Fantasy Roleplaying in the Bronze Age

inspiration

#1

Good afternoon all!

In this post, I’m going to lay out my notes for an upcoming bronze age game! Roleplaying in the ancient world has been interesting to me for a long time, but also intimidating due to a lack of knowledge. Following a quick probe on the Discord, I started cursory research. This post is a summation of the biggest findings.

Please note that I’m less interested in historical accuracy and more in the feeling of the bronze age. For example, I’m not terribly concerned with whether or not copper weapons were used in the late bronze age. All that said, if anyone sees a glaring inaccuracy or omission, please let me know! Without further delay, here are my skeletal notes!

Technology:

  • WEAPONS: stone, copper, but mostly bronze tools and weapons – some bone tools
  • CRAFTS: lots of pottery, things are made of wood, clay, and stone
  • FUEL: flint, animal fats, natural oils for fuel/warmth
  • WEAPONS B: short bows, spears, axes, maces, short swords, slings, knives, staff, cudgel, sickle, javelin, nets, blow gun
  • ARMOR: no higher than scale (hoplite panoply) armor – mostly copper helms and studded cloaks, linen corselets, many fought almost naked, animal hides like crocodile or rhino)
    • armor like bronze breastplates, bracers, grieves, shields, helms
  • TRAVEL: crude roads, but mostly wild and disconnected
  • WRITING: papyrus and ink – some written language and much pictoral language
  • LOCKS: locks are exclusive to rulers, high temples, if they exist at all
  • HORSES: no horse bardings - supplies mostly carted on the backs of animals - CHARIOTS
  • NAVIGATION: no compasses, mostly SEA trade versus OCEAN trade, star gazing
  • AGRICULTURE/CRAFTS B: extremely sophisticated irrigation (no plumbing), extensive use of levers, weaving and sewing and tapestries and nets and ship riggings
  • MEDICINE: use of bandages, and natural remedies like HONEY for wound treatment, cauterization, questionable surgeries/incisions/etc.
  • FIRE: fire is important, the dark is scary

Society:

  • BIG PICTURE: city-states containing a few towns, many villages – many many nomadic groups
  • RELIGION A: rulers, temples, armies into the hundreds, war is a way of life for the elite
  • RELIGION B: most villages don’t have temples, just a single priest or shaman at most
  • BUSINESS: an inn or two can be found in towns and villages – few private rooms, pay to sleep on the floor, signs and advertisements in town
  • LITERACY: most people are illiterate, but can have basic literacy skills
  • COUNTING: most people can make markings to count
  • LODGING: most travelers, if no inn exists, stay with a family or communal hall
  • MONEY: crude coinage - made of copper and silver only - but also lots of trade
  • WORLD KNOWLEDGE: the world is not well explored, superstition is rampant, numerous gods
  • TONE: a lawless time when both a good spear arm and a golden tongue to justify it
  • WEALTH: amber, spices, jewels, gems, silks, lumps of metal, art, land, livestock
  • RELIGION C: the numerous gods are often cruel and capricious, with all of man’s moral failings
  • R I V E R S
  • RELIGION D: Sacrifices, animal worship, mixing of greek, egyptian, summerian, aztec, etc.
  • REMEMBER: these people are only one step removed from the late stone age, it isn’t just their tools that are primitive… attitudes, behavior, laws, skills, sense of place in the world, dangers of an ancient ecology, different challenges than in a medieval setting, different expectations from players

This is obviously not comprehensive. It’s where I’m at in my studies and preparation for a game well in the future. Still, I hope this has been of interest to you all, and a big thank you to the Discord members who helped link me resources! As always, game on!

AC


#2

I love it! Lots of great ideas here. And honestly you could do a lot with just having these points as your whole world document. Add in a smattering of names for places, a culture or two, NPC’s and you got a game going.

As an idea, when giving out treasure or loot use real life artifacts as inspiration. Head to a museum website and grab pictures of things to describe what they actually find!

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/search?material_culture=Middle%20Bronze%20Age


#3

Understanding you aren’t going for strict accuracy (as we could ask which phase of the Bronze Age), I thought I’d share some comments from my work and studies.

Though papyrus was invented in the Bronze Age, it was not widely used because it didn’t last well in many climates. They would have primarily used clay tablets and pots for writing surfaces. The first written languages were in cuneiform (e.g. Akkadian, Eblite, Ugaritic), not ink and paper. Skins would have been next most common. Papyrus would have been an expensive option. Further, simple decorations on pots were very common (e.g., geometric, representations of animals and plants).

As regards the Ancient Near East, look into the law code of Hammurabi, which had a great influence in that area. I think it’d be hard to classify the period as lawless. Certainly decentralized if after the Gutians. Also, for instance, archaeologists have discovered no ancient Egyptian written law code, likely as pharaoh’s word was law. Further, people’s oaths and words would have been another aspect of law and relationship between people.

