Friday, December 18, 2009

The Unknowable

Planet Algol -- a blog everyone should be reading -- had a nice post on Wednesday about "grand unified theories in fantasy" and I pretty much agree with every word of it. In brief: too many fantasy games and settings try to do The Silmarillion and present a complete universe, from the moment of its creation all the way down to the present day, with every event, every person, and every detail following logically from that beginning; this is generally a Bad Thing. The reason it's a Bad Thing is twofold. First, most of us aren't Tolkien, so we're just not up to the demands of such a monumental task. Second, and probably more importantly from a gaming perspective, grand unified theories often rob a setting of its mysteries and its contacts with the Unknown (and Unknowable), the stuff from which adventures are made.

When creating the Dwimmermount campaign, I specifically avoided even asking, let alone answering, many of the questions that my younger self would undoubtedly have considered of prime importance when designing a new fantasy setting. To take just one mundane example, there is no name for the world of Dwimmermount. In game, when needed, I have NPCs talk about "the world" or even "the earth," but there's no name for the planet on which the campaign takes place. Heck, there's no name even for the continent on which the campaign takes place. In some contexts, it'd be perfectly reasonable to have names for such things, but there's no need for them in my game and, moreover, the people of the setting generally don't think about things on such a macro-level scale. Some sages and scholars do, of course, but their influence is limited and they themselves don't agree on the names of such things.

The same goes for the gods, their existence, and their relationship to the universe and the creatures that inhabit it. Are the gods real? Is there an afterlife? Where did humanity come from? How does magic work? There are no answers to such things and I make a great effort to muddy the waters on these questions when they do come up in the course of play. The gods don't walk the earth, but their servants do have access to unique magical gifts. Meanwhile, demons (and some former devotees of Turms Termax, such as the necrolyte Pharaxes) claim that the gods are a myth invented by Men. The characters have spoken with the dead, so there may be some kind of afterlife, but it's uncertain, both because the types of questions the dead may answer is limited and because some scholars surmise that "the dead" with whom one may speak are merely lingering memories somehow given temporary life apart from the body, a kind of byproduct of the very act of dying.

Speaking for myself, I find it much easier to run a campaign where I don't have to think too much about the universal implications of adding this monster or that magic spell. It's all wide open and, while I suppose one could consider me lazy for this approach, I've noticed that it actually makes the campaign setting far richer. Rigorously imagined settings may have an internal logic to them, but (Tolkien excepted) I rarely find them very engaging. There's a "clean," almost antiseptic quality to them that rubs me the wrong way. I like "rough" settings, with lots of sharp edges that "cut" me from time to time. I don't want my fantasy polished smooth, where everything ties up into a pretty bow.

In short, I like including the Unkowable in my campaigns and I think the Dwimmermount campaign, despite being very megadungeon-centric, has survived and prospered for as long as it has because it's so amenable to my throwing whatever strikes my fancy into it. It's a "stew pot" setting -- a familiar but tasty gravy in which there are lots of chunky bits suspended, some more assimilated into the gravy than others. The only rationale that matters is what "tastes good." In practice, I expect most gaming settings are stew pot settings, so I'm not suggesting there's anything unique about my approach, only that I've self-consciously embraced it and used it in order to make Dwimmermount weird and mysterious, just how I like my fantasy these days.


  1. I call this the difference between Iconic Element Campaigns and Organic World-Building Campaigns.

    The Organic World-Builders start with "the universe", build their idea of the universe, the solar system, the planets, the continents, weather, flora, fauna, and create that whole pre-history up to the present day, so that the campaign has grown "organically" from cosmic dust all the way up to the moment the PCs step foot onto the road of adventure.

    The Iconic Element Campaigners say "what is this campaign really going to be about", and build the elements of the campaign to support those ideas, leaving all else as, ultimately, unimportant. Who cares where the trade goods come from in your kingdom, when the campaign is mostly about rummaging around in the Haunted Wilderness? Who cares what the continent looks like when all you're ever going to see of it is one small, war-torn duchy?

