Tabletop Meditations #17: The Lich

Whether it is at the head of an undead horde or a shadowy figure behind the scenes using monsters and people like chess pieces the undead wizard known as the lich is adept on and off the field. These undead wizards appear as mostly skeletal with only the scant, mummified remnants of flesh left hanging from their yellowed bones, and in the deep black pits of their perpetually grinning skulls, red pinpoints of hellish light. The lich is a very common archetype in modern fantasy and one of the most recognizable but how far do the roots of the monster actually go?

The lich is an undead spell-caster that has for the most part deliberately become undead as a bid for immortality able to gather more arcane-knowledge and thus power over time. When they first appeared seemingly out of whole cloth they were undead spell-casters with strange powers, became ideal and grim antagonists, and continue today as antagonists of boss-monster proportions.

“[A] mage or cleric so thirsty for immortality as to try to cheat death, and already powerful at magic.” [Greenwood, Ed. 1988. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, The Lords of Darkness. TSR, Inc. 2]

A lich is an undead creature therefore; our concerns lie first with the condition of undeath and the meaning of ‘undead creature’. First off, undead creatures were formerly living and thus have had a “first death” rising from the grave weirder and more powerful.

Undead creatures are dead bodies animated often by an outside force after the soul of the dead being has since flown from the bones. This force, often malicious, oft defined as demonic and occasionally elemental replaces the soul as the animating force and/or mind. This force typically alters the corpse in significant and grotesque ways to adapt the newly formed creature to its new (un)life as a creature of the night. In the case of Liches, this force is magic rather than a demonic spirit though perhaps still elemental.  However, their actual soul has been captured in a special object called a Phylactery. The transformation of the body to the being of a lich is the death of the mage and the rotting of the corpse leaving only that necessary to contain the animating force. The once living visage reduced to the bones with maybe some withered, leather-tough tatters of flesh to hold the joints together.

“The urge for immortality is so strong in some powerful mages and magic-user/clerics that they aspire to lichdom, despite its horrible physical side effects and the usual loss of friends and living companionship. Lichdom must be prepared for in life; no true lich ever is known to have come about “naturally”.” [Greenwood. pg.73]

The term and the creature fused together in the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. For the most part the term was used as an archaism. An archaism is a deliberate imitation of old-fashioned language in order to stress a certain time-frame or to enhance atmosphere. Similar archaisms were revived and sometimes redefined by the popular imagination in that fertile ground known as American Pulp Fiction, namely in the fantasy and horror genres of weird fiction. Masters and innovators of modern archaisms as literary device included such well-known names as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.

The etymology of the term Lich, plural Liches, is straightforward. Its roots lie in the Old English word for ‘corpse’, not a monster or evil spirit, just a dead body:  “A corpse (Old English lic).” [Rockwood, Camilla ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. 781] Though archaic its original use lingers in certain usages such as ‘lich gate’ and a few others.

Lich gate or lych gate The covered entrance to churchyards intended to afford shelter to the coffin and mourners while awaiting the clergyman who is to conduct the cortége into church.”

Lich wake or lyke wake The funeral feast or the waking of a corpse, i.e. watching it all night.”

Lychway or lickway A trackway, especially in a remote upland area, along which corpses were borne for burial in a distant churchyard.” [Rockwood. 781]

The modern fantasy trope of the Lich may have indeed started with the term itself.

Pulp Fiction where most modern fantasy archetypes were, if not born, then mantled with their modern guises, the lich is no exception. However, in regards to the lich this lineage begins with the appearance of the term “lich” in weird stories beginning in the 19th century with Ambrose Bierce at the very beginning of the weird genre of fiction.

