mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

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mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by dav » 14 Jun 2017, 09:20

Salutations,

I've been following 'Bastards for a while now, and now the Beta is out I'm itching to start a campaign.

I'm thinking of an "mythic alt-history" setting, which mirrors a time and place with strong historical authenticity – in terms of the trappings, ergonomics and contours of daily life, if not the exact details. I also want to take the culture's folklore more or less at face value, making for a low-magic alternate earth.

I'm not sure exactly *which* time and place, nor exactly how much I'll mangle and remix the source material ... I definitely plan to take major liberties with the course of history (and freely fabricate anything I don't know), but I'll definitely be keeping e.g. recognisable religions, geography, and national identities.

So my question is twofold: firstly, I'm after some ideas for interesting historical settings. The players are used to standard issue 5e D&D, so while a generically authentic feudal England would be novel enough, I'd like a bit more ... panache. I'm not particularly well versed in history, but a few ideas / feelpinions to let you know my tastes:

* The black death decimating Europe is appealingly disruptive, and grimdark in a way reminiscent of Warhammer's Old World.

* High medieval Venice – appealingly exotic, seems like a natural backdrop for a game of political intrigues & perhaps a launching pad for naval exploration.

* Following the Conquistadors' incursions into Aztec mexico ... there's a lot of cool potential in facing down human sacrificing, psychotropic chomping shamans – not to mention the bastardic tragedy of unwittingly slaughtering thousands of innocents, by tracking smallpox in from Europe.

* Vikings. What else is there to say, except Thor, Ragnarok and Kraken? For that matter folkloric Iceland would be a pretty cool (and weird) backdrop. Viking incursions into England etc would give plenty of opportunity to show (or perhaps enter) a contrasting feudal society.

* The unchecked power of the church in medieval life screams to me as a source of corrupt antagonists and spurious employers, etc, as well as fascinaing moral / political dimensions. The elaborate hierarchy, ceremonies and ritual trappings; the potential for schisms, heresies and inquisitions as plot devices ... there is so much there to mine. Burn the witch!

I'd love to drop the players into a web of scheming NPCs, with well developed agendas and motivations (a la viewtopic.php?f=7&t=74), but first I need the perfect backdrop (taking into account historical flavour, plot potential, and folkloric riches to mine).

And the second part of my question is: what research materials (fiction, nonfiction, websites, TV, etc) can you suggest in order to bring the setting authentically to life? The devil, as they say, is in the details.
Last edited by dav on 16 Jun 2017, 21:42, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by Benedict » 14 Jun 2017, 10:12

Welcome. :D

The problem switching from a DnDey kind-of-game to a sandbox is that players usually get overwhelmed by the fact that there is no "quest", that the GM won't be holding their hand the way they are used to. Instead the goal is to make the story as a team. You need some work to make players feel engaged.

The first thing I'd do if I was you it would be to have at least one meeting -- you could call it a pre-session if you want -- with the players and chat it out. You should also take their tastes into account. In that way you strengthen the sandbox concept by giving your players an active role on the campaign since you will be asking their sensibilities and tastes on the game, not just invite them over to start rolling dice. Otherwise there is a chance you'll be doing a lot of work for naugh; let's say you work on a Vikings-invade-England thing. Then have players over and realize they want to play high Renaissance diplomats, Caribbean pirates, Arabian Nights dervishes, or Waring States ronin. Not the best way to start a campaign imo. :)

After you decide on the setting and era, decide on the concept. What will the story be about? Do your players want stories about politics and betrayal? Dashing and daring adventure? Gritty combat in a war-torn era? Exploration of the New World?

I think that's the two main questions that you should present your players with and have them answer for you. As they create characters you continue your line of inquiry as to how each character fits in the setting they have chosen. In essence you get the players do half the work for you in a sense. That's not cheating, that's how a sandbox is supposed to work.

With all the above covered my solitary advice is start small. Don't go out of your way detailing things like particular NPCs and plots, cities your characters might visit, or whatever. Let the players guide your hand on what to explore next.

