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Your opinion on basing fantasy countries on real world ones

Ixal

Adventurer
Pretext: This thread has imo the potential to spiral out of control, so be respectful and mods, please lock it when you feel its starts to get inappropriate.

Nearly all countries and societies in RPGs are based on real world ones. A trend which has in my opinion only increased in recent years as companies strife for a more respectful representation on noneuropean cultures which in turn makes them stick closer to the historic real world material than before.

Of course that is not a binary yes/no choice but a sliding scale, some developers only borrowing a general idea while others copying entire events more or less accurately like the French revolution complete with guillotines, ect. (Galt in Pathfinder as example).

I of course see the advantages in that. You provide something familiar to many people and do not need to explain everything. That also saves book space as you do not need to spell out every nuance of a specific country and can just point to its historic reference (or more likely players will figure it out themselves in many cases). Although it leaves some things in the open as the familiarity about certain countries can vary between individuals, including players, DMs and designer.

Another disadvantage I see it that it gets stale at some point. There is always the Viking country, the China country, various European countries, etc. all populated with monsters from the respective mythologies and people with the corresponding culture and ethnicity.

So what is your opinion on this? Do you prefer to have familiar historic inspired countries in your setting or do you like to have more fantastic countries or at least countries that heavily deviate from their historic base?
 

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Yora

Legend
How does the line go from Inception? "Never create places from your memories, always imagine new places. Only use details. Never entire areas."
The movie is not talking about sci-fi magic gadgets, it's talking about writing fiction.

You got to use existing elements from other places to create new things. You can't actually imagine something new from nothing. Original ideas come into being when you are filling in the gaps between pieces that didn't originally fit together.
Disassemble, mix things up, reassemble.

Simply using existing countries, or rather your vague incomplete image of countries, and plopping them into a fantasy world as they are is bad worldbuilding. On the one hand, it reduces these places to the most basic sterotypes, but it also produces something that is utterly generic and doesn't distinguish itself from the many other copies that already exist.
I can absolutely live without ever seeing an "original fantasy world" with vikings ever again.
 

eyeheartawk

Works 60% of the time, every time
I rather like it. It allows you to convey alot about a made up place by the player's familiarity with a real world place and culture and helps fill in the blanks without you really needing to do anything. I think 7th Sea really did this part right.

That being said, changing some key details or placing it in a very specific milieu helps keep things fresh and undercuts expectations just enough. Instead of saying "Medieval Germany" you can say "Medieval Germany but just after the 30 devastation wrought by the 30 Years War and with magical armor around".
 

RobJN

Adventurer
I worked for D&D's Known World/Mystara. Admittedly, it varied from Gazetteer to Gazetteer. Then got turned up to eleven in the Hollow World.
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Without surprise, I like it when its well done. The 7th Sea, as mentioned above, does this pretty well. Midgard isnt too bad. Others, like some part of Mystara or FRs are a little heavy-handed; just plopping a real world country in your setting but changing their people to whatever race you feel like and adding ''...but with magic!'' is pretty basic and dull, IMHO.
 

Pretext: This thread has imo the potential to spiral out of control, so be respectful and mods, please lock it when you feel its starts to get inappropriate.

Nearly all countries and societies in RPGs are based on real world ones. A trend which has in my opinion only increased in recent years as companies strife for a more respectful representation on noneuropean cultures which in turn makes them stick closer to the historic real world material than before.

Of course that is not a binary yes/no choice but a sliding scale, some developers only borrowing a general idea while others copying entire events more or less accurately like the French revolution complete with guillotines, ect. (Galt in Pathfinder as example).

I of course see the advantages in that. You provide something familiar to many people and do not need to explain everything. That also saves book space as you do not need to spell out every nuance of a specific country and can just point to its historic reference (or more likely players will figure it out themselves in many cases). Although it leaves some things in the open as the familiarity about certain countries can vary between individuals, including players, DMs and designer.

Another disadvantage I see it that it gets stale at some point. There is always the Viking country, the China country, various European countries, etc. all populated with monsters from the respective mythologies and people with the corresponding culture and ethnicity.

