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Using the real world as a fantasy setting

Li Shenron

Legend
I never got around to doing this, because picking an existing fantasy setting or homebrew something vanilla is just way easier... but it's an idea I had in mind for ages, and every now and then I like getting some input on it.

Essentially, how about using the real world as a starting point for the fantasy setting for your D&D adventures, adding fantasy elements on top of it?

The premise of this could be: "it's the same world we live in, but everything that has always been regarded as superstition, legend or myth is actually true".

Well not everything of course, just enough so that you can actually use character stuff and monsters from your current edition :)

You would use real-world geography, setting the starting adventures in a region of preference, and selecting a historical period depending on the RPG genre, for example the late middle-ages / early renaissance for a typical D&D feel, but it can be anything. You would then feature whatever fantasy elements are appropriate for the folklore, beliefs and superstitions of that time and region, for example dragons, devils and witches for european dark ages/medieval times, pagan gods and greek mythology monsters for a Roman empire feel, and so on... Locations, nations/empires, famous NPCs and organizations will be taken from real-world history, as well as major historical events. Depending on the case, the PCs will be able to influence the historical events to different degrees, and then the story will continue accordingly.

Recently I've been thinking of a complication to this idea. How about introducing some serious anachronism, so that you can put together stuff belonging to different eras, also as if past civilizations have endured in certain places of the earth? This would allow to pick the best era for fantasy tales from every place on earth, and put them together in the same setting. For example, you could have feudal central Europe, a pagan hellenistic region, ancient Egyptian pharaohs, a Persian empire to the east, conquistadores sailing the seas and discovering Mayan/Aztech empires, vikings in the north, barbarian mongols in the east, and so on... stuff that obviously didn't exist simultaneously in the real world, but this is pretty much what happens all the time in regular fantasy settings which rip-off real-world past civilizations as inspiration. Only in this case, instead of having the Forgotten Realms' egyptian-inspired Mulhorandi you have the real Egyptians, instead of Theros you have real ancient Greece, instead of Strahd in Ravenloft you have Nosferatu in real Transylvania and everything else.

Has anyone tried something like this?
 

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Tonguez

Hero
One of my worlds was inspired by Solomon Kane with a big Fae/Sidhe theme

1 Albion (England) - during the English Civil War in 1648 Oliver Cromwell first came up against a Fey-Pact Warlock in Wales. Although driven back, Cromwell survived the encounter and turned to Divine Providence for aid. Gaining the support of the Scottish Witch Finders they soon discover that those of True faith have better defence against the fey and this helps them to push back into Wales and then Ireland.

However at the seige of Clonmel a witch coven summons the Faerie Queen Melancthe, which causes the lost land of Lyonnes to rise up from the sea opening portals to the Feywild and creating a land bridge (Doggerland) across the English Channel. With the portals open all kinds of Fey and giants return to claim Lyonnes, some expanding into Ireland (which Cromwell is thus unable to subdue) and others heading to other parts of the world.

The Lord Protector squirms as Old Shuck once more terrorizes the moors and goblins infest the sewers of Manchester. Cromwell does claim Doggerland and looks to Belgium and the other Low Countries to form a broader Protestant alliance against the fae. Robert Cromwell becomes the Second Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, a Puritan tyrant following in the footsteps of his father to ruthlessly enforce the law against scorcery in the regions of Albion and Doggerland.

As Fey and Witch-finder forces clash in the Protectorate Lands, Witches and lesser beings flee into Europe.

2 In southern Europe the Grand Inquisitor Tomas Torquemada has risen to become the Primus of the High Church and pushing up to claim France for the Church declares a holy war beginning a campaign of genocide against all non-human races and those he declares in league with Hellspawn.
At the same time Candida Torquemada, the former wife of Torquemada, whom he had imprisoned in an Monastery due to her ‘insanity’, takes over the asylum and makes a pact with the Hellspawn ‘Nemesis’ by whom she births two hellspawn (Tiefling) children Barbossa and Murcalla

3 Central Europe/Black Forest region was inspired by Dark Fairytales with hags, gnomes, trolls and witches and darker sexier versions like Red Riding Hood and the Werewolf

4 beyond the Carpathians Rugeivit The Howler, a Lycanthrope Warlord of the Western Slavs musters his forces, vying against the Vampire Boyars, offering a refuge to those accused of witchcraft and dealing with Baba Yaga and the other old gods who begin to stir.