One of the earliest appearances in fiction of the word occurs in Ambrose Bierce’s story the Death of Halpin Frayser. In fact, the fictional quote that precedes the story is the earliest part to mention our undead subject. “For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown. Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked. And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate. Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether.” [Hopkins, Ernest Jerome ed. 1970. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. University of Nebraska Press. The Death of Halpin Frayser]

Soon after the term was adopted by one of the three musketeers of weird fiction, Clark Ashton Smith.  His connection to Bierce being that: “At fifteen, [Clark Ashton Smith] became likewise infatuated with [the poetry] of George Sterling. Sterling (1869-1926) had moved from his native New York State to California in 1891 and had become a protégé of Ambrose Bierce – “bitter Bierce,” the misanthropic writer, poet, journalist, and satirist[.]” [De Camp, L.Sprague. 1976. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Arkham House . Sauk City, Wisconsin. 199]

Bierce himself was quite aware of the young writer. “In 1912, Ambrose Bierce wrote to a western magazine, warning that, while Smith was a very promising young poet, this premature publicity and exaggerated praise might be bad for him and lead to an equally exaggerated reaction against him.” [De Camp. 201]

Eventually through his use of the word and his close connections via written correspondence, his contemporaries, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, began to use the word as well. However, Smith used the term more often to describe an animated corpse than an undead wizard. This is around 1926 and the lich is still a little strange.

“But on its heels, ere the sunset faded, there came a second apparition, striding with incredible strides, and halting when it loomed almost upon me in the red twilight – the monstrous mummy of some ancient king, still crowned with untarnished gold, but turning to my gaze a visage that more than time or the worm had wasted. Broken swathings flapped about the skeleton legs, and above the crown that was set with sapphires and balas-rubies, a black something swayed and nodded horribly; but, for an instant, I did not dream what it was. Then, in its middle, two oblique and scarlet eyes opened and glowed like hellish coals, and two ophidian fangs glittered in an ape-like mouth. A squat, furless, shapeless head on a neck of disproportionate extent leaned unspeakably down and whispered in the mummy’s ear. Then, with one stride, the titanic lich took half the distance between us, and from out the folds of the tattered sere-cloth a gaunt arm arose, and fleshless, taloned fingers laden with glowering gems, reached out and fumbled for my throat…” [Connors, Scott ed. 2006. The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume One. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Abominations of Yondo. 7-8]

In his 1932 story The Empire of the Necromancers, the lich has lost the weird belly-monster and taken the basic form of an animated corpse. “After a while, in the grey waste, they found the remnants of another horse and rider, which the jackals had spared and the sun had dried to the leanness of old mummies. They also raised up from death; and Mmatmuor bestrode the withered charger; and the two magicians rode on in state, like errant emperors, with a lich and a skeleton to attend them.” [Connors, Scott ed. 2007. A Vintage from Atlantis: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume Three. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Empire of the Necromancers . 194] And “All that night , and during the blood-dark day that followed, by wavering torches or the light of the failing sun, an endless army of plague-eaten liches, of tattered skeletons, poured in a ghastly torrent through the streets of Yethlyreom and along the palace-hall where Hestaiyon stood guard above the slain necromancers.” [Connors. A Vintage from Atlantis. 199]

Eventually Robert E. Howard resourced the lich for his mystical two-fisted adventure tale Skull-Face in 1929.

“I shuddered. Kathulos laughed wildly again. His fingers began to drum his chair arms and his face gleamed with the unnatural light once more. The red visions had begun to seethe in his skull again.

“Under the green seas they lie, the ancient masters, in their lacquered cases, dead as men reckon death, but only sleeping. Sleeping through the long ages as hours, awaiting the day of awakening! The old masters, the wise men, who foresaw the day when the sea would gulp the land, and who made ready. Made ready that they might rise again in the barbaric days to come. As did I. Sleeping they lie, ancient kings and grim wizards, who died as men die, before Atlantis sank. Who, sleeping, sank with her but who shall arise again!” [Howard, Robert E. 1974. Skull-Face Omnibus. Neville Spearman, London.]

