And it’s a guest post by Editorial-0…
Inventing a New Setting
The other day I though to myself “Self,” I says, “It’s pretty dang hard to come up with an original setting.” Sure people complain about RPG’s being stuck in fairly standard settings: Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Cyberpunk, or whatever. But then, if you *don’t* use a fairly standard setting concept, you don’t usually get anywhere. People respond to classic settings for real reasons, and they touch certain cultural nerves. For example, fantasy evokes myth and legends, where heroes are larger-than-life and great deeds await. Not surprisingly, fantasy settings trend towards high magic, lots of adventure, and a complete lack of realism. Sci-Fi can involve more realistic elements, but even then the “realism” tends to get played up until it becomes a farce – witness the Warhammer 40K universe, which went into Grim n’ Gritty so hard it came out the other side.
As I don’t want to define anything too world-shaking or galaxy-spanning, we’ll start with a relatively limited area. This is one civilization, although it will have divisions within it: different social groups or classes, different organizations and ideals. That said, it will remain one culture and certain themes and dominant elements should be consistent throughout. We want players to look at this land and get an instant picture of who lives there.
So, let’s try Finns who fight like Mongols with Japanese religions. Sort of Samurai of the Snow, I suppose. Alright, that’s pretty simple apart from the Finnish aspect – the Finns had a strange society, half like the Norse Vikings and half like the Eskimo peoples of North America. Still, the players would figure it out pretty quick: a society relatively poor in material resources but rich in culture, dedicated to spiritual betterment as a path to everything else the world has to offer.
Now let’s really build this sucker out.
Let’s try an environment which is “earthly”, but removed from the day-to-day experience for most of us. For kicks, I decided to go with a chill but dry upland. The northern end of the land is a plateau raised up against a warmer, wetter region (the rising escarpment will halt clouds). As the plateau stretches south-east, it falls in elevation and becomes a land of gently rolling hills. At the eastern edge, a mountain range creates another rain shadow on the plateau itself, as well as being the source of the relatively few rivers in the area. The far southern border slowly falls into a rough and tangled forest. Three rivers divide the land, all flowing from streams running off of the mountains. One meanders northward, another towards the northwest, and the final river arcing west before finally turning south into the forestlands.
So, without knowing anything else about the people who live there, here’s what we have:
- It’s relatively hard to enter, whether for trade or invasion.
- It’s easy to travel around once you get onto the plateau.
- The high elevation makes it cold, but dry. Even in the winter don’t expect much snow.
- The land favors herding over agriculture.
- We’ll assume the region is large enough that metals aren’t particularly scarce.
For no particular reason, we’ll call them… Rham. (singular a Rham; plural the Rhami; adj. Rhamish or Rhamelish).
From this, we can make a few guesses about the people who live there. Note that we’re going to simply assume there are just humans with no inherent magical powers, psychic abilities, genetic enhancement, or other form of “super powers”. For now, we’ll leave technology alone.
- They could run moderately pale-skinned and drink milk.
- They’ll prefer to dress warmly, but might not worry about wet weather much.
- Meat dishes will be common, and grain less so.
- Hardier fruit and nut trees only. There are few local spices.
- The natives won’t be afraid of outsiders since invasion wouldn’t be easy.
- They would be quite capable of violence and raiding into the lowlands. (Shockingly, most people are quite capable of taking their neighbor’s goods.)
- Settlements are small villages and clanholds around a secure and constant water source. Although small, many of them dot the plains.
Note that any element above could be turned about, argued over, or changed if we wanted. It just seemed sensible to me personally, and as long as it’s halfway logical, it’s a fun place to start. Alright, so we have some base elements of the society in question. Now let’s add some values and diversity to it.
- In the drier regions people live by herding and horsemanship. Small clanholds dot the land since this culture isn’t nomadic.
- The relatively small wet region will develop have a dense, urban population, but it will be a minority compared to the thinly-settled but expansive drylands.
- Major cultural values include Discipline, Loyalty, and Spirituality. This people look favorably upon those who demonstrate these traits, and poorly on those who don’t. This goes beyond practicality or good sense: those traits are viewed as essential for a decent life.
Hmm… I’m on a roll now. These are giving me more ideas.
- They worship various local spirits. Some are well established and might have major temples. Others are nameless spirits of a small farmstead or a crossroads. Ambitious individuals may even name a personal God, claiming its authority – although if they fail in their goals or simply show themselves to be mediocrities this would only increase the humiliation. Religion is intensely personal. Individuals must forge their own connections to the spirit world and seek patronage among spirits, including their own ancestors. Powerful connections to spirits grants you a measure of their wisdom and ability.
- Morality, as such, doesn’t exactly enter into it. The spirits want offerings, or certain action, and everyone pays some heed to honor, and honorable debts. Compassion or forgiveness for its own sake isn’t considered a significant virtue, although developing may be important to a given individual’s spiritual path.
- Combining those last two points, the Rhami believe in purity, not peacefulness or a merciful heart. For them, the path to holiness involves ascetic ritual, exposing the self to the elements, and meditating on the pinnacles of mountains.
Whether any of this is real, true, or the path to enlightenment or whatever doesn’t matter. It’s real to the Rhami, and it affects them deeply. When Rhami warriors prepare for battle, they undertake difficult journeys to purify themselves. When Rhami wed, they ritually cleanse themselves many times. Even the coldest-hearted ruler would pay heed to the spirits, and honor his debts even when not to his advantage. Failing to do so would invite scorn.
We’ll assume the Rhami are strongly unified culturally, but not very close politically. Great heroes may take control, but the monarchy rarely stays in a single family for more than a few generations. The monarchy does not possess great power, either – its primary purpose is settle the (frequent) disputes among herders, keep the limited trade lanes open, and preferably ensure a profitable raiding season. Occasionally a powerful coalition of clans takes strict control of the country, but they inevitably disintegrate over time. They would likely favor a monarchy with a strongly religious and ritualistic role – perhaps even believing that a King-Priest of some sort is necessary to appease certain powerful spirits.
Internal tensions might include those who take their monastic and priestly duties more seriously compared to warriors and herders and rural folk versus the cities. But don’t forget that tensions can easily be internal to classes or groups; monasteries may feud over pride and place, while clans of herders steal cattle and occasionally women from each other.
Alright, that’s more words than you might care to write, but really doesn’t amount a lot of complexities. Each note just builds on the last.
Now let’s add some magic (or psychic powers, or super-tech, or anything). There’s no need to be too specific. We’re not laying out a system, but explaining how the culture and ideas of the Rhami might help them develop certain kinds of abilities, spells, or whatnot.
First, the Rhami could easily develop various spirit-based powers, and that’s certainly interesting enough. But I’d like to explore the theme of Mind-Over-Body we have going here. The Rhami would consider magic that tests the person using it even as it allows them to do extraordinary things an extension of spiritual development. They would develop spells that enhance personal abilities, but perhaps apply temporary penalties, or trade attribute bonuses, or require intense concentration and mental discipline.
While learning and education would matter and literacy extremely encouraged, the Rhami would never take the flat “scientific” view of the universe as material to be used and discarded. Thus, they might avoid magic that sacrifices others, seeing it as ultimately futile – you can’t truly grow strong on stolen power. Likewise, they would avoid magic that uses complex mathematical ideas or abstraction, because to them understanding is personal and localized.
That’s not everything you might want for a setting, but it’s a pretty strong start. You’ve got everything you need to define an entire campaign. Next up, we may try adapting this to a specific ruleset and game style.
Filed under: Announcements |