Monday, October 8, 2018

Deindustrial Future Update And Sword & Sorcery Campaign Setting Idea

After spending some time healing up, the characters started to question the spirit of the former Town Marshall, learning that Joe's father was the person in town who was most involved with conjuring spirits but little else. After deciding to go out to Joe's farm, they were distracted by a disturbance at the blacksmith's down the street. Arriving and asking for information from the Deputy Marshalls there, they learned that the blacksmith had been disemboweled and ritualistically mutilated.

Finally getting out to Joe's farm, the characters found themselves walking into a siege. Quickly dispatching four of the ranch hands, they got into Joe's house and assessed the situation, determining that at least ten more ranch hands had surrounded the house. At this point, we ran out of time.

I like sword & sorcery fiction. A lot of the early works drew on the occult history outlined by Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy movement. This is especially true of the proto-sword & sorcery fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The correspondences between the races and structures of Barsoom and the speculations of Theosophy are complete. H.P. Lovecraft derived many of the concepts of his weird fiction from the same source, and Robert E. Howard—arguably the originator of sword & sorcery—drew on the material both directly and through adopting ideas from Lovecraft.

This is great, except for the fact that the occult history of Theosophy is also intensely, deeply racist. That the authors in question also had such ideas didn't make anything better.

I do think that drawing on occult histories as a basis for sword & sorcery fiction is a great idea, but unfortunately the Theosophical one cast a long shadow over the twentieth century and even into the present one. However, there has been a recent attempt to move away from the methods and ideas of Theosophy in crafting a new occult history.

Occult histories are a useful technique that are intended to assist creative approaches to data by creating a structure at odds with the accepted ideas. By creating an approving context for concepts that are disapproved by the intellectual authorities of our society, they allow for questioning of things that are conventionally accepted. Whether this is a good idea or not is up to you, but I think that it's at the very least useful for creative works.

As it happens, there is a recent attempt to forge a new occult history that draws on both cutting edge and fringe archaeology instead of the fringe Indology that informs the Theosophical one. A "chaos magician" named Gordon White recently published a few works, among them Star.Ships. Despite the title, the book explicitly disclaims the idea that extraterrestrial aliens had anything to do with our world. Instead, it lays out an argument that world history and prehistory is better explained from an animist perspective than a materialist one, and offers a history that incorporates everything from the "impossible" mesolithic site of Göbekli Tepe through Gunung Padang, strange anomalies about the Pyramids of Giza to the weirdly specific coincidences of astronomical mythology around the world—such as why just about everyone from Europe and Asia through to North and South America associates Sirius with canines—and more. Recently, a find of petroglyphs in India that seem related in style to other petroglyph finds, and which date to the appropriate era, seem to provide further support for the idea. Whether a stepped pyramid identified in China bears any relation remains to be seen, though the dating makes it seem unlikely.

Notably, for my purposes, it lays out some of the possibilities of a prehistoric civilization in the Sundaland region, which is now largely beneath the waves after being submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. The civilization would have been a mesolithic hunter-gatherer society which, if White's ideas are examined, had a sophisticated shipbuilding culture with advanced astronomical navigation and possibly advanced social organization. Its influence, then, would have spread across the ocean, from the Middle East and Nile Valley to southern Asia, up into China, Japan, and the Philippines, across to the Pacific Islands, and even to South America. If Göbekli Tepe was related to this culture, then its influence might even have reached to the Anatolian peninsula and so maybe even into the Old European cultures.

Players and readers don't seem to get very excited about Stone Age cultures, though, so I think that it would be worthwhile to suppose that the Bronze Age got a very early start in Sundaland. Like Howard's Hyboria, this allows for city-states and armies at a time when, as far as we know, they were not particularly likely in the real-world prehistory. Since some people connect the idea of Sundaland with Plato's story of Atlantis—among other things, the dates happen to match up, where other theories of Atlantis require assuming that the dates were wrong in some way—we can equate orichalcum "mountain copper" with bronze, which seems to be the trend today anyway.

Anyway, a lot of details still to work out, but it seems like it should be an interesting sword & sorcery setting. With ancient serpent people and the occasional Pleistocene—or even earlier—monster, along with the Flores Island "hobbits", there is plenty of room for the kind of weird adventure that makes for a rolicking story.


  1. Thanks for the heads up -really enjoying that book so far!

    ...but where did you find that cool map of old geology and coastlines?!?

    1. Glad you're enjoying it!

      It's been in my pictures folder for a while, but I'm pretty sure that I got it from that Atlantis in the Java Sea blog link (it's figure 21 on that page):

  2. Have you seen these sites?

    As a huge fan of the Horseclans series of PA novels, I always found White's work to be excellent for PA-style medievalism in the old US. Lots of useful material here.

    1. Very nice! No, I hadn't seen those, so thank you for pointing me toward them. They're not exactly what I'm doing—I'm not getting rid of gunpowder, for instance—but they're close enough that they should have some useful information for me.

