One reason I am such a fan of the good old Mystara-setting is because it uses historical cultures for each setting, which makes it easy to sell the basic part of the setting to the players. Another fun part is, that the history in the setting is quite the puzzle to piece together and a favorite sport among many Mystara-fans is to construct the setting’s history from bits and pieces. A bit like writing history or working with the history of the Indo-European languages.
Let me demonstrate with two of the campaigns:
The campaign takes place in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. About a 100 years ago the Traladaran communities were leaving their dark ages and at the same time they were conquered by the Thyatian Empire. The Duchy is the westernmost province of the Empire and it is ruled by the benevolent Duke Stephan, who gained the lands by selling his ancestral lands and through his personal friendship with the Thyatian emperor.
Imagine Poland and Transylvania in the 10th century conquered by the Roman/Byzantine Empire. The native Traladarans are the Polish, and their conquerers are the Byzantines. There are two churches in duchy, one, where the pantheon of Thyatians are worshipped, and one, where the Traladaran pantheon is worshipped. The churches are vaguely modeled upon the medieval Catholic and Orthodox church. Notice how easy it is to create a society that is both alien and yet recognizable by combining and recombining historical cultures. At the same time is very easy for me as the GM to quickly explain the setting to the players.
The Principalities of Glantri lies to the north. It is mountainous region divided into several principalities that each are tied to noble house. Each region is populated by it’s own ethnic group. We have the Boldavians, the Flaems, the Krondaharians of Ethengarian origins, The Alphatians, the Aalbanese etc. Each group has it’s own customs, language and traditions. The capital is named Glantri, and it contains several gates to the Elemental Plane of water, which feeds the channels of the capital.
However it can also be described in this manner:
Imagine planting Venice in Switzerland. Streets are replaced with canals and traversed by gondoliers. Imagine that each canton in Switzerland is populated by a historical culture. The Flaems are the Flemish people specialized in fire magics (yes, corny wordplays are a part of Mystara), the Boldavians are Transylvanians, they are plagued by Vampires and superstition (and incidentally the Boldavians are descendants of the Traladarans from the Grand Duchy of Karameikos mentioned above), the Aalbanese are 13th machine building Holy German-Roman Empire citizens. Among the others we find decadent French, necromantic Scotsmen in kilts, mongols as the descendants of the horse riding Hungarians (aptly named Ethengarians, warned you about those names) etc. etc.
Using all these stereotypical historical cultures it becomes very easy to have the players understand the differences in the society, and we can easily have the campaign handle several different cultures without much work. Basically I can communicate the society very quickly to the players – even when we play – and it allows us to dive into the diverse cultures and let their diverse customs shape the game. Often the customs in themselves can become whole scenarios in their own right, as a festival to scare off monsters – The Perchtenlauf for instance – becomes quite different in a magical world, where monsters abound: