Friday, April 3, 2015

Drawing Inspiration for RPGs: the Byzantine Empire


Artistic rendition of Constantinople in Antiquity

A recent pet peeve of mine is that a lot of fantasy settings which focus on a recreation of medieval Europe tend to begin and end at the British Isles.  They ignore the myriad other cultures and lands beyond surface examinations and folkloric monsters to introduce as adversaries.  Fortunately there's been a gradual branching out to other lands, as can be seen in the popularity of Skyrim and the show Vikings on the History Channel in regards to Scandinavian cultures.  Even then, there's a lot of European regions which need some more love.  In this post, I'm going to tell you why the Byzantine Empire's an awesome place to draw inspiration from for D&D games.

Since August of 2014 I've been running a game set in a fantasy counterpart Byzantine-style city, and the long-running game influenced me to do further research on the real thing.  What got my interest in the first place was  Parsantium: City at the Crossroads.  It is an excellent system-neutral setting sourcebook also based upon a fantasy counterpart Constantinople.  Don't let that Pathfinder logo fool you; over 90% of the contents can be used easily enough for other retro-clones and Editions.

This is not meant to be a guide on how to play D&D in the "real world Middle Ages."  Rather, it examines various interesting cultural and historical details of the Byzantine Empire, and how they can be transferred into a wholly original and fictional world.  For an example, think of how Al-Qadim drew inspiration from real-world Arabic culture and folktales to create a setting inspired by both.


The Mediterranean region has long served as a fertile basin for many world powers.  Greece, Egypt, Rome, the Islamic Caliphate, and the Ottomans among other civilizations touched its waters.  The city of Constantinople has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires for its key strategic location between the trades routes between the Aegean and Black Sea.

Whereas Western Europe was devastated during the fall of the Roman Empire, in the east the infrastructure was maintained for centuries.  The Byzantines (and the rest of the world) still referred to themselves as the East Roman Empire, in part because they managed to not only survive but thrive for a thousand years until the Ottomans sacked the capital and absorbed its lands into their own empire.  The preservation of Greek and Latin tomes allowed the Byzantines to preserve knowledge which was lost in the rest of Europe, and being in close proximity to Africa and Asia meant that the populace had a wide exposure to many kinds of cultures and the trade goods they had.

Foreign travelers from the Dark Ages to the early Renaissance marveled at the beautiful architecture in Constantinople, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Valens Aqueduct (which remained in working order up until 1403).

Implementing this in a game: A Constantinople counterpart serves many purposes.  Its status as an international trading hub makes it known across many continents.  For this reason it provides an easy explanation for incorporating different fantasy counterpart cultures and PC concepts with minimal fuss.  In addition to the Greek-speaking native population, the Byzantines interacted with Armenian, Slavic, Germanic, Scandinavian and Turkish people at various points in history, so it was no stranger to foreigners from lands hundreds of miles away (even if they weren't always assimilated into the general population).

It can also provide a dual sense of grandness and history, while being the remnants of a fallen empire in your home setting.  The higher level of lore and technology while being surrounded by a less developed world reinforces this while at the same time allowing for a city of splendor in a more gritty "Dark Ages" game.


The old Roman Emperors had an elite cadre of troops known as the Praetorian Guard, and the Byzantines were no different.  Whereas the Praetorians had a nasty track record of killing their own Emperors for political favors, the Byzantines drew upon mercenaries from Germanic and Scandinavian tribes who overall were more dependable and loyal.  This was done for several reasons; one, such people were far enough removed from the Byzantine area of influence that they were least likely to harbor resentment against the government and had less incentive to care about local affairs.  Secondly, many northern European clans had cultural practices of loyalty oaths which extended service until one's death.  Thirdly, many of them had experience in warfare, so when necessary they could head armies in defense of imperial strategic holds.  Chroniclers wrote fearfully of how the Varangians, when deployed in times of greatest need, "were frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds."  This might be a possible reference to the berserker fighting style practiced among some Scandinavian warriors.

On a related note, mercenaries formed a great part of the Empire's army.  As they were the wealthiest nation in Europe from the Dark Ages to much of the Middle Ages, they did not have to worry much about other nations bribing their soldiers to fight for the other side.

Implementing this in a game: The not-Byzantine Emperor is going to draw the cream of the crop to guard his side, so having foreign warriors is not going to be that strange except for highly xenophobic regimes.  It provides a good excuse for PCs hailing from distant lands, as current or former members of the Empire's martial wing.  A mercenary-focused military means that there's plenty of incentive for traveling adventurers to accept quests on behalf of the government.


The Byzantine's definition of barbarian was not limited to the designation of a technologically primitive warrior given to bouts of rage, although such folk would certainly fall under this label in their view.  It was a much more broad generalization regarding any foreign civilization.  The term barbarian was due to xenophobic Byzantines joking that the languages of outsiders sounded like nonsense "barbarbarbar" to their ears.  As an international trade hub often tasked with serving as a shield against Muslim conquests from reaching mainland Europe, the Byzantines could not afford to ignore events beyond their borders.

