Sunday, 14 June 2015

Why central Asia is a perfect RPG setting (and why no-one's used it yet despite this)

The setting of ATWC is inspired by Central Asia. I'm pretty flexible in how I use the term, and I can and will use bits and pieces from further afield; but my primary interest is in the enormous sweep of terrain which runs from the Baltic and the Black Sea in the west all the way to Mongolia in the east, and from Siberia in the north down to Afghanistan in the south. It's an area of roughly twelve million square kilometers, give or take the odd million. To give some sense of scale, that's ten times as big as Britain, France and Germany put together. 

In this immensity, entire civilizations have risen and fallen without most of the outside world even noticing that they were ever there to begin with. How much do you know about the Khanate of Cumania, which ruled for three centuries over an area the size of western Europe? How about the Komi kingdoms of Perm, up in the Ural mountains? (They had their own language, and their own unique alphabet. Their warriors fought beneath the banner of a bear with a book on its shoulders.) The white-eyed people of Chud, who drowned themselves rather than submit to foreign conquest? The Manichean empire of the Uyghurs? And those are just the ones which had enough contact with outside powers for some kind of record to come down to us. The steppe eats nations and languages, religions and histories, leaving only the occasional mute memorial: carved stone warriors leaning on their axes, their faces eaten away by the rain. In old chronicles we chance, from time to time, over an echo from some otherwise-unheard-of catastrophe; a wave of refugees spilling west into Europe, or east into China, their stories carelessly recorded by inattentive and unsympathetic scribes. Viking adventurers record nations on the coasts of the White Sea; later travelers pass through and find nothing. What happened to them?

Extreme climates, endless wilderness, ancient ruins, lost civilizations, abandoned shrines dedicated to forgotten gods... it should be fairly clear why I think that all this would make for a pretty good setting for an RPG. The Silk Road alone is almost instantly gameable: rich, cosmopolitan oasis-cities strung along the length of the road like beads on a string, each separated from the next by hundreds of miles of deserts haunted by wild beasts and wilder men. So why hasn't it been done? I think that part of the reason is that, over the last twenty-five years or so, there's been a massive push towards detail in RPG settings: towards mapping everything, defining everything, giving all these imaginary worlds the same kind of clear and determinate history and geography and systems of political and religious ideology that we're used to having in our own world today. Such settings are obviously going to gravitate towards those cultures which are most fully-documented, because most fully-literate: western Europe, eastern Asia, India, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.

One reason I like central Asia is that it defies all that. It can't be made to fit: the landscape's too big, and the historical record is full of massive holes, some of them thousands of miles wide and hundreds of years long. It can't be reduced to a known quantity. Like the RPG settings of the 1970s and early 1980s, it feels genuinely strange and wild and mysterious out there. No-one can really be familiar with the entire region. Anything could be over those hills.
A Wicked City, for example...


  1. Have you seen ?

    1. Yes, I have, although I hadn't read it back in June 2015 when I wrote this post. I think it does a great job of doing what it sets out to do, i.e. D&D in medieval Mongolia. I'm interested in a wider stretch of geography, and less concerned with historical accuracy; but if I ever wanted to run a straight-up D&D Mongols game, then VA1 is definitely what I'd use!

  2. I love this. You know, I think that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and their world and their city of Lankhmar is basically a fantasy central Asia. I think it is just fantasy so that Lieber doesn't have to worry too much about time line and pure accuracy. I always picture Lankhmar on the eastern coast of the Caspian sea. The "outer sea" is the Mediterranean. Maybe!

  3. As usual, I'm late for the party. Thanks for this post. I find it very thought provoking. I'm currently trying to come up with a campaign setting and this gives me another place to look for inspiration.

  4. I have sentiments that harmonize well with this, I think largely because of early experience with _Talislanta_, a setting in part inspired by the journies of Marco Polo through central Asia. Notably, I prefer earlier Talislanta editions to the latter precisely because as each iteration got bigger and more defined it lost that sense of enigma and mystery.