Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Running D&D in the Fall of the Roman Empire

I'm planning on running a D&D campaign based largely around the fall of the Roman Empire. I don't necessarily want my campaign to be real-world but the feel of a massive empire crumbling to barbarians will hopefully filter into the games.

My reasons for this are threefold: 1) I really love that period, 2) it's basically perfect for D&D and 3) because there's just so much stuff to run a campaign in this setting.

Fall of the Roman Empire
The fall of the Roman Empire, basically James Raggi everywhere
1. The Fall of Rome is Just Awesome

A huge, continent-spanning empire, decadent and corrupt. Entire nations of barbarians migrating across borders, fighting for their survival. An apocalyptic horde from the East - the Huns, led by the scourge of God, Attila. The collapse of the Roman Empire is like the Rome we learned about in school, but more metal, and it has fascinated historians right since Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Late Roman soldiers
Late Roman legions were similar to the early ones, except fallible and more angst
Of course, recent historians have done much to separate the myth from the reality of what happened during the time. For example, the idea that the Roman Empire collapsed from within is actually pretty untrue - it was at one of its strongest periods during the reign of Theodosius - but this just serves to make the achievements of groups such as the Goths even more amazing.

The Huns
The Huns rampaging as per
Also in lots of ways it's interesting because it mirrors contemporary events, with large numbers of migrants turning up on European borders and the strain and break up of the established order as the authorities struggle to cope. Except it's also less depressing because it's thousands of years in the past.

2. D&D was secretly built for a Late Roman setting

The archetypal D&D campaign is set in a lawless borderlands region where monsters roam free. It's fairly evocative of the Dark Ages as I understand it; a lot of the monsters came straight from germanic mythology especially as remixed by JRR Tolkien.

Yet old-school D&D also has huge cities and kings and castles and large-scale battles and sea warfare, none of which simultaneously happen right until the 1300s and onwards, by which time things in Europe were remarkably stable. I was thinking of the Italian wars as a period that I could use but even then the fighting was largely linked mainly to just a few fights by professional soldiers. There are still vassals and petty lords in that period with a bit of local control but they'd lose their title instantly if they put a foot out of line - the kings had quite a lot of power by that time.

Constantinople, the new Rome
Constantinople, the new Rome
If you really want both a high level of development and complete lawlessness where your murderhobo party can survive, look no further than Late Rome as your setting. No one did cities better than the Romans - Rome and Constantinople are both marvelous as the main cities in a campaign and there are a wealth of settlements between them that had their own unique traits and histories. But also these cities were constantly threatened by roving factions of barbarians and by rogue commanders and their legions.

The Keep on the Borderlands
The Keep on the Borderlands - a Roman settlement, besieged by barbarians
As people have pointed out it's kind of weird for a socio-economic centre like the Keep on the Borderlands to be able to exist only a few miles from the Caves of Chaos, but then if the occupants of the caves only moved in recently, it makes sense. Perhaps the surroundings of the Keep are the burnt-out remains of the farms and villages that used to exist here peacefully.

The other good thing is that a lot of the powers are mobile - they're not just static NPCs, but the barbarians were constantly on the move, searching for new sources of food, sometimes allying with Roman armies in turn for resources to fight new threats and then turning on the Romans again when the time suited. This will hopefully keep things shaken up during the campaign and give the players new things to respond to.

3. Materials I'm going to use

There are some great maps of the Roman Empire at this time. Firstly there are huge wiki commons maps like this one with all the province names, and then there's orbis which calculates the distances between cities on the roads in different seasons. Then I'll use these hex maps from the Tao of DnD for wilderness exploration.

The Colosseum
Piranesi's drawings of Rome are a great starting point
I'm planning on having the map start near Constantinople, for which I'll use Vornheim and maps of the city. I want Constantinople to be a sprawling metropolis, the centre of power, and engaged with religion. It'll also be full of the rich and those seeking to become rich by whatever means necessary. See my city post for what I'm getting at. Rome, on the other hand, will be old, crumbling, and dangerous. The old Arena of Thyatis module and Along the Road of Tombs are begging to be used.

James Young, in whose games I play as a character, wrote a great set of Cleric Subclasses to create greater differences between religions among clerics. His campaign's set around the 1550s when Protestantism and Catholicism were at violent odds, but the system also lends itself well to a late Roman setting when the church held an increasingly important position in Imperial politics, yet no one had got round to deciding on what Christian doctrine actually meant.

Barbarians will chose a starting culture - for example Huns will be great at horse riding. That kind of thing. A post to follow.

Voivodja from a Red and Pleasant Land
The ruins of Voivodja
I also really like Zak Sabbath's Red and Pleasant Land setting and plan on using the NPCs in it for some of the generals in the campaign. Again I also like the landscape it conjures - one constantly at war, saturated with ancient ruins.

Fighters are desperately dull in the rules in my opinion. Great in terms of stats but there aren't as many cool rules as other classes which is why people always pick barbarians. I really want there to be a bit more stuff for them to do so I'm going to make some rules based around the Roman army and its ranking system.

Roman ruins at Leptis Magna
Roman ruins at Leptis Magna
A bunch of old modules for dungeons - Caverns of Thracia, the Lost City, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Tomb of the Bull King, Maze of the Blue Medusa. A lot of these have a nice Greek feel which should mirror the classical past of ancient greece and the better days of the Empire before it fell. What I like about all these is they share narratives of a fallen (or falling) empire, often decadent, now infested with danger and violence. It shouldn't take much work to fit these narratives together.