What is Gehennum?

Gehennum is an imaginary country on an imaginary world.

I designed it as a setting for fantasy role-playing games: one that would break the stereotype into which such worlds too often fall. Originally a refresher from a fantasy genre that had come to pall, it has grown and matured into a fairly complete and detailed setting. After years of using it as a refuge from the trite, I and the dozen or so players who frequent Gehennum do so by preference, because it is at least as rich as 'rather like mediaeval Europe but with magic.'

Now I am presenting Gehennum to the Web-browsing public. I think it is strong enough to stand on its own feet, and does not need to be steadied or supported by an initiate of my school of Gehennum game-mastering. Your response will tell me if I am right.

Enjoy Gehennum!

What is Gehennum like?

Gehennum is a volcanic and mountainous archipelago on a watery fantasy world. The islands are ringed with coral and clad in jungle, except where the people have cleared them to grow rice. The flora and fauna are generally like those of south-east Asia, though there are some introduced species (especially crops) and fantasy ring-ins.

The people of Gehennum are small, lithe, and brown-skinned. They have a sophisticated culture and technology, at least as advanced in every respect as the classical Mediterranean (Greeks and Romans), and in some areas (such as optics and chemistry) considerably better.

One important respect in which the Gehennese suffer by comparison with default fantasy cultures is that (there being no extensive grasslands on their world) there are no horses or equivalent riding animals. The very wealthy ride elephants, but on the whole heavily-armoured burgher infantry (not aristocratic cavalry) dominate Gehennese battlefields, politics, and society.

Another, less important, is that metals are relatively scarce. The Gehennese (and other peoples of the World of Isles) use glass, obsidian, bone, shell, and flint for cheap cutting edges. Where they use steel and bronze they use it with economy and the highest craftsmanship.

Why use Gehennum?

Many fantasy role-playing games have settings that are inspired by mediaeval European legend, or by the fairy tales and conventional fantasy literature that are themselves derived from these legends. As a result, 'default' fantasy is 'just like mediaeval Europe but with magic'. This is not bad in itself, but it does pall after a while.

Every now and again most GMs try to spice things up a little by devising a setting in which a few things are distinctly different from mediaeval Europe. This can be quite successful when the setting is based on something that looms vivid in player's imaginations. The most successful attempts I have seen have been based on other historical settings, such as mediaeval Japan, ancient or mediaeval China, or the Roman mediterranean.

Even in such setting, though, players' (and, I guess, GMs') default assumptions about fantasy take their toll. We rather lazily fill in the blank areas in our memories, researches, and descriptions with presumptions that are not always even conscious. No setting is described in exact detail, and it is hard to maintain the effort of thinking, questioning, and challenging our prejudices whenever we interpolate between known or established features of a setting. As a result, fantasy settings tend to take on many of the social and governmental features of 'vanilla fantasy'.

Maybe (but not always) our characters stay in appropriate costume. But their homes, social and personal relationships, families, and means of livelihood default to vanilla. They aspire to, avoid, get embarrassed by, and oppose things that we weakly presume that they will, without thought to the setting. They respect and defer to, resent and oppose the actions by others. Unlike vanilla icecream, vanilla fantasy is obtrusive.

Don't get me wrong. Default fantasy isn't bad. But we might well want a bit of variety, and the commonplace shouldn't creep in where it isn't called for.

In designing Gehennum, I tried to disengage players' defaults. To do this, I rejected several of most conspicuous standard assumptions, and replaced them with vividly different premises. For example, Gehennum is tropical and oceanic, the Gehennese are not of a European racial type, there are no horses…. I have been different for the sake of being different, which is not in general something I admire. But I have also tried to make Gehennum interesting and good.

Copyright © 1991 by Brett Evill. All rights reserved.