The Bureau of Barbarians was a government office which served many purposes: the interpretation and translation of foreign languages in written and spoken form; foreign spying and intelligence in European, northern African, and Middle Eastern nations; diplomatic envoys and organizing visits from foreign ambassadors; and the signing of treaties among other things.

The arranged ceremonies for foreign dignitaries spared no expense in elaborate rituals to show off the Empire's might and wealth, communicating that this was a great country and leaving lasting impressions on visitors.  The Bureau relied upon merchants, priests, and other folk who traveled often to serve as diplomats, in part due to the social and economic clout they wielded as well as their increased exposure and knowledge of foreign cultures.  Naturally, they sent back reports of all their findings to the government, which the Empire used to keep abreast of situations which might affect them.

For these reasons it's believed that the Bureau of Barbarians was the earliest known example of a governmental intelligence service.

Implementing this in a game: Aside from being an awesome name, it makes perfect sense for an empire's foreign intelligence service to serve as a multi-purpose storehouse of outside customs.  Bureau agents can be anywhere, serving in a variety of capacities: they're merchant clans who buy dwarf-forged weapons to sell in human lands, the office-workers who sell deeds of land to foreign PCs in imperial country, and the assassin who steals the Green Blade of the Mistwood elves to plant on the body of Argrax the orcish warlord.


One of the Byzantine Empire's greatest-kept secrets was the recipe behind the substance known as Greek Fire.  Believed by modern chemists to be a kind of petroleum, it was responsible for key naval victories for its ability to burn on top of water.  Byzantine naval craft would use pressurized nozzles to spray the liquid onto enemy troops and ships, and made a distinct impression on invading Crusader and Arab armies.  Even when enemy forces managed to capture these primitive flamethrowers, they were unable to reverse-engineer the substance and produce it themselves.

Implementing this in a game: Apart from its similarities to alchemist's fire, this provides for a great background for alchemist characters.  In a world full of magical materials and monsters whose corpses can be harvested, the alchemists of a Byzantine counterpart culture might produce a host of other marvels beyond primitive napalm.  Fire-proof remorhaz hides tanned into leather armor, cockatrice glands which act as a petrifying agent, and displacer beast hearts distilled into potions which allow the wearer's form to fluctuate are but a few possibilities.


In spite of several noble families holding power, the Emperor's authority was near-absolute.  Considered by many to be the closest to God, the head of the Empire was a representation of heavenly authority itself.  A peculiar tradition arose out of this: an Emperor who became crippled or mutilated was weak and imperfect, no longer a proper reflection of greatness.  In spite of the vast powers they wielded, rivals and enemy factions within the government made a habit of cutting off the body parts of Emperors as a way of removing them from power.  This was also performed on the sons of Emperors who fell out of favor or seen as a weak link, forever barring them from the highest station in the land.

Implementing this in a game: In spite of its illusions of order and absolute authority, the courts of fantasy counterpart Byzantium are a chaotic affair where outright violence and maiming is just as deadly as the tools of gossip and rhetoric.  With access to magical rituals and artifacts, it might be trivial for the Emperor to stand head and shoulders above the throngs of subsistence farmers dotting the countryside, and he or she may also have levels in cleric if royalty is divinely ordained.

For adventure potential, a noble and just former Emperor, crippled and disgraced, may petition the PCs to find a legendary artifact of healing and renewal.  He must become his former self if he is to take back the throne; otherwise the new Emperor responsible for the coup will plunge the realm into an age of darkness!


Byzantine history saw a merging of Greek and Roman dishes with the importing of foreign trade items, resulting in a delicious mishmash of European and Middle Eastern flavors.  Open-air restaurants in Constantinople known as tavernas sold meals and street food to middle and lower class citizens, while the dining halls of the nobility were full of spices, fruits, and sweetmeats.  Byzantine omelets and salads were renown, while garum (fish sauce) and olive oil were popular choices of condiments among upper and lower social classes. 

Implementing this in a game: "What do they eat?" is a very popular question in fictional world-building, and a great way of adding layers of immersion in one's fantasy games.  Feel free to draw upon modern Mediterranean meals as well.  Merchants and laborers in a hurry might buy shish kebabs to eat on the go, while Turkish-style coffee houses provide a common social gathering spot.  Flatbreads might be used to dip into sauces, and even a meager farming family might have flavorful salads for dinner!

Special Thanks

Raineh Daze and Syrasi, for answering all my questions about the Byzantine Empire and helping in the world-building process of my Arcana High campaign.

Richard Green, for writing Parsantium and kickstarting my interest in a fantasy counterpart Constantinople.

Ask Historians,  for being a fun and high-quality subreddit.

Wikipedia, for being my go-to source for brief overviews of Byzantine culture and the many dishes of Greek and Turkish cuisine!