This blog is becoming a really great help for me fleshing out my own game world. It is a by-product, to be sure, but it’s still happening.
When I wrote this post, I realized that linking setting elements in a campaign can be a really good thing. I’ve discussed these elements before, but they boil down to:
- Giving you as GM definite cues to feed your players, starting points to jump from in building encounters
- Providing players with easy-to-grasp setting paradigms, providing context for in-game decisions and consequences
- Increasing setting verisimilitude, boosting both player and GM immersion in the game world
I realized that a lot of the Core Setting Tropes I designated are those that also apply to the primary human kingdom of Albion– knights, patriarchy, primogeniture, etc. Those tropes give me a good idea of how to build encounters for the NPCs and adventures that I’ll set inside or heavily involving Albion. But what about the rest of the nations of Brittanis?
Tropes are wonderful for creating contrast. Just as they provide easy-to-access mental shortcuts for your players (and you when building encounters and NPCs) when referencing the setting, when you can put two tropes side-by-side in an encounter as aspects of the encounter in question, the PCs can more easily see the dichotomy you’re trying to show them.
Next to Albion, the Kingdom of Cambria is the leading human nation in Brittanis. It’s a far less unified land than Albion, however, and I’m going to select a few tropes to demonstrate some of the key differences between the two. In the Setting post I chose ten tropes– I don’t need as many for a smaller setting element so I’m going to go with six. I’m going to use the same format when I describe the way Cambria uses, averts or inverts the trope, and then I’ll give a bit of an idea in how I would use that trope in an encounter to show the contrast in-game. So without further ado, the Core Tropes for the nation of Cambria are:
- Oireland/Bonnie Scotland– This is kind of a ground-level, catchall trope for the Brynn(primary ethnic group in Cambria), seeing as it’s my Celt-analogue nation. I’ve got a theatre background as well as a fair amount of voice acting ability, so I think I’m going to use the Oirish accent for the Brynn of the Lowlands and Scottish for the Highland Brynn. Most of my players are savvy enough to get the difference, too which is a big plus. Otherwise its just Actorbation (a theatre term meaning a show put on where the actors are the only audience), and that’s fun for nobody.
There are a lot of stories that can be told using these tropes as inspiration– the conflict of religions (Protestant vs. Catholic Irish), inter-clan warfare, stories about uniting squabbling clans against a common enemy, even a variant of Romeo and Juliet could be done in Cambria with ease– all of these leading to PCs and NPCs with backstories and triats tied to these core themes.
- Screw You Elves– Cambria sits on the northern border of the forest kingdom of Seridane. The elves, over the past 200 years or so, have become more and more reclusive, pulling back from the border settlements and becoming more and more xenophobic. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the elven forest wardens hadn’t been the only thing keeping the forest and its denizens at bay. The plethora of monstrous dire animals, mutated plants, and capricious fey now spilling across the border of Seridane into Cambria has now become a huge issue for the Lowland Brynn. Dire bears the size of houses have rampaged through the border regions, causing massive destruction. The forest itself, despite intensive human logging, is actually expanding year by year– the legends about the forest having a semi-sentient will become more real every passing season. Because of all this chaos, the people of Cambria are intensely unfriendly to elves. Cambrian leaders see the difficulties as something that the elves are failing to manage– “elf problems” is now a common Cambrian term referring to someone whose problems spill over to make others’ lives a living hell. Interestingly, though, Cambrians are far more adept than other humans at telling elves and eladrin apart and making strong differentiation between the two.
This is kind of an inversion of the standard fantasy trope that elves are awesome at everything. The elves of Seridane are very flawed and dealing with their own mysterious issues that cause havoc in the nations around it. Instead of the humans going to ask the elves for help, the humans are dealing with the elves’ inability to keep all their juggling balls in the air. There are a bevy of racial stories to tell here, from those of racial intolerance and bigotry to man vs nature stories with treants, dryads, and plant monsters abounding.
- Blade On A Stick– The polearm, in all of its various incarnations, is effectively the national weapon of Cambria. This goes back to the age when the nation was besieged by the Tiberian Empire and had precious little metal to outfit an army with. Thus the Cambrians learned to use their resources wisely by making and using weapons with less metal content such as spears.This necessity stuck, and today the most common weapon in the hands of a Cambrian infantryman is a spear. For the same reason, leather and hide armors are far more common on Cambrian warriors as well, and their skirmishers, both infantry and mounted, are second to none.
