So what era do I set my gaming world? Thirteenth century? Fourteenth? Fifteenth? Probably more like the Eighteenth Century, early 1700s? Yep, that feels right, but with a healthy mix of the Victorian era!
But that can’t be! It’s a fantasy game! Well, yes it is. But I have a very specific history for my world. Like so many fantasy worlds, my medieval period lasted a lot longer than the one on Earth did. How long have your cultures been at the swords and sorcery age? Well, in many ways, armor crafting has not truly advanced in my world in the last 600 years. There are some eras previous to the “current” era (the last 500-600 years) where things were different, but pretty much stagnant for the last half a millennia. So if that’s the case, why is everything expected to match Earth’s rate of technology?
OK, let’s focus less on the why and more on the how. I personally believe that two major “discoveries” (call them innovations, sciences, inventions, whatever) have truly changed the world: the steam engine and gunpowder. Gun powder changed the way that battles were fought, and steam power changed the way work was done. In my world, the spooky, scary, titan overlords don’t allow either of these to develop, going so far as destroying any lab working on them. It’s not that no one knows how to do them; the alchemists could make gunpowder tomorrow. But they won’t, because they like their shops not blowing up. So all I have to do is figure out what changes and what stays the same.
I mention the Victoria era because I like how the Pax Britannica allowed peace and prosperity, at least in England, and speaking English, it’s the history I know best. I have the North American colonies for when I want to think about the frontier lands, and the information from London when I want to know about sweat shops and the middle classes. Plus this was a period of the growth of the middle class and therefore emerging urban sites, including entertainment, some travel, and some really screwed up morality. You know what else helps? There’s a lot known about it. It really helps to understand an era when people other than the king’s advisor kept journals that are still around today.
Very briefly, the steam engine changed a lot of stuff! One of the biggest things was when seed drills became steam powered. With the steam powered seed drill, you can take an enormous amount of farmers out of the fields and into the cities. That’s a big reason that I need steam to stay out of my fantasy world. Trains, tractors and mechanized metal working don’t work in my mind. How important is steam? Well, it powers your smart phone! No, really. Electricity generating plants simply burn something to create steam to move the turbines. Coal fired plants burn coal to create steam to move the turbines. Nuclear power - yep - steam! Those of you out there running on solar or hydro - congrats, but you’re in the minority.
Why does it matter? It matter immensely! Are there movable type printing presses? If there are, literacy goes way up, and that can be a game changer! The flying loom, the cotton gin, canning - all really important, though maybe not in the same way that others mentioned are. But these are part of my point. OK, there’s no steam engines or gunpowder, but does that mean there are no telescopes (typically considered a 17th century invention)? Should the two be related? It may not seem like these are important questions, but they are. When were the hourglass and the magnetic compass invented in your world? Were they ever? Hourglass may seem like ancient tech, but it does not seem to have been used aboard ships until the 11th or 12th century. The compass was more 14th century. If your world is earlier than this, then ocean going ships are in extreme danger. It seems that ocean travel or simply following the coast lines is vital to knowing how your world works.
OK, so you might be thinking, “I don’t care. My world has ocean going ships, and I don’t care how they work.” Well, OK, but what are you going to do when one of your players requests a level of technology that might be too far advanced? “I go to the local apothecary and I buy a magnetic compass - I know they have them because you have ocean going ships.” Now what? Does that change the way the wilderness mission is going to go, because the smart ass can now claim that it is impossible for him to get lost? (By the way, just having a compass is not a fool proof plan, but this is just an example.) You might think I’m stretching a bit here, but these things do happen. Knowing where your world is on the tech scale is important for controlling the game.
I am going to try to keep adding tech comments to the Fletnern pages, so you can better understand where things are in Fletnern. It’s just an example, but it is an example that has been fairly carefully considered for 35+ years. You don’t have to take my decisions, but in learning more about how I did it, you can make the right decisions for your world.