Last week I talked about the book, The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
There is a ton of great inspiration you can find in this book that’s just perfect for gaming. Today we think of the Mediterranean as a densely populated region, but in the legendary time of Brutus it was a wilderness in which he could hope to find a new home for his Trojan people.
“Meanwhile the Trojans sailed on for two days and one night, with a favourable wind blowing. Then they touched land at a certain island called Leogetia, which had remained uninhabited since it was laid waste by a piratical attack in ancient times. Brutus landed three hundred armed men on the island to see if anything at all lived there. They found no one, but they killed all sorts of wild animals which they had discovered between the forest pastures and the woodlands.”
They came to a deserted city and there they found a temple of Diana. In the city there was a statue of the goddess whcih gave answers if by chance it was questioned by anyone.”
This could just as easily be the setup for a story by Clark Ashton Smith as a chronicle of history. An ancient lost city, a forgotten temple, it’s an adventure waiting to happen. Proving that they are good adventurers, Brutus’ troops don’t play with the magic statue right away. They return to the ships, deposit the things they’d discovered, and plan what to do next. Brutus decides to make sacrifices to the gods and ask Diana’s help.
“O powerful goddess, terror of the forest glades, yet hope of the wild woodlands, you who have the power to go in orbit through the airy heavens and the halls of hell, pronounce a judgement which concerns the earth. Tell me which lands you wish us to inhabit. Tell me of a safe dwelling-place where I am to worship you down the ages, and where, to the chanting of maidens, I shall dedicate temples to you.”
For a man of the medieval church, Geoffry was remarkably cool with paganism. As long as it was pre-Christian and British. Like all things Saxon, he has nothing nice to say about their religion.
“Brutus, beyond the setting of the sun, past the realms of Gaul, there lies an island in the sea, once occupied by giants. Now it is empty and ready for your folk. Down the years this will prove an abode suited to you and to your people; and for your descendants it will be a second Troy. A race of kings will be born there from your stock and the round circle of the whole earth will be subject to them.”
Thus was Brutus set on the quest for Albion. Though as it turns out Diana isn’t completely right and there are still a few powerful giants living there. Which works out well, as it give Brutus and his people something to heroically strive against once they arrive.
Empty lands are a recurring theme in the book. There are realms that have been empty since ancient times, such as Ireland, Albion, and Leogetia, but there are other areas that rise up and then fall in a much shorter period of times. When good kings rise up Geoffry describes them as repopulating lands and even cities that had been abandoned under weaker kings, or from the pressures of war and disease. The most dramatic case of this is found at the end of the chronicle:
“When Cadwallader fell ill, as I have begun to tell you, the Britons started to quarrel among themselves and to destroy the economy of their homeland by an appalling civil war. There then followed a second disaster: for a grievous and long-remembered famine afflicted the besotted population, and the countryside no longer produced any food at all for human sustenance, always excepting what the huntsman’s skill could provide. A pestilent and deadly plague followed this famine and killed off such a vast number of the population that the living could not bury them.”
“The few wretches left alive gathered themselves into bands and emigrated to countries across the sea.”
Once the plague ran its course there was a race to repopulate Britain which was won by the Saxons.
For gaming purposes this is a stark example that every ruin doesn’t need to be an ancient one. Dungeons, castles, even entire realms can fall in short order and leave behind plunder for those brave or foolish enough to go adventuring for them. It also shows how quickly evil forces can invest these realms. In some ways this works better than the ancient dungeon model, as it provides a good reason why the player characters would expect to find loot that others hadn’t already plundered.
Some of these elements are present in Michael Curtis’ excellent Stonehell Dungeon, where the dungeon only recently became open due to the overthrown of the mad king who used it as a prison.
Imagine a game where Greyhawk had been ravaged by a magical plague, something akin to Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Something so horrible that the people fled the city as fast as they could. Now, five years later, the party has reason to believe that the curse has been lifted. With that knowledge they have the chance to delve into the city before it is repopulated.
Another theme that shows up repeatedly is the unsteady nature of the feudal world. Absolute monarchs rule absolutely, and just beneath them are many people who want a shot at that power. Nobles constantly try to topple the king and alliances shift like sand in a windstorm. Yesterday’s ally may be today’s mortal enemy and there is enough murder and duplicity to satisfy any Game of Thrones fan. (Though it lacks Tyrion’s witticisms.) A king had to be cautious and always keep one eye behind him, especially if he left his realm for an extended campaign.Thus was Arthur stopped from taking the crown of Rome not by its legions, but by having to turn back and deal with Mordred’s betrayal.