I’m not sure if your religion letters are points about religion or different religions, but some quick comments would be that the people generally perceived their gods to dwell on the tops of mountains (e.g., think Olympus). Other comments on religion in those ages would be that every ancient polytheistic religion (from Ireland to Europe to the ANE and beyond) practiced child sacrifice. It was intended to persuade the gods to either bring blessing or curse, to bless fertility of crops and wives, to divert famines and disease and war. Also, the influence of famine and disease (often viewed as a divine curse) on people’s thoughts and perceptions about their world and lives would be beneficial to contemplate, especially since the vast majority of people worked in agriculture.

You’d want to contemplate, in that vein, what the surrounding terrain is like. The surroundings determined chief building material (e.g., mud bricks in Mesopotamia).

You would also want to look into how the people’s understood the relation of the gods to the kings. In short, for the polytheists, the king is a sort of embodiment of their pantheon’s god (e.g., Pharaoh is the embodied Rah). Cult and state were heavily tied together. If one nation conquered another, it meant their gods were more powerful than the defeated. The king was considered a shepherd of his people (the people often referred to literally as the “Black Heads,” referring of course to hair) and he was even often the high priest of the cult. Time was understood cyclically (e.g., the seasons) and the gods were effectively personifications of nature.

You would also want to look into the covenants of those days, as they were regularly employed in society. Your general covenantal structure would have been: history of the relationship between the king and the people, the expectations and rules of the covenant, the blessings for covenantal faithfulness, the curses for covenantal disobedience, supported by the names of the gods. Other covenants would have existed between equals. See the Treaty of Mursilis or the Book of Deuteronomy for examples. Covenant records were usually written on two tablets, one for each party (e.g., the Ten Commandments weren’t ten commands written five each on two tablets, but all ten on both tablets. Sorry Mr. Heston. Further, the type of object was likely one such that the ten commandments weren’t written once but multiple times across the whole surface of the object until no space was left).

Gold was in use also during this time. Common archaeological finds suggest gemstones, turquoise, ivory, and the like were popular articles of wealth. Trade allowed many such items to spread. You would also want to consider the role of bartering in such a society.

As regards city-states, you might want to look into the invasion of the Gutians and decide whether you are before or after such an event. Your description suggests after. With the period before being closer to kingdoms and empires, and the period after being heavy with nomadic people’s interacting with small city-states.

Also, warfare was brutal. Look into the defensive installation called a glacis.

You would also want to think about other less common things, like what they did with their trash (they threw it in the streets and buried it with dirt), their basic ways of dealing with rain (a trench in the city to funnel it out), and what they did with votive objects (when disposing them, they buried them carefully in a pit).


#4

@Arc Thanks a bunch for your reply, and the info in Discord. Using a museum is a fantastic idea, and I will be STEALING IT. :slight_smile:

@thwright As above, thank you so much! That was a huge amount of information, and a lot of it is immediately actionable. Some of what I said was “this is what I think is accurate”, others are “this is what I’m doing”. For example, I’m aware of the Code of Hammurabi! Beyond my analogue for that, I expect it to be mostly lawless - I don’t really consider a Pharaoh’s word “law”. That’s mostly syntax on my end though. Regarding gold, that was more of a “decision” - I don’t want gold in my game as coinage, that feels too standard D&D for me. Anyway, your reply is a trove of great information and a lot to think about.

Thank you both so much! Once I get to the next stage in my notes and understanding, I’ll update this post and incorporate a lot of the stuff you both brought to the table. You rock! :herocoin:

AC


#5

I love this concept!!! Just a collection of random thoughts that pooed into my head after reading.

Not comprehensive but things to keep in mind:

City states where capitals of the area around them…perhaps less than 10000 actually living in all but the most populous cities.

Comercial interests where wide in the eastern Mediterranean…bronze required tin and copper….no city state had both.

Summer war season was the norm. Well equipped and trained troops was not.

Most 99% of the population is rural and illiterate, camp fire stories are the main form of education.

Aztec was Stone Age warfare…with agriculture level organization.

Bronze equipment was equal to iron (not early steel) the difference in the “ages” has more to do with a break in Inter city commerce, early nations, than improved military tech.

A ruling family or two, run the city…others are just power brokers. (Think mob, or cartel)

Bronze Age lasts nearly 2000 years. Many changes, many local techniques. Early bronze, only rich or heroes have bronze equipment pices gifted to them.

Heroes:
Major part of the politics of the time…a well storied hero attracts followers, those wanting power want the “heroes” on their side. Those able to attract a hero gain more followers, those who don’t loose followers not wanting to die at the heroes hand.

Heroes are rock stars…the city state family who attracts the hero, goes to war that summer, the one who doesn’t, stays home or fights under another family.

Recommendations…
All players are of the same family…think clan more than immediate family.

Keep it intimate, each character has many siblings and cousins.

A third or second tier family in a city state.

As they rise in fame, they get adopted into more prominent immediate families, and their biological father and mother are “ taken care of better”. As the PCs rise in prominence.

However, their dependents can cause side quests!!!

