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Worlds of Design: When Nations Expand

When considering how nations expand beyond their borders in your fantasy campaign, there are several options to choose from.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Trading Colonies​

We can go back to very ancient times, when the Assyrians had a trading colony in Hittite territory, far from the heartland of Assyria. This colony facilitated trade of Hittite copper for Assyrian textiles. Assyrians lived in the colony, but were interested only in trade, not domination.

Trading colonies often began with trading posts. The explorers of the Mediterranean and Black Seas in times before Alexander, the Phoenicians and Greeks, set up trading posts. But the Greeks also used trading colonies as an outlet for excess population, setting up small towns. Greece is not blessed with much good agricultural land, and its rough terrain naturally divided it into hundreds of often-small city-states. Where would excess population go? When the Greeks set up a colony the usual expectation was that the colony would soon become an independent, albeit small, city-state.

Unlike the Greek city states, Phoenicia was surrounded by empires and rarely independent. About the time that the Persian Empire occupied Phoenicia was when the Phoenician colonies became independent if they hadn’t already.

Military Colonies​

Roman colonies are of a type much less common at that time (though also used less intensely by Alexander the Great). They set up “military” colonies to help control territories acquired by warfare as they expanded throughout Italy. The military colonies were outlets to reward retired soldiers who didn’t have lands of their own, even though inhabitants of the colonies were not granted Roman citizenship. Remember the pre-modern ideal, Land = Wealth.

Notice that the Romans (and Alexander, more or less) were colonizing lands geographically contiguous to their homelands, different from the Greeks and Phoenicians who colonized overseas. Contiguity has great relevance in geopolitics. It is rare in the long run that a colony separated by water from its homeland remains part of that homeland, an important factor when considering if one of your nations plans to annex another.

Mass Migrations​

Military and trading colonies were eventually replaced in medieval times by mass migrations, both on the European continent and in Great Britain. The Anglo-Saxon migrants who occupied England absorbed the population, usually through intermarriage. The same happened when the Danes occupied the Danelaw in eastern England. On the other hand the Norman conquest provided land for the barons.

As an aside, notice that the Danes who were given control of what became the Duchy of Normandy in the 10th century had been almost completely Frenchified by the time of the Norman conquest of England. Sometimes the inhabitants absorb the conquerors, not vice versa. In the end, though the kings of England spoke French for centuries, ultimately the Norman French were absorbed into the English population.

How Nations Change​

It’s often instructive to look at language in relation to colonization and conquest. Where the resident population absorbs the conquerors, the latter take on the language of the former. Where the native population is absorbed by the conquerors, the natives take on the language of the conquerors. In fantasy settings where everyone speaks a common language, one of those nations was likely the originator of the Common tongue.

In the medieval-plus-magic fantasy world that is the typical base RPG setting (see “Baseline Assumptions of Fantasy RPGs") military colonies might be most applicable to a typical adventure campaign. A military-style colony set in a wild-and-woolly area might be a good base for adventures. Characters could be hired as guards for a group of Greek-style sea-based trading colonies.

Conversely, a history of expansion may play a bigger role in the backstory of your campaign world. Different groups may have language, values, and currency determined by the dominant nation. And if one nation is ascendant, its influence might explain why there’s a common standard wherever the adventurers go.

Your Turn: How do nations expand their influence in your campaign?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

aco175

Legend
There is also places that countries expand into that has people that are not set up to defend themselves. Take Australia and the Americas where the native people were pushed out of the way, or worse for the new peoples to settle. Where the American colonies were mainly for trade and Australia was first a penal colony, they developed into a larger part of the old kingdom. For a time until they needed to expand.

In a fantasy world where they may not be native humans in these lands, but tribes of orcs or gnolls. I'm guessing that a lot of the same things may happen along the road to 'civilization'.

In my campaigns now there tends to be little expansion. The PCs are mostly in towns and villages with a more frontier feel like Phandalin. A small village will spring up allied with the town or a garrison of soldiers from the larger city may patrol the road in their interests, but Waterdeep is not marching forth and settling these lands. Not to say that migration is not happening. The town of Leilon is being slowly competed over by both Waterdeep and Neverwinter. Both these cities will not go to war over it, but local skirmishes may occur. Mostly depends on what the PCs do.

