WORMSKIN

1/06/2011

Fantasy Front: On Boiling Down Your Setting to Its Essential Salts

Cyclobe album art. Unrelated? Probably.

Thus far Gorgonmilk has been paying a lot of attention to the science fantasy, Traveller-y end of things, embodied by the 8th Planet project. But whence all the fantasy stuff featured in The Eiglophian Press, right? I think we're past due to discuss subjects nearer to the Gygaxo-Arnesonian core of D&D. And today I want to talk about something near and dear to my personal imagination glands. Namely, the construction of pitch-perfect Post-Tolkienian fantasy worlds.

[What I mean by Post-Tolkienian are settings (a) influenced by Middle-Earth, but (b) not emulating Middle-Earth and (c) typically looking to other sources for inspiration. The Forgotten Realms and other official TSR settings that came after it are examples of Post-Tolkienian settings. So are most settings to emerge from the OSR. A true Tolkienian setting would (obviously) be Middle-Earth itself, including material produced by Iron Crown for MERP and any other "extension" of the Middle-Earth milieu. Examples of non-Tolkienian settings would be stuff like Gygax's Oerth and Arneson's Blackmoor -- settings that are idiosyncratic and that predate the general fascination with Middle-Earth so prevalent within role-gamer culture during the 80s and after.]

Lately I've been wondering just what bare bones are required for the campaign setting to function in a mythopoeic sense. Do we have warring nation states or monster-haunted borderlands? Or both? Should the cultural focus be on mankind exclusively or a number of sentient races? What needs to be on the first campaign map? What should be omitted?

To this end I've identified some (not all) basic elements that (at least initially) a classic D&D setting might exhibit. None of these terms are necessarily literal. They each suggest a specific sort of place. The exact nature and geographical layout of such places will vary from setting to setting.

1. The Ego Village
The homefront, where the Player Characters are safe and warm (relatively speaking) under normal circumstances. The threats here (if any) are less threatening than those outside. This is the place the PCs -- especially at low levels -- should and probably will need to return to between escapades.

2. The Monster-Haunted Forest
This is the Black Forest of the Grimms' fairytales. A labyrinthine outdoor territory inhabited by threatening creatures and spirits. The MHF should be a borderland that divides two or more zones of (relative) safety. Say, for example, the Ego Village and the Metropolis.

3. The Metropolis
A much larger, cosmopolitan version of the Ego Village. The Metropolis makes a suitable replacement for the Ego Village. It offers a larger milieu of potential threats and rewards to the game.

4. The Dungeon-Underworld
The sub-foundations of the classic campaign setting. Disorganized. Sometimes incomprehensible (think bottomless pits, nightmarish creatures). Populated by the full range of threats and rewards and containing subterranean versions of the territories above. For example, the 'Monster-Haunted Mushroom Forest' and the 'Underground Metropolis.'

5. The Wasteland
An inverted, barren mirror-image of the Monster-Haunted Forest, where natural hazards take on greater importance than the area's inhabitants. Threats outweigh rewards.

6. The Neglected Ruins
An anti-Metropolis peopled by monsters (possibly undead). An entrance to the Dungeon-Underworld.

7. The Scarifying Sea
A large, perhaps boundless expanse of water or space where vast and horrifying things are known to dwell.

8. The Dark Wizard's Domain
A tract of land under the despotic control of an insane (evil?) magic-user. His/her spies and servants are everywhere. He/she has transformed the world above into an organized version of the Dungeon-Underworld.

9. The Jagged Peaks
The mountains: the walls between nations and civilizations. where rock, snow, and gravity all conspire against those who attempt to scale them. [credit: biopunk]

10. The Mountain Pass
The way through the mountains: sometimes barren or blocked, sometimes fortified or garrisoned, but granting those that cross access to new horizons/milieus. [credit: biopunk]

11. The Vast Swamp
A murky network of labyrinthine waterways: stinking and shunned, with unchartable, ever-changing channels. A place whose fetid waters many call 'home' and have spawned and swallowed armies. [credit: biopunk]

12. The Misty Forest/Mountain
A fog shrouded region of extremely limited visibility. Home to spirits, intelligent beasts, and/or minor gods. Alternatively corrupted by evil humanoids, dark spirits, and/or the undead. [credit: Aberrant Hive Mind]

13. The Volcanic Badlands
A region treacherous to explore, where paths could be wiped out by lava flows and collapsing rock. Also the potential for a full on eruption that could change the surrounding landscape. [credit: Braden] 

What other places can we add to this list?

9 comments:

  1. The Jagged Peaks - the mountains: the walls between nations and civilizations. where rock, snow, and gravity all conspire against those who attempt to scale them?

    The Mountain Pass - the way through the mountains: sometimes barren or blocked, sometimes fortified or garrisoned, but granting those that cross, new horizons?

    The Vast Swamp - a murky network of labyrinthian waterways: stinking and shunned, with unchartable, ever-changing channels, whose fetid waters many call 'home' and have spawned and swallowed armies?

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  2. Yes! Those are perfect, biopunk. I'm adding them to the list right now.

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  3. The Misty Forest/Mountain - A fog shrouded region of extremely limited visibility. Home to spirits, intelligent beasts, and/or minor gods. Alternatively corrupted by evil humanoids, dark spirits, and/or the undead.

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  4. That hits the right note! Thanks, AHM.

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  5. I know I'm late to the party, but all this post-Tolkien talk and no semi-active volcano location? Treacherous to explore, paths could be wiped out by lava flows and collapsing rock. Also the potential for a full on eruption that could change the surrounding landscape.

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  6. A region of active volcanoes? Yes, I like that, B. Adding to the list...

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  7. The Other Village, the one that seems familiar but that's not quite right.

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  8. What about islands? Rocky unfriendly with steep hillsides, caves formed by stormy weather. Strange hermits, odd ruins and rockformations, signs of long forgotten cultures and outposts. Whirlpools, giant sea monsters, mist, underwater cliffs, mermaids. Maybe a hidden bay with a fishing village nearby. Maybe it's empty of people, where did they all go?

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