World Building: Where Have All The Dwarves Gone?

Today’s post is brought to you by the caffeinated musings which have distracted me from my homework and encouraged me to write world background material instead.

The setting of For The King! is largely lacking playable non-humans at the moment.  There are a few dwarves or elves who might be somewhere in the realm of Duval, and there are some gnomes and halflings and others scattered around, but most people, in most places, are human.  The orcs and half-orcs mostly live to the northwest of the kingdom, generally part of the large nomadic tribes which roam through those sections of the Trade Lands.  Heck there are centaurs too, but they generally stick to the lands northeast of the kingdom of Duval, and don’t have much direct contact except with traders who venture out onto the northern plains.

And yet there are remnants of dwarven architecture throughout the center of the kingdom of Duval, and historical records definitely suggest that they used to live in the area.  So… where have all the dwarves gone?

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World Building: Making The Outer Planes Better

500px-Outer_planes

Once again, I find myself investigating the cosmological background of the setting I’ve most recently created.  I was reading through the Dungeon Master’s Guide again, reading the section on planes near the beginning, and I’m in that usual place: somewhere between excited and miffed.  Fortunately, it’s easy enough to change the things that haven’t excited me.

I’m comfortable, for the most part, with the material the DMG offers on things like the Astral and Ethereal planes.  I’m more okay with the DMG’s ideas for the Shadowfell, the Feywild, and the various elemental planes.  I’m not very happy about their ideas for the Outer Planes.  I have some rewriting to do; let me tell you why.

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World Building: The Hells of Errant Souls

Botticellismapofdantesinferno

Hell, courtesy of Dante.

Last time I kept mentioning someone that I decided to call the Most Powerful Devil (MPD), without ever going any further into who or what that was.  But I’ve come up with more background for them since then, and in so doing I’ve also come up with more details for the game-world as a whole.

So, today I have a stupidly simple calendar (though I haven’t yet bothered to give the months names), I have a better idea of what the afterlife looks like (I’ve totally tossed out the basic alignment-based fare in favor of something a bit more complex), and I have a name and backstory for the Most Powerful Devil.  I think you’ll like this stuff. Continue reading

World Building: Magic, Demons, Angels, and Devils

Back in November I wrote about a new RPG campaign that I had cooked up, a game that I’ll refer to as For The King! for lack of a better name.  If you are currently playing in or are going to play in my 5th edition D&D campaign, you might want to be careful with reading this post.  If not, feel free to read this early-concept campaign overview.  I’ll avoid saying things here that could be too spoiler-y, but I plan to explore the nature of magic, demons, devils, and other such inimical forces.  Your character might or might not have access to this information.

Based on the first few sessions that I ran for my brothers, I already know that the setting allows for angels and fallen angels, though the latter are more like Remnants from In Nomine, powerful supernatural beings from other planes who have had some part of their greater nature stripped from them by intent or by accident.

Angels and their derivatives are all essentially moderately self-willed fragments of the god they serve, and might be thought of as something like having a god let its fingernail clippings (or maybe severed finger?) go off and do its bidding in the world.  A bit like some kind of overpowered intelligent celestial dandruff, I suppose.  But I don’t know off the top of my head how to make demons and devils work, and I don’t just want to sign on to the metaphysics presented in the 5th ed. Monster Manual without some editorial input.  I’d much rather doodle in the margins and make their setting fluff more thoroughly my own.  So read on for sweet lore! Continue reading

How to Craft a Good Setting

For me, the most interesting part of a creative body of work is the setting. Many people will talk about the characters, and how interesting they are, or the growth they exhibit. Others will point to the plot. But for me, the setting is the foundation; it sets the grounds for any ‘what if’s that the body of work is asking. Now, there are two general qualities of settings.

The first is the obvious: the familiar. By ‘familiar’, I mean that the setting corresponds to our notions of how it typically is. Familiarity is the reason that elves are tall and willowy and removed from the world, dwarves are short and stocky and miners who love alcohol, and halflings/hobbits are playful but possessed of personal hardiness. Familiarity is why protagonists are young and leave their village with mysterious outsiders, and why young people from small towns are protagonists at all. Familiarity is how we know sons kill fathers and hand-loss will show up in half of sci-fi and fantasy, and everything comes in threes. Familiarity is the stuff on which tropes are built.