Of course, Lovecraft followed suit in his The Thing on the Doorstep originally published in 1937. “He must be crematedhe who was not Edward Derby when I shot him. I shall go mad if he is not, for I may be the next. But my will is not weak – and I shall not let it be undermined by the terrors I know are seething around it. One life – Ephraim, Asenath, and Edward – who now? I will not be driven out of my body … I will not change souls with that bullet-ridden lich in the madhouse!” [Derleth, August ed. 1963. The Dunwich Horror and Others. Arkham House Publishers, Inc. Sauk City, Wisconsin. The Thing on the Doorstep. 300]

Though Lovecraft used the term lich to mean the body of the possessed he is probably trying to get the idea through to the reader that the original inhabiting personality is gone essentially slain by the thing that now occupies the flesh. Although within the story, it does concern a sorceress who cheats death by taking possession of others’ bodies even able to drive her former corpse around very similar to the current incarnation of the lich.

These three tales forever merged in the minds of pulp readers the image of the skeletal corpse with the idea of a powerful undying sorcerer. From there the word seeped into the lexicon of fantasy writers but the archetype was not yet quite complete.

The basic idea of the lich naturally filtered to the latter day pulp writers, in particular one Gardner Fox and his Conan-Kull pastiche Kothar. In his 1969 novel Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman a lich appears that will serve as the basis for all future undead wizards in the popular mind.

“He turned and stared back into the dark tomb and saw the dead thing standing in the darkness, rotted and ugly in its cerements. […] It was just a corpse, a corpse that walked and spoke and seemed to be alive.

“Who are you?” Kothar growled.

“My name is Afgorkon, long and long ago.”

Kothar scowled. Afgorkon? Surely he had heard Queen Elfa speak of Afgorkon who had been a mighty magician fifty thousand years ago. He tried to think, but could not, being held in thrall by the black, empty eyeholes of the dead thing standing before him, bent and brown and old.


The lich turned and moved with those strangely thumping footsteps across the tomb. Its rotted hands moved and its withered tongue clacked, and sounds issued from the throat that was little more than bones. The words it spoke reverberated throughout the cairn, they brought down tiny showers of dirt from the root-pierced ceiling, they made the death-slab shake.

Yet they also opened an invisible door and caused a pallid glimmer by which Kothar could see, past the burial garments which still encased Afgorkon, an opening door and a chamber where lay a sword in a scabbard chained to a great leather belt on top of two chests heavy with jewels and golden coins of a kind no man had looked upon for half a million years.” [Fox, Gardner, F. 2016. The First Kothar the Barbarian Megapack. Wildside Press LLC. Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman]

Fox was definitely inspired by Howard’s Conan the Barbarian as Kothar the Barbarian is near identical though apparently less intelligent and with the sexual content of the stories turned up. On a related note The Cat and the Skull, a story written for Weird Tales by Robert E. Howard around 1928 saw print in 1967 in the King Kull lancer paperback.

The face of the man was a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire!

“Thulsa Doom!”


“Aye, Thulsa Doom, fools!” the voice echoed cavernously and hollowly.

“The greatest of all wizards and your eternal foe, Kull of Atlantis. […]”

[…]Brule charged with the silent ferocity of a tiger, his curved sword gleaming. And like a gleam of light it flashed into the ribs of Thulsa Doom, piercing him through and through so that the point stood out between his shoulders.

Brule regained his blade[.] Not a drop of blood oozed from the wound which in a living man had been mortal. The skull-faced one laughed.

“Ages ago I died as men die!” he taunted. “Nay, I shall pass to some other sphere when my time comes, not before. I bleed not for my veins are empty and I feel only a slight coldness which shall pass when the wound closes, as it is even now closing. Stand back, fool, your master goes but he shall come again to you and you shall scream and shrivel and die in that coming! Kull, I salute you!”” [Louinet, Patrice ed. 2006. Kull Exile of Atlantis. Ballantine Books, New York. The Cat and the Skull]

Most importantly however, Gardner’s novel was read by Gary Gygax whom used the lich in that story as his template for the monster in his game Dungeons & Dragons.

