Design Journal #1: The Concept Behind the Setting, by Matthew Kaiser
As a freelance writer and avid connoisseur of roleplaying games, I’ve always got a lot of ideas stomping around in my head. Some crop up and then fade, but others take root in my brain and grow until I know I have to do something with it. This is how Totems of the Dead started out. I was daydreaming about how cool it would be to have a fully fledged fantasy setting based not on the standard European and Asian mythological fare, as cool as that stuff can be, but rather one loosely inspired by the rich history and mythology of the native peoples of the Americas. Sure, fantasy versions of the wild west have been done time and again, but I’m talking about the pre-Columbian era when the Americas were covered by great civilizations like the Anisazi, the Mound Builder cultures of the Mississippi valley, the Three Fires & Iroquois tribal confederacies, the Olemec, the Mayans, the Toltec, the Aztec, the Moche and the Inca to name a few.
At first it was just a thought exercise I was doing while re-reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, but I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Soon I was analyzing the viability of such an RPG setting, and looking at it through a sword and sorcery lens. How would I make such a setting accessible? What fantasy archetypes could I incorporate into such a setting, and could they work within the swords & sorcery genre? Traditional Native American tales have a number of strong archetypes to choose from that could easily fit into the swords & sorcery genre, from the brave warrior, to the wise elder, the story teller, the shaman and, most importantly, the trickster. There was certainly plenty of raw material here for my creativity to go wild with. More than enough to craft a decent RPG setting out of… probably more than enough to craft several, but for my own purposes I wanted to try and cram as much as I could into one setting.
I dreamt of what might have happened if the Viking colony of Vinland had not only succeeded, but thrived and expanded into a number of cities and settlements on the eastern coast, and thus the Viking-like Skadians were born into my setting. Other rumors of pre-Columbian contact with the Americas led to the City State of Shen, a Chinese-style fortified trade city on the western coast. Not to be outdone, the natives of this land would have to have their own shining civilizations similar to the proud Native American people their cultures are inspired by.
Soon I had a maelstrom of ideas swirling in my head, and I knew I needed a creative outlet. Thus I started writing. Sporadically at first, just whenever I had some ideas to jot down between freelancing gigs, school and family life. While the setting started out quite heavily grounded in history and real-world mythology, over time it has drifted away from being any sort of historical fantasy or alternate history type setting and now sits firmly in the fantasy category, inspired by the stories, myths and history of the Americas similar to how R.E. Howard’s Hyborea is a fantasy setting loosely inspired by Eurasian history and myth. Straying from history has allowed me to take inspiration from different historical periods, and mix it in with my own whimsical imaginings.
The creative process is still rolling, but as the first draft nears completion, I will post more about my creation and the long and winding creative journey that has brought Totems of the Dead to the place it is now.
Thanks for reading & happy gaming,