There are dangerous predators, monsters, and evils out there.
Some of them are extremely powerful.
Yet there are substantial areas where ordinary people seem to survive quite handily.
Ergo, we have at least three “zones” in most RPG worlds.
(Relatively) Safe Zones. In these areas – whether due to the presence of powerful protectors (or of powerful exploiters who don’t like competition), natural or artificial barriers, or special conditions such as a lack of the magical energy needed to support the major menaces – there aren’t too many terribly dangerous things about. Mid-range menaces are usually either solitary, secretive, subtle, limited to specific locations, newly-arrived, or more than one of those things. Low-level menaces are common, and either home-grown for areas protected by barriers or environmental conditions or not worth the trouble for more powerful people to deal with.
Low-level menaces are likely to include things like bandits and other renegade people, dangerous wild animals, natural disasters such as plagues, floods, and fires, ambitious rulers with basic military forces, corrupt tax collectors and officials, poltergeists, mystery and investigative scenarios, annoyed minor supernatural creatures that also like living in low-menace areas such as brownies and pixies, crazed ritualists, common raiders, and minor noxious sapient races, such as the classic kobolds.
Low-level menaces are things that the normal population can deal with themselves – albeit often with casualties – but that a group of adventurers can deal with far more readily, and often with fairly minimal preparation. That’s good, because such problems are often both too common, and often too symptomless or mobile, to allow for intensive investigation and preparation. Still, any low-level group that attacks a group of low-level menaces – say, a bandit camp – without checking the local rumors and stories about them, scouting the place, and making any special preparations they can, is asking for a disaster.
Low-powered characters may act as wandering troubleshooters, may be local professionals who simply happen to have the skills needed to deal with dangerous incursions which turn up in the area, be in the service of a powerful patron who has bigger responsibilities, or adopt an area to help out. In any case, their adventures are likely to be fairly local, dealing with menaces that the locals would have a hard time handling.
Mid-level menaces in such areas include powerful creatures that are either restricted to a particular area or can only menace a few people at a time, such as ghosts haunting a particular location or solitary possessing demons, social corruption and injustices, ambitious or vicious adventurer-class individuals, vampires who have settled into a particular location to feed on the locals (subtly corrupting and draining the area without making it obvious what’s going on), evil local rulers, and relatively modest creatures from outside the (Relatively) Safe Zone raiding it’s borders.
Low-powered characters can deal with mid-level menaces – but it’s going to be rough. If they don’t investigate and scout out what’s going on carefully, plan ahead, gather allies and collect appropriate resources, they are likely to pay a terrible price for such foolishness – and should. Letting them “win” without fully earning that victory is fun and exciting for awhile, but will become boring soon enough. How long is it fun to play a video game in god mode?
High-level menaces in Relatively Safe Zones are extremely rare events. For most normal people, they are literally once in a lifetime, if only because – after encountering a major menace – quite a lot of normal people’s lifetimes will be over. Smaug’s attack on Laketown in The Hobbit, Attila the Hun’s semi-legendary (many accounts differ) sacking of various cities, and the destruction of Dresden, would all qualify. Unless the game master sets up some extraordinary coincidence (such as Bard taking out Smaug with a single shot – a feat only made possible by author fiat, since, if it was even remotely likely, Smaug should have known was possible and taken precautions against it), the best a low-level group can hope to do in the face of a high-level menace is to get out of the way, survive, and find an indirect way to do something about it later.
Despite the example of Smaug, we see low-powered characters up against major menaces several times in The Lord of the Rings. They run away from the dweller in the pool, they run away from the Balrog and its army, and they never even try to confront Sauron directly; his mere gaze through a crystal ball is too much for some of them. Admittedly Gandalf is “sent back” after his dramatic stand against the Balrog, but you can’t keep counting on game master or authorial fiat to keep your characters alive; part of the game is taking responsibility for your decisions and taking the consequences. When a high-level menace appears in a Relatively Safe Zone, it’s pretty much always either transient (and usually the sign of some major disturbance) or a sign that a chunk of the (Relatively) Safe Zone is reverting to Borderland or even Wild status.
Borderland Zones are frontiers, places where normal people should go only in well-equipped groups and with great caution. It’s not wise for normal people to be too close to a Borderland Zone (much less in one), which is why they’re full of fringers, adventurers, and fallen outposts of civilization. In reality, permanent borderlands are generally restricted to the edges of areas with intolerable environments – whether that’s the result of extremes of temperature, a lack or excess of water, toxic chemicals such as salt, or a shortage of food, light, or oxygen. In most fantasy realms, where there are creditable challenges to the hegemony of civilization other than distance and natural forces, the frontier is a far more varied thing.
In any case, the Borderlands are always an area of serious contention. Here low-level menaces, such as dangerous wild animals and outlaws, maniacs, minor spirits, and environmental hazards are a fact of daily life, children are sheltered, and life expectancies are short. Here normal people require castles and fortified towns simply to survive – and the ruins of failed attempts are all too common.
