It’s remarkable the number of times I’ve delved into a dungeon and discovered that the magical weapons and armor found in a lost tomb hundreds of years old look a lot like the stuff our party is carrying. There seems to be technological stagnation in many fantasy worlds, where ancient wars and warriors haven’t changed much over time.
This is a shame really, because differentiating the ancient artifacts littered in your game world can really add layers of mysteries and complications to your campaigns, rather than just being equipment upgrades. Here are a few possibilities:
Completely different culture
When most fantasy worlds do differentiate the past, they tend to do so in predictable ways. A party of adventurers in a typical medieval European fantasy world probably wouldn’t be shocked to find artifacts from Celtic or Roman analogues. For a touch of the exotic they may even unearth ancient Egyptian artifacts.
Now imagine if your game world’s ancient empire was modeled on East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, or Meso-America? In addition to being magical, ancient arms and armor are now instantly recognizable and exotic. In RPGs where skills are more focused, the PCs may actually need to study these new artifacts before they can properly use them.
To take this a step further, what if the upheaval that eliminated the ancient empire completely changed the landscape? For example, what if that culture was aquatic? There’d be lots of magical tridents and harpoons lying around, but likely nothing in the way of bows. The aquatic culture may not even use metal but rely on coral, hard shells, or shark teeth. Their dungeons would be difficult to navigate, as an aquatic race has little need for stairs.
To borrow an idea from Arcana Unearthed/Evolved, what if the older culture was dominated by a race or races that tended to be taller or shorter than the contemporary average? Occasionally I see criticism of the overly ridiculous sizes of swords in some anime; what if this was because the handle had to be modified for a human to wield a weapon designed for someone three feet taller? Perhaps the only usable artifacts were the smaller ones, and larger weapons and wands have to be mounted in order to be used?
To go in the other direction, what if the ancient race was smaller? Maybe most of the dungeons were designed for halflings or gnomes and it’s rare to find a weapon larger than a short sword or armor that would fit a human, elf, or orc. In such cases rogues may find caches of magic daggers and short swords very useful, while a warrior has to struggle with whether it is better to keep the long sword or trade it in for a magical dagger.
A More Advanced Past
What if the ancient culture was more advanced than the current one? Perhaps the fantasy setting is post-apocalyptic (as in the Shannara fantasy novel series) and the PCs dig up old technology that hints that the past was much like contemporary or near-future Earth. Many of these items could be curious trinkets, their power sources long gone (or used up), and the PCs find the earliest instances of society turning to magic after the technology failed.
For a less extreme version, what if the ancient culture was only slightly more advanced? Maybe the old culture resembled Musketeer France, with wheellock pistols and rapiers. This could make magical artifacts a challenge to use; a rapier is a poor weapon choice against a plate-armored knight wielding a bastard sword and a wheellock is just a funny club without gunpowder. The PCs may find they have to start a new trend in battle tactics or spend time in a laboratory to get the most out of their new finds.
Where did we come from?
What if some or all of the current races aren’t represented in the past? Both Elfquest and GURPS Banestorm present fantasy worlds where some of the races aren’t indigenous and are recent transplants. If this is the case in your world, then how did the “aliens” get here? What magic or technology did they bring with them and just aren’t found amongst ancient artifacts? Are there still portals or other means to return to the original home world?
In short, with just a little thought it’s possible to create a unique past for your setting without significantly altering the standard tropes in the present. Do you have an interesting game book with an exotic setting sitting on your shelf? Turn it into your own world’s past! If nothing else, it’ll keep your players guessing and that’s always a good thing!
So how about you? Have you ever created a very strange or exotic past for your otherwise standard setting? How did your players react to it? Is it something you’d do again? If you haven’t, what kinds of pasts would you find interesting to try?