was familiar with how an author could take elements from non-European cultures and recreate them as fantasy worlds. But, Liavek was different. The entire flavor of the world is Middle Eastern in scope - it's not "the Middle East equivalent" that's adjacent to a Middle Ages Europe equivalent or anything like that. The entire focus of the book is on the city of Liavek which is definitely Arabian/Middle Eastern in style and culture. The cover of the book features robe-clad adventurers riding desert horses and camels, with desert palaces in the background. This really intrigued me because it was just so different. I'll touch on this more down below.
  3. Gunpowder. Nowadays, it's no longer novel to include rudimentary gunpowder in fantasy worlds. Even back in 1985, when this book came out, it wasn't exactly new, but it was new to me. I hadn't yet been exposed to Games Workshops' Warhammer world, and stuff like the Iron Kingdoms from Privateer was decades away. The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide clearly stated that gunpowder would "muddy the waters of your fantasy world." And yet, single-shot wheellock and matchlock muskets were seen in Liavek. I really liked that idea a lot at the time.
Cool Bits from the Story (no Spoilers)
The series takes place in the port city of Liavek, which is cool because it allows the various authors to introduce other cultures in the form of merchant ships and explorers who interact with the people of Liavek itself. That way, we can see how the culture of Liavek's people compares with some of the other cultures of the broader world.

Magic is handled in an interesting way - each year on a person's birthday, he can attempt to invest his luck into an object. If successful, the person becomes a magician of some varying degree of power over the course of the next year. But, there's a price - all of his power resides in the object into which he invested his luck, so if it's stolen and destroyed, he's in great danger. As a consequence, many people invest their luck into the city itself, giving rise to Liavek's nickname, "The City of Luck." That's a really cool concept and one that I briefly tried to play around with in my world design before discarding it.

The series was also written from the standpoint of making men and women equal - there are no "gender roles" that put men above women or assign women to only certain tasks. I liked this because, D&D is generally designed the same way. It assumes that men and women both have an equal chance to become adventurers and eventually people of importance.

Lastly, there's a really great series of appendices in the back of the book that covers things like "Food & Drink," "Social Structure &  Government," "Language," "Weaponry," and much more - it's written as a "tourist's guide" as though you were going to visit there, but includes tons of great ideas for building your own fantasy world. There's also a creation myth and some stuff on magic.

Things I Used in my World Creation
Liavek was truly the first fantasy book I read that didn't have a major Western Europe theme to it. I was immediately intrigued by this "exotic" culture, and I really think that the authors who created the world did it right. This isn't just Earth's "Middle East" with the names changed and the addition of some wizards. This is a truly crafted-from-scratch fantasy world that happens to have some Arabian and Middle Eastern flavor to it. It's a fine distinction but one that I think many world creators miss, especially when dealing with cultures that are outside their level of familiarity. It's much easier to just take real world history for things like China and Japan and just add magic to them when making a fantasy Asia equivalent than it is to really dig deep and find what makes those cultures different and unique and apply those things to creating a new world from scratch.

After having read this book, I ended up scrapping the world I was currently working on (a "proto-Samoth" world, if you will) and starting from scratch, eventually leading me to concentrate on just one country and culture - that of India, which because the sole focus of my campaign world for the next few years before I slowly began adding other cultures, eventually turning it into what is now the World of Samoth.

That's the main thing this book gave me - a sense of wonder and an understanding that my world didn't have to be a rip-off of Tolkien, Howard, or Gygax - I could add other, unfamiliar yet "real" elements and make the non-European areas of my world into more than just stereotypes.

I also really liked the idea of adding primitive gunpowder to my world, and that owes itself directly to my reading of Liavek. Gunpowder was a part of the world right up until I actually started using it as an active gaming world for my still on-going 3rd Edition / 3.5 / Pathfinder campaign. The main reason I took it out was, sadly, because when I started the campaign in May of 2001, there were no good rules for handling gunpowder in a straight fantasy d20 setting and I didn't feel comfortable, as a novice DM, trying to include them. So, I just took them out and the world hasn't had them since.

That's a look into how I incorporated some of the things from this series into my world. I really encourage people who haven't read the series to at least check out the first book (I haven't read the others, so I've no idea if they're as good). And I'd love to hear from people who have read the series to see if it inspired them in the same way it did me.


  • Format: 274-page paperback
  • Where to Buy: It's long out-of-print, but of course you can find used copies. Here's a list on
  • Price: Original) $2.95
  • More Information: There are tons of fan sites, but here's the entry on Wikipedia.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Drank a Oskar Blues Gubna Imperial IPA at lunch

Listening: "Big Parade" by the Lumineers

1 comment:

  1. I've not heard of this series -- although I got into fantasy and science fiction at a very young age, my reading hasn't been that broad -- but it does seem quite interesting. I'm always keen to see non-European fantasy settings in games, and the way Liavek handles magic is fascinating.


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