  3. I'm also interested in Sundaland as a Bronze to Iron-Age setting. I wondered if anyone else had the same idea and that's how I found your blog.

    I discovered Sundaland through the alternative 'historian' Graham Hancock who wrote a book called Magicians of the Gods about the possibility of an ancient civilisation based there. There's also a book about the subject called Eden in the East which I haven't read yet.

    I think you're right that for an interesting setting you have to assume that there were at least some Bronze-Age level societies in the region and I think that fits with the lost civ concept. Any technologies that we

    Currently I'm thinking about some baseline 'realistic' details for the setting before adding fantastical elements (monsters, magic etc.) if any. I prefer low magic settings).

    Some initial thoughts:

    1. City states rather than centralised nations or empires
    2. Food sources: sophisticated gardening of fruits, yams plus hunting and fishing. (No rice).
    2. Before the domestications of most animals. Might be able to fudge dogs. Various kinds of elephants and elephant related animals, including pygmee elephants inhabited the area and they could be the standard beast of burden.
    3. Science of Astronomy is advanced (think Mayan level and higher)
    4. Stone temples, occasionally forts and palaces. Palisades and building are usually made of wood.
    5. Few paved roads.
    6. Realistic monsters could be the last remaining megafauna hiding in the deep forests and jungles.
    7. Use of the wheel only in the lowland grasslands and plains.
    8. Societies at different tech levels. Eg City states vs hill and jungle tribes.

    1. I generally agree with these. Some specific notes:

      1 - The map seems to show four distinct areas for river-valley civilizations. I am tending toward calling the civilizations Mekong (the northernmost), Tai (the westernmost), Malaya (the eastern, double-river valley), and Jaya (the southernmost, the one most associated with Atlantis by the sources). In addition, there are the islands that will one day be the Philippines and a large plain on the northern edge of Sahul (Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania) that could be a kingdom of its own.

      2 - I am wavering on the question of rice. We could assume, along with bronze, a neolithic revolution in part, with organized rice planting in the four river valleys of Sundaland, but nowhere else in the world yet. After all, the neolithic revolution occurs elsewhere not all that long after the oceans drinks most of Sundaland.

      2nd 2 - Elephants would be awesome, but I'm not sure that it's worth adding more than dogs, plus pigs and chickens. I'll probably go back and forth on this one for a while. Definitely no horses or cattle, though.

      3 - Also sea navigation. I personally want to make the seafaring as sophisticated as that of Polynesia, etc, including the twin-canoe, proa-sailed vessels. Probably also some equivalent of a pentekonter as a coast-hugging warship, including banks of oars and bronze ram.

      5 - And no significant bridges. Crossing rivers at fords or by ferry barge only.

      6 - I am kinda fond of the idea of a giant Komodo Dragon, maybe 20-25 feet long and weighing a half-ton or more. Also, I mentioned the Flores "hobbits" above.

      7 - Without domestic animals, that would mean only handcarts, for the most part. I'm good with that.

    2. According to this site rice domestication occurred 10 to 14,000 years ago.

      As you say, you could conceive of it as it starting in Sundaland and then spreading out across the world. I might think of large scale rice production (paddy fields etc.) until later in the era, which gives rise to the Classical period. Before then the main food sources are hunting, gathering, fishing and gardening. I think the latter could provide food production on a large enough scale to sustain early civilisations.

      Love the idea of extensive sea navigation. We know the ancestors of the Polynesians sailed as far as Madagascar.

    3. I like the idea of the Sunda peoples, or at least the "Atlantean" ones in the south, having explored all the way across the Pacific to South America. Recent finds might indicate that populating the New World happened from both the north and south. At least, there are settlements much further south than they should be according to the accepted model.

      I found my giant monitor lizard. It's mostly in southern Australia/Sahul, but that's no reason to not put a small population in the highland jungles of Sunda. Dragons!

      I realized later that the warships should probably be less like pentekonters and maybe more like Maori war canoes.

  4. I've decided to create a blog for the setting. I intend it to be a collaborative effort. The first post setting out my intentions is up:

    1. Added to both the blogroll over on the right and also to my RSS feed.

    2. I should add that it's probably perfectly OK for each of us to take occasional different steps with this. It's probably pretty likely that I'm going to tend somewhere toward a midpoint between what you called "Early Realistic" and "Classical Realistic", or depending on how you look at it "Low Magic and Fantasy". Not quite Conan, but definitely sword & sorcery—but a lot of the sorcery will be prestidigitation/illusion, except where it isn't. As I said somewhere, I intend to discuss that matter in a post of its own.

    3. Of course. Mix and match as each sees fit. It's nice to have other people to share ideas with and be inspired by.

    4. For your reference, I recently published a book: Sundaland – Tracing The Cradle of Civilizations.

      This book presents abundance of indications from archaeological data, genetic studies, legends, myths and tales that Sundaland is the cradle of human civilizations.

      The paperback is available at Amazon:

      The e-book is available here for free download:

  5. Thank you Tim for liking my article and your plan to use it in your campaign.