Maximising Stories

I've been thinking, as I carefully meander around the creation of a new campaign world, about how to maximise the potential for stories within it. I don't anticipate giving up my old world, mind; there's still more I can do there, particularly once I wean myself off the world-changing epic, and have a go at the character-changing epic instead. But in this new one, everything I put in is being considered, not on the basis of "is this cool?", but on "What stories does this enable? What stories does this block?" Here's some of my current thinking.

it's hard to see how geographical features can enable or prevent stories, at first glance. But if you consider where the stories you like are set, you begin to see something interesting - they happen, for the most part, in border places. Coasts, the edge of the forest, cities, frontiers, mountains, bridges and other river crossings, and so on. There are fewer - importantly, not no - stories set in the midst of deserts, oceans, or prairies. So while I've placed a few deserts, and there are continents large enough to allow for flatland, and plenty of ocean, I'm concentrating for the most part on the complicated bits - islands, peninsulas, mountains, inland seas, large bays, swamps, and so forth. I'm pleased with the world map I have; it's varied and disparate. About the only geographical issue is that the main bulk of the land seems to be across the equator, and really, that's just my North European bias showing.

One of the major principles I wanted to explore in Davon was an infinite depth of history. Three billion years of conscious, rational beings walking around and doing stuff on the planet means there's a lot to deal with. There were three reasons I was chasing this - first, I don't think people pay enough attention to how very much history there is in human life on Earth, in all its diverse glory. They sort of skim along on a bit of local history in whatever part of the world they're in, plus some superimposed European history if they're not in Europe or the US, and that's it. Second, I was very much enamoured of Vernor Vinge's setting in A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness In The Sky, which has the rise and fall of species and slow communications across a galaxy as central themes. And third, the notion of species with thousand-year lifespans, like elves and dragons, means you need to stretch out history to accommodate them. Tolkien straight up cheats on this, or at least takes no account of evolution; many of his elves were the first generation of their kind, few were more than fourth or fifth at the outside.

I'm kind of done with deep history now. Not that I'm not fascinated with it still - I absolutely am - but no player has ever had a lot of interest in it as such. And when every problem has its origin x thousand years ago, where x is anything between ten and a thousand, or more, it's hard to get to any realistic sensation of peace and calm; everyone is always aware that the next horror locked away by a previous species could break out or be released by plate tectonics any moment now. So much as history enabled me to tell some stories, it prevented others from happening, and the ones dealing with simpler, more in-the-moment motivations, are the ones I'm interested in this time.

Instead, I'm intending to put together a complex history for the campaign world going back about two thousand years, and a less complex history going back about another six thousand. And maybe some vague ideas before that. And then I'm not going to show any more of it than the most recent two hundred years to the players, unless it's massively influential on their character's culture, or it comes up in a game. Or, I suppose, the character is a historian.

But that brings me around to something else that's going to have to go, and that's the very long-lived races. Or rather, they won't have to go completely, but they're going to be much rarer, much more reclusive, and have a lot less impact on other cultures around them. The other option seems to be that they're wholly dominant, and while that's interesting in Steven Brust's books, I don't want to use it. So the elves and dragons (or whatever else there are) will be very cautious, very careful about their contacts with humans. An individual human may be fine, but they just don't have the same respect for life as someone who's been holding on to theirs for five hundred years. One ignorant, angry peasant could put an end to, potentially, millennia of life. Even dragons have to sleep sometimes, and an enemy that can breed thirty times faster than you is trouble. So best stay clear. Happily, reclusive elves and dragons, in the far-away and hard to reach parts of the world, make for interesting stories.

Fast travel is another problem. Flight, portals, teleportation and the like are staples of fantasy gaming. But they do a lot to circumvent plots. I've learned to deal with this, and sometimes I find ways to prevent it for a while. I think this is one area, though, where I'm going to be a little less cautious - the limit will not be absolute, and it will be one of volume rather than anything else. I want to have both the mage who travels across a continent in a matter of hours or minutes and the army that takes a year to do so. The exact mechanism for that remains to be thought out, but that's the direction I'm currently going.

I've no doubt that there are other things I need to consider, too. This will be a long-term process, I think, which is probably good - I threw together my current campaign world in about two weeks.

Posted by Drew Shiel at May 28, 2013 12:55 PM

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