Most adventures should be small, 10 enemies, one boss/lieutenant type.

Money is not significant…occasionally options for trade. Most is loot…but remember to honor rulers!!! And they will equip you!!!

If ICRPG,
First adventure, no starting/class equipment. Stone level (d4 ranged, D6 melee) drop D6 equipment and a single d10 item…if they turn it in as a trophy for the family, 2 PCs get starter gear and a class GM roll randomly, but all get minor enhancements and so on until all are well equipped, and then political issues happen, not global, brother is in debt to a slaver, slave sister is to be married off to a cruel master…

If someone dies, their cousin inherited their gear and you move on.

War, early on should be prewar assassination/disuasión…keep a hero off the battle field. Later, if still playing, who is the hero of the group? Keep the hero alive!!! Make the hero an NPC, keep the hero alive.

Most adventures takes a long time, mostly by foot, horses are high end for day use, critical assets for month long use. So seasons between adventures. Eventually PCs rule their estates, and sponsor a new Character…not quite starting but standard ICRPG starting.

This can provide months of play time with 10 primary monsters, and 10 side quests about social dynamics with minor combat.


#6

When’s the Primer coming?


#7

The Greeks used wax tablets with a stylus if I’m not mistaken.


#8

Depends how far back you go. You’d want to look into the Mycenaeans, who did use clay tablets as well.


#9

This is interesting, Bronze Age campaigns are something that I’ve milled over on occasion (more centered on a Greek like setting). I like the breakdown you have for different aspects of the Bronze Age, certainly helps bring everything into perspective for a Bronze Age world.


#10

Thank you! I’m no historian, I want just enough for it to withstand reasonable analysis, and to feel different than a typical medieval fantasy game. Right now, I’m working on how to make the bronze age feel appropriately ancient with regards to mechanics. Something about the d20 + stat equation just feels too “modern” and too D&D 5e for me. I’m trying to find a sweet spot with a dice pool or percentile framework. Rolling 2d6 or 3d6 check the highest die (Blades in the Dark) or “You have a 72% chance to land a killing blow” feels very bronze age/sword and sorcery to me. Work work work…


#11

I get that. Maybe a d100 or roll-under system might work for you then since there won’t be too much modern mathing that can get in the way of the tone (if that makes sense). Runequest comes to mind for me or using the Warmaker resolution as a basis for a game is what my mind drifts too.

ICRPG might be an option, but I haven’t looked at it enough to determine if it would fit your criteria for a system since that has some 5e dna in it (if I remember correctly, but I could be wrong).


#12

Have you looked at Mazes and Minotaurs from Legrand Games Studio? Their premise is 'what if The First Roleplaying Game was influenced by Greek and Roman material over medieval ideas. All their work is free or PWYW. Ought to inspire some ideas…


#13

Ooooo….ancient feel….depending where you start I guess…and choice of system.

Most of Bronze Age is about heroes!!! Truly an age of heroes. But translation of that to tabletop, cause the Heroes where typically singular. Hercules, Jason, Ajax, Ulysses, Achilles……

While spoken of, their crews, are not what Bronze Age lore is about.

I’d probably use IoT and let each character have a choice of weapon that does D8 as opposed to D6. (But I’m enamored with the system so I am biased)

Perhaps all Demi-gods…their choice of weak but flexible super power…(endless endurance, great strength, learn any spoken language, speak to birds, shape shift but always weakest stats of their or the animal change….)

As they advance gain others or improve what they have.
They and only heroes/Demi-gods can use all loot. Gods can’t use human loot humans cannot use god loot.

But for the feel…combat does not work on most bosses.

Gorgons and many others require bravery and guile. Or creating opportunities for force to work.

It would create a lot of Mcguffen type stories…not good

Anyway just some additional idiocy to get your mind percolating.


#14

Would this happen to be in the Bronze Age? Looks interesting~


#15

I found this also, might be of help; Into the Bronze - Lantern's Faun | DriveThruRPG.com


#16

That looks pretty cool!


#17

You should reference Blood and Snow by Runehammer… a world primer built in the stone age… really good stuff!

Game On!


#18

Big thank you to everyone for your interest in this, and the resources you’ve provided. I’m checking them all out. I’m working through a system to make it “feel” more bronze age than heroic fantasy right now, then I will return to the thematic elements and make sure things align. I’ll give some updates as I get there!

AC


#19

Can you imagine casually throwing a child sacrifice scene at your players? Presenting it as a normal, even a good thing, just to see how they react!?!?


#20

I suggest that the group is intimate. But is an interesting concept to explore.

Interacting with the young boy that is looking forward to their sacrifice next feast day, everyone giving alms gifts and praise, the parents being proud! Others being envious.

Saving the child from kidnappers who think the action horrible…not because of the concept but because of the manner.

Throat slicing vs disemboweled vs burning vs drowning…

Or adherents to a rival deity.
Or most scandalous of all… moral issue of killing a child. In a world where most children die, specially in cities.

Truly interesting story arc worthy concept.