Fantasy literature and gaming are full to the brim with main characters living on the outside of some almost unbelievably advanced civilization that they only catch glimpses of through a handful of its members and artifacts. A few examples, just off the top of my head:
- Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The hobbits barely catch a glimpse of the mighty kingdoms of Lothlorien and Gondor, which are themselves pale reflections of the might and splendor of Valinor and Númenor.
- Steven Brust’s Dragaera series has Dragaerans – essentially Tolkienian elves – whose magic and culture are largely a mystery to the merely-human main character… but also the Serioli, whose culture is multiple steps further advanced, in that they’re the ones who created the Dragaerans.
- The Dragonlance setting features the lost empire of Istar, with the original campaign setting taking place in a world still recovering from “the Cataclysm” in which Istar didn’t so much fall as get itself erased from the map
- Lovecraft’s fiction is full of alien races with technology so advanced that humans register it, not even as magic, but as pure madness.
But in this case, my inspiration isn’t an empire too long ago or far away for the players to access; it’s just up the river from the central setting. In this case, I’m thinking of Failbetter Games’ Fallen London world, in which London has, well, fallen… into a vast underground cavern only a short distance away from Hell. They’re close enough that devils come to the city to do business; close enough that London launched a (brief and ill-fated) invasion.
There’s a bit of a twist to the “devils” that I won’t reveal here – suffice to say that they’re based on more than just Dante – but what I want to focus on now is the fact that access to their resources is limited less by time and distance, or by the limits of human understanding as with Lovecraftian tech, than it is by human attitudes. So here’s a possible setting twist for your tabletop RPG:
The PCs are all “the barbarians.” There’s a neighboring civilization with overwhelmingly advanced technology and/or magic, but the players are only able to access a tiny sliver of this through adventuring or trade. A few conditions seem necessary to make this really work:
- The neighboring civilization isn’t interested in conquest. Other than a little trade and meddling, mostly for their own amusement, they keep to themselves.
- They don’t tolerate shenanigans, though. Any attempts at raiding, whether through violence or stealth, are met with efficiently and dispassionately ruthless countermeasures.
- The PCs’ home culture(s) view this Empire as not just dangerous, but taboo. It’s not unheard-of for members of the two cultures to interact, but it is frowned on.
- This taboo is enforced mechanically within the game system. Perhaps the Empire is something alien and getting too closely involved will actually cost Humanity, as in the “god-eaters” campaign concept. Perhaps it costs Sanity, if you use a Sanity mechanic.
One idea along these lines that particularly strikes my fancy is the idea of a Piety mechanic. Every character has a Piety score, perhaps with initial level depending on their class and/or background, and able to be boosted a bit (at least temporarily?) by performing whatever their religion deems to be acts of faith or good works. Meanwhile, interacting with members of the Empire, or using any of its artifacts, causes Piety to bleed away, or loads the scales against it with Impiety or Corruption points.
The main consequence of this would probably be reduced efficacy of (helpful) clerical powers. In a D&D-style system, either receiving helpful magic or healing requires a successful Piety check, or perhaps we flip things and have Impiety / Corruption levels be subtracted from the apparent caster level of the friendly cleric for purposes of beneficial spellcasting. In a devotions-and-boons type system, either a check as above, or specific devotions would be required to work off the Impiety.
If done right, this could add an interesting dimension of choices to the game. How much time do the characters want to devote to their Piety in order to maximize the gifts of their gods? How much corruption are they willing to take on in order to get their hands on a powerful artifact, if only for the duration of the current mission? What happens when an agent of the Empire contacts them directly to trade for something they have that it wants?
Even if there isn’t an especially deep impact on the play experience, this kind of setup can still add interesting flavor to the game world. It would fit well if you want a backdrop of near-godlike elves or Lovecraftian aliens, a monolithic Church, or even just another quirk to the traditional good-vs.-evil or law-vs.-chaos alignments. Finally, it would make for an interesting experience to later flip the campaign on its head to play as members of the Empire, loaded with high technology or magic and forced to deal with intrigue and delicate social interactions in a setting where the neighbors are hostile, but you’re not allowed to hurt or threaten them unless they attack first.