    I feel there are pros and cons to both methods. Organic World-Building gives you a much more, dare I say it, "realistic" setting, or at least one with a higher degree of verisimilitude. Things have been designed to "make sense", so that if a character manages to pull back the curtain on the stage, the actors aren't caught reading the paper in the prop room. The benefit of the Iconic Elements style is that you can keep foremost in your own mind what the campaign is "about", and focus all your energies on that idea, understanding that the rest of the world is really just a hazy fog of kingdoms and jungles and "stuff out there"; it is a more bottom-up, PC-eye view of the world, because anything the PCs aren't going to interact with, really doesn't matter, while Organic World-Building is a more top-down, GM's-eye view of the world.

    Wow, that's a lot of rambling. Great topic for discussion, though.

  2. I must agree, I enjoy writing history and deep mysteries into my campaigns but filling everything in and making everything fit is just not rewarding.

    "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

  3. I agree completely! Leaving "empty spaces" in a fictional world is a big part in engaging an audience (whether readers, viewers or players.) How much more interesting was the Star Wars universe back when it was full of undefined references and unanswered questions? In how many cases were the answers to those questions as rewarding as the ones we had imagined?

  4. Another excellent article. It re-enforces much of the pulp fiction foundation of OD&D. It also does make running a campaign easier, since the Referee doesn't need detailed answers for most of the settings' mysteries. It is very post-modern and maybe that is one of the biggest appeals of the OD&D resurgence?

    But you will have to forgive me for being a "big-picture" person. Some of us just can't help it.:D

  5. James, though I am not old school, I find your comments on running the game fascinating and you have enhanced my ability to bring a great game to my players. thanks.

    For the record, I have played D&D for over 30 years. If I need Old school cred for this blog, my claim to fame is buying Morrow Project on its release date.

  6. (Long time reader, first time commenter)

    I like the way you think, James. And I have to agree with the practical aspects of your ground-up philosophy, as spoken by Pastor John.

    In the campaign I run, we typically only get 4-5 hours of play once a month. We're all adults with jobs and families, we don't have a lot of time for campaign creation.

    I only have time for a couple of encounters per session, so I focus on making them memorable and challenging for the players. Any background is incidental and just there to provide enough narrative sinew to make it all make immediate sense.

    This throws off my players from time to time, when they ask me a question about something and I toss it back at them. I actually said to one player, when she created a half-elf mage, "I don't know, why don't you tell me where the elves live? You're a half-elf, you'd probably know." She decided that they lived in the north, which is where the barbarian came from, too, so it turned out the two characters were traveling companions.

    Or when I prodded the cleric into coming up with some rituals for his church. Up to that time, I hadn't given any thought to the gods in my world; having his input helped me sketch out a simple belief system and gave me some opposing clerical orders for future villains.

    That way, it's a collaborative effort. We're making the campaign together. I like it that way.

  7. Cool article - fyi, the 2nd link appears to be to a bit of research for your escapist article instead of the article from Planet Algol. No big, as I found it to be an enjoyable read anyway, and super-thanks for sending me to Planet Algol, as it is rad.

  8. Setting worlds which are really fleshed out with a lot of details and lore, also have the problem of attracting "canon lawyers". This is what "ruined" the Forgotten Realms setting for me over the years, when I played in several games where the FR "canon lawyers" were constantly arguing and yelling "you can't do that" with the DM.

    After too many experiences with FR "canon lawyers" ruining many D&D games which I was a player in, I ended up doing something else for the games where I was a DM. I either homebrewed my own setting in a similar minimalist style as our host James, or I used an existing setting which had very few supplements and canon. One such setting I used in my games with several hardcore FR "canon lawyers" as players, was Castlemourn. Despite Castlemourn being written by Ed Greenwood, the FR "canon lawyers" had very little or nothing to say about it with respect to "canon".

