Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Medieval Life in Action Part 2

Part 1

This part 2 of a series detailing how I incorporate medieval history into my Majestic Wilderlands. One debate that been around since the beginning of the hobby is how "realistic" are the medieval elements of a fantasy campaign especially one using the Dungeons and Dragon rules (various editions). Most of these debates tend to devolve into people talking theory. I figure it would be useful to show actual play example using a campaign I ran two years ago using Dungeons and Dragon 5th edition. The campaign was continuation of a previous campaign using the excellent Lost Mine of Phandelver found in the DnD Starter Set. I re-skinned the adventure slightly by setting in the Majestic Wilderlands instead of the Forgotten Realms.

In the last part I gave a general overview and some general advice. This post is about the first session of the campaign and the medieval elements I incorporated and why. One of my players +Douglas Cole kept a detailed journal over on his blog Gaming Ballistic.

My Account
Doug's Account

Doug made a Paladin of Veritas the God of Truth. The religion of Veritas or the High Lord is associated with the Sylvan culture of the Elves in the Majestic Wilderlands. In the region where the players are adventuring, in there are several cultures that define how NPCs behave. The feudal cultures of the Tharian Horse Lords, and Ghinorian (chosen of Mitra). Along with the Sylvan culture of the Elessarians (Celt like with druids) and demi-humans (Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Halflings, etc).

One aspect of the Sylvan culture is that is tracks closely to the D&D default of the adventuring party of a kalidoscope of races. This makes it easier for a newcomer to roleplay as a member of this culture. For Doug it had the benefit being somewhat distant from where the campaign was taking place. So it played into Doug not knowing the setting as well as the other players.

Paladins in the Majestic Wilderlands are respected and feared. Respected because they are divine agents of their god. Connected to the deity directly as their agent. Feared because as divine agents they are sent to where there are problem. Their active involvement in a region means somebody in trouble and it could be them. There also tensions between paladins and the political and religious hierarchy. While paladin respect the rule of law and those who hold position, in the end they answer only their god.

While paladins are more recent myth than historical religion always enjoyed a privilege place in society. Typically it was woven in tight with the secular half with the the sovereign acting as King and Priest. The advent of Christianity meant, among other things, the role of King and Priest were separated and turned into parallel hierarchies. In Western Europe particularly, the head of the church, the Pope, contended with Kings over who had the final say. Eventually the Kings won the war, but during the 12th and 13th century the Papacy was ascendant.

Overall the Majestic Wilderlands was polytheistic. Behind the scenes there was only ten major divine powers. However when translated through local culture and its history this resulted in a complex melange of religions. The storm god, was known as Thor to the Skandian Vikings, but in the south to the Ionian barbarians he was Mantriv the Thunderer.

Out of all the cultures, the Sylvan culture led by the Elves were the most aware of the true nature of the divine powers of the world. They viewed as enlightened beings of power imparting great truths through their teachings. The leader of these powers was Veritas the High Lord who name means Truth. Paladins of Veritas main purpose is to promote harmony among the races and to deal with threats to that harmony. The clerics of Sylvan cultures call themselves the Trehaen or teachers. When I use D&D as my rules they are based off the Druid and Ranger class.

The regions that the campaign was set there are two other important religion. First is that of the Ghinorian who arrived a millennia ago from the south. They believe themselves to be the chosen people of Mitra the goddess of honor and justice. I always depicted them as a faux Catholic Church and much of the details are taken from or inspired by the historical medieval church with a dash of Judaism. The Church of Mitra is often the religion my players "get" right away. I deliberately play with the stereotypes people have of the medieval church in the details and in the roleplaying.

The next important religions is that of the Tharian Horse Lord. They swept in from the west 200 years ago and conquered the City State of the Invincible Overlord a century ago. They believe in a High Lord however unlike the Elves their focus of worship is directed to a concept they call the Lars. They believe each clan has a council of dead ancestors established by the High Lord to guide the clan and its members. The clerics are those in charge of the proper ceremonies to honor the Lars and perform auguries to seek counsel with the Lars in the clan's time of need. I was inspired by the religious customs of China and Republican Rome. In creating this.

Again I said in my previous post was important about all of this is how the influenced the behavior of the NPCs the PCs encounter. The Tharian norm is do right by their ancestor. The Ghinorian was to live by the code that Mitra teaches, the Sylvans desire harmony between all.

The Situation
The current dynasty and most of the nobles of the City State are Tharian Horse Lords. While top dog their culture has a serious issue. They are vastly less sophisticated than the Ghinorians and Elessarians (Sylvans) they conquered. For the past century they been playing catch up as they have little in their culture to handle complex economic transactions or handle the rule of thousands living a city as opposed to several hundred clansmen. Over time many Tharian became disillusioned and turned elsewhere for answers. The most popular of which is the martial faith of Set the Dragon God. Set and Mitra are rivals and their respective religions despise each other.

