Over the last 18 years, I’ve DM’d nearly exclusively in a world of my own creation. It’s a fairly cold place, with short cool summers and brutal, cold winters but life has managed to grab hold, and civilization is nothing if not persistent. I’ve generally focused on the relatively medieval nation of Tyrndall and its fall from powerful nation to a despotic Tyranny, and I think it’s time for a change of pace. Tyrndall’s main rival and sufferer of equal misfortune is the late republican Roman based Killbar. Though the adventurers had heard about what had happened and even visited the land once or twice, the perils of its peoples and the darkness that has fallen on the land hasn’t really been showcased.
Now, though, I want to take a band of adventurers into this shattered empire and explore the game world with them, seeing what it is that makes the characters react, recoil and rejoice. This, to me, is the real joy of being a DM and why I’ve been able to maintain being a DM for so long. Creating a world that the characters and players have helped mold and form is the greatest joy. Hearing stories about the world pass from one generation of play group to the next has been really exciting. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a playgroup that didn’t involve at least one player from the game before, which has really bulked up and maintained the consistency of the game as I move through over 30 years of game time.
So, back to Killbar. While I’d created this detailed world years ago, I had always left the finer details and the broader picture both very hazy. When I was first pondering the country, I knew it was going to be a stratified republic run by a mages. I wanted to draw upon the feel of ancient Rome but I also wanted it to feel different enough that it wasn’t a clone. I’ll take you through how I went about building the skeleton that everything else would follow on.
A brief history of Killbar, I think, is needed in order to further explain where I am going.
When I birthed Killbar, it was already an old country. The mages held a status much like Roman citizens, senators and leaders of society. Those people who supported the mages position in society – Alchemists, potion crafters, clergy, smiths and other vital craftsmen were of a second, lower class. There was additionally a class of Merchants, looked down on by both craftsman and mages, occupying a third class of people. Holding up the bottom of the social strata were the common folks and areas that were not ethnically Killbaran. There were also slaves, but they don’t so much count as a class of people as they are simply viewed as property. The kingdom was divided into 8 provinces, each run by a head of a school of magic, and they all were ruled by the Grand Archmagus.
This was at the start of the first adventure I ran in Kasan, nearly 18 years ago. It was joined on the massive island by 4 other large kingdoms. I didn’t know what I was going to do to this world and its people just yet, but if I did, I would have had a lot of pity for them.
Shortly into my first campaign an affliction, the Mind Plague, hit the mages of Killbaran descent. This plague caused the casters to slowly go mad and physically transform into terrifying entities. As the ruling class of people slowly went mad and started destroying the country, thousands died and even more fled. However, among this chaos a common solider of simple birth and great skill started fighting back. He purged the mages from Killbar ruthlessly, leading his ever growing army against everyone who dared harbor mages whether they showed signs of the Mind Plague or not. It took 5 years for the General to complete the purge to his satisfaction, either through execution or exile, but his leadership in that dark time gave him great political power, and through the actions of the newly appointed provincial governors and military officers, he was granted the power of the first Dictator of the Killbar in 300 years. He wasn’t done, however. Seeing that his grasp on power was based on might and conquest, he sent his armies north, to Jeslith. They burned the Great Wooden Wall to the ground and conquered all who resisted and the country quickly became another province. Even that didn’t slake his thirst for conquest and he turned his head even further northward, towards Levisha, where he worked his way into the graces of the Council of Seasons and attempted a takeover through diplomacy. All the while, he sent raids across the border into Tyndarian lands, taking territory, captives and loot.
His rise to power was interrupted, however, by Moduru’s Second War. Many of the Legions first appeared in Killbar through what was once thought of as decretive primordial gates scattered in the gardens, villas and forums of many towns. The General recalled his armies from Jeslith, Levisha and Tyrnadall, and fought the Legions wherever he could find them. He commanded his troops ably, but he was outnumbered hundreds to one. Throughout the first year he was able to defend an ever smaller territory, first giving up Jeslith, then all of southern Killbar, and finally a slowly creeping westward boarder. In the second year of the war, he started to make gains against Moduru’s armies as they settled in and became complacent. He retook land past the Killbar River and was pushing the armies back along the Hilean Highway. As he made his way east on a wave of victories he finally outmaneuvered by the Orcish Chieftain Omerogh the Pale Eyed at the battle of Samiartian Hills, where outnumbered almost five to one, he was defeated, captured, tortured, and finally executed. Rumors have it that Omerogh and his chieftains made a feast of the corpse that very night.
With no one left to stop them, Moduru’s armies proceeded to crush Killbar swiftly.. Killbar, the capital city held out for 6 months under the command of the Tyrant of Eyes, an unknown being that wrapped himself in a blood red robe embroidered with a thousand eyes. A consummate blade master who never seemed to tire or weaken, he led the defense of the city until the Ice Giants finally caved in the walls. Defeated and beaten, the city was pulled up stone by stone, burned and finally the earth itself was salted. Where once the greatest city in western Tysis was is now nothing more than a smoldering ruin.
