ROLE-PLAYING IN THE ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD

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From the mid eighties to early nineties I ran a role playing campaign set in fifth century CE Britain and seen from the viewpoint of the Celts and Romano-Britons. Those of you who have seen the recent “King Arthur” will have an idea of the flavour of the campaign but as my system was RuneQuest(TM) there was more magic around than in the film and indeed more than I would use myself if I was starting the campaign now.

Another major difference was that “my” Saxons were not the single simple minded marauding army of bad guys portrayed in the film. Sure, some of them were unwelcome invaders and raiders rather than foederati (mercenaries nominally under Roman command) but many of these had been displace from their own homelands by eastern tribes such as the Huns (who themselves may have been displaced by climate change). This was not explicit in the games of course but the motivations of Saxon NPCs were derived from this fact.

From this I developed an interest in the Angles and Saxons as peoples in their own right. One could argue that, being English, I should have done this sooner but I’m going to blame the cultural blindness instilled by the Norman descended British ruling class. I’ll come back to this another time – it’s an article in its own right.

I initially began studying this aspect of the “Dark Ages” just for my own interest but I quckly realised that this also would be an excellent background for a RPG campaign:

1. There is enough material around for GMs to construct a coherent world but enough contradictions that players can’t rely on their previously aquired historical knowledge to predict what’s going to happen – their conclusions will likely be different from the GM’s

2. There is lots of opportunity for intrigue, politics and warfare. The incomers fought amongst themselves as often as they fought the Celts (and they weren’t exactly averse to civil war either). It seems likely that some Celts allied with Saxons against other Celts and Saxons. To take the obvious example; according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the Kingdom of Wessex was founded by Cerdic, and it supplies a geneology purporting to show his descent from Wotan. Trouble with this is Cerdic is such a Celtic name….

3. The landscape is filled with desolate fens, dark forboding forests, abandoned towns, deserted villas and buried (Roman) treasure.

4. If GMs wish to include a fantasy element there are monsters such as Grendel and his much more dangerous mother. There is no reason why creatures from Celtic myth can’t make their appearance either. Presumably they would care even less for the Germanic incomers than they did for the more established Celts.

It is my intention over the coming [however long it takes] to produce background information such as King lists, family trees, ecclesiastical lists, battles and finally some sort of linking narrative history. Where there is contradiction or ommission in the sources I will note this. For the most part I will use modern names for towns and cities simply because names changed so much during this period; for example, fifth century Eburacum became tenth century Jorvik which eventually became York.

Finally. it is not my intention to produce stats for characters or monsters (unless Steve Jackson decides I’m just the person to write the GURPS(TM) Saxons supplement), I’ll leave that as an excercise for the reader.

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