Hollistic World Building Part 4: Deviations From Normal
So far in this series, I’ve looked at incremental world development, and how you might approach peopling and monstering your world. This post is building on the last post, where I discussed how genre, and the implied amounts of magic and monsters in them can affect how your fantasy world is going to deviate from “Normal Earth” if you’re doing a nuanced and thought out build. So let’s look at that.
When I say “deviations from normal”, I mean it. Our world, the things in it, the cultural and technological developments we’ve had, everything has been driven by the real world pressures and circumstances we’re in, and the resources we have access to or want to have access to. So what happens when those pressures change and new or different resources become accessible? Things begin to deviate from our normal. Why? Because the normal in said world isn’t exactly the same as ours. So I have a simple line chart here to illustrate how I see fantasy on a spectrum (also I am too lazy to build an XY graphic). Normal Earth is us, and Epic Fantasy is the other end of the spectrum. For the purposes of this post, I won’t be describing “Normal Earth”. Look out your window. Bear in mind that this is the simplified chart, and makes the assumption that magic, monsters, and so on follow a simple linear pattern of increasing.
This is a collection of very broad descriptions of world design, and aren’t an attempt to be 100% definitive of what’s what. They’re the broad groupings I use when I’m looking at or thinking about world builds. They don’t reflect any particular game or world, and when I do look at a game’s setting/world, I take a number of things into consideration when I’m doing so. We good? Good.
Fairy Tale Earth
This is a world similar to the ones found in common fairy tales. It’s a world where magic and monsters are exceedingly rare, and often exist only as folklore until a person encounters it. But by and large, these worlds work like Normal Earth for about 90% of the time. Monsters and other species often come from an “otherworld” into our own, and when gone, leave little impact on the world or its development save places being declared holy, unlucky, or to be avoided.
This is a step up from the previous, in that monsters and magic are real, but only a tiny minority of people know it and are able to interact with it. This is the realm of Cosmic Horror and Cthulhu-esque sorts of fantasy, and increasingly Urban Fantasy. The world continues to operate more or less to spec, but there’s “odd bits” and usually a hidden or secret history of the world that explains what’s going on. The magic and monsters affect the world somewhat, but not enough to warrant a serious shift in cultural or technological development.
The Mythic Earth stage is pretty much the final one before deviations from Normal Earth take a serious turn. This is the “Earth” of classical mythology. Think Beowulf, Odysseus, or at the more extreme end, Journey to the West. This is the last world build where culture and technology are more or less on normal track, with the major difference being that people know that there are monsters, demons, magic, and so on, but they’re not major enough forces to change how culture and technology are developing. This is also the first time that alternate resources become relatively common, with things like alchemy working with regularity.
Now things are changing. Low fantasy, broadly speaking, has more accessible magic and is the first instance where monsters move from being odd one-off encounters into being part of the world’s ecosystems. Likewise, it sees non-human sophonts move from being rare and often isolated into being a part of the world. While your average villager may never see magic or an elf, they know they’re real and depending on their folklore around them, may have differing reactions to their presence. Low Fantasy is also where we see changes start happening to settlement designs, military formations, and so on. Why? Because the threat pressures have now deviated enough to change how people think and interact with their world compared to previous levels.
Sword & Sorcery
Stepping it up a notch; this is often the “assumed” level of fantasy for gritty fantasy RPGs, or ones that draw heavily on pulp and early fantasy writers. These worlds are ones where magic and monsters are now reliable resources that can be used upon by the powers that be. But most notably, this is where we see serious shifts in a lot of things. Human and non-human cultures are interacting regularly, meaning there’s going to be cultural exchange, and possibly hybrids. Conflicts and militaries are being shaped by access to magic and non-Earth stand special units like pegasus cavalry and non-human forces. Things like “Dragon and Dwarf proofing” are concerns when building fortifications and cities. In summation, things are changing.
This genre moves us completely out of the normal realms of things. Magic is beginning to eat into technological development heavily, and monsters are a fact of life. Unless there’s cultural prohibitions about it, odds are, there’s lots of hybrid people running around as human and non-human populations mix and encounter each other as a normal thing. Militaries are unrecognizable if compared to say, a standard army in the Normal Earth’s middle ages, but are probably something a more modern military would recognize, with air defence, magical artillery, alchemical weapons, and air mobile forces. These units are still specialist ones though at this point, but would be common to encounter. This genre also sees large tellurocracies (lad empires) become less tenable, since security is much more difficult to maintain.
The big time starts in this genre. At this level, magic, monsters, non-human sophonts, and so on are fairly common. Magic as a resource, along with alchemy, has seen technology slow dramatically in its development as magic “equivalents” to modern real world technology become more accessible. Militaries are full modern spectrum affairs (possibly even possessing magical WMDs), and while the threat environment is as complex as it will get, people are able to survive if not thrive. This is where things like airships, magical submarines, and more have moved past rarity and into uncommon but known territory. Large tellurocracies become semi-viable again, but only for the most resource rich nations who can afford the militaries and adventurers to keep things under control. Settlements look wild compared to Normal Earth ones, as they’re heavily influenced by local threats and hazards.
Magic is technology. Monsters are a threat that everyone plans for when doing things, but there’s a plethora of tools you can use to deal with them. This is where anything is possible, and nothing looks “normal”, and if it does, it’s a trick.
So how does this all work?
When I’m reading something or designing something, I constantly ask myself a few questions, these being:
1.) “What do I want to put into this world, and how much am I putting into it?” or “What was put into this world, and how much was put into it?”
2.) “How do the mechanics support this, and what else might people do with said mechanics?”
3.) “How will these choices affect the development of this world’s peoples?”
4.) “How will these affect the genre and vibe I’m trying to give this?” or “How did these affect the genre and vibe the game purports to be?”
These might seem like no-brainer questions, but they can lead in some very interesting directions while developing a world for a game or a game in general. As a critical tool, it lets me dig into what aspects of what genres a given game, system, or setting is drawing on, and see whether or not the mechanics support it, and whether the world reflects its own reality. I started doing this because I found, increasingly, that many fantasy worlds had extremely maladaptive cultural practices and nonsense adherence to real world technological development when, by any measure, they should have looked very different.
So by looking at things like monster and magic prevalence, looking at genre aspects, and looking at mechanics, I get a feel for what I think is authorial intent and design intent vs what’s happening on the ground and could/should be happening. This also helps me consider what kinds of adventures something can do best, and how rules that have one intent can be used to facilitate stories and adventures if used in other ways.
Now, I realize that a lot of people are all about their plug’n’play world builds, and that they don’t see any issue with a high magic world that looks remarkably like conventional real world middle ages Europe. And if that’s their jam, that’s fine. But me? I’m not happy with that status quo. I want cool and dynamic worlds that have some thought behind them and how their peoples are. And increasingly, so do more people. The worlds that were amazing in the 1980s are showing their age, and at the same time, video-games, anime, manga, CRPGs and JRPGs have been pushing the limits of fantasy world building more than a lot of TTRPG space has. For games to stay relevant, they have to keep pace with the genre, and so many games aren’t.
I want games to be their best, and I want designers to flex their creativity in ways that bring the end users the best collection of possible uses their ideas and mechanics can provide. Why? Because it makes for better gaming, better world building, and more memorable adventures.