06 April 2012

Pen & Paper: Creating a World part 1 - The Basic Setup

In this sub-series I will work out a setting for a game of (low-) fantasy pen and paper role-playing that I'm running as a GM right now. The series is inspired by this and the interpretation/variety of it by one of my friends, although it will be substantially different from both. Over the course of this series I will cover the cultures and races that populate my fantasy world, as well as the geography and mystical aspects including religion, gods and magic. This first post will only feature a brief introduction and overview of it all.

First of all it is important to mention that the world we're going to play in has no name (or many of them). For its inhabitants, who are on a level of technology variing from stone-age-like over the European middle-ages up to early medieval Persia and China, it is the world and as they are unaware of other physical planes besides the possibility of other planets being discussed by some elite philosophers, it is simply The World. None of the cultures living there has actually fully explored the planet, thus the world-map I will introduce later is something hypothetical to the inhabitants of the place, a GM-tool rather than a possible in-game artifact.

The human cultures living in the world are analogous to several circles of culture that we know from our own past. At first that may seem clichéd and a bit lame but it does save the GM a lot of explaining-time, especially if the player-characters are familiar with something that their players aren't. I can say, for example, that "the Western Empire is like ancient China, with the following significant divergences: -", which allows me to only describe 10% of a culture while the players prior knowledge fills out the rest.

Another aspect of the different empires of The World is that they are not homogeneous entities. Medieval Europe did have an emperor technically governing a large area of it but that didn't stop the different kingdoms under him from fighting each other and/or vying for the throne themselves. Likewise ancient China considered far more countries to be subordinate to them than actually were (Siam, for example, used to send a mission of tribute to China every 30 to 60 years, mostly because they knew that China would return gifts worth far more than what the symbolic tribute was - other than that the two courts had NO contact!). Also, something that I consider a mistake by a lot of makers of medieval-like worlds, the world will not be completely covered by political empires - they have spheres of influence that end in a gray area beyond the reach of their cities, castles and outposts. Nation-states are a rather recent invention in our world and fixed (non military/fortified) border-lines a pretty European invention so those will not be as relevant in The World as they are in many other fantasy-settings. Your alignment to a Lord or Duke will be more important than your origin.

As this will be a fantasy-world, there will be non-human sentients running about. As they think very differently from human beings, they are usually not found within the human empires (with the possible exception of enslaved giants) and either have their own empires protecting them or living in small enclaves on the fringes of the human world. It is important to differentiate these races between mundane ones (i.e. regular animal life-forms that have a physical body and reproduce, feed on organic matter, and die) and spiritual ones (magical, sometimes non-corporeal entities that are not subject to all of the/the usual rules of physics). As I am against using the same clichés as everyone but at the same time like to short-cut on descriptions, I will not populate the world with things like elves, orcs and dwarves. Sorry, but these guys have been overused. Instead, the world map will feature areas marked as "The Naga Queendoms" or "Here be Giants" and possibly even "Dangerous! Pixies!", half of which may be untrue and only legend, the other half being lethal truth. Which is which will be up to the players to find out.

As there is literal magic in the world, although on a much lower level than in classical DnD-like settings, most religions in The World will be based on actual facts. There is a creator-god acting in the world, giving base to some major religions (Christianity being one of them, as I like my medieval settings to feature churches), but there are also mighty spirits, some of which have possessed things giving them physical form, others having acquired enough worshipers to be local gods of a slowly changing pantheon. Most religions that feature in our real world can be founded on these two principles alone and, if you toss in the ghosts of the deceased, you have factual bases for pretty much any religious belief that has an analogue in our world. Also, spirit-possessed animals that have grown ancient, mighty and huge are great NPCs or later even boss-fights (see Princess Mononoke, one of the few animes I can stand).

I will go more in-depth in each of these topics in the posts following this one, describing aspects and chunks of the world as I go along, all the while fleshing out the world I am subjecting my players to. Maybe I'll even give some updates what they are up to in The World. That's it for this introductory post though. To those of you to whom it applies: Merry Easter! I'll go watch some awesome pre-christian customs whilst visiting some quasi-in-laws now.

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