Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Origin of Identity

Indulge me a moment and study the map below.

It's quite an ordinary map, the sort usually created by DMs, though arguably it is probably more tightly compacted than most fantasy maps.  Rather than vast, empty hexes, such as might be found with a map like this, the makers of Divine Right were creating a wargame.  There was a strong desire to make as many of the hexes strategically important - and so the hills in the south part of the country do not spread over 40 hexes, but only 4.

Suppose these are 20-mile diameter hexes.  There are 64 hexes altogether, so in size Pon would be about 10% bigger than Switzerland, or half the size of Indiana (about 17,000+ sq.mi. or 43,000, if that helps any).  It's much like Switzerland, that had a population of 1,664,832 when the French started counting census - and since population numbers tend not to shift that much until the industrial revolution, a million people is not a bad guess for a decently organized and defensible region like that above.  Of course, three measly cities for a million people seems ridiculous (compare with the number of important cities in Switzerland), but we can presume there are other places that just aren't written on this map.

If all we want are places for adventures to occur, the map is already sufficient.  The Gathering is a convenient nest of gnolls waiting to be killed, the Barriorr Mountains of the Mountains of Ice can be filled with as many dungeons as we want, the Border Forest cries out for bandits and raiders across the border from Mivior (the yellow part of the map) in either direction and the Lost City of Khos (sorry, the map cut off the words in the middle) beckons.  We have three convenient towns for the party to retreat to in order to lick their wounds and everything is nice and closely spaced, so everything can be reached with just a few days walking.  What more could we want?

I dearly want to answer that question, though I encourage the reader to do some self-investigation as well.  If all the hexes indicate are the terrain and the distances between places, then why should anyone care what Pon is or what it stands for?  If its nothing more than a splat-kingdom for marching out for nickels and dimes, it's immediately interchangeable for any other place in the player's mind. The map in the player's head is as blank and empty as the hexes themselves.  Those four hill hexes in the south are cut from the same cloth as the hills in the middle of the country or the hills west of Marzarbol, just as Marzabol, the Heap in the Hills and the Crow's Nest may as well be identical.

What makes us love a country?  What makes it feel like home, or a place we dream of being, or something we would fight and die for?  The great big mall that's conveniently 40 miles south of us? The beach ten miles to the north?  The stadium close enough that we can walk the distance?  Is it conveniences, services, things to do, opportunities and so on that make the land what it is?  I feel the answer is no, for those things are everywhere.

Love the Buffalo Bills if you must, but it's only a trick of fate that you were born in Buffalo and not Pittsburgh or - horrifically - in some city in Canada.  I want the players to ask themselves what it is that makes us cheer, put up with the shit and viciously defend our city, even when that seems irrational.

It seems silly and stupid to argue that plunking in a few industries and products will give a region character, but is this not the case?  Is Chicago not defined by hog butchery and its transshipment docks, as well as the industry that accelerated jazz music there and construction boom that built the city skyward?  Is L.A. not defined more by its industry than by its beaches and weather?  San Diego has the same beaches and the same weather, but who gives a shit about San Diego?  It's damn near as big as Detroit and Philadelphia, but when was the last time you heard anyone mention that city outside a sports reference?

What we do makes us who we are.  What a country or city does gives that place an identity.

Do your players want to walk over blank hexes to the next combat, or do they want to live in a place that gives a sense of identity?  And while you ask yourself that question, O Reader, along with the others of this post, piece together the problem that creating an identity is a hundred times harder than creating a dungeon.

Perhaps that's the reason why so few DMs have given it's creation an effort.


Barrow said...

You touched on the hardest part of DMing for me.

I think of it in terms of content through conduits. The mechanics, hexes, forests, hills, and even the city spaces are all conduits for the content that puts asses in seats. Drawing hexes and terrain tiles is fun and easy, but for me, I have to view these activities as procrastination. Leisure activities that lulls me away from putting meat on the bones. When I set the table for my players, they aren't hungry for the table setting.

Dave Cesarano said...

Yet again, Alexis, you nail some key aspects of DMing. Giving nations character is hard enough but cities? Indeed, though, if a DM really does sit down and spend time working things out, his or her cities should, after some time, see character emerge. The first thing, though, is time and effort need to be invested, as well as thought and care. I'll be honest, I've not really done all I can to give every city my PCs passed through a good dose of character but I've managed to develop some of them rather well, I'd like to think.

Doug said...

I wonder how much of this is a result of players who don't bother fleshing out their characters. Giving a character a place to call home is an invitation to a DM to mess with that home. Sort of the reason why so many characters seem to be orphans so the DM can't kidnap a dear sibling.

But it does give me a new project to at least think about (if not work on) as my players wander around their world.