If you’ve been playing fantasy RPGs for any length of time you’ve no doubt run into someone who has attempted to drop various bits and pieces of technology into their settings. I have no problem admitting that I’m one of those people. While I often tow-the-line when it comes to tech level, sticking with a rather traditional (Tolkien-like, if you will) setting, I do find myself fiddling with what appears in any given game based on how I wind up envisioning it.
I’m sure a lot of DMs develop their worlds in a fairly holistic fashion. But I tend to stick to a credo that I picked up years ago that says: worlds don’t develop as a whole but by fits-and-starts. For example, the United States might have nuclear energy today, but most of South America is still relying on methods that are considered one generation behind for producing electricity. The dictum for world building is that one area might be the equivalent of a Medieval era kingdom, but the continent to the south could be filled with barbarians that have yet to make it past the Bronze Age.
As a longtime Traveller GM, I used to rely on a pattern similar to that game’s tech level system. But when I’m working with a fantasy campaign setting, I find it more useful to have “fine” control of technology.
What does that mean in practice? It means I tend to break everything down into categories to help me identify where I want each in terms of advancement:
Since I tend to think of this as a technological continuum, I will often give the category a “name” based on the highest level attained in that area. For example, if the calendar is the best a culture has mastered when it comes to Science then that’s how I tag it; if a given society has discovered the usefulness of the carrier pigeon, then Communications might be pegged in that way.
At the moment, I’m working with a homemade Castles & Crusades setting which uses the traditional medieval Tolkien backdrop, but has been filling out with a partial blend of Renaissance era elements. At the moment, the overriding elements of the world look like:
Armor/Weapons: Rapier (1500)
Communications: Basic Printing Press (1440)
Medicine: Primitive glasses (1300)
Science: Telescopic observations (1609)
Transportation: Compass (1190)
This then serves as the baseline for the entire world with variations from place-to-place. By doing this, it effectively gives me the freedom of introducing technologies/discoveries in one area without disrupting the entire game. It also creates a level of realism that can trickle into other facets of the game — trade, conquest, diplomacy, etc. — providing a richer tapestry for the players.