In considering possibilities for an "advanced" Dungeons & Dragons campaign, I hit upon (or rather, returned to) some ideas that have been rolling around in the old noggin for years, specifically using the real world setting of South America as a place for exploration and adventure. The particular spin that came to me this time (around 2:30am, awakening me from my sleep) went something like this:
- A campaign set at the beginning of the Spanish conquest (circa 1492).
- Most (or perhaps all beginning) adventurers are of European descent (though later characters can be from any culture...it's negotiable). They are newly arrived in "the New World."
- While the campaign will be based on historical precedents (and real world geography), there will still be fantastical D&D elements: Vancian magic, demihumans, dragons, etc.
- The campaign will span about 130 hundred years in length with a continuous timeline; that is, I would keep track of the passage of time for all players up until about 1630, with the arrival of the French and the ubiquity of flintlock weapons.
It's really a pretty great idea. You have an area that has plenty of wilderness for exploration, a justification for treasure-hunting adventurers, not much in the way of "safe havens" (besides the towns being constructed), though plenty of areas for characters to carve out dominions for themselves. Plus, the technology level is about right and there's plenty of reason for a clerical class (more on this later...perhaps). Plus, the Portuguese make great villains (I tend to use Portuguese in my pulp games like other people use Nazis...the Portuguese were pretty damn awful for a couple-few centuries).
But the more I think about it in the light of day, the more problematic the concept seems. The conquest of what (is now) called Latin America was pretty f'ing terrible. Forget Mexico for a moment...for all the bloody-handedness of Hernan Cortes, Mexico got off pretty easy: they retained most of their culture, much of their language, and the population genetically is still majority indigenous...plus, they got out from under the heel of the Aztecs who, you know, liked to execute people in pretty grisly fashion, both for religious purposes and as a terror tactic.
But South America was a different story...one that saw many of the indigenous peoples wiped out in planned, systematic genocides. Outside of the Andean cultures (of which the Incan Empire lasted the longest and is the best known), not much is known because the people were dealt with so brutally by the Spanish. Officially, Argentina today has an indigenous population of less than 1.5%; Uruguay has NO indigenous people officially (and until recent years, celebrated that fact and the fact of the genocide committed). The fashion in which the Spanish dealt with the Incans (when they finally reached them in the early 1500s) is truly despicable. The history of the region for the first two hundred years after European discovery makes for really, really rough reading.
And I don't want to gloss over it with a bunch of fantasy wash...the indigenous Cambeba people living along the Amazon Basin in Brazil weren't a bunch of naked, blowgun-toting savages out of an Indiana Jones movie. They were a sedentary, agricultural society, wearing clothes of cotton living in wooden houses in hundreds of villages along the river tributaries (by 1630, they'd been reduced to less than 40 villages). These aren't orcs or goblins to be slain and looted, and I don't want to re-skin them as such.
But South America was a real land of riches and adventure: huge amounts of gold, silver, and treasure was pulled out of it by the Europeans, and there were plenty of ruins from fallen empires lurking in the wilderness to be discovered...multiple civilizations rose and fell centuries before the rise of the Inca or the arrival of the conquistadors. There were indeed hostile swamps and jungles mountain ranges to explore, a Chaotic wilderness home to strange, life-threatening beasts...and yes, some warlike cannibal tribes, too. Legends of giants in the Pampas of Argentina can be found, with their regions pencilled on old 16th century maps, similar to the labels one finds in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. South America was about as close to a real world "fantasy adventure setting" as you are going to find...and the Europeans explorers of the time had all the trappings of your classic D&D party: swords and crossbows and plate armor and cross-carrying priests. Even sorcery is part of the (historic) lore of the region: both indigenous magic, and spell craft practiced by the imported African slaves. And did I mention the gold and silver coin currency? The continent is positively ripe for exploitation of D&D-variety.
Exploitation. That's the word that bugs me.
Perhaps surprisingly (given my fairly left-leaning politics and socialist tendencies) I'm not a huge believer in making restitutions for centuries-past injustices. Most of us have ancestors that were trampled upon at some point in history...the people of the Iberian peninsula (what is now Spain and Portugal) were, in fact, conquered themselves multiple times in the centuries prior to their own bloody conquest of the Americas. But in the main, there's plenty of human suffering going on RIGHT NOW with real, living people hurting in need of help and justice (and, no, I'm not talking about Americans) to worry too much about the suffering of people dead centuries...except insofar as the suffering of today is directly linked to issues of past exploitation that could and should be addressed, right now, in the present.
Even so, the idea of setting a "fun" D&D campaign in a region and time of human history when such terrible brutalities, oppression, and abuses occurred makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Columbus and Cortes and Pizarro and all the rest were "adventurers;" they were looking to get rich. And they were willing to make their wealth using their swords, just like any other D&D party...but they weren't taking it off the corpses of goblins and dragons.
I don't want to encourage that. I don't want to paint that in a positive light. And I don't want to simply erase the real peoples of the region out of existence and repopulate their continent with lizard men and mind flayers and whatnot. That's hardly doing their memory justice.
It's a quandary I'm wrestling with...part of looking for and finding a good setting for my "advanced" D&D campaign is being more mature and thoughtful about this type of thing.
I'd welcome any ideas folks have on the subject. Thanks!