Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Defining Bronze Age Settings (Aside From the Obvious)

So this past weekend, my good gaming buddy Masakari and I decided to get in some historical wargaming. We haven't had much of a chance to do this in a while, and it was my first opportunity to play a game or two of straight-up DBA (as opposed to HotT). Although my Romans got kicked in the junk in both games by Masakari's Thracians (stupid hill...), it was a fun afternoon nonetheless.

As an aside, if you've never heard of DBA, here's a link for more information.

Later that evening, I was looking through Field of Glory's sourcebook Swifter Than Eagles, a supplement for Old Testament-era wargaming. Although not completely unfamiliar with Bronze Age and early Iron Age civilizations, just paging through the book and taking in the scope of thousands of years of empires and civilizations rising and falling got me really thinking about RPG campaigns in a Bronze Age setting. This mental process was only quickened by Mike D.'s recent post over at Sword +1.

Fantasy RPGs have struggled to escape the pseudo-medieval archtype they have long been stuck in, with varying degrees of success. The only really successful method of breaking free seems to be escaping any kind of historical precedent at all, the sort of "gonzo fantasy" or "punk fantasy" that shows up from time to time. Even "sword & sorcery" campaign settings, which habitually try to avoid many of the pseudo-medieval trappings of more traditional fantasy settings, lean more towards a medieval feel in terms of weapons, armor, and warfare than any other time period.

So in thinking of developing a fantasy campaign setting based in a Bronze Age culture, I began thinking of what major elements are, if not unique to this kind of setting, strong identifiers that help set things apart from a more traditional pseudo-medieval world. In no particular order...

- The use of bronze (duh) as the primary material for weapons, armor, and other metals-intensive items. Copper would probably be the metal of choice for anything that doesn't need a lot of strength, and wood / leather / ceramics / bone is going to be used a lot more than you might find in a medieval setting.

- Massive, cyclopean architecture. No gothic designs, no round towers, no complicated stonework, no slender arches. Buildings are largely thick square-ish stone structures built to last thousands of years, and seem to carry a lot of "weight" in their appearance.

- A hot, arid climate, made farmable largely through irrigation. Civilizations cling very closely to coasts and rivers and the land beyond is pretty uninhabitable by anyone but the most capable nomadic peoples.

- A whole host of dieties, small and large, most of whom aren't all about sweetness and light but rather demand worship and sacrifice (of all kinds) and obedience from their masses of followers. Most of these gods are ancient, fearsome if not downright sinister, and more than willing to visit a little wrath on their people when the mood strikes them.

- Warfare dominated by hordes of missile-based troops, such as archers, slingers, and javeliners. Armor is minimal or non-existant, and shields are the dominant form of protection. Cavalry is rare or doesn't exist, with chariots dominating mobile warfare. Many troop types are "skirmishers" or at best loose mobs of auxiliary spearmen, and big clashes of massed, disciplined, ranked forces are fairly rare, since such troop types are mostly reserved to "bodyguard" units.

There are a lot more, I'm sure, but that's what I came up with right of the top of my head.

At some point in the interminable future, once the T&B RPG is finally rolled out, I want the first "fantasy" setting I build for it to be a Bronze Age campaign setting; The Ancient and Venerable City-State of Aglos. I envision it as something like Ur or Babylon on crack, with a bad attitude to boot. Adventures would either take place within the city (and there'd be plenty to do, that's for sure), or on excursions out into the hinterlands, where remnants of older, long-dead civilizations can be found and plundered.

So, gentle readers, what other aspects do you think are important for representing a "Bronze Age" fantasy campaign setting? Note that I made no mention of magic; I can easily see a number of different magic types working in a setting like this, and that might become its own column.


Mike D. said...

I don't have anything to add to your list of Bronze Age items. I just want to say if you need play-testers for your rules - just let me know! :)

I look forward to your game and your first setting - sounds fantastic!

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

It's funny how things like this seem to move in herds - I posted this weekend that I'm converting my Tombs of Hultep Khoa to Tombs of Hul-kur-a-sag and starting on my alternative history Mesopotamian setting.

Anonymous said...

You forgot about the Greek Hoplites, they were the ancient world's heavy infantry (especially the Spartans).

I like the era, especially the interfering gods everywhere aspect. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Pasitelidas said...


If I've got my timelines correct, hoplites are post-bronze age. Think Homer's Iliad (and not the movie Troy, btw) for ideas on bronze age greeks.

taichara said...

Don't worry about hoplites; they don't belong to the Bronze Age ;3

Your deities concept seems a little stereotypically "mean"; but for roleplaying purposes I suppose one could go that route ;3 The aridity is also less typical than you think; don't forget that Byblos and Lebanon were famed as sources of cedar, and then there was Crete ...

I could start going on and on about the Bronze Age international koine and the diplomatic political webwork supported by couriers and official "gifts"/trade, but I would put you to sleep. ;3 Here's a bit, though; predictably enough, alliances between the Great Powers were often sealed by the giving of a daughter. And her hundreds-strong entourage.

A hallmark? The ruler as divine, whether descended from the gods or a god incarnate in their own right. Or both.

Jack Badelaire said...


I knew you'd wade in on the topic!

Any bronze-age campaign setting I built wouldn't be completely "canon". I'm sure I'd play around with things and lean in a "I'm going with this because it's cool more than because it's accurate", but I would want to give a good deal of effort to try and keep things "bronze".

I've got a few books kicking around about early civilizations that I need to start digging through in order to get a better feel for things. I'll definitely be keeping people informed as work progresses.