If you feel its too much, try reading some of the PBB threads here, to get a gist of what a sandbox is.

Hope it helps. :)
dav wrote:I've been following 'Bastards for a while now, and now the Beta is out I'm itching to start a campaign.
Just a heads up. It will soon be changed to 'Scoundrels, and with a rules overhaul to boot. Not that it matters that much if you want to play. You can always give it a spin with the current Beta.
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by thirtythr33 » 14 Jun 2017, 11:45

I love mythic history, it's just about my go to for games.

I'm currently running a Renaissance Venice game in this very forum which has started to delve into hermeticism and necromancy. You can see it here viewforum.php?f=17 and could even use the resources I have listed in the info dump thread. It's great for political intrigue.

The Conquistadors' incursions into Aztec Mexico would be great, but I just can't see it being good for a political intrigue game.

Some good candidates that haven't been mentioned yet are:
  • 1001 Arabian Nights == Set in the mythical City Of Brass. Daemons and Djinn roam the earth tormenting and tempting the hearts of men. Thieves and sailors like Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Babaa inhabit the seas and the desert. Cults and Guilds vie for control of magic, power and wealth.
  • Ancient Greek == Jason and the Argonauts, Spartans, Cyclopses and Medusa. High fantasy.
  • Ancient Egypt == Sphinxes, Mummy's curses, Pyramids. Also high fantasy.
  • Hellenistic == During the reign of Alexander the Great or shortly after. It mixes in a lot of Greek, Roman and Egyptian but it has the advantage of being in a single empire that shares one language. Good for a game that wants to move around a lot or be a big generic ancient hodge-podge. Elephants are cool too.
  • The Crusades == A game full of epic historical figures. Frederick II (The Stupor Mundi) is particularly fascinating. The wars between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin are also great. I wouldn't recommend this option if your players aren't mature enough to deal with a huge amount of political and religious confrontation. It would be considerably harder to wedge supernatural enemies into this setting, too.
  • Mythic Europe == Something that has been cooking in my head for a while. Set during medieval Europe but with all the mythology and superstitions of the people of the time taken to be fact and brought to the foreground. Witches and changelings undermining civilization. Historic tragedies are embodied by dragons such Nero (Burned Rome), Vesuvius (Destroyed Pompeii) and now the worst of all has awoken and ravages the world... Black Death. Also has the basic idea that the sins of man are what originate these tragedies, with things like curses spreading from a battlefield (this being the medieval understanding of a disease caught from the corpses). A lot of inspiration from the Breaking out of the scientific magic system article I linked below.
As for resources, that's hard to say until you pick a setting. For more general settings these might be useful:
[World map throughout history] http://geacron.com/home-en/?&sid=GeaCron344506
[blog about myth, legends, and superstitions] https://ogresvstrolls.wordpress.com/about/
[Advice for more weird magic] http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/magi ... ience.html
[medieval bestiary] http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastalphashort.htm
[mythical creatures of each culture] http://mythicalcreatureslist.com/index.php
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by dav » 14 Jun 2017, 23:54

thirtythr33 wrote:Mythic Europe == Something that has been cooking in my head for a while. Set during medieval Europe but with all the mythology and superstitions of the people of the time taken to be fact and brought to the foreground. Witches and changelings undermining civilization. Historic tragedies are embodied by dragons such Nero (Burned Rome), Vesuvius (Destroyed Pompeii) and now the worst of all has awoken and ravages the world... Black Death. Also has the basic idea that the sins of man are what originate these tragedies, with things like curses spreading from a battlefield (this being the medieval understanding of a disease caught from the corpses). A lot of inspiration from the Breaking out of the scientific magic system article I linked below.
This. This is pretty much exactly where I'm headed – Mythic Europe on the threshold of the Black Death. I've also been turning this around in my head for a little while, and I'm inclined to present this as the starting point for my players and then tweak the specifics as per Benedict's sage advice, according to their wishes, ideas and hopes for the campaign.

