WB101 Part 6: Son of The Big Picture

Category: World Building 101
Created on Thursday, 22 April 2010 Written by Steve

I said back in January that with the holidays over and done with, I’d get back to writing this column every month. Obviously, that didn’t work out quite like I’d planned. Never fear, though: In order to avoid such broken promises in the future, I will heretofore refrain from suggesting that there is any regular schedule for this column. Not an ambitious solution to the problem, but a solution nonetheless.


The last column finished up by discussing magic. According to Clarke’s Law and RPG tradition, the next logical subject to tackle is technology. I want the world I’m building to have slightly post-Renaissance tech level, with perhaps slightly more advanced firearms and ship-building technology (since I want those pirates to have their bandoliers of pistols). By and large, the most advanced technology will be in the hands of The Sages, with the Empire likely number two in the technology race. Other cultures will have less advanced tech, and a few of those on the far reaches of the world pretty much make due with rocks and pointy sticks.

Since guns are going to be one of my high-end technological toys, I skim over Michael Newton’s Armed and Dangerous: A Writer’s Guide to Weapons, which tells me that wheel locks (the traditional “most advanced gun you should allow in a fantasy game” for some reason) came about in the early 16th Century. Flintlocks, which added protection to the priming pan (and therefore allowed easier use in windy or wet conditions—the high seas, for example) were developed at the beginning of the 17th Century. Since I know that The Sages (who I already know opened the whole guns can of worms) have both a healthy navy and plenty of technological savvy, I decide that flintlocks will probably show up a little earlier here than in the real world.

This puts my basic technology level somewhere in the 16th Century, gun-wise. To get a better idea of what the heck this means, I pull out my copy of The Timetables of History to see what else came along around the same time in our world. Amidst all the discoveries and explorations of the world, the common themes seem to be in the fields of printing, navigation and cartography, and medicine. I decide that the Sages, the most technologically advanced people of the world, are somewhere early in the 17th Century, with the Empire and most other parts of the world 50-100 years behind. I also make notes on a few interesting developments, such as the rise of postal services, the introduction of lotteries, and the invention of the diving bell. The details of what technology exists where can wait until I star developing specific cultures.

Racial Profiling

Dwarves and orcs and elves and such are fun and all, but just like monsters they quickly stop making sense when you try to figure out how they fit into the world. Once you start trying to describe their culture, they inevitably become humans with long beards or piggy noses or pointy ears, losing all the mystery they hold in folk tales and legends. It also introduces the whole genocide issue that’s always bugged me about most fantasy worlds. To avoid those issues altogether, my new world will be decidedly humanocentric. Dwarves and fairies and the like do exist, but they’re really visitors from the many other worlds bordering this one. A forest “inhabited by the elves,” therefore is really just a forest where the border between the real world and the world of the fairies is especially thin. Non-human types are strange, alien, and are absolutely unavailable as player character races.

I will make two concessions to the people who just can’t bring themselves to play a regular old human. The first comes from the real world in the form of pygmies, which is as close to a dwarf or hobbit as a player’s going to get. The second comes from fairy tales and mythology, which are chock-full of human heroes who can trace their parentage to gods, fairies, demons, and the like. In addition to getting horizontal with humans, the creatures from other worlds can also grant them certain gifts and special powers. Many of these powers and heritages will be dubious at best, but in QAGS terminology, there are plenty of Gimmicks that can be explained in-game as fairy gifts or the result of demonic parentage. Some Weaknesses may have similar origins.

While the world is almost entirely human, there are lots of different types of humans in our world, and probably in a fantasy world. While I’m dealing with races, I should probably figure out what people in different parts of my world look like. While I realize that some human traits (such as the shape of the nose or amount of melanin in the skin) are determined by evolutionary response to the environment, I don’t want to research the details. So I just plot out some broad racial/ethnic types on my map, using our world as a very rough guideline.

These groupings are completely arbitrary, and chances are that you would have combined or further separated certain groups. For example, Germanics and Nordics could have been bunched together as “Europeans” or even “White People.” And if you want to go back to the old “four races” thought from a century ago, what I call “Mediterranean” (basically meaning southern Europeans—Italians, Greeks, and the like) would fit into the “Caucasoid” group. I decided to avoid that classification scheme because of its racist overtones and because it’s a little too broad to be useful. In all likelihood, the groupings I’m using have different meanings (or have no meaning at all) to anthropologists and the like, but I’m not writing an anthropology paper here. It gives me a starting point, and that’s what’s important.

Now that we know what the world looks like, what kinds of critters inhabit it, and kind of how it works, we should probably figure out what to call things. “Picto-Vikings” works as a descriptive shorthand, but doesn’t exactly have a lot of flavor to it. So next time around, we’ll get our Tolkien on.

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