“While a few of the critters in questions are purely products of my own imagination–carrion crawler, gelatinous cube, roper for instance–there were many sources of inspiration for the majority of the monsters, and I will name a few: […] Lich: Right on in regards to Gardner Fox. Gar and his wife Linda were friends of mine.” [Gygax, Gary. 2007. EnWorld.Org. Forum Post]

We have finally arrived at the Archetypical Lich. The Undead Magic-User or Priest that willingly underwent the lethal mystical transformation into an undead monster has taken its modern form. “Preparation for lichdom occurs while the figure is still alive and must be completed before his first “death”.” [Mohan, Kim ed. 1981. Lenard Lakofka auth. 1979. Best of Dragon Vol.II. Blueprint for a lIch.] After they have successfully undergone this process, the wizard’s soul has been captured within the Phylactery singly the most valuable item in any lich’s amassed treasury no matter how vast.

The word Phylactery is defined in the dictionary as an amulet but also refers to devices of orthodox Jewish prayer. In that respect, phylactery refers to two small leather boxes containing slips of vellum on which are written portions of Mosaic Law. One is worn on the head and the other on the left arm in token of the duty to obey religious law. Strangely, the lich’s phylactery reflects these ideas, as it is a magic amulet containing its living soul, which the lich must protect. If it is destroyed, so is the lich. “The phylactery may take any form – it may be a pendant, gauntlet, scepter, helm, crown, ring, or even a lump of stone. It must be of inorganic material, must be solid and of high-quality workmanship if man-made, and cannot be an item having other spells or magical properties on or in it. It may be decorated or carved in any way desired for distinction.” [Greenwood. pg.74]

The idea of it being a mystical container for the soul of a sorcerer is similar to the character of Koschei the Deathless from Russian mythology. The basic idea found in mythology of a powerful wizard, evil king, troll, or other monster being able to hide its heart or soul somewhere else preventing them from being slain is an old one.

Unlike most undead Liches retain all of their knowledge from life and have an eternity to become masters at anything they choose.  Therefore, the archetypical lich is uber-powerful or in the very least has extremely refined skills often of the arcane variety, the perfect villain to set against a group of rowdy adventure seekers.

With the lich as a villain, there are a couple of things to ask about the fundamentals of their character stemming from a few problems posed by their immortality and especially the type of immortality that they have achieved. The Lich is an undead creature, an animate corpse with magic power, created by imprisoning its soul in a phylactery.  In some circles, the soul is believed to be the seat of intelligence (and indeed, in certain game systems it may very well be). Does this mean that in actuality, the wizard has imprisoned himself in a psychic prison (the Phylactery) and the creature that is the corpse is just a mockery with a black (or grey) soul of pure magical force?

As they are sentient, do they suffer the emotional consequences of being left behind by their world and the familiar? Is that why they occupy themselves sometimes for decades or even centuries perusing their labyrinthine libraries burying their ruined faces in rotting tomes as their world disintegrates around them? Would this render them insane, depressed, delusionally out-of-touch, or erratic in their behavior? Do they desire some connection any connection to other beings even if it is negative, perhaps violence is the only way they can relate to others. I suppose that individual Game-Masters and their Lich characters should answer these questions on a case-by-case basis those questions best left for them.

In summary, the modern archetypical lich as an undead magic-user that has trapped their own soul within a phylactery was born of an archaism utilized by pulp authors in their weird tales. They were then borrowed and honed into their final wretched form by Gary Gygax and continue to appear in very similar if not identical forms across media such as the lich in Adventure Time, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and in a slightly altered version in the guise of the Night King in Game of Thrones.

