Yarivandel is, apparently, bound to be my muse this week. Here is a comment he wrote on this post, reproduced in its entirety:
"I find your idea of using the elements of real world in a fantasy campaign very interesting. I am personally not convinced it would work for me. One of the charms of playing in a fantasy world is the discovering 'the unknown' also in the geographical and cultural sense. Unfortunately I find it very difficult to get as a player as very few DMs I know bring depth to these aspects of the game. But generally I would opt for visiting a great fantastic city I've never heard of than a fantastic city of Paris. But in truth it's a matter of proper presentation not the city name, so what do I know... I am just curious, what lies in your world on the lands of current Poland? Is it a region inhabited by some demihuman race, a savage wilderness or a human kingdom?"
I don't fault Yarivandel for making a grevious assumption in the comment, because it is an assumption that nearly every person makes who does not come from a background where everything is always seen from an alternative perspective. The assumption is that something that is 'real' - i.e., the Earth - is there not 'fantastical' ... despite the very obvious fact that everything we conceive of as fantastical has been invented by minds living continuously in the real world.
In other worlds, based on what is the reasoning that the real world is anathema to inventiveness?
Every fantasy that we may imagine, being human beings living in this 'real' world must by necessity be a reflection of that world - there is no 'fantastical' that can exist divorced of the framework in which we find ourselves. To imagine that somehow we are separated in some manner in our minds from the reality our minds occupy is to fail to understand the manner in which 'fantastic' is fabricated. It is a failing in creative philosophy.
What, for instance, makes the Paris of my imagination reduced to the Paris that actually exists? Nothing. Was not Paris occupied by the Phantom of the Opera, did not Quasimodo ring the bells of Notre Dame? Are there no vampires in Paris, no gargoyles? Is there no magic? Does the reality of Paris exempt the city from the horror stories that rattle through its streets? Of course not.
The greater question is, is the magical, mystical city of Oz divorced in some manner from the real world? What do we really know about Oz? The soldiers that guard the city seem remarkably mannered like real people. The streets, whatever color they may be, are yet presumed to be streets. Baum is very quick to move the reader through those streets and past its people, who bear all the remarkable likeness to real people, in order to move us to a palace which is, after all, only a palace. Does the world not have palaces? Does the fact that the palaces of Oz are green make them so unique as to render them inconceivable? Of course not.
Whatever you invent, wherever you take your players, you will still have to take them to a place that you can describe with your real world experience, and that your players can comprehend with their real world comprehension. The palace may float, it may have a river of blood and pixies that deluges from a great decanter atop a silver ball, but the principles of 'palace,' 'river' and 'silver' will yet all be 'real.' All that you will have done is to mix up the associations. You will have created combinations that do not exist, but not things that do not exist. Your perception that you have is a delusion.
But it does not matter! Does the fact that we call the destination Oz or Paris diminish the opportunities for adventure? I have a street map of Paris, made for me. I do not have a street map of Oz. Does the fact that I have a street map pre-made reduce the number of adventures I may run in the magical city of my invention, that happens to be upon an invented Seine in an invented Ile de France, in an invented Europe? Do the names, after all, really matter.
I would beg that the reader close their eyes, and imagine, right now, that they are in the city of Oz. Picture the corner of two streets there. Tell me the events that have happened. Do not describe streets that you know to exist in the real world. Do not tell me events that reflect real world events that you know. Tell me about UNIQUE streets and events.
It's impossible. Yet I can tell the unique existence of two streets that connect in Paris, that exist no where else in the world. I can point to them on a map. I can show you a picture of the place and I can describe unique people who visited there. Does the fact that the place is real make it any less interesting? Does the fact that the reader can go there, and poke about the streets, offer any less opportunity for discovery?
Am I, as DM, not able to have the player attacked by a lich reincarnation of Clovis the Great or Boadicea upon their arriving at the corner referenced? Of course not. Nor is the attack any less compelling or dramatic because it happens to take place at a recognizeable location.
Nor is it true that everywhere in the world is known to the players, however brilliant they are. I have a friend, for instance, that lives in Strasbourg, in France, on the Rhine River bordering Germany. Less than 40 miles from him there used to be a little area called the 'Kingdom of Rappolstein.' It's just a tiny little fiefdom, smaller even than the invented Duchy of Grand Fenwick. I would venture my Strasbourg friend hasn't heard of it. I hadn't heard of it, until I began researching individual towns in France, and came across Ribeauville. Once upon a time, it was called Rappoltsweiler. Look, here's an image of one of the family members in miniature made by a Russian manufacturer.
What is this little kingdom like in my world? Who the hell knows? I can do anything with it that I want. My imagination is not limited in the least. The discovery of the kingdom by the party, whatever happens to be there, is not restrained in the least. The field, as they say, is wide open. And when one of my players, who happened to find gawd only knows what beast there, happens to find themselves in the real Strasbourg, they might say, "I think I'd like to take a little side trip forty miles south of there to a little town called Ribeauville." And there they can walk the ground with their children, and say, "We fought the dragon right here, on this hill. Then we carried the gold we got down to the river there, and were about to load it on boats when the King's men attacked us. It was bloody and brutal. We were so weak from fighting the dragon, we could barely stand. The mage died, the elf almost did, and yet we managed to fight our way to that tower over there. The King himself came out and we made a deal. I'll never forget that adventure."
And where did the hill and the river and the tower come from? Reality. Google Earth.
Don't underestimate the power of the real thing.