gamerpsych, designmumblings , and brainspew

Monday, October 10, 2011

up with people

Top-Down Worldbuilding, Chapitre Trois: Imagine All The People

Today we continue to build a setting, starting huge and zooming in one step at a time on the various details that take it from a neat idea to a living, breathing world in which you and your players can immerse yourselves.  Now that we have a general space in which things can live, we're going to need to create some things that live let's get to it!

A little bit of a note before we really get going: the next several sections can be taken in whatever order strikes your fancy.  We'll get to going over the details and smoothing out the bumps in a later step.

A world without inhabitants isn't much for building a story.  You probably have some idea of who or what lives in your universe.  For simplicity's sake I am going to generally refer to the various inhabitants of the setting as 'people' regardless of their actual description...humans, outer space bug people, elves, rabbits, little green men, intelligent shades of the color blue...we're not going to be picky here.

You have some idea of what kind of power sources exist in your world, and probably a good guess at the resources that are available to people.  What we will plot out next is how the people use those sources of power, and how this creates the general shape of the regions and cultures that your players will explore.

Up front I will say that you can go as in-depth into this as you want, or keep it very simple.  If you're fine with the D&D/fantasy trope of having humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and some little people, and each has a monoculture with a racial god and racial social habits, you likely won't even need most of this article.  If this just isn't enough for you, read on.

We can start from any of several points, and they're all equally valid, but for conversation's sake let's begin with a starting point that most likely has its roots already firmly set in your world concept: who lives in your world?  Are you using a single sentient species, or do you have several in mind?

While creating the Treeworld, I made an executive decision and decided that there would not only be multiple species of intelligent creatures, but that various crossbreeds and genetic/magical flukes would be somewhat common.  This was mostly a decision based in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e's wealth of goofy templates and weird little splatbook races and wanting to give the setting a fantastical, mythical/storybook feel.  I outlawed a few for flavor reasons, but by the end of my combing through books looking for species that might be fun to be, I had a final list of more than twenty acceptably playable races, and acceptable templates were really only limited by the starting level of the campaign.

In tabletop settings, different races (technically species, but we'll go with it since it's popular usage) tend to be a stand-in for different cultures, allowing you as a creator to assign stereotypes to groups quickly and thematically.  For this reason multiple races can be a quick, useful, and dirty tool for populating a setting quickly.  But then again, culture can also be based in geography or shared history.  If your setting has a group of humans and intelligent shades of the color blue that have lived, worked, and fought enemies together for hundreds of years, they may well share a culture in which other groups of humans or blueshades would not participate.  You could just as easily substitute humans and more different humans, though, and have the same story; whether or not you find multiple races to be useful, or just distracting, is entirely up to you and your concept.

At least for the purposes of fiction, you might consider using one, some, or all of the following very simple bases for defining your groups of people...

  • Geography
  • Language
  • Appearance
  • Religion
  • Philosophy
  • Preternatural/supernatural ability
  • Common enemies
  • Technological/magical knowledge
  • Available resources
  • Lifestyle
At its most complicated, a person could rightfully be a part of many groups: they are a resident of a certain area; they speak the same language as the others in that region plus the one next door; they subscribe to the religion and philosophy of their family but not their neighbors; their bloodlines can be traced back to a completely different area, and they have living relatives there; they practice the lifestyle common to their area but the next door region lives in a very different way despite sharing a tongue.  Though it's an interesting exercise and can give you a good feel for individual characters (and geopolitical conflicts) in the setting, for the purposes of most tabletop games a wider view of the world is sufficient.

Language doesn't have to be restricted to groups, though too many options may cause players' heads to spin a little and make your skill system creak unsteadily.  For example, I split the standard 'Elven' language into three dialects for three different regions -- even a human or dwarf born and raised in that region might speak its respective dialect of Elven as their native tongue.  Two were 'pure' Elven and one was an offshoot of one of the dialects, which due to these particular elves living among and interbreeding with the fae folk borrowed heavily from the language of the fae.  It suggests a deep cultural history -- but really I never wrote much more background to it than that.

You can as well use real-world examples to create or repurpose system-standard languages; Greek and Latin were once the languages of the well-educated, and it is entirely reasonable to suggest that your setting have an equivalent or several.  You might also consider that if you use a lingua franca such as the egregious Common that not everyone will be fluent in it, let alone even able to speak it.  Traders, travelers, and diplomats -- those whose livelihood depends on their communicative ability and cosmopolitan knowledge -- may have a good grasp of it and several other languages, but the common person is less likely to speak a language that they don't need on a daily basis.

When deciding where said groups live, consider what sort of needs they have and where they can most easily fulfill those needs.  A nomadic herding or gathering society mainly needs space to roam.  An agrarian society needs land they can farm, water to irrigate the land (either predictable rain or rivers), and possibly means to ship their crops (rivers or safe roads).  More advanced societies need greater access to stone and metal, plus farmland to support larger populations.  Societies that have sufficient resources and means to move them around tend to start gravitating towards areas that are more comfortable than utilitarian.  Even spacefaring societies need places with plentiful energy and building materials that can be harvested.  You might also consider whether or not groups find certain places or kinds of geography to be holy or unholy, and how they would treat such places.

When there are more people than resources, a group decides they are entitled to more than others want to concede to them, or if groups of people just find each other unbearable, these groups will come into conflict.  People may handle these conflicts peacefully, such as through diplomatic routes, or nastily, with war.  Keep in mind the deep impact that war has on the group psyche; real life is sadly full of examples of this.  Even generations later, even if the warring groups find peace, groups of people remember the groups that have hurt them, and this fact can show itself in many ways: racism, preferential treatment, stereotypes, oppression, violence...the list goes on.  You might want to incorporate this into your setting; then again, it may just be too dark for you and your group, and that's fine too.

Lastly, I talked (read: rambled) previously about power sources.  If you're using extraordinary sources of power in your setting, how are they distributed?  It could be that certain kinds of geography hold power: ley lines, holy sites, wormholes, or places where the boundaries between worlds grow thin.  Perhaps only certain people have power: a bloodline with a supernatural ancestor, those with special training, or those that have undergone a specific rite.  Objects might be the source of this power: rare gems, lost artifacts, experimental prototypes.  (People, places, and things -- that about covers it.)

The common thread between these things is that whatever this power is it isn't available to every single person in the setting, at least not without great effort.  Very broadly speaking, the higher the fantasy and harder the sci-fi, the more available and effective these powerful sources are, and the closer they edge to center stage in the plot.  Many game systems, especially those that come with a setting, have a built-in 'power level,' while more generic systems allow the GM to choose the level as they see fit.  The former is usually more difficult to modify while maintaining a good mechanical balance; the latter is designed to be quite easy.  If you don't have a system chosen ahead of time, this is one of the most important factors to keep in mind when choosing.

What your power source(s) is, how it works, and how this affects the world are things that only you can decide.  While you're mulling it over, remember that power sets people apart.  It might make the empowered people of your setting into rulers, conquerors, or destroyers.  By the same token they might be feared, reviled, or actively hunted, turning them into the outcasts and the powerless.  Less dramatically, they may be simply seen as different -- though being different from the majority is never really simple.  Use whichever approach suits the world you want to paint and the story you want to tell.

That's enough mental spewage from me for now.  Next up is geography, environment, and how to go about fleshing it out.  Bring a sheet of paper and pencil, because it'll be arts and crafts time!  ...Don't worry, you don't even need to be able to draw a straight line.  We're doin' it easy mode style here.

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