“I know what the dead know.” – Afgorkon [Fox. 22]

As an afterword, I am aware that Frank Belknap Long also used the term lich in his 1924 Weird Tales pulp story The Desert Lich. However, it has very little substance of the Lich in anything else besides its title. “The Desert Lich has an Arabic setting, but is a non-supernatural conte cruel in which a man who had sold an unfaithful wife is forced to lie in a sarcophagus with her corpse.” [Joshi, S.T. 2004. The Evolution of the Weird Tale. Hippocampus Press. New York, New York. 99]


Tabletop Meditations #16: Old Empires

In any given fantasy RPG, but by no means all of them, a remnant empire or a landscape littered withRuins of an empire the bones of an ancient empire sometimes mysterious oft times still vaguely powerful. Old empires appear throughout fantasy and thus many fantasy tabletop roleplaying games. Using this trope makes it a little easier to begin to build your own setting using this as the basis for a dark age or at least an age where the empire is in a state of decline this loss of power being vital to adventuring.

Ancient empires lend a sense of history, which can still be seen and sometimes experienced to a game world. They can provide explanations for some of gaming’s oldest tropes, especially for the ubiquitous dungeon, and present adventure hooks in the forms of artifacts, lost knowledge, and explorable ruins. The old empire (or empires) that may be present in a given fantasy world also carry their own tropes and various resemblances to those of real-world history. Old empires are useful to the GM in the context of RPG campaigns but also carry certain disadvantages.

When speaking of empires there are certain terms that are inseparable in most incarnations of this fantasy trope. These are Empire, Imperium, and Citizen.

The word empire carries with it some baggage in and of itself due to actual history and it conjures a very specific type of image. In the popular imagination, the word empire often conjures to mind the imperial wonders of the ancient world, marble statues massive multi-columned buildings and/or massive armies that could drink lakes and inland seas dry. Of course, in the modern context however it also brings to mind the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the snatching of land, and constant wars of conquest.

“Today the word empire is used to describe an extensive state made up of several ethnic groups but ruled by only one of them.  It has, at least since the early 20th century, also carried the suggestion of tyranny and brutality, inherited from the practices of modern European colonial powers.” [Grafton, Anthony, ed. 2010. The Classical Tradition. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. Empire. pg.310]

The imperial entity also means the mass rule of law and an enforced order over a given territory. An empire allows for widespread civility allowing the gentler aspects of civilization to take hold as well as providing the structure for the crueler aspects of humankind to prevail (the argument for barbarism as told by R.E. Howard). Education and philosophy blossom as well as giving a chance for cults and even gangs (a criminal underworld) to appear.

Imperium refers, in common use, to the empire and its forces sometimes with exclusion to its people. Here it serves more as a reference to its machinery rather than its people or possessions. More often, it is synonymous to Empire and often it is used for both. However, it is actually a reference to the territorial reach and extent of the empire. “One thing all the various meanings of the word imperium have in common is the association between extended territorial dominion and military rule.” [Grafton. 310] This basic definition is as old as Rome and is less vague than the casual usages. “As early as the 1st century BCE, the Roman historian Sallust had used the phrase Imperium romanum to describe not merely the power but also the geographical extent of the authority of the Roman people.” [Grafton. 310]

When it comes to the term Citizen when speaking of empires this refers to those individuals that the Imperium sees as the core of its existence often making official capacity to accommodate that (or those) group(s) cultural traditions and to those that it has a legal and/or philosophical responsibility. Note also that there will be some legality involved with citizenship handled by an imperial bureaucracy. The reality of citizenship however is always an unpredictable affair and will vary throughout the history of the empire. In game terms, imperial citizens are often snobby and serve as exemplars of over-civilized fops that are incapable of not getting themselves killed not just in the wilds of the world but in the rural farmlands as well.

“IMPERIAL CITIZENS are so civilized that they have given up WAR in favour of POLITICS and POISON. The Management considers this effete and will direct you to feel contempt for most of these people, except the Emperor, until you come upon the elderly man who retains the old virtues of the Empire. A former General, he is totally trustworthy and warlike and scorns politics too. He will become a staunch supporter of the Tour and of great help either on the QUEST or in SAVING THE WORLD.” [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. pg.95]

An empire from the POV of a player in an RPG setting on the other hand is one of a civilizing force that carries with it a corrupting force as well as the violent force of law. It seems a bit libertarian but when it comes to a group of often somewhat individually powerful freewheeling adventurers their world view is one of reaping the benefits by hook or by crook from the landscape, evil forces, monsters, and its people. A functioning empire of course impedes this ravenous impulse of the rapacious adventurer with its far reach, armed authorities, and system of laws not to mention a potentially oppressive and faceless bureaucracy.

