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.

Size Matters

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?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.



18 Responses to Digging Up the Past

  1. The idea of bigger or smaller sized items based on Ancient societies reminds me of the epic, Beowulf, where he received a massive sword from the cave of Grendal’s mother. The sword was so large because it belonged to the Nephilim, the evil giants and heroes of old from the Book of Genesis and the apocrypha. According to some texts that were available to the Arian Christians during the early Medieval period, the Nephilim had enslaved more than half of humanity and built a sprawling civilization just prior to the Great Deluge.

  2. As someone who only ever got around to reading the first couple books of the Heritage of Shannara tetralogy, that was a total shock. I had not heard the series had gone in that direction (but cool none the less!)

    My group primarily plays one game and set of characters, but we occasionally take breaks for mini-campaigns in other systems and settings. I’m a big fan of weaving details and strings that bring those disparate elements together through immortal characters that show up in both plots, shared history, epic myths and tales, etc. Ideally, for me, all the games I run for this group ultimately take place in the same timeline and somehow feed into and tell one overarching narrative, even if the players don’t wholly realize it yet.

    • There are, even in the first two books, hints that the series is a post-Ap setting. Later trilogies explore the idea in more depth.

    • Edit: Troy beat me to it!

      Actually, the series began with that premise. I only got around to reading Sword of Shannara and Elfstones of Shannara and my recollection is rusty, but I remember the post-apocalyptic theme being more prevalent in the former.

      I love weaving things together too. When possible, I have NPCs from various campaigns guest star in others, even if it’s not a flawless fit. Syfy does something similar (does it really seem likely that Alphas, Eureka, and Warehouse 13 would fit in the same universe?).

  3. Monte Cook’s Ptolus has this conceit. His signature city represents a civilization in decline,which means the stuff you find in dungeons is more advanced/weird than can normally be purchased in the streets above.

  4. I really like the idea about the different sized weapons, I’ve run an E6 game before where giants were the first being created by the gods and they taught magic to the other races. To get a powerful weapon or magical effect, you needed a giant. I could use something like the magic weapons often being too large.

    My only problem with this is that many games have harsh rules about using wrong sized weapons. In The Hobbit, Bilbo gets Sting, which was basically a dagger for anyone else. For him it was well sized to be a sword. In a lot of games now, you would instead get a penalty to using a wrong sized weapon. I know house rules work, but it would be nice to see official rules support this.

  5. You see this in Warhammer 40k as well. Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Black Crusade, and all the rest are set in a star-faring culture that has been in slow-motion decline for 10,000 years. Ancient machines are called “archeo-tech,” and if you can get them to work, are way more powerful than those currently created.

    The Cthulhu Mythos (Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu) is full of elder races who once had advanced technology that can be found in ancient ruins in the hidden places of the world.

    The standard medieval world where it’s been the middle ages for eons goes back to Tolkien. The elves and dwarves seem to have been created by the gods with in-born knowledge of medieval technology, and humans just copied them. Magic seems to have been in a slow decline. Great monuments are a thing of the past, but chainmail, swords, and rings are forever.

  6. Almost all the extant magical artifacts in my low fantasy setting are from the early bronze age so they certainly stick out in the European-High-Middle-Ages inspired kingdoms.

    Ajax looks damn strange next to Ivanhoe.

    Plus, I’ve made migrations and biome-evolution an important and formative part of the history of my world. Therefore not only was the technology level vastly different, but so was the climate and culture producing it.

  7. I like this idea, particularly where you’ve gone with it. I’ve done a limited version in the past, where plate mail = modern, so tombs 1000 years old are filled with Roman style armor instead of the chain/plate that’s “current tech”.

    The drawback was that they were ignored as subpar armor–the stat tradeoffs weren’t worth using the older armors. I probably should I heard that as “so you can make the ancient, but awkward stuff even cooler”, but I didn’t go there.

  8. The closest I came was with my “Ark of Eden” campaign I ran way back in 2008ish (for complete details see my write up here: http://strolen.com/viewing/The_Ark_of_Eden )

    A good portion of the campaign revolved around uncovering relics from the past, (much of which was far more advanced, then their steel swords and crossbows)and slowly realizing what the characters thought was their “world,” was something else entirely, and the truth behind their creation myths was much more technical then they first suspected.

    During the course of the campaign, the players went from a world they thought was high fantasy, to believing it was a altered post apocalypse setting, to wrapping up with a far future sci feel, all without needing to delve into time travel.

    It was an epic run, and still ranks among the “best” of the campaigns I’ve ever had the opportunity to run.

  9. There’s a reason the “civilization in decline” motif is recurrent in literature – it’s human nature to think things are crappier now than they were n years ago and there’s often real world evidence to prove it.

    Remember when you could actually make out what someone else was saying during a phone call, or watching movies on TV without the threat that the picture would freeze or break up in a mosaic of badly-refreshed tiles? Remember when gas was affordable?

    I remember my toy soldiers as being much better in terms of detail than the ones I see today.

    I had a collection of Britains Swoppets: Army, Knights of the Wars of the Roses, Cowboys, US Civil War soldiery, all of which featured posable arms and exchangeable accoutrements, and a dozen pieces of 54mm scale artillery, sadly most gone now. All my 54mm field guns worked, from the Roman catapult to the WW II-era 155mm “Long Tom” which not only fired (spring-loaded) shells, the breach opened and ejected the spent brass cartridge. None of these is available from a modern manufacturer. I digress.

    From Atlantis to Vance’s Dying Earth, from the Karmarg to The End of Time, the Civilization in Decline (usually decadent decline) is a popular milieu in which to set stories. Because we all believe the world is going to the dogs the ennui of such a setting is easy to empathize with and hence the mood self-builds by and large.

    I’m a big fan.

    I was a bigger fan years ago of course.

  10. High quality (generaly high in tin) bronze is actually on par with iron with the notable exception that it tends to bend rather than break. I generally rule that magical bronze is the equivalent of steel. Plus, in my setting anything magical is extraordinarily rare, completely unique, and therefore extremely powerful.
    An ancient, gleaming, bronze Corinthian-styled helm may give the wearer a commanding presence and tactical skill of the great Warrior-King Xaxes I. The “Winged Spear of the Old Gods” with its obsidian blade and and eage-feather-plumed shaft may seem primitive, but when the warrior wielding it can run as swiftly as a eagle in flight it becomes a powerful tool. An exotic falx (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falx) from a forgotten culture that can cleave through even stone would be well worth a warriors time to learn how to fight with. As a final example an enchanted, bronze xiphos could be used by anyone with proficiency in short swords.
    I don’t care for magical items that are essentially a set of combat bonuses. I prefer them to have far more texture, subtext, and history.

    As an added quick bonus example, something like a golden, stylized fish pendant which allows the used to breathe underwater found in an archaic temple in the middle of a landlocked-desert can really show how much the world has changed.

  11. I love the idea of a different sized dungeon. It’s given me an interesting way to change an idea I was working on. It’s for a LotFP adventure that will be not so much weird as strange.

  12. This is a great article… something I (personally) had never thought about. I think that will definitely have to be remedied! :)

    Thank you for a great article!

  13. Monte Cook’s new game Numenera is all about finding artifacts from the past that don’t look like anything produced in the “present day.” The present day for that game is 1,000,000,000 years in the future.

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