Making Fantasy Worlds

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Oct 062008
 

Many GMs like to play in existing campaign worlds. One of the most popular was/is Forgotten Realms, which has all but become D&D’s de facto setting. Others play in an alternate version of the real world, such as is the case with many World of Darkness games. Then there are the ultimate crazies: the world builders. Count me among this bunch.

I’ve been preparing to run an original sword-and-sorcery game of late (using GURPS), set in a fantasy world of my own devising. In researching for the daunting task of crafting an entire planet, I did a fair amount of reading on what makes something fantasy as opposed to historical fiction, science fiction, et cetera. The resounding answer: magic. Magic regarded as the universal defining characteristic that sets fantasy apart from its peers.

This made a lot of sense to me, since the real question one must ask when tampering with reality is this: what ramifications will the thing I’m changing have? This is the core idea behind science fiction, for instance, with the “thing I’m changing” usually being a piece (or many pieces) of technology. I think that it’s often overlooked in fantasy, though. Magic just “is” in a lot of fantasy, without the ramifications clearly thought-through. D&D, my favorite whipping dog, is guilty as hell of this. With as many wizards are running around hurling fireballs, D&D societies are often far, far too similar to a romanticized modern-day medieval world.

Thinking through the ramifications of magic was one of the key questions I first tried to answer. I found that I had a crystal-clear picture in my head of what I wanted…but the task of articulating that picture was arduous. The details are irrelevant to this post, but suffice it to say that I wanted magic to be difficult, limited without serious investment, and completely impossible to “alter the world” (i.e. D&D’s Wish spell). The result: a world left largely unaltered by magic, but altered just enough that it was no longer ours.

I then seasoned this with the idea that there was prevalent low-key magic, more akin to ultra-effective herbalism. I didn’t want to deal with the realities that people faced in medieval life like poor sanitation, rampant disease, poor medical understanding, and so forth. All that is handwaved away by “peasant magic,” which is powerful in its own right, but too limited to result in a shift in the balance of power.

Everything else — the arrangement of the society, the types of fantastic creatures, and so forth — comes after this critical decision is made. In truth, these subsequent pieces may dictate what picture it is you paint, but the decision about magic is the canvas, the medium, the type of brush, and the technique you use.

Apr 252008
 

In my previous post, I highlighted what I felt were the fatal flaws of the d20 System. I’m going to reverse what I said and praise it now, but in a way that is sure to upset d20 fans in the same way the previous post might.

Though d20 is a poor choice of system for creating unique and interesting characters — again, it can be done, but you have to work around the system rather than with it — it shines when placed in the right setting: computer games. Though the trend in cRPGs of late seems to be toward the “action RPG” mode of play (The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect), several games have had incredible success in adapting the d20 System to a cRPG with few modifications. The turn-based play of combat is often transparent, but two stand-out examples of d20 games spring to mind: Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

While both games put d20 through heavy modification (condensing skills, modifying feats, spells, etc.), they both kept the core idea of d20 at heart. They are also both tremendous fun to play. When the player need only call out to whom they wish to speak, on whom they wish to use a skill, which target they wish to attack, and so forth, d20 works well. That’s not to suggest that the system is too complex; it isn’t. What it is, however, is suited to a user with an avatar and a computer game-style, objective-based mode of play in mind. I would argue against such a mode of play being labeled “role-playing” by any stretch, but that’s a battle with too much inertia pushing in one direction.

Where Levels, Classes, and Races fall down in player-based RPGs, they are a great tool in cRPGs. Levels and experience provide a measurable way for a player to chart their advancement through the game, classes provide a focus down which a player can target his character toward completing that advancement, and races provide interesting visual differentiation and customization options.

I can hear d20 enthusiasts clamoring about how all of those arguments might apply to tabletop games as well. I suspect I would find myself bored in the type of tabletop game they would enjoy. If that’s the kind of game you want to play, why not play it on a computer? Computers can’t (yet!) afford us the possibilities that tabletop games provide for role-playing opportunities; if you don’t care about exploring them, why don’t you play NWN?

In a computer game, too, the weakness of using a 1d20 as a core mechanic is less of a problem. Though I find the visuals a little silly at times (we’re standing still, two feet apart, I swing at you with my three-foot-long sword, and you duck?), it provides a reasonable amount of variation coupled with predictability that tabletop versions of the game don’t seem to afford. Hit Points become much more acceptable, since a paced way of tracking a character’s degradation is more important. Few players would be happy with seeing wound penalties stack up until they drop from a single blow.

I’m sure that systems better than the d20 System can be concocted for cRPGs. Computers are fast enough now that a simulationist’s wet dream should be possible, while leaving the player unencumbered by having to remember all of the mechanics associated thereto. Still, of the games produced (that I’ve played) with the d20 System at their core, they seem to be quite successful.