5 Further south Amcazade Pasha Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Technocrats leads clockwork armies, flying carpets and griffins to occupy the Balkans and menace Venice.

6. In Afrika, Egypt has faded but the Sahel is prominent due to the fabulous wealth of Timbuktu, Mali, Tu-Anziko*, Gondar and further south the Towers of Great Zimbabwe are still occupied.(I took lots of inspiration from the Epic of Sundiata Keita)
* Tu-Anziko was my fantasy African kingdom, inspired by Burroughs/Phillip Jose Farmers “Ancient Opar” (ie the Congo Basin is an Inland Sea)

7 India I mainly focussed on the Mughals but didnt develop it much further and Khitai was set during thre 3 Kingdoms period.

8 The Naga-Khmer and Champa occupy SE Asia and Majahapit Empire across Malay and Indonesia.

9 I’ve got an entire Polynesian campaign (Legends of Hawaiki) based on Polynesian myth

10 Also had Bucaneers and Voodoo in the Carribean, whereas South America (An-Huacan) was a contient island dominated by Maztica and seperate from Tolton (a narrow island that replaced North America but was far smaller until it merged with the Arctic)

Also similar thread here
 
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Doug McCrae

Legend
I like this idea. I haven't put it into practice yet but I'd like to in future.

My preference would be to stick closer to real world beliefs than D&D does tho. D&D magic in particular is very different from real world magic.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
It's doable, for sure. There are playtest rules for Apocalypse World: Dark Age floating around that do exactly this with Dark Age Europe. Just pick a time period, anything you choose will have a plethora of source material, and then hammer out any differences between the core rules and the flavor you're looking for (like @Doug McCrae and the magic system).
 

uzirath

Adventurer
I've played in a few fantasy campaigns that used the real world in various ways. One campaign was a fantasy world but used real-world geographic maps. That way the GM always had awesomely detailed topo maps of the entire world. I don't think we as players ever realized we were in the real world because most of the maps we dealt with were large scale and didn't reveal continental outlines. (He may have also flipped the N/S axis.)

I also played in the GURPS Banestorm setting which includes real-world cultures that were pulled into another world via the titular banestorm. This is not so different from the FR approach, I suppose, it just provides an in-world justification for the stolen cultures.

I like your idea of an anachronistic world where you create a quilt of cultures from different times. That could be a lot of fun!
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
The premise of this could be: "it's the same world we live in, but everything that has always been regarded as superstition, legend or myth is actually true".

Well not everything of course, just enough so that you can actually use character stuff and monsters from your current edition :)

You would use real-world geography, setting the starting adventures in a region of preference, and selecting a historical period depending on the RPG genre. . .
I'm a stickler for logical consistency (in illogical worlds). This means that a lot of superstitions get thrown out because they're dissonant, or because they result in Underworld, the movie. Kate Beckinsale is still welcome in my campaign, though.

For example, if zombies and ghouls are a real (or regular) thing, graveyards wouldn't exist. Too easy to escape. Or if vampires were real, society would (unknowingly?) be a bit less short-sighted. Suntan lotion would be a centuries-old invention. And there would be MASSIVE solar panels. For shade.

So I'd have to justify a lot of real-world ideas that wouldn't make sense if superstitions were real. In a fantasy setting though, it's fine if the idea of a graveyard existed only for 100 years, or if burghermeisters "traditionally" speak at night. I can make minor (major?) changes to the world without those changes conflicting with so many other real-world facts.

I'm not sure where the rest of your idea is going, though. Once you change your time period(s) and start mixing cultures and superstitions, you're not really talking about the real world anymore.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The last fantasy adventure I ran was this, The Caverns of Cyrenaica, using Mythras, Caverns of Thracia, and Mythic Constantinople. At some point it is enough to realize that people actually believed in the superstition, scientific understanding of the world was still centuries away.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
For example, if zombies and ghouls are a real (or regular) thing, graveyards wouldn't exist. Too easy to escape. Or if vampires were real, society would (unknowingly?) be a bit less short-sighted. Suntan lotion would be a centuries-old invention. And there would be MASSIVE solar panels. For shade.
Being real doesn't mean being common.

