Friday, September 10, 2010

Alexis' World

This week I have this database on the brain.  Don't lose faith with me, in a week or so I'll settle down and start churning out random material again.

In the meantime, I've been giving some thought as to what would qualify as 'world design' in the big picture.  If there were a database or an organized wiki, how could the subject matter be divided?  Mind you, I'm thinking along the lines of the world itself, and not rules or charts intended to run the world. 

Rather than produce a large number of headings, I've tried to limit the number to six general categories.  No doubt there would be material that didn't fit, but additional categories could be created as needed.

I don't think I'm entirely out to lunch with these six.  They correspond to most of what I see people doing on their blogs through the system.  Whatever the world the gentle reader is making, these questions are bound to come up.  I've written the questions in blue, and an outline in black.  I could write a great deal, but I'll keep my comments general.

Heirarchy of Existence & Power:  what relative status do characters - and by extension, intelligent humanoids or alternative ecological organisms - have in relationship to real or unreal 'gods' or other perceived creatures of greater power?

I see a three tiered system of power.

1) Most creatures are mortal, without any comprehension of the world around them.  Those with higher intelligence have, in almost every case indirectly, come to recognize the existence of gods.  They have created a variety of explanations, often incorrect, for how the gods interact with the world, and how the gods may best be served.  I like the conception that the power of the gods hinges upon the number of believers they possess, so the proselytization of a particular god's agenda and the destruction of other god's agendas acts as the fuel that runs many people's lives.

2) Between the lower orders and the higher gods are a group of entities that possess some immortal characteristics and a much clearer perception of the workings of the world.  These would be entities or intelligences who have divine knowledge of the gods, who might in fact be in communication with the gods ... but who continue to have corporeal structure.  This includes a great many whose power and fame has won them the title of 'god' with the lower orders, but the appellation is incorrect.  Creatures that might fit this level would include many of the non-human's deities (such as Lolth and others), titans, hecatonacheres, muses, certain heroes and such that fall under the status of demi-gods and so on.   All these entities have substantial 'bodies' and could be killed - but it is so difficult and these creatures have lived so long that there is a pervasive belief in their status as divine beings.

3) Actual gods.  Entities that are immortal, have no corporeal existence - in the usual sense - and capable of widescale destruction or creation by means not generally covered by the magic described in the game.  Acts of this sort do not occur except according to set agreements or arrangements as established by a 'pecking order' among these greater entities.  The very function of the world and the universe - such as the turning of the world, the forces that bring out weather, annual flooding, the growth of plants, knowledge, procreation and so on - works according to these agreements in a manner that is largely incomprehensible to the lower orders.  At any given moment, any of these presumed arrangements can be suspended - which creates a momentum among the ignorant not to challenge the gods, though appeals through prayer and ritual ultimately have little effect.  The gods hear everything, and bring forth their beneficence generously, but that would not stop them from plunging a meteor into the world if it suited their ultimate and incomprehensible goals.

History:  what events have transpired in order to create the world as it is now?

Most of the history of my world is in some way recognizable with that of the Earth - except that in many cases certain peoples, cultures or migration patterns have been distinctly altered.  For example, humans in my world never slipped across the land bridge into North America some 25,000 years ago.  The pre-history human cultures from Asia that would have done so were stymied by the presence of pre-goblin cultures that dominated the mountainous regions of Siberia, so that northern migration and the development of human polar tribes never occurred.  In any case, elves evolved from uncertain beginnings some 300,000 years ago in the lower Mississippi valley, and prior to that lizard, snake, cat and bird people cultures developed throughout the Middle and Southern American continent.  My world has Mayans, Incans, Olmecs and Toltecs, but none of these cultures were human.

Thus, while human cultures still developed in the four primary basins - the Hwang Ho, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates and Nile - in every direction upon expanding out of these basins they encountered non-human tribal cultures of various intelligence that had to be overcome.  When speaking of invasions of the Saracens, the Semites, the Aryans, the Huns, the Parthians, the Mongols and so on, I am speaking of non-humans.  But at the same time, there were many human-tribe invasions also: the Dorics, the Slavs, the Magyars, the Turks and the Vikings.  It gets complicated, and I've never sat down to specifically define which invader fits which race ... in part because in many cases, the race is mixed, as would be the case with the Khazars and the Uighurs.  Overall, I use the guideline that if the race continues to exist and occupy lands which are now considered human in my world, then that invader was human (the Bulgars still occupy Bulgaria); but if the invader was ultimately destroyed by the present inhabitants, then that race was non-human (the Avars have been elimated from Europe's Balkan region).

Beyond this, I still had the Romans, the dark ages still occurred, and the medieval period followed.  But without the new world and a helpless Africa to give Europe energy, and without expansion into Asia by the Russians (the Mongols, being haruchai, have proved too tough to destroy), the medieval period has been extended into the 17th century.

Geography:  what is the physical nature of the world?

Substantially unchanged from the existing Earth.  I have accepted this for the granular quality it offers to my campaign, the simplicity of having weather and other features easily researched and incorporated, and because human beings playing in my campaign have prior associations with specific places.  Thus, when I say the party has arrived in Ireland, they can visualize the country, the people, the dress and the general culture without my having to explain all this from the beginning.

While my blog spends a lot of time discussing this aspect of my world, and the maps, that is mostly because I've always had a fascination with maps, which predates D&D for me by 9 years.  Consider that I started playing D&D at 15.  I was actually given my first almanac as a Christmas gift when I was 8 years old.  When I first started playing D&D, I saw it as a way to feed my pre-existing geographical fascination.

So, always been crazy.

Technology/Magic:  what technological potential has the world achieved?  What forms of magic exist?  Have all parts of the world reached equal status in both magic and technology?