There are plenty of levers to pull with that broad backdrop. Europe is a small and dense enough world that they can satisfy desire for novelty by sailing off to Norway to be waylaid by the Kraken, or to Iceland to treat with the Huldufólk, or even boldly set off for the New World a century too soon – there are any number of interesting alternatives to recycled Tolkien tropes.

That puts us at 1348, in the late middle ages (and in the interests of making my own life easy, I think I'd probably start in England).

Thanks for your advice & suggestions so far. Next I think I'll follow Benedict's advice and run a session zero to work out what to focus in on.

Edit: I've already got a campaign name at least ... A Tapestry of Consequence
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by Benedict » 15 Jun 2017, 05:09

dav wrote:That puts us at 1348, in the late middle ages (and in the interests of making my own life easy, I think I'd probably start in England).
That puts you in an interesting place at an excellent point of time. Black death, excesive legislation activity that led to revolts, great development of the already existing Parliament, the first part of the Hundred Years War, etc.

You could start your research with the ruler: Edward III
dav wrote:sailing off to Norway to be waylaid by the Kraken, or to Iceland to treat with the Huldufólk
If that's the case then do yourself a favor and try to watch When the Raven Flies (Hrafninn flýgur). Despite being a 33-years old movie, its an excellent resource on Viking settlements in Iceland. Plus (almost) everyone dies in the end. :twisted:
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by nemedeus » 15 Jun 2017, 14:33

I HAVE to say this before i read the rest of the thread:
dav wrote:* Vikings.
I've had enough of the goddamn vikings! I don't want to see any more vikings in media at this point.

(don't mind me though, this is just my opinion)
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by Benedict » 15 Jun 2017, 15:41

nemedeus wrote:I've had enough of the goddamn vikings
:lol:

Image

One can never have enough of Vikings. Only Vikings can decide when it's enough.

( I'm just kidding ;) )
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by Agamemnon » 15 Jun 2017, 20:46

Benedict wrote:
nemedeus wrote:I've had enough of the goddamn vikings
:lol:

Image

One can never have enough of Vikings. Only Vikings can decide when it's enough.

( I'm just kidding ;) )
He's going to be super mad when I announce a dark ages setting as my first splat book.
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by dav » 15 Jun 2017, 21:46

I'm pretty sure by 1348 all the vikings had become good Christians, retired from raping and pillaging, and started to sell flat-pack furniture instead.

Which kind of begs the question, how much am I prepared to mutilate historical fact in the name of entertainment (e.g. if it sounds like a fun idea to have a player's holdings in England come under assault from an anachronistic tide of Vikings)? I think the answer is probably "very".
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by dav » 16 Jun 2017, 00:30

thirtythr33 those links were great. I've been wanting to go back to the folkloric origins of Dwarves / Elves / etc and come up with something more original than pointy eared Tolkien hand-me-downs.

https://ogresvstrolls.wordpress.com/201 ... her-world/

I dig the idea of recasting Elves as deeply mysterious, dangerous magical creatures, condemned by the Church as allies of Lucifer. There are interesting relationships to explore between the Elves and other mythological beings (perhaps they're the nobility of a complex hierarchy of Fey); and practitioners of wItchcraft / vestigial paganism; the Church's sometimes violent suppression of heathenism has dramatic opportunities too. Our merry band of witch hunter mercenaries / inquisitors paid by the church to investigate missing children, suspected stolen by the Elves.

Perhaps the Elves, diminishing in stature over the centuries as their role in folklore retreats, have come to resent and despise humanity – so much so that a faction among the Fair Folk have taken the extreme position of releasing the Black Death upon their cities, to hasten the demise of humanity and their inheritance of the Earth.
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by taelor » 16 Jun 2017, 02:11

dav wrote:I'm pretty sure by 1348 all the vikings had become good Christians, retired from raping and pillaging, and started to sell flat-pack furniture instead.