While Borderland Zones are still somewhat sheltered, whether by the fading forces which protect the “Safe” Zones, by a shortage of the food and resources needed to support high-level menaces, or by some supernatural restriction, individual mid-level menaces may appear regularly and with relatively little warning, while groups of them moving into the area are occasional major threats.
Groups which are ready to explore the Borderland Zones should be capable of dealing with low-level menaces with little or no preparation quite readily, and will probably be capable of dealing with individual mid-level menaces easily with proper preparation. Without it, they may still have a very rough time, and could easily take some losses or lose. Groups of mid-level menaces should still be treated with great caution – but, given the same sort of investigation, scouting, planning, and gathering of allies and resources that sufficed to deal with individual threats as low-powered characters, they should be manageable. High-level threats may attempt to extend their influence into the area on occasion. While such menaces are probably still beyond the power of mid-powered adventurers to deal with directly, no matter how much investigation, scouting, planning, and gathering of resources they undertake (after all, high-level menaces can do those things too, and often as well), they may be able to seek out some indirect method of driving them off or even of defeating them.
Alternatively, of course, mid-power characters may become the protectors of substantial areas in the Relatively Safe Zones, protect long-range trading or exploratory expeditions, or otherwise try to aid the expansion of the known – and hopefully civilized – world. They may become entangled in wars and local politics, conduct research, or attempt to establish dynasties and trading empires.
The Wild Zones – beyond the reach of whatever protects the (Relatively) Safe Zones – are places where normal people exist in hiding, or on sufferance, at best. Whether such places are the wilds of faerie, the desolate wastes of Arrakis, or the depths of lightless caverns miles beneath the surface (and severely isolated therefrom), they are places where groups of mid-level menaces contend and struggle to survive like normal people do in the Relatively Safe Zones. Here the high-level threats are a constant presence and menace. Even high-powered characters, who can deal with groups of mid-level threats with relative ease, will still need to respect the greater powers of the Wild Zones. Still, once again, with investigation, scouting, planning, and the gathering of resources, high-powered characters may expect to deal with such threats on equal or even advantageous terms. This qualifies them to become the protectors of massive areas in the (Relatively) Safe Zones – or to carve out substantial domains in the Borderland Zones. In either case, however, this will mean moving away from “adventure” and towards politics and intrigue. Menaces presenting a serious difficulty to high-powered characters are very rare in the safer zones. If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be anyone left there.
There may or may not be anything beyond the Wild Zones. Presumably there are the realms of the gods and primal powers of the cosmos, but – if so – they probably aren’t anything most player characters will ever need to be involved with.
Now, what form the protection of the Relatively Safe Zones takes tells a great deal about the world and the character’s place in it.
If their protection is derived from powerful individuals, the “Safe” zones will be in constant flux. Cities and towns will compete to attract or train adventurers and throughly unpleasant abuses of power will abound – since almost any tyrant is preferable to being eaten by monsters or whatever fate lies in wait for unprotected civilians. Expect feudal systems, short-lived kingdoms and empires as adventurers rise and fall, and a relatively primitive culture. The environment is going to be too unstable for anything else.
If their protection is derived from powerful barriers, adventurer’s may either be involved in maintaining them and preventing breaches – or, if breaches are unlikely without the intervention of powerful figures, in tracking down whoever is letting in the things from beyond the borders and fixing the problem. How high a civilization exists will depend on how easy it is to breach the barriers – which will also determine how strongly society rejects such notions. At the high end, welcome to Call of Cthulhu. At the low end, consider most “Superhero” universes; things are sticking their noses in, and getting smacked down, on a daily basis.
If their protection is derived from a variable factor – say the major menaces are dependent on the yearly shifts in magical energies – you can expect another relatively primitive civilization build around nomadic tribes. After all, everyone must regularly move to remain safe – and adventurer’s may be called on to retrieve stragglers, play rear guard, or scout ahead.
If the protections are strong and stationary, you can expect relatively high cultures towards the center of the Relatively Safe Zone or Zones, running down to primitives at the fringes, where there is no time or energy to spare for the finer things in life. This situation is likely to resemble the classical roman empire – with regular attempts to push civilization out beyond it’s natural boundaries and into dangerous territories.
If the protection depends on magical pacts with various types of spirits or entities, regular offering and sacrifices, or mystical rituals, than maintaining those barriers is all-important – to the point that almost any sacrifice might be considered worthwhile. Will the characters help maintain a corrupt system in the interests of racial survival, or will they try to overthrow it and let civilization take it’s chances?
Of course, once you’ve considered the three zones, and what sets their boundaries, you know what your “encounters” are going to look like – and you know what is likely to happen to characters who behave foolishly, expect to be able to charge into things without doing any investigation first and win, or head off into the unknown without checking up on whatever IS known about it first. They’re going to die. Usually messily and unpleasantly.
And if you’re interested in a long-term game, that’s a good thing. Investigation and planning is what creates a really memorable encounter – and it also means that you may have many sessions which do not involve combat at all.