In fact, I didn't mention something that is usually my default also in fantasy settings, and I always forget it's definitely not what most other DMs do... such setting would follow a point-of-darkness principle, i.e. the opposite of 4e point-of-light. So if for example 99% of the world is zombie-free, only in a few places graveyards would be a problem. Even there, it doesn't have to be that undead are such a triviality that happens all the time, but rather a potential threats that surfaces once in a while. Think about it as a natural disaster, for example a hurricane: there is some almost every year in US east coast, but not enough to stop people from building cities, and even often houses that in fact are not suitable to withstand a hurricane.

Another example, there are probably billions of people in the world who believe that devils exist. So why isn't our society built around protecting ourselves from devils? Well, someone is actually doing something with prayers or hanging religious symbols on their doors. The other billions who don't believe are doing nothing, for them there is no proof devils exist hence they don't. But the believers would swear upon their lives that they do exist, and that it is because of their rituals if nothing bad happens, except that sometimes it does... even if the unbelievers would swear too that it is only imagination. And so on... :)

If you keep the same level of ambiguity, the game works. What you cannot do in such a setting before having to make a lot of logical consequences, is treat undead as a natural phenomena or spellcasting as a commodity. But getting away from those tropes is actually one of the purposes of this setting idea.
 

Tonguez

Hero
I'm a stickler for logical consistency (in illogical worlds). This means that a lot of superstitions get thrown out because they're dissonant, or because they result in Underworld, the movie. Kate Beckinsale is still welcome in my campaign, though.

For example, if zombies and ghouls are a real (or regular) thing, graveyards wouldn't exist. Too easy to escape. Or if vampires were real, society would (unknowingly?) be a bit less short-sighted. Suntan lotion would be a centuries-old invention. And there would be MASSIVE solar panels. For shade.
um? Having a defined area of Hallowed ground where the remains of loved ones can be buried makes a whole lot of sense. After all its not an accident that Graveyards are attached to Churchs so that the Dead can secure Everlasting Rest and not be turned into Undead.

Traditionally ghost and undead (including vampires) rose from those who did not get proper burial in a graveyard. All the zombies lurking in dungeons are there because nobody was around to cast Hallow
 
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jasper

Rotten DM
I started to once in high school but I found out two of players were researching where gold mines existed. Which killed my opening plot.
 

Tonguez

Hero
Another example, there are probably billions of people in the world who believe that devils exist. So why isn't our society built around protecting ourselves from devils? Well, someone is actually doing something with prayers or hanging religious symbols on their doors. The other billions who don't believe are doing nothing, for them there is no proof devils exist hence they don't. But the believers would swear upon their lives that they do exist, and that it is because of their rituals if nothing bad happens, except that sometimes it does... even if the unbelievers would swear too that it is only imagination. And so on... :)
Are you sure our real world societies aren't built around protecting us all from devils? Have a look, virtually every town in western nations has a church and a lot of older towns have the Church as the central building. And those chickens on weather vanes and spikes on tall buildings? - all used to scare off devils.

Plus modern buildings use lots of steel, which keeps the supernatural suppressed:)
 
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Li Shenron

Legend
Are you sure our real world societies aren't built around protecting us all from devils? Have a look virtually every town in western nations has a church and a lot of older towns have the Church as the central building. And those chickens on weather veins and spikes on tall buildings? - all used to scare off devils.

Plus modern buildings use lots of steel, which keeps the supernatural suppressed:)
Them's the point! In this idea, you just use real-world folklore and beliefs, and make PCs actually meet ghosts, vampires, devils or deities.

It shouldn't even matter on what side of beliefs the players are in their real lives.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Are you sure our real world societies aren't built around protecting us all from devils? Have a look, virtually every town in western nations has a church and a lot of older towns have the Church as the central building.
So, a world in which the priests haven't been lying to us all this time? Scary!
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I kind of like the idea where today it's the "real" world, but we all wake up tomorrow, and fantasy has returned. Sort of like Shadowrun; but in our world. Not sure if I'd use D&D 5e rules for that though... Definitely wouldn't use Shadowrun rules, any incarnation.
 