Discussing magic, first: in most every case this is where I and the AD&D books maintain the closest association.  I have no problem with the magic formats of the Player's Handbook, and I use about half the spells from the Unearthed Arcana, along with cantrips.  I haven't seen any other spells on any site, magazine or source that I think is worthwhile adding to a campaign.  This is not to say that there aren't decent created spells out there, its only that I don't see the benefit in giving dozens and dozens of extra spells for characters to use.  The rules that allow characters to make their own spells is a fair principal, and when I've had characters approach me about this, I've always tried to be accommodating.  The same thing can be said about magic items and artifacts.  I've added a few of the latter, but for the most part I'm happy with the offerings in the DMG.

As regards technology in my world, it is mostly swords and armor.  I have black powder, and even cannon, but these things are dangerous to use and are easily affected by magic.  It's a brave individual who carries gunpowder when any magic fire attack is going to make you dead very quickly.

In any case, there really are no limitations on what additional technological possibilities could be incorporated into a game.  I have always been a fan of Fineous Finger's 'wand of magic missiles' (M-16 rifle), and I actually had party members in a prior campaign stumble across a tank and fuel for it.  Made for some interesting gaming.  Multiple universes linked together through the astral plane allows for a lot of possibilities.

But still, I stick to the ordinary combat equipment because, overall, it makes the game most playable.

Biology:  what creatures, intelligent or otherwise, exist?

Once again, I'm close to the books, at least with regards to what monsters exist.  This last couple of years I've made some significant changes to monster hit points and combat, changes I intend to carry forward in the next few years as things occur to me.  I want to create some encompassing table to identify how much damage creatures do according to battle technique (claws vs. horns vs. club-like limbs and so on).

My problem with new monsters is that they are almost always just rehashes of old monsters.  I'm not looking for any new humanoids, golems, dragons, demons or undead.  I am looking for completely new kinds and classifications of creatures, but those ideas aren't out there, as far as I can tell.  I use virtually every monster in the Monster Manual (the only exceptions are psionic creatures) and about a third of those in the Fiend Folio, plus what I've incorporated out of the Deities and Demigods.  I have between 30 and 40 monsters of my own construction, mostly large versions of Earth-creatures.

Culture:  how is population distributed, what municipal groupings exist, what are the principal civil organizations, what laws and customs are observed and what is considered socially acceptable behavior?  How do these vary between intelligent species?

Here, again, I fall back on Earth norms, but I'm not married strictly to that formula.  Still, I have massive cities, huge countries and empires, mixed with tiny duchies and city-states.

Beneath the predictable Earth cultures that we're all familiar with, I have a wide range of organized counter-culture groups, some human (Illuminati-like) and some non-human (like the doppelganger conspiracies that are impossible to number ... there's always one more).  I draw heavily from movies and literature for my imagination in creating these groups.

Primarily, my chief motivation for most of the creatures in my world are survival first, and money and power after.  Those who have grown comfortable and reasonable ensured of their survival will tend towards exploiting those around them, sometimes honestly and very often dishonestly.  If I were to point to someone as a template for what a player would expect, I would recommend the gentle reader pick up a copy of Voltaire's Candide or De Sade's Justine.  I don't say that life is always a parade of people offering kindness with one hand and a knife for the back in the other (I do believe honor and justice motivate many people in my world), but it is hard to tell those who do employ this two-faced method from those who are legitimately kind.

For the game, I see culture as a motivator for events and interactions affecting the characters.  There are lots of rules, which are much harder on foreigners (who don't know what they are) than on locals.  Rules are mainly there to keep down the weak and poor, while promoting the wealthy and strong.


Zak S said...

I feel like there should also be a "literary" or "genre" category--i.e. "What type of playstyle or "mood" was this world originally designed to support or encourage or emulate?"

It's not a "world-building" question but it provides a lens through which to view all the answers to the more crunchy questions so they make sense.

Alexis said...

Please understand, I don't feel that I've created a definitive list by any stretch of the imagination, but I must strongly disagree with this suggestion, Zak. I feel that the emphasis should be put upon original work.

The best worlds, I think, would be those based upon the literary ability of it's own maker, rather than upon the literary ability of some other maker. Whereas there's lots of room in the other six categories for someone to say, I did it this way because I liked this source or that source, what value would a completely independent category serve, other than to promote non-participants who happen to have written fantasy fiction?

Those fantasy authors have fan-sites of their own. Let's leave them the hell off ours.

Zak S said...

I didn't mean to suggest it should say something like "I really want this to be like Gor"

What I meant was that there should be a place to emphasize what -your own- aesthetic goals re: this world are.

Like it could just say "My intention is to create a simulation of renaissance-era adventure with attention to realistic detail" or "This world is designed to facilitate gonzo play but also allow for overtones of more serious psychological horror" or "This world is intended to work on a dreamy'fairy-tale' logic"


That way when you read through the six types of trees you understand what forest they're supposed to be making up.

Alexander said...

That's a good start for the list.

Regarding "Heirarchy of Existence & Power", might I suggest the broader terms "Metaphysics" or "Cosmology". There is more to be answered than just the heirarchy involved, as some campaign worlds have fundamentally differences here. Contrast Greyhawk's Great Wheel to Eberron's Oscillating Planes, for instance.

I also second Zak's recommendation that there be a "Genre" or "Aesthetic" section in which world-creators can discuss their goals for the world. That would actually be one of the most interesting sections to read, I think, as one can then consider how the creator met his goals. If "aesthetic" or "genre" is too literary for you, Alexis, then we could call it "Designer's Notes" or "Background".

Also, I'd argue for a category called "Sources" where the world-builder can call out books and references he found valuable. That could be anything from Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" to Lin Carter's "Throngor". I don't think we should be embarassed to acknowledge where we get our information and inspiration.