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DShomshak

The Plan of the World

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This thread is about using the geography of a setting, on its largest scale, to reflect and enhance the theme of a campaign or story. These worlds are often explicitly not naturalistic. I have a few examples, and I wonder if people can think of more.

 

First consider Creation, the setting for the game Exalted. Creation is flat. At the center is the Blessed Isle (though it’s a good-sized continent), with the Elemental Pole of Earth in the middle – the axis of the world that provides stability to all things. Through most of history, the Blessed Isle has ruled the rest of Creation. The current Scarlet Empire still dominates the Threshold, though its power has recently suffered a check. Around it are the other lands and seas of the hreshold, which fade and fray into the Wyld (you can tell this is a White Wolf game), ultimately dissolving into primal chaos. Four more Elemental Poles – Air, Water, Fire and Wood – set the character of the four quarters of the Threshold, but they don’t matter as much for purposes of this discussion.

 

Creation itself is the cusp where other realms of existence meet: the realm of the high gods, Yu-Shan; the demon realm of Malfeas; and the Underworld of the dead. The Wyld, Malfeas and the Underworld are sources of deadly peril to Creation.

The design of the world gives a strong directional quality to campaigns. The bog-standard Exalted campaign begins in the Threshold. From there, PCs can confront major threats from outside while trying to avoid the tyranny of the Scarlet Empire. Ultimately, PCs head for the center and try to conquer the Scarlet Empire because it holds the setting’s Win Button. Capturing the center ends the game.

 

So, the design of the world is essentially a set of concentric circles. The dominant theme is the tension between Center and Periphery.

 

Dean Shomshak

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Philip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers has a similar design. The world built and ruled by Jadawin is like a ziggurat, with different countries on the various levels. In the first book of the series, the protagonist starts on the bottom level and heads for the top/center. So maybe this world is actually more linear, Start/Finish, than Center/Periphery.

 

Farmer’s Riverworld is even more linear. A world that is entirely one gigantic river valley. Through several books, characters head for the source of the river, which they believe holds the answers to the many mysteries of this world. (And when they get there, I am told, the series turns to crap because the story is over but Farmer keeps writing.)
 

Dean Shomshak

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Next is the Dualistic World. Many stories are built around conflicts between opposites. A world can be built to reflect that opposition: Good vs Evil, Light vs Darkness, Order vs Chaos, Land vs Water, Science vs Magic, etc. Maybe the world is split into halves that are at war.

 

I’ve read a couple of Fantasy novels set in worlds like this. Mark Geston’s Seige of Wonder is set in a world split between science and magic. Paul Zimmer’s The Stolen Prince (and sequel, IIRC, but I’m blanking on the name) has a world split into light/dark, good/evil sides, with a magical force barrier between them.

 

Back when toys were being turned into comic books right and left, Marvel produced a Crystar series set in a world split between Order/Crystal and Chaos/Magma. There were two rival brother princes, Crystar and Moltar, who’d chosen opposite sides. I only know of this from an issue I bought out of a sale bin as reference on How To Draw People Made Of Crystal, so I can’t venture any opinion on the quality of the world-building or how well the theme of duality was handled.

 

Can you think of other thematic world designs?

 

Dean Shomshak

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Iron Crown Enterprise's "Shadow World," aka the planet Kulthea, written to support the Rolemaster game system (and Hero System for a while), included a number of bog-standard fantasy RPG elements, like elves, dwarves, dragons, good and evil gods, an epic force of Chaos (the "Unlife"), and so on. The planet has a long history of major magical events and conflicts, which had altered the world and greatly degraded civilization. However, what I found the most intriguing result of all that activity was the presence of what was called Flows of Essence. "Essence" is magic in this setting, a "leakage" from higher dimensions which wizards and other supernatural entities can tap for many extraordinary effects. Essence flowed around Kulthea in immense currents like air and water. Within those flows elemental forces altered the weather and some of the physical laws, could randomly generate dangerous "essence storms," and sometimes even act like physical barriers, making travel through them difficult and dangerous. But there is an order of magical practitioners called Navigators who have charted these flows and know ways around them.

 

As a result, rather than being treated as a single world with natural interactions, Kulthea is divided into numerous "mini-settings" with their own distinctive environments, cultures having little contact with outsiders, and technology levels ranging from stone-age to Renaissance (with some magical steampunk thrown in). The relative isolation and self-containment of each region played into the grab-bag nature of so much of fantasy gaming, with different styles of play, categories of enemies, details of local color, being compartmentalized, but accessible to those who could navigate past Essence flows.