  9. The unknown is essential but some form of history is also important!

  10. Good post again. The Unknown and Unknowable are crucial to me these days, the "fully" fleshed out backstory (in quotes because regardless of how detailed, no attempt will arrive at the iedal "full") ends up being more of a hinderance to imaginative play (for me). That said, I do love micro-histories, but I like to keep those somewhat vague too. I'll sometimes come up with the history of a village, say, or an iconic magic item, but at no point do I feel compelled to make micro-histories tie together to form a cohesive whole.

  11. I've played Empire of the Petal Throne a few times, and while I'm fascinated with the world I find that I get overwhelmed with information. The first time I played it, it seemed so alien and weird but reading about the world of Tekumel is almost like making a commitment to getting a college degree.

    I agree with the organic approach and letting the players and the game develop simultaneously.

  12. And yet, if you don't show all your "wares" right up front, preferably in a 300 page hardcover campaign book, they tend not to be well reviewed.

  13. I agree with almost everything you say, James, but, being a History nut (among other, related, things), I can't help but create the setting in some detail. Mostly for my own enjoyment, but sometimes the notes or entries I make serve as inspirations for adventures (or twists within an adventure), much like a one-line comment in a published product might.

    The thing to bear in mind with world development is that there is (or should be) always room for improvisation and player input. I ran a WFRP campaign for many years and detailed much of the history of the Empire and even some of the Grand Provinces, but came nowhere near to setting the whole thing in stone. There's always detail to fill in, connections to be discovered (created) during play. I look at detailed campaign worlds (even Harn, for instance) as the outline of a mosaic, waiting to be filled in during the game.

    As for the canon lawyers Robbprofus mentions, feh! I'd say to them something similar to what I said to the guy who whined that my world differed from (later) GW canon: "My Old World isn't GW's Old World. I bought it, and I decide what's 'real," not them."

    Security word: "Verva," Vecna's annoying kid sister.

  14. I agree with the spirit, but my preference for having more or less material onhand depends more on how long the campaign will run.

    I've never run someone else's world, however. In fact, I only ran one module as written (The Isle of Dread), and didn't enjoy it.

    Typically, when it comes to running games, I just want lots of ideas to steal. IMHO, sometimes the best ideas are forged as a small part of a larger context. I think some very unique ideas come as a result of creating a expansive world. Sometimes these are great gems to steal. So, I guess I do like big detailed campaign worlds. Give me about 3 of them and I'm good to go.

    In form, I think I run my games in a similar manner, but for me, the more material I have on hand to draw from, the better.

    That said, IMHO, I don't think strictly adhering to a predefined setting makes for good gaming.

  15. @James You raised a good point about starting out a campaign. But consider this, suppose you run Dwimmermount as your main fantasy setting say for the next 30 years. ;)

    That you feed the result of each campaign into the next one.

    My initial thought that on paper you will wind up with something that differs little from Middle Earth in the sense of detail.

    However a big difference will be in it's playability. Because you went through thirty years of literal playtesting that these will be what I call playable detail. This makes a big difference in my opinion in retaining the sense of mystery and awe.

    That actual play + creative sweat is superior to creative sweat alone like the how most published campaign are written. The more playtesting you do with more people the better the results.

    I think that how you are starting Dwimmermount out bodes well for it's future many years from now.

    Even my Majestic Wilderlands had it's origins in one spot; Map 3 the Valley of Ancients. The rest evolved later as subsequent campaigns moved out into the rest of the Wilderlands.

    From what I understand all the great D&D campaigns, Blackmoor (Castle Blackmoor), Greyhawk (Castle Greyhawk), even Forgotten Realms (Shadowdale, Waterdeep) started out in limited locales and evolved into their present size through multiple campaigns.

