Role Playing using the Real World to Make your Fantasy Campaign come Alive

One of the hardest things that a referee has to do when running a successful campaign is make the whole thing seem real. In know that the games are set in a fantasy world, but even that has to run to some logic. It’s all very well for gaming sessions to be a little cocoon that the players spend a few hours in, delving into deep dungeons, forging new paths through frontiers, sailing to forgotten islands or wandering the back streets of exotic cities, but at some point they will ask questions of their character that will cause you to think of the bigger picture. Where is my homeland? Why did I turn to this career path? Why is the wilderness filled with lawless bandits? Who runs the country? What is the history of this town? At that point the referee, as god of his own world, needs to start fleshing out some of the background.

One of the ways that can be useful is to design your map to fit over a map of part of the real world that you are familiar with. This may seem like an odd think to do but there are some great advantages to be had. Say, for example, your campaign map is loosely drawn to be the rough shape and dimensions of Europe. You may start the players in say England for their first few adventures and set it in a Dark Age Anglo Saxon context, add all the usual fantasy tools by all means, but at least you have a flavour to base your culture on. You also know that across the water there are cultures that relate to Franks and Goths, further East Tartars and Cossack, Arabic and Indian empires and you know where they are in relation to where the players are. Even if you don’t flesh these far areas out much you know as they move into new uncharted regions the nature of the culture. Hide their true identity, call the Indian Mogul empire, the Empire of the Lotus, Jerusalem can be the Holy City, North Africa the Shifting Desert, but combination of history books and imagination may create some wonderful combinations.

Also don’t necessarily limit yourself to specific time zones. If say you start your players in Dark Age Britain, why not have Italy already in the Renaissance, with its inventors, architecture and artists, even have gunpowder available in limited quantities. Russia may be the land of nomadic tribes, maybe the Golden Horde are in control, across the water there is a New World to be explored peopled by red-skinned natives and Aztecs. As you can see just through pulling a few ideas from our own history you already have a variety of cultural backgrounds to flavour you creation with.

History also adds its own rewards as you know what has gone on. Maybe you can set the campaign in the dying years of the Roman Empire with two distinct sides, the crumbling Imperial power and the nomadic invaders who seek to replace it. Just by choosing such a setting you already know so much about the history and nature of the two sides.

If used as a loose basic framework, there is still room to fit in ideas of your own creation, but by choosing such an approach you already know so much about the world, more importantly your characters will be able to identify with their own homeland and traditions. A Teutonic Paladin already knows what medieval Germany is like, an Arabic sorcerer has so much imagery already to call on and a Viking thief comes with a ready made identity.

These ideas can be taken to any extreme, why not set your fantasy campaign in the aftermath of a nuclear war and the races and abilities are the result of changes made due to radiation. Ruined cities and ancient technologies provide ready made and alien seeming focal points. There is so much to be taken from our own worlds history, why not use it as a source for some of the bigger backdrops to your adventures allowing you to already have prior knowledge of your world with out having to write pages and pages of source material.