Even in its different phases an empire always affects the Players. A dying empire is an impediment to be overcome and its authorities avoided if possible. A long dead one presents opportunity in its corpse where adventurers can pick its bones clean. Of course, this can also happen with a dying empire in its last throes with players aligned with the barbarians at the gate perhaps riding the barbaric tide as it were, or following in its wake, or caught between a desperate authority and a savage horde.

In fantasy worlds, old empires typically have a single seed from which they are grown, a trope that helps to characterize the nature of the empire and what role it is itself to play within the game. The most common tropes are the Ancient Empire, the Lost Empire, the Evil Empire, and the Vestigial Empire.

The Ancient Empire often long gone, if not it is often senile and rapidly disintegrating, is a very common trope. It concerns a long existent imperial power that either has passed or is passing. Most of the world shares a common origin from within this type of old empire and if not from its peoples then from among its knowledge and maybe customs. These types of old empires help to build a historical foundation for a setting laying in a base layer of information in the setting giving the players a sense of history as they experience its artifacts and their characters share in its heritage. Heritage being writing, architecture, and economics, which may live on long after the empire, has died.

As this Ancient Empire was wide reaching and of course would have been involved in large engineering projects, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape not just the people and their cultures. “ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS tend to litter the landscape in some parts of the continent. Most of them are quite mysterious, and all of them are made of some substance not known to the present inhabitants, often of a greenish colour, or a matte black, though white is not unknown. They will be gigantic. Most of them will be pillars that touch the clouds, but ROADS and broken BRIDGES are common too. It is unknown what challenge caused earlier peoples to make things that were so very large. Most of them are no use to anyone.” [Jones. 4]

Lost Empires on the other hand are often not as far reaching and are widely believed to be extinct.  Within the game, they serve as a foundation for mythoi, as hidden enemies or saviors, or holders/discoverers of special knowledge.  A lost empire is an empire that has somehow disappeared from history and any information on it lay in vague historical accounts, clues in place names and legends. It seems only to exist within the odd bit or curiosity that can be found by the players within myth and folklore or that they simply happen upon in the course of an adventure.

An important aspect of a Lost Empire found in fantasy RPGs are Remnant (Lost) Cities. These lost cities are tracked down through a string of clues and can exist as still functioning locales though in complete isolation a la Shangri-La or as hidden and mostly intact i.e. not pillaged ruins. A Lost Empire can also serve as a mythic foundation for stories and the explanation for any strange anomalies such as dungeons as well as certain exotic places and anomalous peoples (not always human) of the world.

In addition, a Lost Empire can serve as a nebulous threat or even enemy striking from the shadows from beyond the mists of history. These enemies must be detected, discovered, and ferreted out by the PCs. These hidden people may also serve as secret saviors to be sought, or a secret repository of special knowledge that lays hidden for the PCs to quest for.

This brings us to the unavoidable Evil Empire, which always serves as an active villain sometimes doubling as an end of the world trope. This is most often the active type of empire though the Evil Empire can also be a disintegrating ancient empire though now evil if it has not always been so due to degradation and always a definite threat. This type of ancient empire is an active villain for the players to confront and maybe even try to topple. These sorts of powers often play into the end-of-the-world trope as well sometimes possessing the power of the apocalypse other times seeking it. Usually the McGuffin said world-ending power (often an object or artifact) could instantly put an end to the evil empire instead when the PCs get involved.