So what is your opinion on this? Do you prefer to have familiar historic inspired countries in your setting or do you like to have more fantastic countries or at least countries that heavily deviate from their historic base?
My answer is going to be different from a lot of people because the countries where I and my family come from are different from the countries where most of the roleplaying market comes from (not to mention where all the big influential media companies are).

I would love it if I could bring elements of some of these countries into settings and campaigns that I write about, but I can't rely on everyone's familiarity with these places, because most of the roleplaying market isn't familiar with, say, the mountains of Taiwan or the trade routes of Southeast Asia. We don't even have the kind of cultural presence in mass media compared with, say, Celts or Romans, Welsh kings or Viking raiders.

At this point in my life I like seeing well-written depictions of my part of the world, created by people from this side of the world, like Gubat Banwa (Warring Nations). And if I'm going to enjoy roleplaying material about well-trodden ground (read: Western Europe) then I'd rather enjoy interesting and unique takes set in more historical milieu like Beyond the Fence, Beneath the Grave (a detective game set in the Old Norse world that has no combat system), instead of yet another fantasy Viking realm.
 

I try to have "inspired by" be my rule rather than "changed from".

There is a part of my campaign world that I would like to be inspired by Ancient India. That would make it different from the most commonly traversed area, and I'm enjoying getting into Indian history at the moment. So I look at the climate; this part is hot/wet, this part hot/dry summer, this part humid / warm winter. How did people in India at the time in question dress in these climates? How did they build? What environmentally did they worry about? Then, I adapt that to any changes that I think a different environment, resources, and magic would bring.

It's involved and takes some time. There is some check and adjust with it too. I tend to copy really old names of places that don't truly exist anymore and use that for inspiration to develop new names. Hopefully they're not just syllable-salad.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
In the last 3E campaign I ran in my old homebrew, the PCs finally got to visit a part of the world they had heard a lot about both in and out of character over the decades I had been running games in that world. This theocracy at the western edge of the "known world" was expected to be like Christian Rome by some players and the medieval middle-east by others - again based on the bits and pieces they had read and the handful of people from there (or that followed its official monotheistic faith) they had met at various times.

When they actually got there, they found the place to be not really like either but also having elements of both and their fear of a population of hardline zealots melted somewhat when they met actual everyday people.

So yeah, that is how I like to handle that. Steal. Mix-Up. Play up and then subvert expectations. Allow for contradictions because societies and cultures are not monoliths.
 
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payn

Legend
I've been leaning into more sci-fi settings lately. These settings have history, but its made up by me or others. There are, of course, elements of the real world in there as a spring board. I dont think you can really build a setting without any influence from our world. Though, the benefit sci-fi has always had is that it can take our issues and reflavor them in a way that looses some of the emotional baggage and puts the behaviors on full display.

Its really up to the table. At mine, I really like to explore politics and conflict and that might cut a little too close for some folks. Some folks like to escape the real world and look to gaming as a break. Publishers obviously have to navigate their writing carefully as not to offend a product meant for general audiences.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
I think it can be well done, but the majority of the time it's not. Mostly because, in many settings you have a really unique and interesting "main continent" where most of the lore and hooks and adventures are supposed to take place... and then there's a little bit of side info about far-away countries that are just "Not-Asia" or "Not Africa."

Forgotten Realms does this (Faerun is unique, Kara-tur and Al-Qadim aren't). Warhammer Fantasy did this (The Old World was unique, Cathay and Ind were not). Hell, even Lord of the Rings did this with Rhun (Mongols) Harad (Middle East) and Khand (China).

The implication being that the place where almost everything happens (Faerun, the Old World, Middle Earth) are really interesting and unique takes on Europe and other cultures, but the far-away lands are just carbon-cutouts of real-world cultures, and are almost always portrayed as exotic or backward, or even worse invaders to destroy the local culture.

There are way more examples of this too, from Berserk to Game of Thrones to Wheel of Time (country/continent to the east is different, vague similarities to Middle/East Asia, probably evil, next to no actual information).

To flip to a good example, Warhammer Fantasy has recently just shown what Cathay (not-China) looks like in the Total War Warhammer 3 game (before it was just a far-away place)... and I think it looks great! It's definitely heavily inspired by China, but it also looks fun to play in within a TTRPG.