In this, a good setting is a lot like a good joke. A good joke is all about establishing expectations, building up a story that we all know and understand, and then, in comes the second element: deviation. I agonized over that word for awhile: ‘deviation’. At first, I thought ‘surprise’. But surprise wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Surprise indicates that you didn’t really see what was coming; didn’t have an inkling. And while there is room for genuine surprise in stories, for the most part, the spectator — the reader, the watcher, the listener — should see the punchline coming. They might not exactly know what that punchline is, but when it does come it should be followed with ‘of course!’ Whether that ‘of course!’ is followed with an ‘I knew it!’ or a ‘How did I not see that coming?’ is largely irrelevant, although it should fall somewhere on that spectrum. That is to say, the context (the setting) should lead up to the punchline.

In a sense, the conclusion — the end of the book, the punchline, the moral — should feel INEVITABLE, even if it wasn’t predictable. When you hear the ending, it should immediately ring true as the ending, or the setting wasn’t established properly. It certainly isn’t impossible that Frodo could simply take the ring at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but it wouldn’t fit in with the tropes of the book: that hobbits are strong of heart and will, that all ages must come to an age, including the age of The Ring and Sauron (much as the age of the Elves is coming to an end even as the books begin), that the thing that distinguished Gollum from Frodo was his close friendship with even just one remaining entity (whereas Smeagol had killed Deagol). Essentially, the plot should live up to the promises that the setting makes, establishing a strong unifying theme.

Now, I’m playing a little fast and loose with ‘setting’, because I’m starting to include parts of the story. But in this case, I don’t mean the plot. I mean the tropes, the imagery, and so on. Sure, discovering the tree elves of Lothlorien happens as a part of the plot, but it is itself not plot; it is a revelation of setting to the spectator. inverting that story in ways we don’t expect but can still clearly see. Reading about a character losing his hand, or being seen surrounded by ravens, or dying and coming back to life is plot, yes. How it happens is plot. But it is also setting, because it serves to establish what tropes the author finds important, and how he chooses to invert them.

If I can walk you through a few examples, I think this will be made clear, but as always, I must warn you of spoilers. In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, on TV), Ned Stark is established as the protagonist quite early on. However, he is killed off before the first book in the series ends. Yes, this is a plot point, but also acts to establish the setting that George R. R. Martin is writing in: in A Song of Ice and Fire, life is short, brutal, and ugly, and you can trust nobody. In a sense, this helps to establish the context of the story. And when the punchline finally comes, that context will be important.

So ultimately, a good setting uses tropes and setting devices to establish the tone of what is expected to happen in the plot.

As such, I’m going to try a new project for my new posts; I’ll be posting a setting I’ve designed, according to these principles, talking about the tropes it exhibits, and how those tropes are inverted, and what those inversions mean!

Putting Power in Players’ Paws

gentleman-gustaf-figure

Ok, so your players probably have hands, not paws, but I liked the alliteration.

The traditional roleplaying game, D&D, is very much structured in a specific way: the GM has a specific game/plot/monster that the players have to beat. In this way, D&D is structured much like a computer RPG, it just happens to be played with multiple players (and so can Baldur’s Gate 2, not to mention World of Warcraft).

There is value to this model; if you have one GM who is particularly good at plotting stories and taking care of all of the details of the world, and a lot of players without a knack for world-building, well, why not run a game like this? Labor gets divided up appropriately, and everybody gets to do what they’re good at.

Typically, however, everybody has something to offer to the story if given the chance, and 4 minds can probably come up with better ideas overall than just 1. This is why, typically (especially if I really trust the players), I prefer to run games that are much more player-driven. For me, good player-driven systems are those which have narrative elements built into them. The most obvious examples would be any game with a Fate point system. Such systems tend to give fate points to the player, and they can narrate something about the world that is unlikely but still possible by expending a Fate point. However, for me, the pinnacle of player-driven games is Apocalypse World. I understand that there are MORE player-driven games, but I find that the lack of a solid authority in completely player-driven games tends to leave most people feeling unsatisfied. Apocalypse World is the perfect balance: it lets the players help create the world and orient the plot, but doesn’t give them too much power to determine results.

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