Imperium Sine Fine

The case for breaking the fantasy RPG setting deadlock.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Action Editorial Role-playing Story-driven


In the middle of the Forum, the booming voice of an orator rumbles above the general din.  He speaks of Pompey, and his waning power in the East.  You think to yourself that you might do well to find out more about Pompeian loyalists that might still be about the city – it’d be a good way to get back into the Legion’s good graces. OK, sure. But first you’ve got to sell off all these damned costume pieces.

See, you ran into a troupe of entertainers travelling with an ass-drawn carriage through the foothills outside of the city. Being a Legion deserter on the lam, you don’t exactly have a steady income, so you decided to levy an improvised tax on the actors when you came upon them. You can be a pretty intimidating sometimes, but they didn’t have any actual coin, so you unburdened them of their props. Now you’re walking around with a couple blunted swords, a dingy hairpiece and a prosthetic phallus used in the depiction of satyrs.

Your name is Quintus Volcacius Merula, and you notice that swindling those actors just leveled you up.

If this RPG sounds less than conventional, it’s because it occurs outside of the British medieval paradigm that has established a pretty clear chokehold on mainstream fantasy RPGs. Whenever a game world within this genre deviates too broadly from Tolkieny middle ages fare with sprightly elves and hard-drinking dwarves, you know you’re witnessing something interesting.

This never really irked me before. I’m more than happy to while away my time in a “medieval England with a sprinkle of magic” type of world. In fact, I only realized how pervasive this general fantasy feel was when I read this critical review of The Witcher 2, which mentions that though the game was lauded for its Polish origins and allusions to specific ethnic mythology, most of its environment is as generic fantasy as anything else on the market.

That’s not to say that all notable RPGs have been stuck in this pattern. The Fallout games are a big exception to the rule, and their lesser-known descendant Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura is a lovely Baldur’s Gate-style romp through an early industrial age fantasy world. Earthbound is a wonderful SNES game set largely in a weird, alternate version of modern suburbia, and it’s very much an RPG (though less in the “sidequests and loot” way and more in the “fighting is based on algorithms” way). And the pioneering influences of Deus Ex and System Shock have given modern sci-fi games and FPS’s a way to bring in some of the mechanics we love about RPG’s while retaining the visceral feel of a futuristic shooter.

However, if you look at the fantasy RPG landscape, there does seem to be a pretty heavy focus on medieval Britain or Western Europe as a starting point, filled in (with varying degrees of creativity) with riffs on different races interacting, geopolitical conflicts or how much weight you can carry before your guy becomes over-encumbered. Dragons abound, the social hierarchy is a pretty standard peasants vs. nobles divide, and longswords and bows are the weapons of choice.

I get the appeal. There’s something very safe and archetypal about fictional worlds with their roots in this period. After all, for every 100,000 kids who pretended to be knights or royalty at recess, there is only one weird, lonely child who’s too smart for his grade pretending to be a Renaissance wit-about-town. Our modern idea of regalness or knighthood is the perfect stuff of daydreams and escapism – when we think of the chivalric code we don’t think “never show mercy to infidels” but more about unerring commitment to good, bravery and love. Even the games which subvert the “knight in white armor” deal still are often tied to the universe of quest-giving feudal lords and annoying bards, and after a while the whole song and dance starts to get a bland tone to it.

Which is why I am so puzzled as to why there aren’t more fantasy games that strike out into other settings. Purely by exploring a different setting than most of their competitors, games like Jade Empire and Rise of the Argonauts immediately pique my interest even if their executions are somewhat flawed.

Rome of antiquity seems like an era especially ripe for a sprawling RPG.  In addition to the fascinating cityscape of the ancient metropolis, there are the outlying territories to explore — the barbarian expanses to the north, the Egyptian lands across the sea.  The rampant factionalism that makes medieval politics so fun to imitate in creating a fantasy game’s setting is quite present in the Roman senate, and the constant threat of a dictatorship destroying the republic lends everything a nice urgency.

And if you’re lamenting the presence of all those petty lords who can dole out missions, why not combine the need for task-givers with the built-in lore of a game set in ancient Rome and have the hero be approached by the gods?  From Ares to Aphrodite, all your favorite characters from ancient Greek mythology have been ripped off directly!  The in-game model could involve sidequests which are directly identified with which gods’ favor you curry, and consequently which supernatural powers or bonuses you are imbued with.  This idea, if not totally new (the daedric quests of The Elder Scrolls come to mind), would be an interesting view of the divine politics going on — do too many missions for Rediculus, the God of Laughter (Wikipedia says!) and Mars will scorn you actively, making you more hilarious in conversations with NPCs but shittier at combat. Or say there are portions where you need to sail to a different land: winning Neptune’s favor in advance of doing this will save you a lot of grief and quite possibly a monster of two. Likewise, if you side with a certain god’s human champion or ward, their opinion of you will increase — and any gods who disapprove of your new friend will also take note. Thus emerges a morality system that’s based on a vivid religion that’s directly connected to everyday social interactions.

And just as fantasy has departed from medieval realities in many ways, a fictionalized universe with heavy ancient Roman influences would be just as fascinating as seeing a more direct RPG adaptation. The point would be a fantasy setting that felt markedly different, that didn’t play quite as easily into our expectations of swords and sorcery, kings and queens.  In tapping into a completely different setting with entirely separate connotations, perhaps this game could wash away that same-y taste that some recent RPGs have left in our mouths. It would be a risk — it always is when someone releases a game that decides to follow an untried path as opposed to one proven to make money.  I could be wrong; the whole thing could just feel weird and unnatural.
But to really find out, we’d need a big, bold test case.

[Photo credit]

Filed Under: Action Editorial Role-playing Story-driven

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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