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19 hours ago, DShomshak said:

So, the design of the world is essentially a set of concentric circles. The dominant theme is the tension between Center and Periphery.

 

My Black Ocean setting followed this model. There was the Inner Sphere (civilization), the Outer Sphere (frontier), and the Far Sphere (unexplored/unclaimed lands). Travel between the spheres was complicated, because the aether in each sphere rotated in different directions, creating zones of turbulence.

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I've messed about with, but never really used, a setting influenced by ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology.

 

The Gods lived at the top of a mountain on an island in the middle of the Sea. (The island was roughly based on Crete. The mountain was more or less Mount Olympus.)

 

There were three continents around the Sea, roughly corresponding to Europe, (western) Asia and (northern) Africa. In turn, they were surrounded by the Ocean. It was possible to travel from the Sea to the Ocean, but it was also relatively easily possible to travel between the continents. It was a bit ambiguous as to whether the bodies of water separating the continents were straits or rivers.

 

Beyond the Ocean things got weird, and largely undefined. However, the Gates of Evening and the Gates of Dawn were real places that it was possible to reach with determination and/or magic. Every day, the Sun and Moon would travel, at different times, from the Gates of Dawn to the Gates of Evening. The Moon took a more erratic route, of course.

 

During the night (for the Sun, the day for the Moon), they would travel from the Gates of Evening through the Underworld, fighting off various monsters, deliver the Dead to be judged, and continue to the Gates of Dawn.

 

It was also possible to reach the Underworld through certain tunnels from the surface world, usually opening up underneath temples.

 

Once judged, the dead would either travel to the Fields of the Blessed, the Pits of the Damned, or just wander around through a limbo (the usual case). In the latter case, they would be tormented by thirst and the memory of their sins/regrets, eventually leading them to drink from the River of Forgetfulness. Crossing that would lead them to the Gates of Dawn, through which they would pass to be reincarnated.

 

There were other exits, of course, which sometimes resulted in them returning as the undead.

 

Certain souls would hole up in various caves, seeking enlightenment. This included through dark, as well as light, paths.

 

A concept I didn't follow up was that of a new land emerging on the fringes of the Ocean. The idea was that it was kind of an invasion, involving alien gods and their followers. The latter would be the first group encountered by mortals, as they would raid the existing continents.

 

Ultimately, the presence of alien gods would attract the attention of the existing gods, who would try to evict the intruders from their universe. Implicitly, this meant that other universes existed...

 

To a large extent, this idea was a polemic against pedestrian "naturalistic" settings, rather than something I really intended to play. If I did, I would have used Aaron Allston's wonderful Mythic Greece book as my primary resource.

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Many times I've linked to Keith Curtis's magnificent Savage Earth campaign setting website -- a magical post-apocalyptic Earth evocative of the old "Thundarr the Barbarian" cartoon, but more serious and sophisticated, and far more complex. One of the defining elements of post-apoc is that it takes recognizable features of our familiar world and alters them through whatever agency ended our civilization, giving us the shock of seeing something well-known in a distorted guise. Keith used many of the techniques that are classics of the genre, such as ruined real-world cities and mutated animals. But IMO his most brilliant touch, that turned the whole effect up a notch, was having the catastrophic event turn the axis of the planet nearly 90% from what it was. Essentially the whole world map we know is turned on its "side." His campaign is based in a former North America bordering what was the Arctic Ocean, which is now the equatorial Middle Sea. What was arctic and sub-arctic is now temperate to tropical. The land masses are recognizable, but aren't where they're "supposed" to be, and their climate is completely different.

 

Savage-Earth-Master-Map.jpg

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That's a really good example of what I'm talking about, LL. It's Earth, but... not, everything drasticallyt changed and redefined.

 

It reminds me of an excellent websight by a fellow who's worked out several "alternate Earths", the World Dream Bank Planetocopia:

http://www.worlddreambank.org/P/PLANETS.HTM

 

Dean Shomshak

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I thought of another example: the geography of Dante's Divine Comedy. The none circles of hell in Inferno are a geographical metaphor of descent, seeing greater and greater evil. Then the mountain of Purgatorio reverses the image, until Dante is ready to ascend into Heaven for the Paradisio.