  16. While I feel drawn to create an organic world, what actually works for me (in terms of time available) and for my players is an iconic campaign. Players, rightfully, are concerned with character class, race, immediate surroundings and what's in the treasure chest. Generally, at the outer edge of their interest are things like ancient history, trade routes, differences in languages--in short, the items that are central to an organic campaign. For me, I try to strike a balance. I have all the coastlines of my island campaign drawn, but most islands are blank. Same with my dungeon--I have several levels diagrammed with themes and ideas, but I'm only a few levels ahead of the players with the actual map. The 50,000 year history of the campaign takes up 1/2 page, although it gets a bit longer as I some of the players travel to ruins and such. Each approach does have its pluses and minuses but I prefer to focus my limited time on what will make for better gaming sessions versus what will please me personally on an esoteric level. If I had the winning ticket for PowerBall and didn't have to work, I would design a wonderful organic world for myself and my players, but given my inability recently to beat the odds with a 1d6, I'm not counting on the lottery.

  17. I am with Rob Conley on this one, which is no surprise, and for exactly the reasons he states.

    Seen from another angle, the article's position would be a terrifying one if a native couldn't know anything specific about the world, or that all such attempts to follow links in a chain required the answers to be 'made-up' on the spot, likely doing more damage to the setting/game than answers properly thought out.

    Oral tradition, cultural ritual, historical texts, eyewitness accounts, --all of these provide those with access to them to a greater understanding of the reality which exists apart from the PCs, unless, of course multi-ego solipsism is the paradigm of the setting with their will creating reality out of the pink mists of the Unknown...

    The article seems to describe a world closer to the dawn of history, that not even an 'apocalypse' could create so blank a tablet.
    --If this is what OS gamers think was going on at any point post Assyrian/Sumerian period, they could well do with a brush-up on World History.

    While Europe were a skin-wearing, lice-infested lot, the Near and Far East and portions of Africa were at levels of sophistication undreamt of until after the Crusaders returned with their bloody swag. The citizens of those bright lands were well aware of some version of world history apart from the conquests of the Romans and their upstart inheritors.

  18. Seen from another angle, the article's position would be a terrifying one if a native couldn't know anything specific about the world, or that all such attempts to follow links in a chain required the answers to be 'made-up' on the spot, likely doing more damage to the setting/game than answers properly thought out.

    I nowhere advocate this. Rather, I point out that, if there are things inhabitants of the world could/would not know, then I generally avoid coming up with definitive answers to them. If no man has ever seen a god or ever will, why is it important for me, as referee, to know if the gods are real or in fact simply myths? Likewise, if something occurred before the dawn of written history or before any still-existing races came to be, what purpose does it serve to map it out beforehand?

    Oral tradition, cultural ritual, historical texts, eyewitness accounts, --all of these provide those with access to them to a greater understanding of the reality which exists apart from the PCs, unless, of course multi-ego solipsism is the paradigm of the setting with their will creating reality out of the pink mists of the Unknown...

    Again, you're reading way more into my post than I intended. Of course there are histories in the setting and the characters have access to them, as has been noted in many, many of my session reports. But those histories do not go back all the way back to the creation of the world and, like real world histories, contain inaccuracies, biases, and outright lies. The characters will generally have no way of knowing the absolute truth about things that occurred centuries before their times, so why spend the time creating them?

    --If this is what OS gamers think was going on at any point post Assyrian/Sumerian period, they could well do with a brush-up on World History.

    Once more, I nowhere assert that the setting has no history, only that I don't devote enormous amounts of effort mapping out details of that history beforehand, especially when it occurred long before anyone, even the longest-lived races, were around to record it. Much in the same way that a referee running a modern era game wouldn't need to know about history even as recent as the Napoleonic Wars (unless the game is specifically about historians or archeologists or whatever), I don't see the need for detailing thousands of years of events that will, in all likelihood, have zero impact on the actions of a bunch of treasure-seeking ne'er-do-wells.

    While Europe were a skin-wearing, lice-infested lot, the Near and Far East and portions of Africa were at levels of sophistication undreamt of until after the Crusaders returned with their bloody swag. The citizens of those bright lands were well aware of some version of world history apart from the conquests of the Romans and their upstart inheritors.

    European scholarship has a long and illustrious history, going all the way back to the Greeks, many of whose works were exceedingly exhaustive and objective by the standards of their time. I don't think it fair to characterize them so negatively, particularly when one considers how many of their ideas remain of import today.

