Top-Down Worldbuilding, Part Deux: Phenomenal Cosmic Power
Yesterday we kickstarted things with the beginning of a discussion on setting-building concepts and caveats. Today we pick it up again with the middly bits: the first broad strokes and general decisions that will turn your vague idea into a still-vague but developing world of its own. Let's get right back into it with some discussion on power sources and cosmology and watch the dust settle into something a little less like a stick figure and a little more like a rough draft.
Mind the jump.
So there you are, with your shiny new idea, all formed and ready to go. ...Well, not quite. There's quite a bit of work between now and playability, but don't let that put you off; this is my favorite part.
You probably have a fair idea of how much 'power' is available in your world. By 'power' in quotes, I mean just that: power, the kind that people would fight and die over. Be it magic, technology, alchemy, cute-monster-taming, mental ki, bound demons, psychic powers, earnest prayers, or extremely spicy chili, your world may have at least one source of some kind of unusual power. It's perfectly reasonable, too, to say that your world has none of this silliness, and real power is gained through political alliances, or having the largest vein of iron ore under your feet, or living on a good, deep, broad shipping river, or knowing how to make fire. But these, too, are sources of power. Is your world high-power (magic is common; powerful technology is widely available; most people at least have some ESP; wealth is easy to obtain), low-power (magic is rare and comparatively less flashy; most people don't have much access to technology besides the essentials; psychics are so uncommon as to be feared and disbelieved; most live in poverty and servitude), or somewhere in between?
Given that you are designing a setting to be used as a roleplaying tool, power and its availability are going to have a massive impact on the mechanics of the game. If you decree that (for example) your Earth refugees in their scattered colonies have only low access to technology, due to having lost the majority of their scientists and engineers responsible for creating and understanding said technology, then you may not even need external opponents to create interesting conflict: your setting is antagonistic enough and your characters sufficiently powerless that you could easily spend a campaign simply trying to find the tools needed to survive. Using the same setting but a very high level of available power, introducing an outside threat would likely be necessary to build the same level of conflict and tension -- leaky walls and lack of fuel pose no real problems to a society with force field generators and cold fusion cells.
For Treeworld, I went again for middly-high: magic pervades everything as a sort of background radiation, and low-level spellcasters were generally accepted in even the most backwater of locales. Magical creatures were simply adapted to make use of the magic that was already present in the world*, and occasionally there were natural outpourings of magical power such as springs with strange effects. In large cities, magic was institutionalized as in the standard D&D assumption into divine temples to various gods and academies in which the arcane was taught. As a matter of setting feel preference, and not wanting to learn a pile of extra rules with which to answer player questions, I decreed by GM fiat that psionics were right out, as well as incarnum (too weird) and the Book of Weeaboo Fightan Magic (occasionally known as Tome of Battle, and too unbalanced).
Feel free to include or outlaw whatever makes sense. Your players might talk you back into it later, or a variation on it that does thematically fit, but at this point it's still all yours. Changes that dramatically alter game balance do deserve some consideration, however. For example, if your Game System of Choice allows for instantaneous healing through some supernatural means, and you decide that your world doesn't have those means, you're going to have a considerably higher character mortality rate. This could be a good thing, however, if you're trying to paint a grim and desperate picture. If that isn't your and your group's goal, consider very carefully before you go in changing a core assumption of the system like this. It can be a great way to shake things up and add some interest and maybe tension, or a great way to cause players to throw down their sheets in frustration.
You might at this junction want to have a look at your world's cosmology. As you probably know, D&D assumes a default plane, the Material Plane, with a bunch of other elemental planes, and an astral plane, and an ethereal plane, and a shadow plane, and all these different heavens, and a bunch of different hells, and demi-planes, and optional other little fiddly planes, and and and...I was having none of that. It didn't suit me, and I didn't want to play with there being a specific, somewhat Judeo-Christian heaven and hell system, so I scrapped the whole lot. There were now only three: the material, ethereal, and shadow planes. Any gods or sufficiently powerful beings that were around could create their own little realm, but reality was wobbly and could only sustain so many pockets and poke-holes before getting upset with life. Good enough. This rendered a number of spells and abilities mostly pointless, but it was a fine trade-off for some simplification.
A cosmology doesn't have to be A Real Thing That Is A Thing like D&D 3.5e's plane system. It could instead be simply the way people perceive the universe as working. Real-world cosmology once dictated that the Earth stood still and the stars and planets revolved around it, embedded in crystalline celestial spheres, floating in quintessence. It might come in the form of a creation story, or a philosophy. Since I was dabbling about in middly-high fantasy, it made sense to include as part of the cosmology a pantheon of gods, which I did, focusing mostly on personifying natural or implacable forces.
You can do this as orthodoxly or as out of the lines as you like. Every gaming ruleset is different, giving you all kinds of ways to buck the system if you so choose. I thumbed my nose just a little at tradition and made the most powerful two gods chaotic good (spontaneous creation) and lawful evil (inevitable decay). The rest fell in as being somewhere between animist spirits and Greco-Roman divinities in personality and interaction. While I had a perfectly serviceable Yggdrasil, I wasn't really into the idea of running a game based off the Norse mythos and so avoided giving it that feel.
If you're inventing a religious/divine system for your game setting, you might wish to do a little bit of homework. It doesn't have to be much -- I don't generally advocate using Wikipedia as a primary source but hey, this is hardly an academic work. Do some light reading on various world religions and major cultural stories; see if any of them interest you. There's nothing less than an incredible cache of ready ideas there. You might look into the work of Carl Jung and his ideas on archetypes, such as the Hero's Journey I mentioned in the previous post. There's a wealth of iconic figures there waiting to be mined.
But hey, if that aspect isn't going to be a big deal, or doesn't exist in your world, skip it. (That goes for almost everything I say here, by the way.)
That's it for today; we've got a sort-of-working world and general cosmology in which it exists, as well as some idea of what kinds of powers are available to its inhabitants. Tomorrow we're going to have a closer look at those inhabitants and loosely sketch in their details.
* After coming up with this whole magic-as-background-radiation thing, I had a player join who wanted to play a warlock, but couldn't stand the whole fluff about having made demonic pacts and all that moody BS. So we agreed that in this world, it was entirely possible that warlocks were another sort of magical creature, adapted to be able to see and naturally interact with this magic stuff flowing all around them. Not that this stopped the general populace from believing they were monsters...
Point being, even a slight change in flavor text can bring about some interesting ideas.