World Building: Get Your Crowbar

‘Cause We’re Gonna Steal Everything

That’s Not Nailed Down Too Tightly


Fiddling with exotic settings can be fun and all, but let’s get real. It’s hard to manage all the insanity that a fantasy or sci-fi setting can create. So how do you adjust the setting as little as possible, trying to keep the world as familiar as possible, while not breaking suspecion of disbelief?

First, remember that style doesn’t matter as much as substance. You might mix technology or ideas from different cultures and errors. This means you don’t (usually) need to radically change up stylistic aspects of the game based on the magic or technology advances. Although it always depends partly on what’s comfortable to you and on what your group of players like, this is usually a good move. It gives your players a sense of what the experience of the gameworld is, and gives you an easier time adapting new elements into an existing setting. You’ll; gind it way easier to adapt elements you want to a setting which already makes internal sense than build one from scratch.

Quick Note for the hard-core worldbuilders out there. WHile the previous is the easy and probably best way for most, the usual pattern is almost the other way around sort of. Cultures have multiple layers. The top-most layer is everyday style, which may change from year to year in fashion and decade to decade in architecture. But beneath that is deeper layer of stylistic elements and themes which may continue for eons, or vanosh and then reappear centuries later. These are also frequently closely tied to cultural self-image and deep-seated values. For example, Neoclassical architecture is still common in America for public buildings, because it harkens back to the self-image of America as a new Rome, founded to follow in footsteps of the Roman Republic and even surpass it.

Likewise, cultures will often use new technology for tasks they *don’t* care about. We use technology for work we consider necessary but not important; what we need but do not value. Consider how different cultures view tea. In China, tea is usually a chosen, often local blend served steeped in piping hot water. In America, it’s an instant mix served in a cold glass. Most Americans (not all, but most) don’t care about tea except as a refreshment. By contrast, tea has historical weight in China; people believe they *ought* to make tea properly. And you can take this even further into a question of surface values and enduring cultural ideals, individual moral consideraations, and on and on.

In short, you don’t need to change everything about a culture just because you fiddle with new or altered setting rules.

Here’s an example to work with: Take a standard D20 setting. Swords, spells, medieval technology – the works. Now apply the standard D20 rules, and suddenly you have a right mess. Something like a fifth of the population has spellcasting in some form or another, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t. Simple spells completely change basic elements of society, from farming to communication. Basic housing cost piles of gold coins, and everybody expected to fight anything more dangerous than a couple wolves or goblins is likely to magical gear, or at least masterwork stuff.

There’s different ways of handling this stylistically.

First, nothing has to change on the surface if you don’t want it to. You can still have peasants in traditional styles who live in farming communities. You may still have castles and knights roaming the land dispensing justice to bandits and monsters. Wizards may still dwell in their towers researching new spells.

You can get away with leaving the surface unchanged because under the hood you make more adjustments. The peasant population may grow much bigger, but nobody cares. The military won’t exist to fight wars, but to hopefully produce a few heroes every generation. Wizards may still live in towers – but now you’d be likely to find those towers inside cities instead of isolated in the hills, with wizards selling their spellcasting for big profits because it takes a lot of cash to live well and develop new magic.

This is the trick of *repurposing*. Take the old idea, leave the style elements intact, but direct it toward a new goal. Society is going to end up being very different to experience, but you can pull in many of the same tropes and images. Lets look more closely at how to repurpose without changing too much with a detailed example.

What good is a big army in D20? The military won’t give the soldiers any more goodies; that’s a funciton of their level and class. Even if you ignore the standard, even the wealthiest country can’t really afford to hand out enough magic items to matter, and they’d prefer to find powerful heroes to equip anyway. Frankly, a few thousand low-level characters are largely useless, easy prey for a single high level character who’d like as not simply not bother to kill them, as they aren’t worth the effort and grant no xp.

But that doesn’t mean you won’t have them around. After all, what did we say above? “they’d prefer to find powerful heroes to equip anyway”. Well, every hero has to start somewhere, and funding a military can get a reasonable trickle of worthwhile heroes to fend off the really dangerous monsters and enemies. They can also runa round smacking the weaker monsters on the nose in the mean time, earning a few experience points and keeping the nuisances at bay so the major champions can do their job in relative peace.

Likewise, think about castles and city walls, and other technology. If you feel up to the challenge, you can fiddle with everything. But you don’t have to: simply invent a new reason for it. A normal castle doesn’t really do much in a D20 world. Anybody strong enough to present a real threat is strong enough to ignore the garrison, go right through, over, or around the walls and gates, or even ignore it entirely. Castles and similar fortifications exist for two reasons: to keep an enemy army out, and keep them from ignoring you afterward. But in D20, you don’t need an army. You just need a few heroes. Castles and so forth would seem to have no point.

But a few assumptions changes that point. here’s just a handful of ideas though up in about a minute:

(A) Castles keep out the weak monsters or common grunts – the riffraff of fantasy universes.
(B) They provide a temporary refuge against some bigger monsters or more dangerous heroes. It might not last very long, but if all you have to do is wait a bit for help then it’s quite useful.
(C) There’s a bunch of spellcasters around who can move or create earth and stone on the cheap. So castles are probably a lot cheaper. If it doesn’t cost much, why not build one, especially when…
(D) They look really cool. Men particularly like impressing the neighbors and their wives, so if the chance comes up to build a great big Castle of Awesome, you take it. Besides, who *wouldn’t* want a great big Castle of Awesome?