Fifty years ago, the current Overlord's father was having political issues, mostly with the Ghinorian merchants and the few nobles that remained. During that time a Set Mission arrived from the south. In a deliberate snub to the Ghinorians in City State he granted permission for the mission to build a Temple of Set right next to the Cathedral of Mitra. However what started as joke, turned into something more. The worship of Set grew in popularity among the younger generation of Tharians. They were attracted to a religion that advocated a warrior ethos similiar to their own, emphasized that the strong had the right to rule, and was sophisticated as the Church of Mitra in having an answer to many of the problems they faced.

Again how this translate to the player level? Mitra versus Set thanks to Conan and Jaquay's Dark Tower is an enduring trope in tabletop roleplaying. So most when hearing Mitra and Set know that they are not going to like each other. That Mitra is the good guy in all this and Set is the bad guy in all this. This dynamic was always been part of how I ran the Wilderlands. I loved the Dark Tower adventure and its background. It quickly became incorporated in my take on City State with the Hellbridge Temple being dedicated to Set, and instead of there being three central temple each dedicated to a different god, I made it the Cathedral of Mitra. Most of my players expected good clerics to be kind of like Catholic priests so this all reinforced each other.

The Set versus Mitra conflict has been a central dynamic since the first campaign I ran in the Wilderlands. I had campaigns where the players were on the side of Mitra and campaign who were on the side of Set. By the mid 2000s the consequences of all these campaigns was that City State and the territory the Overlord controlled was about to be torn apart in civil war.

The campaign that Doug became part of is where it happened.

The First Game
When D&D 5e came out we all wanted to try it. I really like the Phandelver adventure in the boxed set so volunteered to run it. In case it grew into something more, I took it out of the forgotten realms and set in the Majestic Wilderlands. I located it in a frontier march the City State maintained on the borders of the orc infested forest of Dearthwood. Outside of a few reference and custom maps I pretty much ran the first part of the campaign straight out of the book. I ran this part from July 2014 to October 2014. The players were successful in completing the adventure and won the respect of the town.

Then after the New Year everybody wanted to play 5e again. So I started where we left off. Only this time the long build up to civil war was about to explode

The last time we played 5e the players successfully dealt with the Black Spider in the Wind Echo caves and were heading back to Phandalin. They were gone a number of days and in the mean time a messenger arrived from the Mitran rebels in City State that the time to overthrow the Overlord and his nobles was at hand. The leader of the miners, Halia Thorton, was an known adherent of Set. And previously Sildar Hallwinter I made a Black Lotus Agent. The Black Lotus is the Overlord's secret police.

Sildar could see the pitchforks being pulled out and got the miners out although it was too late for Halia. Sildar, his group, and the party met each other on the trail, got attacked by a random patrol of orcs, and a few round into the fight the rest of the PCs showed up.

My inspiration for figuring out how the rebellion would play out is reading the accounts of various peasant revolt throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation. Like Wat Tyler, the Hussites, and the Peasant War in Germany. When reading about these I tried to imagine why people were acting the way they did. And when it came time for me to use this in my campaign, how would those same beliefs and feeling play out in the particular circumstances of my campaign.

For the Ghinorians, they been in a culture shock ever since the Tharians conquered them. The fact they are now starting to worship the deity they despised the most was the final straw. For Wat Tyler and his group it was also the intersection of several things, the economic disruption of the Black Death, the high taxes, the regency of a young king (Richard II) all combined to form a powder keg that exploded in 1381.

Thinking about the reason for my own civil war allowed me to come up with a multiple intersecting reason for why NPCs acted the way they did. Some are fighting because of economic, some out of religious beliefs, other have a personal grudge against the Tharians. It makes the situation more interesting, more believable, and gives the players more choices on ultimately what they decide to do or not do.

What made this particular situation interesting is that the players knew Phandalin and its inhabitants well from the initial 5e run. So to see the town they worked to protect tear itself apart involved some tough choices.

Part III


Cullen said...

Just out of curiosity ... You say that the Tharians are horse-people, but that their traditional religion focused on a council of dead ancestors, the "Lars" (Lares, I assume?), assigned to help the tribe; do the Tharians carry around any physical depictions or remnants of these Lars to help in their religion, or is it some kind of spiritual communion?

I was just wondering because the Romans and Chinese (and many other ancient city-cultures) kept elaborate graves as the focus for their ancestor worship, but that seems infeasible for a "horse-people"--so what tokens might nomadic horsemen use as the focus for their own ancestor worship? (or perhaps I'm misunderstanding the Tharians as nomadic, when they weren't)

I know this is trivia, but I was super curious. Thanks for the interesting post!

Rob Conley said...

@Cullen, Good point, the Tharians burn their ancestors body and keep some of their ashes in small pottery urns that the mystic keep as part of their portable shrines. The rest is scattered to the wind as part of the funeral ceremony. Since the conquest of the City State, cremation is still the norm but the shrines are now built to be permanent locations and much more elaborate.

Before that the only permanent shrine was the Shrine of the Great Lars in Thygamus located in the northeast corner of Viridistan (Map Six). A portion of the ashes of the tharian chiefs, kings, overlords, and certain notables are sent there. It like a Tharian Hall of Fame in a sense.