 

Though as one of my professors pointed out, there's another level. Dante's visionary journey is essentially a straight line: Mount Purgatory is on the opposite side of the world, so even as he descends Hell, he is still moving toward God. So, taking God as the "highest point," he's going upward the whole way.

 

Dean Shomshak

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Re: Kulthea: I have a map of the continent of Jaiman, in the single Rolemaster product I ever bought. (The Iron Wind, if anyone's interested. I wasn't impressed.) The world as a whole seems to be an Earthlike round planet; though Jaiman (and the little bit of Emer seen at the edge of the map) shows a high fractal number, with lots of long, narrow peninsulas trailing off into island chains, and large bays and inland seas. Sort of like Europe or Southeast Asia, but more so, with no areas of comparatively "un-squiggly" coastline such as one sees in Africa or Australia. In a sense, a "good bits" version of geography. Subtly non-naturalistic, suggesting a world shaped by cataclysm instead of plate tectonics. 

 

One could strengthen the theme of fragmentation, though, by creating a setting that is literally a cluster of mini-worlds, such as that in Michael Reeves' The Shattered World and The Burning Realm. In this Fantasy duet, a cataclysm literally broke the world a thousand years ago, but magical runestones on the fragments preserved life, atmosphere and gravity, while both preventing the fragments from either colliding or drifting away. There were ways of traveling between fragments. I don't remember much of the story. Though there was a fairly heterogeneous set of protagonists working sometimes at cross purposes (all I remember are a sorceress and a werebear thief), I don't remember great fragmentation of culture.

 

If I were to build a setting like this, I'd probably go for a profusion of different intelligent species (or at least offshoot subspecies) and Vancian diversity and eccentricity of cultures. One plot might be a threat that can be overcome only by a lityeral or metaphorical coming together of fragmented peoples, such as a treasure hunt for the MacGuffin of Seven Parts, or a ritual that must be performed simultaneously on several fragments whose peoples don't like each other. Or conversely, the people of one fragment might be trying to conquer the rest and so force a reunion and homogeneity, and the challenge is to preserve the chaotic diversity.

 

Dean Shomshak

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Speaking of fragmented worlds, although it's sci-fi rather than fantasy, I always liked the premise of the 1973 television series, The Starlost. To escape the destruction of the Earth, the human race build a gigantic multi-generational space ark, with dozens of "biospheres" miles across, each housing humans from a different culture. But a catastrophic accident disables control of the ark and locks down each of the biospheres. Over the course of centuries the inhabitants of individual biospheres forget the true nature of their "world," and their societies evolve in their own self-contained ways, until the show's protagonists discover the truth and a way to access the other spheres.

 

As I say, I like the premise. The show's execution left a great deal to be desired. 😒 But it did star Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame.

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The Star Lost. I recently started watching that on ... someone's(?)... recommendation. I think it was a poster on ENWorld. Not that  that matters.

 

One episode in and boy is it terrible. I have no problem with the cheap  SFX. But the directing, plot, acting, and pacing... just awful. Watching the extras running around in the background (or sometimes foreground) completely at a loss as to what they're doing  is highly amusing though. 

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5 hours ago, DShomshak said:

Re: Kulthea: I have a map of the continent of Jaiman, in the single Rolemaster product I ever bought. (The Iron Wind, if anyone's interested. I wasn't impressed.) The world as a whole seems to be an Earthlike round planet; though Jaiman (and the little bit of Emer seen at the edge of the map) shows a high fractal number, with lots of long, narrow peninsulas trailing off into island chains, and large bays and inland seas. Sort of like Europe or Southeast Asia, but more so, with no areas of comparatively "un-squiggly" coastline such as one sees in Africa or Australia. In a sense, a "good bits" version of geography. Subtly non-naturalistic, suggesting a world shaped by cataclysm instead of plate tectonics.

 

I have the Shadow World boxed set.  Kulthea is a round planet, part of a defined star system, obviously fractal generated, and geologically/magically unstable.

 

I came across another odd concept in the novel Mainspring by Jay Lake.  It is one of the worst books I have ever read, but in it the solar system is a giant orrery, to the point where the Earth has a giant geared brass ring at the equator. 

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I read far too much SF, and was a Geology nerd in school ( not much math in geology, and was fascinated by the concept of rocks telling stories), so I conceptually can’t accept non naturalistic geography. Savage Earth I can.  Impact craters I can, just not the Flat earth, supported by four elephants on the back of a turtle sort of abstraction. In the words of another thread it breaks the immersion for me. If that’s your thing, though, play on. 