*BAM* You want to have classic castles in your setting? There you go, good reasons why people might have them. Sure, maybe they’re built a bit more comfy than real castles were. But unless your group contains a medieval history scholar, you should be fine.

You can also use this as a way to mix themes which may not precisely line up in history. Many settings, seeing the profusion of fantasy tropes in gaming, adopt a “Renaissance” style instead. Usually, the implication is that the world is more “developed” than a medieval-ish fantasy ‘verse. I mean, look at all the primitive machines and people with crappy single-shot pistols. Surely technology is on the rise!

This doesn’t really follow. Different cultures develop different technology, depending on what they value, what resources they have, social organization, and what kind of ideas occur to people. It’s not a terrible trope – but it isn’t a good one, either. The presence of working magic will change how people act and react, unless that magic is mysterious and very rare. Let’s look at a really simple example: guns and swords.

In the real world, guns are almost always superior to a sword for virtually any purpose you could name. Obviously gun models vary, but they’ll have some combination of the following advantages: small size, less weight, more concealable, short range, extremely long range, automatic fire, and the infliction of powerful penetrating wounds. In short, guns are extremely useful. Swords have *one* advantage over most guns: they don’t require bullets. The specifics of game rules modify the picture, but the above usually covers it.

Now throw magic into the mix. Suddenly, the picture changes – a great deal. Put the warrior in magic armor and hand him a magic sword, and suddenly he’s chopping up gunmen like kindling. The biggest advantage of guns is range and damage. You kill the target before it gets anywhere close. If you can’t before they get in your face, you’re in a lot of trouble. Plus, many games separate ammunition and the actual ranged weapon itself, so often a magic sword has much more ongoing use than a bow or gun. Then there’s the choice of target: guns may not be of much use against anything really dangerous in fantasy worlds – will that bullet do squat to a dragon or rampaging ogre? Are you really worried about human threats, or various undead coming to devour your tender flesh?

In short, guns might not even exist in a fantasy world no matter how much technology they have. Are you better off waiting a few centuries to develop really effective guns (if it can be done at all), or would those resources be better spent buying better and better magical defenses? And who would pay for improvements to gun design year after year, when all the people with real money are out buying magic swords and bows?

Of course, given a few minutes to think, you can probably come up with some excuses if you really want them. But always think about what people in the setting choose, and remember that you’re not making “earth with magic” but a different world, with different rules. People will make different choices, and those choices will send them down very different paths in the end.

6 Responses

  1. Anthropological note: those regions where drinking tea rose to prominence also tend to be the same regions where the genes for efficiently processing alcohol were not as prevalent. Since alcohol was one of the primary ways of making safe drinking water, an alternative was found instead: boiling water and then using leaves to help the flavor. Ergo it became very important to do it properly and make a ritual out of it since the health of the community was at stake.

    It’s an illustration of how even a seemingly inconsequential change like gene prevalence can cause widespread cultural and technological ramifications. Not everything has to be a response to the environment, some of the most important changes in a society can come from compensating for innate weaknesses of the body, mind, and soul.

  2. I’ve heard that before, but always had some question about it. I can definitely say that India, China, and Japan are not teetotaller societies – far from it. Do you know where I can find scientific literature(or even just sensible lay-science coverage) that backs it? I’d find that pretty interesting.

    • I first heard it from my anthropology professor in college and unfortunately I don’t have that set of textbooks anymore. Still, for more information look up Alcohol Flush Reaction and the ALDH*2 variation of the ALDH2 gene. Most of the literature I’ve seen talks about the distribution of the gene, the symptoms produced, and the possible reasons for why it is so common in the region (i.e. disease resistance), but don’t go into the cultural ramifications.

      It was only the professor I had that really read between the lines and drew cultural and technological implications from this fact. There just seems to be this reluctance to discuss how biology has influences culture in most of the literature I’ve seen despite the rather obvious implications of such simple things like this.

      • I suspect that part of the problem is that it’s difficult to be sure of which is the cause. Waterborne diseases are a powerful selective pressure – but both alcohol and boiling are reasonably effective countermeasures.

        Thus a culture of tea-drinking would reduce the advantages of having genes that provide alcohol tolerance, leading to a lower incidence of such genes in the population.

        On the other hand, the lack of those genes would lead to a survival advantage for those who participated in the custom of tea-drinking – thus indirectly supporting the cultures with such a custom.

        Theoreticians – at least in my observations – tend to have a slight preference for theories with nice, clean, cause-and-effect relationships, rather than mutually dependent systems where you can’t really say what the “cause” is. They’re easier to explain and they just seem to strike most human beings as being “neater” and more satisfying explanations as to “how this started” – whereas mutual dependence theories tend to sound like “it’s Turtles all the way down!”

        That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong of course, but it may affect their popularity.

  3. Thanks for the information. Real life often is a complex system fo interelationships which produce a relatively balanced outcome until it, too, gets upset and knocked over. And most of the time, the causes are so complex that the more we know about them, the harder it is to actually trace. Witness the ongoing arguments over exactly what caused the Civil War alone: dozens of classes, groups, factions, attitudes, and above all millions of people making choices under greater or lesser degrees of volition.

    Speaking of which, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the article. It’s such a huge topic that I couldn’t even break it down effectively into bits small enough to be digestible. This is the kind of concept about which people can, and have, written libraries: “Who Can We Become?” Throw specific game systems into the mix and watch the libraries turn into bonfires of insanity.

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