Saturday, June 17, 2017

Who Lit All These Points of Light?

If we're going to keep referring back to our design principles, then it will probably be useful to boil them down to their essence. You may have noticed that I never say in one word what I could stretch out to ten. I'm working on it.

1. Big, big world, full of isolated cultures and vast wilderness. Travel is difficult and dangerous.
2. Player agency drives emergent story. Provide systems for play and development away from the table. Mechanical encouragement for players to maintain multiple characters. 
3. Persistent environments that remember the accomplishments of PCs, and maintains the content that they generate organically through interaction with the setting.
4. Time passes meaningfully. Things change in organic ways, determined as much as possible by structures rather than DM fiat. The roll of years should be an additional play space, with systems requiring and rewarding down time.
Isolated cultures, difficult travel, and room at the top for PCs to leave their mark on the world. These elements demand some pretty serious changes to the magic system, or at least to the available spells. Fine by me. Much as I enjoy D&D magic, it's hardly a sacred cow. If you want to keep it intact, it's also (somewhat counter-intuitively) probably the biggest obstacle to mystery, wonder, and cultural variation. Let's assume that absolutely nothing is sacred about the extant magic rules.

Disparate cultures suggest alternate points of view on fairly basic elements of the world, which in turn suggests myriad incomplete systems (math, technology, magic, religion, etc) that can fit together to create whole ones (or, at least, more complete ones). Coupled with player agency and a reactive environment, we have a world in which there are unknown structures at work, and with the meaningful passage of time, those structures can come to be understood with increasing accuracy.

There's also the problem that, for all my talk of and desire for verisimilitude, isolated cultures with no access to their neighbors demand a reason for that to be the case. Kingdoms don't just spring up out of nowhere, they spread out in predictable ways, pushing migration out to the edges, displacing large predators and domesticating livestock as new nations and new cultures eventually sprout out from them. The "Points of Light" concept has always struck me as an elegant one in terms of providing access to a diversity of experiences, but it needs an explanation.

Depiction of a somewhat less interesting method.
In our case, the explanation is that something happened that plunged at least a large portion of the world into a severe dark age. People huddled together for safety. The gradual thinning of population at the edges of secure territory transformed into starkly depopulated regions. Life grew difficult, and knowledge of history and letters and such became the luxuries of decadent men, then were lost in uprisings, schemes, and monster incursions. Over time, a balance of power emerged, as it always does. The lands of men stopped shrinking, and some even grew prosperous and powerful. That is the stage onto which our PCs step.

I like it! Lots of potential and suitable gravitas. We have loads of directions to work outward from: history, geography, specific cultures, those known and unknown structures, and the question of religion to name a few. There's also still a tremendous stack of rules to dig through as we consider classes, proficiencies, and so on. Next session, we'll crack open the World Builder's Guidebook, consult the 1st and 2nd Edition DMGs, and dig around in the OSR blogging community to find our bearings and set a course for our creative expedition.

Links to those resources and thoughts on the topic are welcome. How would you handle magic, given the above conceits? Do you prefer familiar cultures with real world analogues, combinations of the familiar to create something new, or wholly alien societies with no like on the Earth? Finally, as we set out to frame our "To Do" list, what tasks do you treat as priorities when building a world, setting, or adventure? What elements seemed trivial at first, but were missed on game day?

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