RPG Design – A Drop of Chaos

   This is chaos.

   The good, pure, high-quality, kind.

   There are a lot of names for whatever-it-is that it’s made of at the moment, but we’re going to call that substrate Quintessence. The stuff that could do, or become, anything, and that has no rules at all. Where anything is possible, no individual event is likely – and nothing means anything.

   All universes worth living in are based in chaos, even if they smother it under so many rules and bindings that it can only be detected at the microscopic – or even subatomic – level. If they don’t use it, they’re totally deterministic, and that’s no fun at all.

   Quintessence throws things up – and wipes them away again – all the time. Some things only exist for moments before they destroy themselves. Others are reasonably stable in themselves, but are soon wiped away. Others strive to continue, despite the surrounding chaos, with more or less success. Simple things are thrown up often, more complex ones more rarely, and extremely complex ones not at all often. Some are extremely durable, and so often last for a long time, even drifting in the Quintessence. Look around, and you can probably find some.

   None of them are eternal. Given infinite time, eventually whatever rules made those items durable items – or even “indestructible” – will change, and then, sooner or later, the random surges of chaos will wipe them away. That’s why chaos is not safe to have around – and why all universes eventually end.

   We have plenty of time. We can wait.

   Lets take a closer look.

   When you zoom right down into infinitesimal specks you find…

   Pretty much exactly the same thing. This is chaos remember. It really hasn’t got a “scale” that means much of anything.

   Still, when we’re surrounded by infinity, we’re still free to look at some small bits.

   Now, chaos is almost certain to be changing – either shrinking by any amount of or growing by any amount – at any given moment.

   A lot of those little areas we’re looking at simply wink out of existence.

   Others may abruptly become uncountable trillions of light years across – and every bit of that new chaos will either grow or shrink as seems good to it.

   Sometimes a little bubble with some sort of rules – the essence of a universe – will form, and expand. Those rules aren’t eternal. Eventually chaos WILL wash them away – but if they’re strong, they may endure many billions of years worth of chaotic fluctuations before being shattered by some mighty surge.

   In cosmology this comes dressed up with lots of math, but it’s called Chaotic Inflation – and is one of the major theories about how our universe came into being. It even comes with a lot of really entertaining bits (presuming that you too are a physics nerd) about quantum tunneling, alternate multiverses, vacuum tunneling, zero point energy, false vacuums, designer universes, and energy potentials.

   Oh, wait; you’re probably NOT a physics nerd, and this is about gaming.

   This solves our first problem with a gaming universe beginning though; if you start with chaos, your universe almost certainly came from a tiny seed of chaos – and so will be unencumbered by relics of earlier universes, which are all far beyond its borders. Whatever laws that speck of chaos developed may well have been stretched across a mighty area by that initial expansion – so they’ll be pretty consistent across the universe.

   Now, most of the “fantasy” universes (as opposed to the “science fiction” worlds) are pretty anthropomorphic. They have at least vaguely comprehensible “gods” – even if they do often embody “cosmic principles” – events revolve around more or less easily-understood people, and so on. Most of them have some sort of creators as well.

   Does that make any sense?

   Well, yes, it does. Living beings – or at least their bodies if our universe includes some sort of “life force” – are primarily made up of information and patterns of activity. You can see that with the simplest of bacteria.

   In a universe where chaos is tightly bound, and inanimate matter can exist on its own, selection for self-replicating combinations of matter will get living things jump-started relatively early on – and you’ll wind up with evolution, progenitor-races, and mighty archipelagos of unused matter separating various groups of creatures that got early starts.

   In worlds with looser rules, it all depends on what forms are relatively stable. If things are chaotic enough, you may have to wait until the randomness throws up a very complex pattern indeed – a willful, self-aware, entity equipped to survive in its pocket universe unprotected, capable of reproducing there, able to impress its will on the rest of the place, and wanting to do so.

   If you’re lucky, some forms particular to the universe will prove stable enough to turn up more or less regularly, but it really doesn’t matter – once you’ve got self-replicating survivor-entities, your universe is underway!

   The early ones will likely be pretty powerful. If they aren’t, they probably won’t last long enough to reproduce – and they’re not going to be getting any help from anyone else until there are other creatures around. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be helpful.

   They’re also going to be pretty long-lived, if not night immortal. The ones who aren’t won’t last long enough to establish their “species”, and no one else will ever know about them.

   They’re also likely to be more than a bit crazy. “Competent enough to survive” is unlikely to equate to “sanity” when a mind assembled at random by the forces of chaos.

   There’s no guarantee that their offspring will resemble them in any way save for being powerful enough to survive, capable of reproducing, having an urge to do so, and being long-lived enough to do so a lot. Later generations will iron out the rough edges as usual; the more competent and better-adapted ones will survive more often.