I don't advice to use real world but pre-Christian age. As DM I can allowing myself things like the destruction of the great sept of Baelor, but some players could feel unconfortable if a Christian temple is destroyed. Other DM could take revenge against other players, former DM, with event ending with a unbelieble deus ex-machina, for example a zombie apocalypse ends when a innocent little girl prays and then the undeads ruled by the lord vampires are terminated by the summoned saint Maurice and the Theban Legion. Maybe in your tabletop you allow as antagonists the cardinal Richelieu, Claude Frollo, Cardinal Franklin (2018 Robin Hood movie) or the bishop of Aquila (ladyhawke movie) but others wouldn't tolerate it. It may be better a fictional counterpart world nobody will complain if the alien skrulls are infiltrated among the calipha's harem.

Other thread is in games set in the real life the History is frozen and it shouldn't be altered by the PCs. For example a group of superheroes PCs help to win the Vietnam War, but then they face the dilema to start a new war against Cambodia to stop Khem rouges and Pol Pot's genocide, and after to face Chinese rage. Or the PCs could help Republicans for the Spanish Civil War against Franco's troops, but the consequences would be the worst anti-Catholic genocide from the XX century by the Red Terror.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
There should be no need to say that the players should be onboard with the idea. But that's the same as with fantasy settings. I will complain if you introduce aliens in a D&D game without informing me beforehand, because I consider it one of the lamest idea.

Creating an alternate course of history with the actions of the PCs can be one of the attractive features of the game. However, I would rather warn the players not to overestimate how much they can change, and how easily. Sure, if you kill an important NPC before doing a key historical deed, this should have consequences. But you can't just decide "we're going to make this side win the war", because that depends on a lot of factors, and largely not on a PC's capability in combat. D&D is about small-scale battles, so tipping the odds of an entire war is beyond the scope of the game. Sure you can do it sometimes, but it's not what I had in mind. I would rather have the PCs embark in quests that are either local (at low levels) or otherwordly but far from the public eye (at high levels), and then connect the consequences to subtle changes on a wider scale.
 

Hoffmand

Explorer
I’ve kind of taken my own twist to Dresden and cthulhu settings and so rural arcana in a county of wear Virginia where the largest city of 5600 with a small College that trains young pastors, a type of miskatonic university, but i don’t draw much from lovecraft. I focus more on irish and Native American folklore. The mothman is pretty important. But I use a modified runequest and Cthulhu rules for it.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
@LuisCarlos17f - So you advise avoiding any RPG content that might offend a Christian at the table, but you're fine offending any Jews, Pagans, or Muslims at the table? I don't mean for that to sound adversarial, but this is essentially what you're suggesting. Obviously, the game needs to be a safe space, and no one wants to offend anyone else or make them uncomfortable, but I vehemently disagree that the result of that is that you should never roleplay certain historical periods. Of course you should, just like you should be up front about what a campaign entails at the start, and a player who is uncomfortable should be able to opt out. I don't think it's appropriate to give Christianity a special pass though.

I would never force a player to participate in in-game actions that violate their personal precepts of course, and each player gets to make a character that stands for whatever they want. So if they're playing a character that, for whatever reason, would not stand for the destruction of a Christian temple, then they wouldn't participate or would actively work against it. The history of a period isn't a straight jacket and individual characters aren't, or shouldn't be, forced to align themselves with groups or actions that make them uncomfortable. That does not, in any way, make whole swathes of history unplayable as RPG settings though.
 

We can agree we need a safe space, but with real History it has to be a really great space. It's too risky. For example when different countries have got different points of view about a past conflict. Do you remember the movie "300" about the battle of the Thermopylae? It may be enough politicall correct for us, but then Erdogan, the Turkysh president, was really angry with this movie. A story about the Spanish Reconquest could show the Muslim like the civilitation with a higher culture, but others could tell a story about the fitna of al-Andalus, a civil war among Muslims what caused the end of the Omeya dinasty and the kindgom broken into taifas. Or the Napoleonic Wars. If the storyteller is French then Napoleon is a hero, but if he isn't then Frenchs are the evil empire.
 

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