Finally, we arrive at the Vestigial Empire, an empire that serves as background and mood than anything else. It is just a contrast to the wilderness and its citizens the opposite of adventurers. “VESTIGIAL EMPIRE. […] This Empire occupies an area usually slightly larger than most other COUNTRIES and you will know you are in it because the ROADS will be well made and patrolled by Imperial GUARDS in HELMETS and SKIRTS. Rest-houses line the way, a day’s march apart. The LANDSCAPE will be full of prosperous farmlands, vineyards, and olive groves, and you may even see a little light INDUSTRY, such as pottery and carpet-making. White villas crown the hills – in fact, most BUILDINGS in the Empire are white. When you reach the imperial CITY, you will find TEMPLES and colonnades as well as streets of decent houses, drains, and public Baths. The aura of civilization extends to daily life too. The Vestigial Empire is the only Country on the Tour to have POLITICS. It has a parliament and a senate and many noble CLANS to jockey for power. This keeps all Imperialists very busy, very noisy, and very likely to POISON one another. They also […] understand MONEY in a truly civilized way.” [Jones. 216]

This does not mean that the Vestigial Empire was always as it is it could be the remnant of a once great ancient empire and the relics of its greatness strewn across the land. Essentially a Vestigial Empire is exactly what its name implies it often serves little actual purpose to the setting and is not necessarily any kind of impediment to the PCs, an annoyance perhaps or a place to trade but that is all. Essentially, the Vestigial Empire serves as a rest stop for the PCs and marks the line separating civilization and barbarism (according to imperialist thought).

Now if I may digress a little, there is a seminal fantasy world where old empires as an explicit idea simply do not really exist though an argument can be made for the Elves. In J.R.R. Tolkien it does seems that world lacks an Old Empire.  I have always felt this lacuna when confronting the Legendarium. It seems to need at least one Old Empire in order to stitch together some of the cultures in that world.

An example being the Rohirrim, only a single regional kingdom codifies their culture. As a people, they simply descended and gathered from other people through time. Their consistency of culture seems hard to achieve in that manner alone. However, where this cultural glue seems to lack the most is with the Easterlings. Granted they follow Sauron though he seems to function more as a god or object of reverence and worship than an actual king or lord. It seems they would need unification by a powerful overlord. Joined into a single cultural force before being forged into a war machine by a powerful overlord that rules them rather than influences them from afar.

Tolkien’s world is filled with ruins but ruins of the fortresses of petty kings and lords, there is no Alexander, Rome, Ch’ing, or even Attila to serve as a basis for a united regional culture just individual heroes. His Legendarium is more concerned with lineage and personal family histories rather than politics or even major cultural diversity except where it comes to language and race. The Legendarium is more a collection of heroic stories, songs, and tales documenting the plight of certain families and individuals than a world history. So in that respect Old Empires are basically completely absent, the Elves are very similar to the Rohirrim though the ruins of their younger days tend to be more widespread.

Concerning RPGs, Old Empires are useful to Game-Masters especially with the values that can be drawn from the historical. The GM can draw from history to provide not just inspiration but also some basic facts about what an actual empire was capable of not just in temperament but technological innovation and in the development of the arts. Instead of making up value and legal systems from scratch, the GM can obtain them from history already fully laid out and time tested in both practice and enforcement.

Examples of this historical wealth are found with the Roman and Chinese empires. From the Roman the primary points being the military machine, its extreme emphasis on order, running water, a senate or discernible governing body later to be usurped by an emperor. With the Chinese its vast armies and their military organization/logistics, the capability of the mass production of goods especially arms, the development of writing, philosophy, and medicine. These are all various civilized developments, systems and discoveries that can only be advanced or even made within a stable civilization of a certain level of advancement.

The Prime Uses of an Old Empire within an RPG campaign are many. Building an Old Empire into the past of a setting can help to explain common gaming tropes like dungeons, make its heirs desperate to reclaim their “heritage” creating wider conflicts, and provide a foundational layer to the history of the world deepening its history.

Injecting History via an Old Empire provides an easy framework on which a GM can build a setting and giving their new world a sense of historical identity or lineage. This can drop clues for PCs to follow to long lost cities, leave behind valuable artifacts, and leave lost knowledge behind ripe for rediscovery. The places the adventuring PCs visit may have a visible lineage and unique identity linked to the old empire distinguished by architecture, place names, familial lineages, and political organizations.