Which kind of begs the question, how much am I prepared to mutilate historical fact in the name of entertainment (e.g. if it sounds like a fun idea to have a player's holdings in England come under assault from an anachronistic tide of Vikings)? I think the answer is probably "very".
I've never been a huge fan of mixing and matching bits and pieces of different historical eras. IMO, it's one of the leading contributors to medieval fantasy's degeneration into same-y generic mush. Actual history is sufficiently fertile in terms of material for inspiration to make such mixing and matching unnecessary, if you have the time to spare to delve into it (which is admittedly can be a pretty strong assumption). If you want to fight vikings in England, well, there's about three hundred years worth of material to work with there. I could definitely see Alfred the Great fighting off waves of norseman (and definitively unifying England, previously divided among a number of petty kingdoms) as pretty good material for mythic alt-historical realism. Alternately, if you like black death-era Europe, well, consider this: circa 1348, it was the English who were in the business of ravaging the countryside of France.
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by thirtythr33 » 16 Jun 2017, 03:54

dav wrote:Which kind of begs the question, how much am I prepared to mutilate historical fact in the name of entertainment (e.g. if it sounds like a fun idea to have a player's holdings in England come under assault from an anachronistic tide of Vikings)? I think the answer is probably "very".
Yeah. If anything I would even recommend starting out with an anachronistic premise so that it is clear the game is history-inspired fantasy, rather than historical roleplaying. You aren't going to have a history book at the game table, so anachronisms are inevitable and retconing things makes more problems than it solves. It also dodges the question of whether or not "history" can be changed.
dav wrote:I've been wanting to go back to the folkloric origins of Dwarves / Elves / etc and come up with something more original than pointy eared Tolkien hand-me-downs.
Here's some ideas:

If you go back to the Norse roots (since we are including Vikings), you have the Alfar races for a starting point. There are numerous sub-races, two of which being the Ljosalfar (light elves) and Svartalfar (black elves, aka dwarves) who are named for their appearance rather than temperament. The Ljosalfar are weird as heck and like people making sacrifices to them and the Svartalfar are ridiculously greedy and often curse people.

Since they are from Norse culture and the Alfar kingdoms don't appear in any history books, that proposes the question of "where do they live?". Two places immediately jump out to me. The Svartalfar can live in Greenland and on occasion trade with the Norsemen in Iceland and the Ljosalfar can live in the Siberian Taiga. These are both relatively unexplored regions, have a "foreign" feel to Europe, neighbor the Norsemen and gives you more sources to draw inspiration from. Putting the snow and ice twist on elves and dwarves is also something I haven't seen many people do.

I might make them something like this:

ALFAR
  • Draw inspiration from Norse Ljosalfar.
  • Live in Taiga of Siberia and Russia which connects to modern Finland
  • Draw inspiration from Indigenous Siberian culture, including Shamanism
  • Mix in some Fey and magic for good measure
  • Have ties to Changelings and various baby-snatching activities
SKRAELING
  • Draw inspiration from Norse Svartalfar.
  • Live on Greenland and possibly trade on Iceland
  • Are great smiths and are the source of Ulfberht swords.
  • Skraeling is the name the Norse people used to describe the Inuit and has Pygmy connotations
  • Draw inspiration from Inuit culture
  • They live "underground" (Igloos, anyone?)
How magical or human-looking they are is going to depend on the feel of the campaign. Naturally, Alfheimr and the mythical realms of the gods is situated over the north-pole, with things getting less magical as you go South.
taelor wrote:If you want to fight vikings in England, well, there's about three hundred years worth of material to work with there. I could definitely see Alfred the Great fighting off waves of norseman (and definitively unifying England, previously divided among a number of petty kingdoms) as pretty good material for mythic alt-historical realism. Alternately, if you like black death-era Europe, well, consider this: circa 1348, it was the English who were in the business of ravaging the countryside of France.
You can almost have your cake and eat it too. The first major outbreak of bubonic plague was the Plague of Justinian in 541 (killed up to 50 million in the Mediterranean) with numerous smaller outbreaks until ~750. The first recorded Viking raids were in ~790. You could easily set the game during the early Vikings age and have everyone being fearful that a new outbreak of the plague has returned (especially if the quest is to stop the return of the plague before it gets big enough for the history books). But if you have elves and dwarves, what use is a human calendar anyway?
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by Agamemnon » 16 Jun 2017, 19:54