The next campaign may show some of the outcomes based on the existing campaign. In a game like D&D migration may be rather slow for the campaign and need to take place over a couple campaigns to show the feel of one country expanding. A war that the PCs are part of or a magical portal opens and thousands of whomever comes through changes this though.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
Soft Power expansion can also be quite relevant.
There’s a great book on the subject by Joseph Nye in terms of real world, and the successful soft power expansion of the USA, in particular, has been quite marked since WW2.
In fantasy terms, we might not be looking at Coca Cola, Hollywood, cars, proms etc, but we can certainly see soft power in terms of religion, societal organisation, hero culture etc.
It doesn’t even have to be matched by hard power projection: Hellenistic culture was pretty significant in the Roman Empire, even after military defeat.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
Closer to medieval fantasy, the expansion of the Normans in the later C11th was pretty marked.
Originating from Viking adventurers themselves in C10th, they conquered England (famously) in 1066, but also Sicily and Southern Italy under Robert Guiscard and, a bit later, played a pretty major role in the Crusades and the kingdom of Outremer ( Bohemund of Taranto especially).
I wish I could remember the historian that wrote that they “adapted themselves out of existence” in the end.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
Population boom and resource depletion as part of Mass Migration, old world no longer able to support itself. The new world start to provide resources such as wood and food stock, which then causes a population boom in the old world that sees a migration to the new world for jobs. This then causes even more migration for fresh land. This was seen after Europe started to settle the Americas, the Native populations were already nearly wiped out from illness and left lands that were rich for farming and gave the fauna a chance of recovery.
 

imagineGod

Legend
Did Meier's Civilization, always on my mind when I read something like this.

Also reminds me of one of the books I find inspirational, The Rise and Fall of Nations
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Yeah, soft power in the form of infrastructure projects like what the US has done for a long time and China has started recently - could be good in a fantasy world. Especially if perhaps one nation specializes in Earth magic for example, they export teams all over to do fantastic earth moving projects. Could be the PCs are guards for such a group, or fixers for future jobs, or perhaps the earth magic nation has nefarious intentions and the PCs are trying to combat.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Soft Power expansion can also be quite relevant.
There’s a great book on the subject by Joseph Nye in terms of real world, and the successful soft power expansion of the USA, in particular, has been quite marked since WW2.
In fantasy terms, we might not be looking at Coca Cola, Hollywood, cars, proms etc, but we can certainly see soft power in terms of religion, societal organisation, hero culture etc.
It doesn’t even have to be matched by hard power projection: Hellenistic culture was pretty significant in the Roman Empire, even after military defeat.
I use to play a pbem kingdom game The Known World which was set in a mythic Africa/Mediteranean. While others were doing military build ups I decided to go for growth and a soft ‘hegemony’ victory. When the neighbouring kingdom to the north was striken by drought and plague I gifted them with medicines and cattle to win their loyalty (and their sea port), I set up trade missions to the southern jungles, and developed an infrastructure project to build a trans continental road. At the eastern end of the road I made an alliance with a more advanced kingdom and agreed to send youth from each of my tribes to train in their university, on the other end I set up trade with salt mines,

The plan was to dominate trade by controlling the road, collecting tolls and duties as the worlds trade passed through my nation. It was a fun game while it lasted.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
This article is strange as expansion seems to be only defined by placing your population somewhere else into colonies or move them into lands you do not own through migration.
That might work for the ancient period when you had empires and tribes who indeed colonized and migrated everywhere in part because there actually were many empty or nearly empty places in rather nearby areas.
It makes sense in a more race war type of setting or in a setting where the primary antagonists are monsters.

That changed in the medieval period as most land was already settled and the way ownership was defined changed. In the feudal system there were no defined empires, but allegiance was determined by oaths of fealty in the feudal chain all the way up to the king. So the kingdom of France was defined by all the land owned by nobles who, directly or indirectly, swore fealty to the king of France.
This allowed other ways of expanding your empire, simply by switching lieges, trading lands with other nobles or becoming a king yourself. For example the root of the 100 years war between France and Britain was that a French duke conquered England and took all his possessions on the continent with him when he became king, thus making them English and not French.

It also allows expansion through marriage. The Habsburgs were masters in arranging marriages which allowed them to control half of Europe (Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia) even through their military successes were rather mixed.
Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube – ‘Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry’.
It also resulted in them probably being the source of the inbred noble stereotype as achieving this sort of hegemony required several close kin marriages.

And of course regular conquest (as we understand it today) became the norm. Instead of displacing the existing population and putting your own people there you simply declared that the existing population now belongs to you. Especially with the feudal system that often only changed who people paid taxes to and didn't affect their life much.
In other times though it required them to assimilate and adopt the new owners faith and customs at the threat of pain and death or otherwise subjected them to near slavery kind of treatment.
Yet this is the kind of conquest who initially allowed the Spanish to create a foothold in Mexico when the Aztec vassals banded together and supported Cortez in overthrowing their masters. And it was also how most wars in Europe was fought, both within the same religion and between religions, for example when Muslims conquered the Byzantine Empire (And forced them to assimilate).

