Welcome back to World Building 101. It’s been a while, but now that the holiday season is behind us, I’m going to try to get back to a more-or-less regular monthly schedule (at least until convention season starts). In the last exciting episode, I created a map of the world and started thinking about where the different cultures I’d already established would be found. This time around, I’m going to take a step back and look at some of the “big picture” concepts that need to be worked out.
I know what the surface of the world looks like based on the map, but that doesn’t really tell me anything about the planet itself or how it fits into the surrounding universe. Is the planet round like ours, or is it flat or inside a hollow world? What sorts of celestial bodies are visible in the sky? Is the sun dying? Since this isn’t a science fiction game, I don’t need to worry a lot about the science here, but anything that could affect the development of the world and its people needs to be considered.
Since I don’t want to get too weird here, I’m going to make the planet very much like Earth: a wobbly sphere that orbits a single star. Just to keep me on my toes, though, I decide that the planet has two moons. The extra moon will need to be accounted for when I start working on mythologies and religions, which will make it harder for me to get lazy and just file the serial numbers off of a real-world pantheon. The other stuff in the sky—comets, constellations, and so forth will wait until I start detailing the cultures of the world and how they think the world fits into the cosmos.
There are thousands of fantasy worlds out there, so I need some kind of hook to convince potential players that this one isn’t just another bland Tolkein knock-off. The “zombie disease” that I came up with in my initial brainstorming sessions seems like a good hook. In addition to giving the characters a good crisis to deal with and opening the door to horror-themed fantasy, the idea of a zombie plague is full of game potential: cities abandoned because of the plague, strange cures and beliefs about the disease, even “Masque of the Red Death” type stories where the privileged shut themselves off to the horror taking place outside their palaces and city walls.
Since cities are the best breeding ground for any disease, the plague probably started spreading in the grand cities of the Empire, conveniently contributing to the decline of the Empire that I’d already decided was taking place. I’ll have to come up with a lot more details about the disease later on (for example, is it supernatural, mundane, or something in between?), but the hook “the world is being ravaged by some kind of zombie-like plague” is a pretty good starting point.
Here Be Monsters
Monsters are a staple of the fantasy genre, but our modern, scientific way of looking at the world makes them problematic. In myth and folklore, most monsters just existed and for the pre-scientific people who originally told the stories, there was nothing wrong with that. We, on the other hand, want to know where monsters come from and how they fit into the grand scheme of the world. A lot of games handle this by trying to explain how the monsters fit in, detailing their diet, ecological niches, culture (for intelligent monsters), and even their methods of reproduction (which, by the way: ewww). The problem with this way of thinking about monsters this way is that, for all intents and purposes, it turns them into funny-looking animals, completely stripping away the mystery that makes them cool and scary in the first place.
To (hopefully) satisfy the curiosity of the players, I’m going to rule that, while monsters exist in my world, most are not native to it. I’m basically borrowing folklore’s idea of an otherworld or fairy realm here, but expanding it to include lots of alternate dimensions, some of which are full of monsters (kind of like the hell dimensions in Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse). Presumably the monsters make perfectly logical sense in the context of the realities they come from, but since the game isn’t about extra-dimensional travel, we don’t need to know the details. While some monsters get stuck (or just decide to stay) in the game world, there generally aren’t herds of mythical creatures wandering around.
While most monsters in the world are refugees from alternate dimensions, there will be a few monsters that are more or less native to the world. These will mostly consist of cryptozoological types of creatures—yetis, lake monsters, throwbacks to previous eras, and the like. There may also be a few types of monsters whose origins are the result of an ancient curse (like the minotaur or werewolves in Greek mythology) or other magical misadventure.
There is, of course, one broad monster type still to be dealt with: the undead. Even if my zombie plague is a completely natural disease, a world with such a disease will likely have (or be developing) plenty of ghost stories. Lucky for me, most undead are former humans who basically fall into the “cursed” category, so vampires and such follow the “monster rules” I’ve already come up with. When I start working out the specifics of the plague, I can come up with more details about this category of creature.
The upshot of all this is that I’ve just saved myself a lot of work, because I don’t need to worry too much about designing monsters. There will no doubt be monster stories in the myths, legends, and folklore of the people, but that doesn’t mean I need to stat them all out. Even if the creatures in the tales actually exist, there’s a good chance that the stories don’t describe them with total accuracy. I can design monsters as they’re needed to fit the story they’ll be a part of, rather than trying to squeeze existing monsters into the narrative. The only drawback to doing things this way is that there’s no “go-to” monster to act as cannon fodder, but I think the ravening hordes of zombies will fill the “orc” niche rather nicely.
Like monsters, magic is a defining element of the fantasy genre. I’m required by law here to point out here that the flash-bang style of magic found in most role-playing games has no basis in real world tradition or mythology. Actually, that statement needs to be qualified a bit: it’s the use of such flashy magic by regular people that’s rare in real-world stories. When you introduce half-demons, fairies, gods, and the like, magic gets a little flashier. I went with really low-powered magic in my last fantasy campaign, so I want a little more zing this time around, but I don’t want magic to become commonplace. When that happens, it ruins the fun and mystery of magic and raises questions about how magic would alter society. For example, if mind-reading psychics are an accepted reality, it makes perfect sense that such people would be incorporated into the justice system. Neat idea, but it sounds a lot more like cyberpunk than fantasy to me.
Typical human magic in this world will be of the “low magic” variety—it’s difficult to perform and the effects could easily be explained away as parlor tricks or coincidence—in fact, many “wizards” could well be charlatans. Of course, we’ve already established that there are hundreds of “other worlds” or alternate dimensions bordering my world—fairy realms, underworlds full of dead spirits, hells full of demons, shrimp dimension--you get the idea. The entities from these worlds have access to much more powerful magic, and humans can increase their mojo by dealing with these entities. Needless to say, dealing with these entities is difficult and dangerous, so powerful wizards are relatively rare.
So far I’ve decided on two specific types of magic in my world—Tattoo Magic (used by the Picto-Vikings) and Quest Magic (which of course fits with the Pseudo Britons). I decide that Tattoo Magic is of the “low” variety. A particular tattoo is supposed to make you stronger or harder to hit or whatever (it’s mainly battle magic), but the effects can only be proved anecdotally (you might get a +1 to your attacks, but there’s no in-game proof that you’re not just having a lucky day). Quest Magic, on the other hand, fits into the “high” magic category—by fulfilling quests for the fairies, humans can gain access to powers that are more difficult to explain away. I’m sure there will also be religious magic in the world, and it can fall into either category, but is mostly low—visible God-granted powers make faith kind of meaningless. “High” clerical magic can exist, since some of those power-granting extra-dimensional entities wandering around will doubtless be labeled Gods by someone.
Now that I’ve answered some of the basic questions about the world, I can start working on designing the people who inhabit it. I’ll get into that in next month’s column.