thirtythr33 wrote:
dav wrote:Which kind of begs the question, how much am I prepared to mutilate historical fact in the name of entertainment (e.g. if it sounds like a fun idea to have a player's holdings in England come under assault from an anachronistic tide of Vikings)? I think the answer is probably "very".
Yeah. If anything I would even recommend starting out with an anachronistic premise so that it is clear the game is history-inspired fantasy, rather than historical roleplaying. You aren't going to have a history book at the game table, so anachronisms are inevitable and retconing things makes more problems than it solves. It also dodges the question of whether or not "history" can be changed.
dav wrote:I've been wanting to go back to the folkloric origins of Dwarves / Elves / etc and come up with something more original than pointy eared Tolkien hand-me-downs.
Here's some ideas:

If you go back to the Norse roots (since we are including Vikings), you have the Alfar races for a starting point. There are numerous sub-races, two of which being the Ljosalfar (light elves) and Svartalfar (black elves, aka dwarves) who are named for their appearance rather than temperament. The Ljosalfar are weird as heck and like people making sacrifices to them and the Svartalfar are ridiculously greedy and often curse people.

Since they are from Norse culture and the Alfar kingdoms don't appear in any history books, that proposes the question of "where do they live?". Two places immediately jump out to me. The Svartalfar can live in Greenland and on occasion trade with the Norsemen in Iceland and the Ljosalfar can live in the Siberian Taiga. These are both relatively unexplored regions, have a "foreign" feel to Europe, neighbor the Norsemen and gives you more sources to draw inspiration from. Putting the snow and ice twist on elves and dwarves is also something I haven't seen many people do.

I might make them something like this:

ALFAR
  • Draw inspiration from Norse Ljosalfar.
  • Live in Taiga of Siberia and Russia which connects to modern Finland
  • Draw inspiration from Indigenous Siberian culture, including Shamanism
  • Mix in some Fey and magic for good measure
  • Have ties to Changelings and various baby-snatching activities
SKRAELING
  • Draw inspiration from Norse Svartalfar.
  • Live on Greenland and possibly trade on Iceland
  • Are great smiths and are the source of Ulfberht swords.
  • Skraeling is the name the Norse people used to describe the Inuit and has Pygmy connotations
  • Draw inspiration from Inuit culture
  • They live "underground" (Igloos, anyone?)
How magical or human-looking they are is going to depend on the feel of the campaign. Naturally, Alfheimr and the mythical realms of the gods is situated over the north-pole, with things getting less magical as you go South.
taelor wrote:If you want to fight vikings in England, well, there's about three hundred years worth of material to work with there. I could definitely see Alfred the Great fighting off waves of norseman (and definitively unifying England, previously divided among a number of petty kingdoms) as pretty good material for mythic alt-historical realism. Alternately, if you like black death-era Europe, well, consider this: circa 1348, it was the English who were in the business of ravaging the countryside of France.
You can almost have your cake and eat it too. The first major outbreak of bubonic plague was the Plague of Justinian in 541 (killed up to 50 million in the Mediterranean) with numerous smaller outbreaks until ~750. The first recorded Viking raids were in ~790. You could easily set the game during the early Vikings age and have everyone being fearful that a new outbreak of the plague has returned (especially if the quest is to stop the return of the plague before it gets big enough for the history books). But if you have elves and dwarves, what use is a human calendar anyway?
I'm just going to throw in that I wholeheartedly approve of the direction of all of this. Also that you may want to spend some time hanging out at http://norse-mythology.org because basically everything there is useful, accurate, and inspirational in some fashion.

Norse history and culture is something of a soft spot of mine.

If you really want to dig into stuff, I'd highly recommended anything you can find written by Neil Price on the subject. These lectures
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=P ... wLrGrr6cXW

Or especially his book The Viking Way.
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by dav » 16 Jun 2017, 21:41

So much stuff to mine in this thread – thanks to everyone playing along. I'm especially grateful for your ideas thirtythr33.