Another way to "expand" was to simply declare that something belongs to you. That of course doesn't work if there is already a established and recognized kingdom to object, but it was often done in America when European powers simply declared that large tracks of land belongs to them without ever setting foot on them and the natives already living there not even knowing that someone claimed their land.

So how does this translate into D&D?
It highly depends on who you are conquering land from. When you clear it from monsters then you need to bring your own people in like it ancient times. If they are sentient you might instead assimilate them after enforcing their allegiance.
This of course ties directly into the ongoing debate about colonialism and what is a monster you need to drive away and who you can subjugate...

The marriage aspect is very underused in D&D and RPGs in general. Most RPGs hardly even bother with defining nobles apart from a token king and maybe a baron who either a patron or the BBEG who wants to depose the king. But you hardly have a working feudal system, let alone defined families which have multiple nobles in it or marriage ties to other defined nobles.
If you spend the effort to create such a system it could imo be quite interesting. For example a family like the Habsburgs who expand through marriage could be quite scandalous as they would have a lot of half breeds in them what others might frown upon (or not).
There is also the question what to do with infertile marriages and so on.
 
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Ixal

Adventurer
Yeah, soft power in the form of infrastructure projects like what the US has done for a long time and China has started recently - could be good in a fantasy world. Especially if perhaps one nation specializes in Earth magic for example, they export teams all over to do fantastic earth moving projects. Could be the PCs are guards for such a group, or fixers for future jobs, or perhaps the earth magic nation has nefarious intentions and the PCs are trying to combat.
I use to play a pbem kingdom game The Known World which was set in a mythic Africa/Mediteranean. While others were doing military build ups I decided to go for growth and a soft ‘hegemony’ victory. When the neighbouring kingdom to the north was striken by drought and plague I gifted them with medicines and cattle to win their loyalty (and their sea port), I set up trade missions to the southern jungles, and developed an infrastructure project to build a trans continental road. At the eastern end of the road I made an alliance with a more advanced kingdom and agreed to send youth from each of my tribes to train in their university, on the other end I set up trade with salt mines,

The plan was to dominate trade by controlling the road, collecting tolls and duties as the worlds trade passed through my nation. It was a fun game while it lasted.
Soft power is often overvalued as it requires a fairly globalization world where going to war is expensive because of the destructiveness of weapons and often invokes the ire of the rest of the world who you are dependent on.
But as this is the world we live in many players project this state of things into the setting.

Yet in a fantasy/medieval setting this does not apply and going to war has a lot less downsides than it has today. Trade is also a lot less influential so the disruption of this trade is not all that bad either. And being rich through trade only means people want your land even more.
Mali, who resembles the country your describe, crumbled rather fast when Songhay attacked and the huge trading empires of the Netherlands didn't protect them from France.
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Yet in a fantasy/medieval setting this does not apply and going to war has a lot less downsides than it has today. Trade is also a lot less influential so the disruption of this trade is not all that bad either. And being rich through trade only means people want your land even more.
Mali, who resembles the country your describe, crumbled rather fast when Songhay attacked and the huge trading empires of the Netherlands didn't protect them from France.
Mali was indeed the inspiration for my nation, I was fascinated with Mansa Musa at the time :)


It also allows expansion through marriage. The Habsburgs were masters in arranging marriages which allowed them to control half of Europe (Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia) even through their military successes were rather mixed.
Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube – ‘Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry’.
It also resulted in them probably being the source of the inbred noble stereotype as achieving this sort of hegemony required several close kin marriages.

The marriage aspect is very underused in D&D and RPGs in general. Most RPGs hardly even bother with defining nobles apart from a token king and maybe a baron who either a patron or the BBEG who wants to depose the king. But you hardly have a working feudal system, let alone defined families which have multiple nobles in it or marriage ties to other defined nobles.
If you spend the effort to create such a system it could imo be quite interesting. For example a family like the Habsburgs who expand through marriage could be quite scandalous as they would have a lot of half breeds in them what others might frown upon (or not).
There is also the question what to do with infertile marriages and so on.

