At the beginning of the month I picked up the first season of HBO's amazing series ROME. I had seen this two-season wonder when it first came out ~5 years ago, but I never owned it until now, and so sitting down and watching all twelve episodes of season one over the course of three days was a real treat. I was once again blown away by how gorgeous the series is, even when what you're looking at is grimy or grotesque. I was also hugely impressed by the enormous talents involved in the acting, the writing, the set and costume design, and in the dramatic license applied, like a lever, to exert it influence in just the right areas to give you what you need, without totally throwing history out the window.
Actually, almost two years ago, I wrote about this show in another column. As you can see, I've felt for a while now that Rome, especially during the late Republic and early to mid Empire periods, is a far superior historical campaign setting compared to what many people think of when they think "pseudo-historical RPG setting", which is typically something dumped roughly in the Western European middle ages, circa 800-1400 AD. To me, this period of time is just two tightly bound up in the dual bureaucracies of the feudal system and the church to give a prototypical adventuring party the sort of wiggle room and diversity they'd want without the GM having to constantly bail their butts out of the fire.
Last month, I asked readers what would be their pick for a non-supernatural (but possibly "heroic") historical campaign setting. Out of the 20 replies I got, 40% stated that the classic Roman time period (late Republic / early Empire) would be at least on their radars. I think this period resonates with gamers for a lot of reasons, but here are a few I can at least guess at:
1. There's a lot of information on the subject. Roman history and culture is as well-known and as easily researched as the Middle Ages, and I think honestly it seems a lot more interesting. Flip to the History Channel and there's probably a couple of hours of programming every day that touches on Roman culture in some fashion. There's also all the movies and TV and fiction out there that can provide a lot of very visual and imaginative "in your face" inspiration.
2. Rome is a tolerant, polytheistic culture. In classic fantasy RPG style, there are lots of those "god of the..." floating around. There's pretty much a god or goddess for everything, and if it's not a Roman god, hey, feel free to borrow from any other culture Rome might have had contact with during this time. In addition, although Romans were of course a religious people and religion had a strong influence in their lives, your average Roman was pretty religiously tolerant. Rome is a culture of borrowing the best from everyone else, and finding a way to make it work within a Roman mindset. So if one's character wants to worship Wotan or earth spirits or the ghosts of one's ancestors, no one's going to immediately brand you a heretic and split your skull over it.
3. Rome is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural metropolis. In a classic Rome RPG setting, you could easily play a campaign without having a single actual Roman in the PC party. You could have Celts, Germans, Africans, Persians, Jews, Greeks, Macedonians, Egyptians...the list goes on. While in Rome you might not get cut the same amount of slack a Roman citizen might get, you could still certainly enjoy yourselves and get into all sorts of adventures without one's nationality becoming an issue. While Romans were a pretty racist and elitist people, they understood the value of working with other peoples to get what you want. As long as your PCs were willing to play essentially second-class citizens, this would be an entirely viable campaign premise.
4. Rome is the Las Vegas of the adventure RPG world. All bets are off. With the right connections and enough ballsiness, even the most dirt-poor adventuring party can be clothed in silk and drinking from gold if Fortune smiles on them at the right time. And if it's the wrong time? The rich and powerful can be running for their lives or grubbing for coins in the gutter by nightfall. Fortunes are won and lost all the time in Rome, and getting into the game should be child's play for a group of clever adventurers. This is a perfect setting for running one of those "Your PCs are working for a powerful patron who needs some unscrupulous associates..." campaigns.
5. Rome is filled with random (and not so random) acts of violence. If your gaming group likes to get in a good scrap most every session, Rome can oblige. There's murder and brawling aplenty, street thugs and city guards and armed gangs and, of course, the arenas. If your party wants some bloodshed, it will be child's play to find a way to give it to them in a way that fits in with what's going on in your campaign at the moment. C'mon, you know you want to get your party in an arena with some lions at least ONCE during the campaign, right?
6. Places to go, people to see. This is History in the making, people. History with a capital 'H'. Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Augustus, Cicero, Cleopatra, Vercingetorix, Boudicca, Herod. Events that have impact on the world not just centuries, but millennia, later can be incorporated into your campaign, and if you (or your PCs) so wish, history can be utterly and drastically changed by your character's actions. What if your PCs thwart the senatorial conspiracy to kill Caesar and he lives on for another twenty years? What if they slay Augustus when he's still Octavian? What if one of the PCs decides a crown of laurel leaves might suit them better, and makes a play for the Emperor's chair? Someone today might be eating a salad named after YOU.
This post is rapidly encroaching the thousand-word mark, so I'll leave things here. Needless to say, I think Rome is really a perfect campaign setting, and if you're willing to weave some of the supernatural into it, there's really not a whole lot it can't handle in terms of an adventuring party looking for some fun and profit.