In any given fantasy RPG, but by no means all of them, a remnant empire or a landscape littered with 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!