I think this is going to be a simple descriptive contrast. Making sure that in my descriptions of the Cambrians I point out the spears and leathers will be simple enough to get the ideas across. I want it to be a visual cue, in effect: eventually me describing a Cambrian soldier without a spear or javelins should be something of a clue that this NPC is out of the ordinary. Likewise instead of swordfighting, maybe duels with spears are commonplace between nobles. There’s a great scene in one of the Song of Ice and Fire series that depicts a duel with one combatant using a spear. I need to remember to look that up.
- I am X, Son of Y– Brynn are matrilineal, though not matriarchal. They judge heredity through the female line, mainly because as clans mixed and merged in ancient times it became far easier to tell who was related to whom by asking who their mother was as opposed to their father. Brynn are also by far the most egalitarian of the human cultures and have been for a long time. They see the Tiberians, Khemri and especially the Norn as remarkably backwards in this area, effectively halving the amount of awesome they can use to lead their people. The Tiberians have relaxed their gender strictures significantly since the Empire pulled its influence from Brittanis, and it’s common for Cambrians to take credit for this in a joking manner. This is a kind of subversion of the actual trope, because in practice it ends up being characters naming themselves as son of a female instead of a male. Thus, a correct Brynn name would be “Conor, son of Mairi” and the like. Also, following the Oirish trope above, I’m going to use last names with the prefix “O” to designates Lowland Cambrians and “Mc or Mac” to designate Highland Cambrians.
The stories that this trope brings up are my favorites. Succession and regicide stories are some of the most powerful ever told. Likewise, interactions with more patriarchal characters can include snippets by curious Cambrians about the way things work in other nations. Also, I think this trope can be utilized best if the characters hear about “Aenghus, son of Brianna” for a while— and then Arnghus gets to bring the characters to meet Brianna. That can put the dichotomy in contrast even more strongly, putting a face on the trope in a concrete way.
- Jesus Was Way Cool– Due to the fact that the Tiberian Empire never really got a foothold in Cambria, the religion they brought with them never sunk its roots as deep either. Thus, the Church of Light and its accompanying levels of bureaucracy and liturgy never took as strong a hold on the Cambrian people. Because of this, the worship of the Three Sisters (called the Old Faith by many, especially in the Highlands) is far more prevalent than he Church. There are precious few churches in Cambria, reserved only for the largest communities and even then often the community also has a holy site for the Three Sisters as well. Cambria is often where clergy of the Light who try to buck the system or don’t follow the rules are sent– “a post in Cambria” is Church slang for punishment. Paying homage to the Temple of Elemental Evil, a lot of stories can be told about the non-violent conflict of religion in this manner. Truce Zone is intimately tied with this trope as well– the holy sites of the Old Faith are considered to be neutral territory for the constantly-scheming clan lords of Cambria. One of the largest, most complex henges in Brittanis is the place where the Clansmeet is held every three years where the clan chieftains gather to hold business and air grievances in an environment of enforced nonviolence.
In the same way that Oirish lets me bring in stories about clan conflict, this trope gives me inspiration for religious conflict. I don’t really want to stray too far into the Inquisition-style story unless I subvert the trope by making the Three Sisters’ clergy the ones going all hot-pokers on the Church of Light. As the Old Faith is a far more decentralized religion, just about anybody in a community can be a faith leader. Talking to the village blacksmith and finding out later that he’s also the village priest can be a good twist in that way.
- The Fair Folk– This trope is listed in the Core Tropes for the setting, but it’s one that Cambria is influenced by a great deal. More than any other nation, Cambria feels the machinations of the Fae Courts–sometimes overtly, but far more commonly by catspaws and proxies doing their dirty work. Even the succession of King Henry Maldred is rumored to be influenced by the hand of one of the Sidhe Queens. Telling the stories of the Feywild and its influence on the mortal world should be especially poignant in Cambria.
If I’m going to use one of the standard Fairy Tale stories, this is where I’ll do it. Deep, dark forests, heavy superstition and the like allow me that when invoking this trope. A classic “baby swap” story might be cool, especially if one Court is trying to blame the swap on another. Also, the 4E Manual of the Planes lists several other Fae Courts besides just the traditional Summer and Winter. If I’m going to use one of them (Gloaming Court, I’m looking at you), this would be a perfect excuse to slip them in. Pulling PCs into a chess game between Sidhe Lords is just asking for fun.
So there you have them– six core tropes for a nation, plot hooks and inspiration for how to do the same for your own game. Even with an established campaign setting like the Realms or Dragonlance this is easy to do– you as the GM get to select which story elements and tropes you want to emphasize in your specific vision. Is your Cormyr really The Kingdom, or is it ruled by an Evil Overlord who has perverted the rule of law? That’s the true beauty of our shared hobby– every story, every GM’s vision, is different and just as viable as the guy next to us at the table.