TLDR: Most of the time, the main setting is unique, and there are far away countries that have little lore and are just analogues for different cultures, and this is pretty lazy.
 

MGibster

Legend
So what is your opinion on this? Do you prefer to have familiar historic inspired countries in your setting or do you like to have more fantastic countries or at least countries that heavily deviate from their historic base?
I typically start by basing the nations/kingdoms in my games based on real life analogs. It's a nice shortcut to creating a solid foundation for a setting because I already have a decent idea for how the government works, how people dress, how they behave, etc., etc. But at the same time, I'm not beholden to the original setting and have no worries about getting it right. My not-Germany isn't Germany so I have no problem if my Bavarians are Dwarves who love beer & sausage while my Rhineland-Palatinate dwarves all all mysterious and nobody understand them.
 


eyeheartawk

Works 60% of the time, every time
My not-Germany isn't Germany so I have no problem if my Bavarians are Dwarves who love beer & sausage while my Rhineland-Palatinate dwarves all all mysterious and nobody understand them.
Speaking as someone who has been to Bavaria and lived in the Palatinate, this checks out.
 

In a fantasy, sometimes fantasy things resemble real things. Fundamentally, it's really not a big deal. It just kind of is, the same way magic is, or my lower back pain isn't.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
It might even be impossible not to import aspects of real countries, at least in terms of their history, into RPGs.
What I mean by this is that history-shapes-culture-shapes history, and this is further enhanced by media sources, from the books and TV of the 1970s RPG pioneers to the vastly complex media of today. This can’t help to “push” our thinking when designing a fantasy world, and I’d argue that one just can’t do it in complete isolation.
The key, I guess, is to ensure it’s done respectfully.
Poorer examples obviously included the Oriental Adventures of the 1980s and the Vistani, but things have improved a lot since then. Golarion didn’t strike me as negative, though I thought it was a bit clumsy in just dropping in “real world” historical cultures.
On a personal level, I love the Sins of the Scorpion Age setting, developed on these very pages by @Steampunkette ; sure, there are recognisable nods to Sumeria (in particular), Khazars, Mycenaean Greece and others, but unique twists develop these into a great setting.

We’ve come a long way from the Hyborian Age of cultural appropriation for fantasy ( he writes from his home in northwest Aquilonia!)
 


It also depends whether we're talking about making a setting for my home game or for the public. I once created a mining planet set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe where the main local culture was based on the Empire of Abyssinia, for a campaign using a hack of Blades in the Dark (the Blades of the Inquisition fan hack) because I thought it would be interesting to use a non-Western culture as a basis, especially Abyssinia being less widely represented. For my home game, it worked.

But I wouldn't publish it (even with rewrites) because I'm not of Ethiopian or Eritrean descent, it's not my story to tell, and I don't think the basic concept would be in any way sensitive to Ethiopians and Eritreans (making Abyssinian analogues into part of the absurdly fanatical, violent and dystopian Warhammer 40,000 Imperium isn't doing a less represented culture a favour). And that's even before we consider that the planet was named after a province that is currently embroiled in civil war...I'm not touching that with a 10-foot pole.
 


Basing a fantasy kingdom on a real country or culture is not a problem, even if it is an evil fantasy kingdom, but as we have seen from all the past issues in Orc discussions, do not base anything fantasy purely on an actual race/ethnicity.
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
It's tricky, right? It's hard to make a culture ex nihilo, and you usually wind up basing it on something, even unconsciously (every time I tried to make a fantasy city I kept making square city blocks with neighborhoods separated by socioeconomic class, and then I realized...gosh, I'm from New York, aren't I?). Greyhawk looks an awful lot like the Upper Midwest. Even looking at settings that tried hard to be exotic, Tekumel mashes up India, Arabia, Egypt, and Mesoamerica, and most of us aren't as creative as M.A.R. Barker. Talislanta had analogs for a lot of the cultures, though they had purely fantastic stuff like cultures that live in clouds.

I think, unlike publication where you have to theoretically worry about the whole world, if it's just for your group you have a much smaller group of people to worry about. I would never try to market a supplement in the current environment. (I mean, people obviously do, but I would personally be chicken.)
 

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