   All of this IS pretty unlikely of course, but that really doesn’t matter when you’ve got nigh-infinite space, time, and potentiality to play with. It’s bound to happen eventually. In fact, unless there’s some really ODD kind of “Cosmic Copyright” principle in this particular cosmos that says that things can only come into being once, it’s going to happen many, MANY times.

   So we’ve got our mighty cosmic entities – the primordial titans of the dawn of creation – and their considerably-saner, if perhaps less well balanced, descendants.

   Now, we are talking about gaming universes here – and that pretty much demands that characters have a system for increasing their abilities over time. That’s one of the basic goals of playing.

   Still, we can’t let that go on limitlessly – and having the elder titans overshadowing everything the player-characters do isn’t much fun. So we need an upper limit.

   These things are creatures of chaos, and so they could grow to become almost anything. Still, there would always come a point where – if you changed any more – you really wouldn’t be you any longer.

   Ah; there we have a plausible principle: growing in power requires some sort of pattern to follow – and chaotic forces will eventually fill any such pattern. The narrower, and more specialized, that pattern, the more quickly an entity can grow to it’s full potential. The more general it is, the more difficult it will be to add new things and expand to fill it without losing what makes you YOU.

   A self-aware vortex of power, with very little pattern – a thing of chaos and illusion, like so many of the “demons” from various cultures – has vast potential. It could develop into almost anything over its semi-immortal existence. On the other hand, with so little structure, it must advance very very slowly and cautiously; otherwise it could easily disrupt what little structure it has and destroy itself. If you want to play one of these, that’s fine – but they probably won’t grow all that much over the course of the game. Fortunately, that means that their power level can easily be set to what the game requires. In a mixed game, they’ll probably start off strong, then lose effectiveness towards the end while the other character’s abilities increase far more rapidly.

   A being with a very narrow and rigid pattern will achieve great power within a very narrow field quite quickly – and probably won’t get along too well with the more chaotic entities. Such beings will hold a massive edge in the early universe, but can – eventually – be outclassed. Sounds a lot like the old ideas about “Titans”. These probably aren’t playable; they’re just too crazy and focused.

   Their offspring will tend to become less rigid, somewhat grow more slowly until they approach their peak (and only reach their ultimate possible peak with much time and effort), and may well eventually become a bit more powerful than the Titans. We’ll call those “Gods”. These are probably playable in a high-powered game, since they’ll start off strong, but will gradually fall behind the slowly-advancing “demons”. How they’ll relate to mortals depends on the other assumptions of the game – but if mortals are playable, they’ll probably surpass the gods eventually. Otherwise they’d spend the entire game behind, rather than the first half behind and the last half ahead.

   Weak creatures – mortals like humans – may come with a certain amount of power built in, and may either be rigidly constrained by the potential of their basic patterns or capable of tremendous growth. In the first case, they can probably learn what power they can with relative ease; that potential is built into them. In the second case, they’d have to transcend their basic pattern – and become something other than human – to continue to grow in power past their built-in limits. Weak creatures who can grow at a reasonable speed make good characters in most games, but will probably need power boosters to play in high-powered ones.

   There are other variations, but that covers a lot of the classical roles.

   Now, why would our early Titans create a world?

   Well, they wouldn’t get along with the ever-increasing swarms of more chaotic entities that are happy out there in the raw chaos – and, while they’d have an initial lead in power, eventually (if likely only after tends of thousands of years) their rivals could come to surpass them.

   A world though… A world offers stability, protection from the chaos, a chance to recruit lesser allies, a chance to pool their forces, and a chance to share information on possibilities for very cautious growth. Groups of Titans who create worlds are more likely to survive – and once they have a world, they’re most unlikely to want to leave it.

   Of course, their offspring, and any inhabitants they’ve created, may not want to have “their” world controlled by – or even hosting – a bunch of crazed chaos-spawned Titans.

   Ah. That gives us weird gods – that mortals can eventually challenge – “demons” who won’t much like the world, crazed elder titans to create the world (and to be rebelled against or supplanted), the chaos beyond the borders of the world (whether those are geographical or dimensional) as an endless source of monsters and treasures, and can even give us an excuse for an underworld (the Titans, who didn’t want to die, built the world so that true death wouldn’t happen readily – which is also why they cannot be entirely killed).

   That also gives us some metaphysics, a creation myth, possible past invasions, and things that can be summoned from outside and which are not entirely bound by the laws of the world. Most of the classical features of a fantasy world.

   Isn’t it wonderful what you can find in a grain of chaos? Personally, I never tire of watching a world start to unfold from a few bits of speculation. Once you have reasons for your world to be the way it is, you can spin backstory on the fly pretty much endlessly, and make your world as detailed as you want with ease.

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