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Thanks, Scott, how could I have forgotten the Discworld?

 

Though the theme here is, "This world is a joke." Sometimes a well-done joke: I have sometimes enjoyed Pratchett's satire or been moved by his characters. But still a joke.

 

Dean Shomshak

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1 hour ago, L. Marcus said:

Just the fact that Prachett calculated that, under his own premises, the Disc's Sun was traveling about twice as fast as local lightspeed ...

but wouldn't lightspeed increase as you get further away from Discworld, as it was the magic of Discworld that was slowing the speed of light?

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I remembered another example of an altered post-apocalyptic world, a fairly obscure early short story by Poul Anderson, "Swordsman of Lost Terra." It was set on an Earth which, according to millennia-old legend, had achieved advanced technology before a rogue planet passed close enough for its gravity to completely halt the Earth's rotation. Obviously this caused immense earthquakes and related phenomena which wiped out most life-forms on the planet. The few surviving humans were cast back to a primitive level. With planetary motion halted one side of the globe always faced the sun -- the Day Lands -- while the other always faced away -- the Dark Lands. The region in between was called the Twilight Lands. Gradually both animals and humans adapted to this new reality. The Day and Twilight Lands were relatively pleasant for the most part, but the Dark Lands were cold and harsh, aside from certain regions made livable by volcanic activity, hot springs and the like.

 

The setting of the story is the small empire of Ryvan in the Twilight Lands, which was at war with a Dark Land realm called Ganasth. The Ganasthi had been primitive folk before wars of conquest by Ryvan had led some of their defeated enemies to flee into the Dark Lands. Those refugees taught the ways of civilization to the Ganasthi, and their descendants became the ruling class.

 

What I found most intriguing about the story is that it didn't take the obvious, cliche route of making the Dark Landers evil monsters, twisted by their environment like Morlocks. The Ganasthi were just people, people who felt themselves disenfranchised, enduring perpetual night and winter while the Ryvans grew fat in their comfortable Twilight lives. The Ganasthi intended to take that comfortable life for themselves; but their leaders were not interested in vengeance-driven slaughter, instead planning to exile the Ryvans to the Dark Lands to make room for themselves. That balanced, empathetic portrayal of how human beings would respond to this situation makes the story stand out for me.

 

 

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On 4/29/2020 at 10:53 AM, Lord Liaden said:

Speaking of fragmented worlds, although it's sci-fi rather than fantasy, I always liked the premise of the 1973 television series, The Starlost. To escape the destruction of the Earth, the human race build a gigantic multi-generational space ark, with dozens of "biospheres" miles across, each housing humans from a different culture. But a catastrophic accident disables control of the ark and locks down each of the biospheres. Over the course of centuries the inhabitants of individual biospheres forget the true nature of their "world," and their societies evolve in their own self-contained ways, until the show's protagonists discover the truth and a way to access the other spheres.

 

As I say, I like the premise. The show's execution left a great deal to be desired. 😒 But it did star Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame.

Star lost was shown on Sunday afternoons on KRON TV, as was pre- Tom Baker Dr. Who, they were comparable effects wise, though Starlost always had the cheap and cheesey video. The ship itself you could tell was about 14 feet long, and video cameras of the time had severe depth of field issues. Unlike Dr. Who, Starlost was slow plodding and talky. The sets had minimalist dressing and the acting was uneven. Things had an unrehearsed, live TV feeling, but at least it wasn’t sports or community service programming. 

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On 4/30/2020 at 6:11 AM, Scott Ruggels said:

I read far too much SF, and was a Geology nerd in school ( not much math in geology, and was fascinated by the concept of rocks telling stories), so I conceptually can’t accept non naturalistic geography. Savage Earth I can.  Impact craters I can, just not the Flat earth, supported by four elephants on the back of a turtle sort of abstraction. In the words of another thread it breaks the immersion for me. If that’s your thing, though, play on. 

 

If you haven't seen it already, you (and anyone else interested in geologically plausible worlds) may be interested in the Paleomap Project of geologist Chris Scotese. Reconstructed geographies of Earth going back hundreds of millions of years -- and a few speculations about plausible future positions of the continents. Add a Savage Earth-style tilt and you could get some highly realistic, yet nigh-unrecognizalle, unearthly Earths.

 

http://www.scotese.com/

 

My "Magozoic" D&D settng uses Pangea Ultima, the Earth of 250 million years in the future.

 

Dean Shomshak

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