Thursday, 23 April 2009


In a post the other day I mentioned that I liked settings with non-European influences. This is mainly because, like many people, I'm just sick to death of what have become the 'standard' fantasy tropes, and since those tropes are (superficially) European in flavour, the desire to get away from cliche manifests itself in a liking for things that are not European.

On reflection, this is a mistake. Actually, it's pretty stupid for two reasons. First, 'Europe' is historically a geographic entity and not a geopolitical one. Second, medieval Europe is as exotic to European people today as medieval Timbuktu. In fact, modern English people probably have more in common with people living in modern Timbuktu than they do with people who lived in 11th Century England.

This was brought home to me yesterday, when I was reading through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook - specifically, the Formula for Conducting the Ordeal of Boiling Water. In case you haven't read it, I'll summarise the gist: the ancestors of modern Germans used to decide the guilt of an accused man based on whether or not his hand was burned by being submerged in boiling water.

The other legal texts make for equally fascinating reading. We have rules for marriages between a freedwoman and a serf, on the sale of daughters as concubines, on the murder of slaves (punishable by two years of penance!) and on, er...what to do about Jewish people. This was another world, and to claim it wasn't exotic is utterly bizarre.

And on its outskirts, parts of Europe probably had more in common with other continents than they did with the supposed 'European culture'. Consider the Highland Scots, tribal and stratified along clan lines, who seemed to fit in better with the Creeks and Cherokee of North America than they did with their Lowland and English neighbours. The Hungarians - Central Asian nomads transplanted to Central-Eastern Europe. The Castilians, culturally more similar to the Moors than to the French. The Lithuanians and Prussians, pagan tribes sandwiched between Christian powers.

It ought to be perfectly possible for people to come up with fantasy settings based on 'Europe' that are just as, if not more exotic, than Rokugan or Kara-Tur or any of the other 'non-European' inspired stuff that's out there. See, this is why I need to know more about medieval history...


  1. One of these days, I will get around to rereading Bernard Lewis' The Muslim Discovery Of Europe. In short, it is the Arab view of Medieval Europe as seen through the eyes of Muslim Scholars.

    The bit that stuck in my mind is the diplomat (or was he a trader?) stuck at a quarantine camp for forty days, on the border between east and west. Ah, must reread...

  2. This was another world, and to claim it wasn't exotic is utterly bizarre.If you haven't read A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, then I highly suggest you do so at the earliest opportunity. Your statement basically sums up the entire thesis of the book.

  3. @sirlarkins: Is that the one about the 14th century? That's a good read.

    Also fun is anything on pre-modern Poland (Adam Zamoyski's "The Polish Way" is a fun intro). The sheer baroque /oddness/ of Polish history is breath-taking.

  4. Chris: Indeed it is. Chock fulla awesome anecdotes and weird savagery that can be lifted whole-cloth.

    And I second Polish history as well.

  5. Yikes! Ok, yeah, so I can apparently discuss really basic stuff from the Middle Ages, then. Ok, I'll have to ruminate over the weekend on what to write about.

  6. this is when you start declaring that Chivalry & Sorcery is the best FRPG ever, isn't it? :)

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  8. I'm glad to read that you have seen the forest through the trees.

    Each culture in Europe is at once very similar and considerably different from all the others -- and all that wedged between proto-Celtic wanderings Eastward and prior to the influx of Ottoman Islam.

    Plenty to draw upon... :)

  9. I read an article in Arcane back in the mid 90s about gaming in the world of the Arabian Knights and a point that the author argued stuck with me.

    He said that to a modern Westerner, the medieval Islamic world of the Middle East would be more familiar and less alien than the Christian world of the same era.

    His reasoning was that the Islamic world was mercantile with a strong merchant and middle class, urbanized, cosmopolitan and scientific whereas Christendom's economy was agrarian, feudal with only a tiny middle class, rural and only just discovering the scientific method from contact with Islamic countries.

    I think that chimes in with the idea that much of Europe then would be alien to us now.

  10. A a kid I think my D&D locals were pretty much a mix of everything, but with Euro fantasy as a base. My folks are Scottish so a lot is ingrained into my brain from that setting. But a la Hargrave and others, you were as equally likely to run into a Scottish barbarian as you were a Samurai on a typical city street or tavern.

    It was not long before my game world, which I use to this day 30 years later, became more western Europe-fantasy in nature, and I was able to invent the lands across the sea based on asia and Persia and all that for the characters to visit on long travels (usually involving a couple of game stop-off at the Isle of Dread).

  11. This is part of what makes Ars Magica so cool. Instead of a faux Europe setting, the game takes place in Europe. Interestingly, by making explicit what so many D&D worlds keep breezily and vaguely assumed, the setting encourages a greater attention to what makes Mythic Europe so alien to our modern sensibilities. In my opinion, it comes off just as exotic as a wholly made up setting like Tekumel or Sigil.

  12. Mothman's: Sounds like something I'd like to read. I'll have to track down a copy.

    Sirlarkins: I loved The Guns of August, so I'll definitely check it out.

    Chris: Playing games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis II got me interested in Polish and Lithuanian history. The problem is that so little readable popular history gets written about such places.

    trollsmyth: No pressure, or anything...

    Jerry Cornelius: Never played it. I want to now, though.

    Timeshadows: proto-Celtic wanderings EastwardYou're referring to the invasions of the Balkans and Greece?

    Coopdevil: Ah, Arcane. Sadly missed. They had lots of great articles like that.

    Brunomac: One of the reasons why I like the Warhammer world is that it's so closely based on our own. I love the wild and exotic, but the near-analogue has its place too, for sure.

    Fitzerman: I've never played Ars Magica. I've always had this idea that it's all about neo-Paganism, though not sure why. Is it possible to play it 'straight' - like plain historical Europe without the magic?

  13. You may be basing the Neo-Pagan idea off of the game's 3rd edition, which was published by White Wolf and gives voice to many of that company's early philosophical leanings.

    I've only played the 5th edition, and I don't think I'd characterize it as "Neo-Paganism" in the sense of modern day Wicca or New Age or anything like that. The idea is that magic exists in a historically based 13th Century Europe, and its practitioners are pagan in an almost Aristotelian sense- magi with a classical greek philosophical bearing. Magic obeys certain "scientific" laws and PCs can exploit those laws to create all manner of spells and effects.

    Can you play it without the magic? I suppose the system would allow it, but there wouldn't be much point. It would be like playing D&D 4e without miniatures combat. Technically doable, but why not just play something else?

    But if you want to play a sandbox game where everyone is a powerful wizard, no system does it better.