I’m reminded of the Tongan Empire which at its height extended from Nauru to Nuku Hiva (imagine a 3000 km radius around Tonga), though primarily centered on the Tonga-Fiji-Samoa core. Tongan hegemony was maintained through inter marriage and the Inasi tribute system, which was witnessed by Captain Cook and involved the vassal islanders making trips to Tonga to present first fruits to the Tui Tonga (King of Tonga) who was deemed a descendent of the god Tangaloa.
The Tongan Empire was eventually forced out of Samoa and Fiji by local rebellions but by that time they were so intermarried that most of the so called Tongans in Samoa were at least half or more Samoan. Tonga is one of the worlds oldest continuous kingdoms and remains the only independent kingdom in the Pacific
 
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lewpuls

Adventurer
Ixal: Yes, the title (from the editor) is misleading. My title was "World-building: Colonies." I had no intention of discussing all kinds of expansion. But perhaps someday I will.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
It’s also worth remembering that the concept of any form of unitary state wasn’t really defined until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Before that, as Ixal says, countries were little more than dynastic constructions (or religious ones; the Pope was still a temporal ruler at the time).
Therefore any form of expansion, in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world, is more likely to be dynastic ( Ferdinand & Isabella’s sponsorship of Columbus and what followed after), religious ( Teutonic Knights in Eastern Europe) or mercantile ( French coureurs du Bois) than by what we might call states.

Once you have Westphalian states, concepts like sovereignty (and later, nationalism) emerge and then territory can become a plum to be picked eg German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871.

We tend to think in Westphalian terms about states today, but it’s actually a pretty recent thing.
 



clearstream

(He, Him)
When considering how nations expand beyond their borders in your fantasy campaign, there are several options to choose from.

Your Turn: How do nations expand their influence in your campaign?
My main concern is to move on from the insouciant treatment wargamers have habitually given thuggish empires and their projects of colonisation. And I say that as one such wargamer!

See for example the background implied in my homebrew races in this thread. Set in an alternate-Faerun. In 1589, the City State of Waterdeep intensifies colonisation of a peaceful archipelago...


[EDIT I didn't at first reply to this thread, due to my concerns with the OP, but then decided it was better to join the conversation.]
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
Ixal: Yes, the title (from the editor) is misleading. My title was "World-building: Colonies." I had no intention of discussing all kinds of expansion. But perhaps someday I will.
It seems to me a mistake or whitewashing to suppose that trading and military colonies are not projects of harmful colonisation. @Ixal I feel there is moral hazard in any presumption of terra nullius. There are peoples today deeply harmed - rich cultures disintegrated and made dystopic - by the idea of empty land.


In my next campaign, the primary antagonists are monsters: Waterdhavians, concretely.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
"It happens more than we probably know, and seems to happen to Lew fairly often. I guess even this site is not immune to using click-bait titles."

I tend to use longer titles that are precise but not always mellifluous; the changes tend to be shorter titles more likely to attract attention, I suppose, but less precise. This was one of the less successful changes. Some changes have been improvements.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
clearstream: "It seems to me a mistake or whitewashing to suppose that trading and military colonies are not projects of harmful colonisation. @Ixal I feel there is moral hazard in any presumption of terra nullius. There are peoples today deeply harmed - rich cultures disintegrated and made dystopic - by the idea of empty land."

I try not to indulge in presentism, that is, the imposition of current standards of morality on historical actors, as though current morality was the only morality that could ever be right. Morality depends so much on the technological situation. "Moral imperatives" were different more than two millennia ago.

And would be in a fantasy world full of monsters, of course.

We can see any conquest or other expansion as harmful to the victims, but only in recent times - with the advent of horrifically destructive World Wars and then nuclear weapons - has national expansion largely ceased. There's little doubt that World War III would have occurred, if not for nuclear weapons
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
Not entirely sure about that last sentence. Alternate history is, by its very nature, uncertain, but I think there is reasonable doubt that WW3 would have occurred if not for nuclear weapons.
Even with such weapons, we came relatively close twice: Cuba in 1962 and Able Archer in 1983. It may be that it was the spectre of nuclear war that definitely prevailed, but it may not.
Certainly, plenty of proxy wars were fought anyway during the Cold War and it’s certainly possible to argue that these would have happened anyway, but no further.
Stalin, for all his paranoia and unpleasantness, was realistic enough not to push for a conventional WW3 in 1945 (when he probably had the best chance) and it is far from certain that it was only nuclear weapons that prevented him then or later. I’m not sure that any future Soviet leaders had the will to actively pursue WW3, with or without nuclear weapons.
Certainly no US Presidents did. Where was the gain, particularly since the economic systems pointed to an eventual US win regardless.

Nuclear weapons may well have been a factor preventing WW3, but they weren’t the only factor.
 

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