When I read "SKRAELING ... Are great smiths and are the source of Ulfberht swords", I immediately realised I needed to set the campaign in an age where most swords were bronze or iron. Who needs a magic sword +1 (or even Valyrian Steel) when any sword made from actual steel is a potent advantage?

And I'm retreating from 1348 on grounds of both narrative and flavour too. I think the plague in full force would be so overpowering it would be difficult to keep the actions of the players meaningfully driving the world forward – and a less civilised time when the Church was less well established, and where various factions (e.g. Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Danes, Scots) were actively struggling for control of England, sets up many interesting conflicts.

I stumbled across some of your campaign ideas here Agamemnon (viewtopic.php?f=9&t=217), and started thinking about how to adapt them to a the Christian church in England. I love the idea of working for a religious organisation streaked with corruption, rooting out pagans, witches, demon cultists, fey, and unbelievers, in a setting where the nation's seat of power itself is up for grabs. Adding a little the Warhammer 40k emperor flavour to a foreign Pope has potential too ...

Aside: It's pretty much "not done" to include the actual Christian church in medieval RPGs, which is remarkable given the prominence of the Church in medieval European life. As an atheist I'm more than happy to slaughter a few sacred cows in the name of interesting fiction, and I think there's a grit and towering palpability to be found in using the real thing that's almost impossible to achieve with a fabricated religion – just asking the players to memorise a new pantheon is a high barrier to immersion. I understand that's not everyone's cup of tea, so if it upsets you, my apologies, best look the other way.

So I'm set on England, but I'm still a bit fuzzy on the time (although I'm thinking 700-1100 sounds about right) and exact place. As thirtythr33 mentioned, "if the quest is to stop the return of the plague before it gets big enough for the history books" then there's quite a lot of freedom as to when and where exactly to set the campaign. The decision is probably best made by finding a really interesting / delicate balance of power.

Edit: I heartily dig Norse mythology & culture too. I wouldn't rule out starting the players off as Danish raiders in said England ...
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Re: mythic alt-historical realism: setting & source material

Post by Agamemnon » 16 Jun 2017, 22:55

dav wrote:I stumbled across some of your campaign ideas here Agamemnon (viewtopic.php?f=9&t=217), and started thinking about how to adapt them to a the Christian church in England. I love the idea of working for a religious organisation streaked with corruption, rooting out pagans, witches, demon cultists, fey, and unbelievers, in a setting where the nation's seat of power itself is up for grabs. Adding a little the Warhammer 40k emperor flavour to a foreign Pope has potential too ...

Aside: It's pretty much "not done" to include the actual Christian church in medieval RPGs, which is remarkable given the prominence of the Church in medieval European life. As an atheist I'm more than happy to slaughter a few sacred cows in the name of interesting fiction, and I think there's a grit and towering palpability to be found in using the real thing that's almost impossible to achieve with a fabricated religion – just asking the players to memorise a new pantheon is a high barrier to immersion. I understand that's not everyone's cup of tea, so if it upsets you, my apologies, best look the other way.

So I'm set on England, but I'm still a bit fuzzy on the time (although I'm thinking 700-1100 sounds about right) and exact place. As thirtythr33 mentioned, "if the quest is to stop the return of the plague before it gets big enough for the history books" then there's quite a lot of freedom as to when and where exactly to set the campaign. The decision is probably best made by finding a really interesting / delicate balance of power.

Edit: I heartily dig Norse mythology & culture too. I wouldn't rule out starting the players off as Danish raiders in said England ...
You might want to check out an OSR book called Dark Albion: The Rose War. It's a slightly different time era than you're thinking of, but the premise is fairly similar. It was basically "What if the Warhammer Fantasy universe was set in 15th century england rather than renaissance Germany?" It's got the names changed a bit (Albion instead of England) but there's a ton of really excellent setting fluff in there.
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