Imperialism can serve as a motivator to both Players and the NPCs. Either can see the old empire as their heritage and want to reclaim some of that former glory. It can motivate NPC (sometimes Player) villainy through imperialism. “Just as the Roman empire had become the embodiment of the Stoic notion of the koinos nomos, the universal law for all mankind, so its heirs sought to impose their own legal and religious order on all the peoples they overran.” [Grafton. 310] An aging empire that is rapidly disintegrating may try to forge outward under new leadership or try to transform itself into a new power providing a dynamic changing backdrop where the PCs could stand to benefit from the ensuing chaos.

Old Empires can explain away Dungeons, Ruins, Artifacts, and other such RPG commonalities as its relics or ruins. As well as set the mood when traversing the ruins of its lost glory. “RUINS of former days, like ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, litter Fantasyland. Only the large kind are important to the Tour, and even most of these will be just setting the mood. You are not expected to be happy on this Tour. The Ruins make you think of the sad losses of former days. But cheer up. Just occasionally you will find TREASURE in a Ruin.” [Jones. 164]

Using old empires as a foundational component of your game world does have a few drawbacks. These disadvantages are Imperialist concepts inherent in an empire can overwhelm a game, the Players may become resentful of being restricted by existent imperial law and power, and old empires tend to be over-used in fantasy fiction.

This idea, old empires, is cliché territory when it comes to fantasy fiction but if the cliché is fun why not use it in an RPG campaign. As long as it doesn’t bore the Players or inhibit their characters to the point of strangling the fun out of the game it’s fine.

Imperialist concepts can begin to take hold of the game and cause certain in game tensions to become uncomfortable in real life. One of these concepts being slavery when based on certain superficial aspects of characters such as race and culture, which might get construed as stereotypes where characters may start expositing certain lines that smack of real world racism just with different names. Another example is the justifications for theft or domination, which may group certain characters together and the previous can happen the same way and may end up in slavery that then can proceed even further into the overlap.

Lastly, the PCs can become hateful of civilization within the game world and run amok if it becomes too oppressive of a force within the game. Players as well can simply become bored or frustrated with an empire that constantly boxes them in and thwarts their plans without fail. There has to be some holes to room to breathe even in a very powerful and extremely oppressive power’s demesne. Players will work hard against the odds if there is at least a glimmer of hope of success.

In conclusion, Old Empires are tropes of fantasy fiction but in terms of tabletop RPGs, they are still useful and hold some fascinating avenues to explore. Old Empires are useful to GM’s when building a history for their world and providing an explanation for the origins of some fantasy RPG tropes such as dungeons and monster haunted ruins. There are disadvantages of course when using old empires in your game. You run the risk of tramping on old clichés, letting imperialist thinking to overwhelm your fantasy, and alienating your players through the over-application of imperial will.

However, the advantages of a successful implementation of an old empire (or empires) in your game can outweigh the negatives. A successful implementation takes some lessons, inspiration, and facts from history, avoids the standard tropes though a twist on or subversion of the idea, and makes sure it enhances the fun at the table!


Wondrous Objects #6 – The Wondrous Armory

Here’s another fantastic item to drop into any Dice & Glory campaign. However, it is not strictly speaking an object. Instead it’s a clever use of a combination of spells, a locale, and some mundane but high quality weapons. It has the potential to pull double-duty as a hidden stash and an enemy’s clever gimmick.

A sudden need to flex the magic system inspired it. There are endless variations depending only on character resources and their scope of spell knowledge.

Wondrous Objects are pregenerated fantastic items, mostly magical, for Dice & Glory. At the discretion of the GM wondrous objects can add a reward or additional threat to their game world easily and quickly. Also as pregenerated items Game Masters can drop them into a game session with little prep-work beyond reading the PDF.

Wondrous Objects #6: The Wondrous Armory – 663k

A hidden room of weapons summoned only by its master!