Following the eventual defeat, dispersion, and temporal restoration of Moduru’s armies, the power vacuum was never filled. People tried to live their own lives, but warlords quickly emerged each claiming to be the right and proper leader of Killbar and declaring war against all who opposed them. In the first years after the fall, over a dozen false emperors made their claims, rose to power and died. Now, nearly 20 years after the fall, no one is attempting to restore the empire. Each warlord seeks to carve a fiefdom from the lands and create their own kingdom. Currently there are some 32 such kingdoms and independent states within the land that was once Killbar, Jeslith and small portions of Tyndaria and numerous warlords and bandit kings wandering between these lands with a sharp eye out for any hint of weakness or chance to unseat one of those Kingdoms and take their place.
The people of this land are tired. They have given in to oppression and a constantly changing government that is fractured, violent and disinterested. But they also have a grand history. They have a tradition of Magical Prowess, combat readiness and resistance and feel they are inheritors of greatness unseen anywhere else in the world.
Now, we have a history, but that’s not really a country. What it is the background that a country can be created on. Now that I’ve turned my eye here, it’s time to start filling in the details and really bringing the country to life.
The first challenge I had, when trying to define my first Killbaran town, Parminium, was simply the name. I knew I wanted it to be latinesque, but not simply pulled from an actual Roman town. While effective at projecting the Romaness of a place, it’s much less effective at conveying its fantasy. Using something not immediately noticeable as a Roman city helps that much more. I’m sure there is something out there called Parminium, but I don’t know what it is. This is something that’s very important about creating a culture that is distinct and different from real life while being relatable and understandable. You should look at the inspiration and take a few vital pieces from it, and then add pieces from other civilizations to truly create a unique setting.
Here, I really wanted to have the roman surface. I wanted Killbar to feel unique and different, but be extremely relatable to the Roman Empire. To that end I choose Language and architecture as the main points of Roman recollection. Very little conveys the glory of Rome as strongly and quickly as marble columns, open forums and Latin words. In order to really convey that architecture, though, I would need to adopt some small parts of roman civilization as well. Gymnasiums, Amphitheaters, baths and Theaters are all vital portions of the architectural style of Rome that area also linked to culture. We can take those portions but not really play them up. They might pass by a ruined Amphitheater or meet a businessman at the baths for an afternoon conversation, but they are not going to heavily feature in the game.
To continue, though, were going to need a government, this one is already done for me, but it’s a good example anyway. Unless you’re focusing on the governmental structure as one of the points you want your players to relate to, it’s good to try and use something different from where you’re pulling from. Here, I’ll be using Feudal Italian and German style city-states. They will be run by feudal lords who have the habits of their Republican predecessors. This allows a common reference for a Fantasy RPG player as well. They are used to feudal lords and the structures that they have in place. With the titles and visuals all mixed up and strange, it’s nice to have a familiar point of reference.
Next up is culture. With a feudal system and a roman style I think I want to stick with the original concept of stratified castes. This has grown even more pronounced since the fall of the country, though there is a large missing caste in the now-lost mages. What we instead have is an upper caste of military leaders and their lackeys that have replaced the mages, but everything else retains its status. Craftsmen and support staff for the military are a secondary caste, with merchants, common folk and slaves bringing up the bottom. This type of culture will be easily placed over top the structures we’ve already established, as well.
Finally, you want to have a certain look of your culture. It’s not racism or bigotry to define your native population with a physical description. Here, too, I would try to stay away from the standard of your reference culture unless it’s extremely important for their physical form to be just so. As this is a Northerly breed of people, I want them to be hearty and reflective of the world they live in. It’s partially Nordic and partially temperate rainforest, so I’m looking at something like the Pacific Northwest. Using that, I am going to lean on a light brown skin tone, with black hair and sharp features. They are going to be moderately tall, but not so much as to be considered a large people. Of course, there are variations among Killbarans, especially ones who have had considerable interaction with the decidedly Nordic looking fair people of the interior and Tyrndall.
I find that there are four concepts that really define a fantasy civilization, and that need to be mixed carefully in order not to just create another Medieval England.
1 – Visual aesthetics of the country
2 – Governmental structure
3 – Basic Cultural Rules
4 – Phenotype of the people populating the country
You should have no more than one of these four important aspects of a country reflect a single given real world example. It’s extremely important if you’re trying to convey a specific culture to get the one you choose right to really stick in the players’ minds. You want to be seen as referencing, not tearing whole cloth out. Take care when you’re building your new civilization, and you can really get something unique and memorable out of the deal.