Recently Reddit user LostGrail put forth the question I copied into the title of the post to the /r/OSR community, and it really fueled my brain to think about answers for it. I don’t intend to do this often, but I thought I would share my thoughts here and potentially expand upon them as well.
GHOST AND GHOULS
One great example in fantasy would be Tolkien’s Dead Marshes in Middle Earth. Ghosts that appear in the water to our terrified master hobbits are spirits of the fallen warriors from a great battle from an age long ago. That’s a pretty memorable part of Frodo and Sam’s journey and could be a really fun sequence of travel in a campaign.
It doesn’t have to be limited to ghosts, of course. Perhaps the land is populated by a horde of ghouls who found a treasure trove of corpses that will feed their families for years. Even ghouls have a family, right?
TREASURE AND BANDITS
There’s also the idea that these battle fields may still have actual treasure, specifically that of armor and arms left behind from dead soldiers. For whatever reason, a lot of samurai fiction I’ve read or seen have featured this idea – that battlefields are full of corpses just waiting to be plundered.
As a result of such rumors of treasure, they can also attract bandits and thieves, and now you have a whole little side adventuring site and faction or factions to introduce to your players. A village is very likely to have sprung up as well from trade of such goods long ago, even if the village itself no longer deals in trading such dishonorable goods as the arms and armor of heroic, but dead, soldiers.
STRATEGIC WORTH THEN – AND NOW
Battlefields are also often sites of strategic value to the armies that fought there as well and could certainly be a site where a coming battle will also come to a head. Perhaps just the renown and legend of the site is worth fighting over as a symbol to one or both sides of a battle. Maybe a group of rangers, remnants of a long lost people, remain behind to safeguard the sites much like, again, the Dunedain of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Perhaps the battle brought many different types of people from across the land together fighting on each side, and there are some survivors who stayed behind and “went native” – why does the local village appear to have so many half-orcs around when the surrounding area is all elves?
Assimilation is a very real thing in history – if you’ve got the right group, you could tell a story that mirrors some real life atrocities like residential schools in Canada or European treatment of aboriginal peoples in Australia – generally speaking just the horrific story of colonialism. But again, only with the right group and buy-in from everyone taking it seriously.
Finally, places like Gettysburg in America where a big pivotal battle took place has lots of interesting cultural quirks and have a lot of tourists, reenactments, etc. Could be interesting to introduce a similar culture in a medieval setting. Plenty of independent tour guides for hire could also be good hirelings to find local dungeons and give good (or bad!) information on what’s out there in the wilds.
INSPIRATION FOR THE SURROUNDING AREA
Well those are just the ideas off the top of my head, but although I don’t have a lot of experience making hex maps, I would assume plopping an ancient battlefield or two on the map would be a fantastic way to expand outward and map out the surrounding areas.
For example the fabled story of the Spartan 300 fighting at Thermoplyae, literally “The Hot Gates” in translation was a battle site specifically because of the surrounding geography – much like I mentioned above that battlefields are often of great strategic importance both then and now still today. It’s a mountainous region with a body of water to one side and a very narrow path leading through it to move an army. It was obviously a great spot for a smaller force to make their attempt to hold off against a larger force.
Asking why this site was a battlefield will start answering a lot of questions and quickly fill up blank spaces on the map – and that’s what always gets us stuck right – a blank canvas? It’s a great approach to give yourself a rocket starting out with a lot to work with quickly.
Header image is from John Steeple Davis from The story of the greatest nations, from the dawn of history to the twentieth century : a comprehensive history, founded upon the leading authorities, including a complete chronology of the world, and a pronouncing vocabulary of each nation.