Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lessons Learned: The Hyborian Age...

Good Afternoon, All:

For Christmas, my grandmother gave me two audiobooks from Tantor Media, being the second and third books of Robert E. Howard's Conan novels. I have a forty-minute to an hour's commute each way to work, and I find that the audiobooks really help entertain me during that time. I also get a lot of inspiration from the Conan stories, from world-building to specific adventure ideas.

One of the elements of Howard's stories that intrigues me the most as a GM is the concept behind his Hyborian Age setting. Essentially, for those that may not know, Howard loved writing historical fiction, but back in the early 30's, researching for historical accuracy was extremely time-consuming. This was during the Great Depression, and survival was more important that doing what he loved, so Howard found himself in a situation where he needed money in order to pay for his living expenses. Since historic fiction didn't sell as well and it took so long to research and write, he created a setting called the Hyborian Age, which he filled with parallels to Earth cultures, and ran with it. Since they were ostensibly fictional creations, historical accuracy wasn't required, yet there was enough of a historical feel to the setting that he could write about the things he loved, changing a few details here and there, and actually make money at it. Obviously, he was quite successful in his efforts, since the Conan stories have been reprinted in many different languages and sold in many countries around the world.

Many fantasy campaign settings published over the years have taken advantage of the same conceit that Howard used with his Hyborian Age. Mystara and the Known World is perhaps the most blatant about using fantasy analogs of historic time periods on Earth, but each of the major settings published for D&D prior to 2nd Edition took advantage of this concept. The Forgotten Realms have a number of locations that owe their conception to a corresponding Earth culture, as does Greyhawk. Kara Tur, Maztica and Al'Qadim are all based on specific Earth cultures. Obviously, Dark Sun and Planescape are more exceptions than the rule here. Paizo's Golarion follows this same concept in a number of their world's kingdoms, as do the lands of Goodman Game's Aereth (aka the Known Realms).

Obviously, the fact that these settings sell so well encourages other publishers to create their own, often in the image of "that which came before." Whether you use a published setting or create your own, using historic culture correspondences can be a Good Thing™. The benefits of such include:

  • It's easier for your players to imagine and conceptualize the desired flavor of a given region without providing an excessive amount of detail, which may well be ignored by players anyway if they don't want to absorb all that before they begin gaming in your world.
  • You can draw inspiration from the mythology, history and culture of the corresponding Earth culture, and simply change the names to fit your world.
  • In preparing documentation on your world, you can cut and paste online articles, again changing the names to fit your world, and thus save yourself in prep time.
  • Naming standards are much simpler to communicate, and a great number of baby naming sites provide example names and their meanings for both PCs and NPCs.
  • Because it's a fantasy analog, you don't have to slavishly devote yourself to replicating that Earth culture in your world (unless, of course, your campaign is set in a given historic time period on Earth). No one should give you a hard time because the Keshites don't hold cats in the same sacred regard as their corresponding Egyptian culture. It's a lot easier to note the differences between your world's region and your source of inspiration than it is to try and capture each kingdom as a unique entity standing alone.
  • You can take advantage of the mythology of the inspiring Earth culture to add great flavor to your own pantheon, or even use the Earth culture's pantheon outright, whether you change the names or not.
  • It worked for Robert E. Howard, and you're building on his tradition, paying homage to the masters that gave us the genre we now game in.
  • Even if someone says that they don't like using Earth analogs and want to see something original, they'll play in a setting with Earth analogs. People who prefer Earth analogs prefer to simply game and don't like having to absorb a bunch of setting material just to play a game, and aren't likely to play in a totally unique and unusual setting. I personally recommend making the choice that gets you more gamers to choose from. Even if only one of the regions of your world is based on an Earth analog (such as medieval England and/or northern Europe, as fantasy settings tend to be), you have a place for those people that just want to game without having to pass a test first.

If you're looking for inspiration for a campaign world you're developing, the wikipedia entry on the Hyborian Age is a great place to start. There, you can find a list of the different cultures that Howard thought made for interesting adventure locales. You definitely don't have to use all of them, and you may find other cultures not on the list that are fascinating to you. However, you really can't go wrong by looking the list over and picking and choosing the ones that sound good to you. After all, if you like them, chances are that someone else will enjoy gaming in those cultures as well.

And that's my Lesson Learned for today.


1 comment:

Taranaich said...

The other thing about Howard's Hyborian Age is that it's explicitly tied to "our" earth in the form of a lost age, which explains why there are so many names from history popping up: they were dimly remembered and repeated in the centuries after the fall of the Hyborians, and the rise of modern history.

Hope you go for the remaining book. The only problem is the first book has five of the least impressive Conan stories: the first seven are fantastic, but everything after "Black Colossus" (except for the brilliant "Rogues in the House") are the most mediocre of the stories. Still well worth it, of course.