  19. It baffles me that Timeshadows went there with this.

    I totally agree with the post. Build your own world to your taste and the deepers echoes will come.

  20. @James:

    When I am able to address your replies, I will do so. Family has just arrived.

    @Zak: Don't worry yourself too much. Even after my response to James, I still may fail to win hearts/minds.

  21. James, I totally agree with your post. The way I play (pretty loose) is that the outline of the world is in the random encounter tables whose results are interpreted by the GM and the players' interaction (notwithstanding pre-planned encounters, basic campaign/sandbox sketch etc). And it's a different world every time.

    Timeshadows does make a good point that the PCs could know more about their world if you take our other non-european examples into account. But you need not have to prepare for that beforehand: if the PCs meet someone/thing new (in the game) and I reckon the PCs would have heard of it before, I just tell the players that this is the X about which they'd heard tales when they were young, say.

    OT: She is right though, in that European society, at least once the Romans took over, was pretty filthy. I recently read somewhere that the Ancient Britons actually washed regularly unlike their Roman invaders.

    Also European culture did not arise somehow fully formed in a vacuum. The ancient Greeks (and the Gauls) did get a great deal of their knowledge from the Africans and Asians with whom they regularly and (mostly) peacefully traded. It's not certain, however, how evenly this knowledge would have been distributed.

    So if you're going to extend her ancient European comparison to D&D, you could say that eg. Magic Users and Clerics or upper class Fighters and Thieves would know a bit about their world's history or geography, say.

    But I would just go by the vibe I get from my rough ideas, the players and the way the dice roll.

  22. I also still maintain that for a setting to be taken seriously, it HAS to be exhaustive, if it is a product.

    James might not know this- or he might- but having released numerous campaign settings over the years, for various systems, the #1 comment on settings is either "not long enough" or "incomplete".

    If a question pops into someone's head when reading a setting, they dub it incomplete, even though they knew when they bought it (presumably) that it was 30 pages and free.

    And yes, this literally has happened to me with a sci-fi setting called Prometheus Rising.

    I am not engaging in pithy internet sarcasm.

  23. Chuck, yeah, I really hate it when people dub settings "incomplete". Personally I think there should be enough information to inspire you to play in it, but also enough spaces in it for that inspiration and improvisation to occur. Matthew Johnson's Star Wars comparison is a good one.

  24. Speaking from the trenches as it where, the lack of a detailed, complete world has been an interesting change of pace. There have been times when we've asked questions of an NPC, often of only tangential interest to the story, and run in to an uncharted corner. This is fine because either James will invent something on the spot, or one of us will suggest something that sounds good as far as we understand the campaign world.

    Does it matter that James can't answer how the world came about? Yes a little, but it's not relevant to the campaign story. I actually feel it adds a little authenticity to the story. Coming from a background of playing in the FR for years it always felt a little unreal that everyone in the campaign seemed to know everything about the world. It's is as if what is written in the campaign guides details the "Common Knowledge" of the world and if that information contains all there is to know, then it feels that everyone knows everything.

    In Dwimmermount there is this feeling that whats over that next hill is virgin territory. The place over that hill may have used to be part of the empire, but still we're the first to ever step foot there. I can't look up what's over the hill in the campaign guide, I have to go there and see for myself. That gives the world a much more expansive feel to it, where in the Forgotten Realms it seems that everything has already been done before and any new adventure has to be fact-checked against the campaign guides to avoid inconsistencies.

  25. I think there can be a important distinction between character knowledge and player knowledge when it comes to history and the world at large.

    A character may know scads of history, lore and geography that is largely unimportant to the player. Frodus the Friar may know the name of every Kinge of the Realme of Avalonia as well as the stories and liturgies of the Seven Saints of Avalonia, but this may be completely irrelevant to Frodus' player. And if it becomes relevant the GM can just fill in Frodus' player on the subject.

    Likewise a player may know more than the character. A character may know that the world is flat although the player knows otherwise.

  26. Based on my personal gaming experiences, I wouldn't enjoy playing in a campaign that only has a limited or immediate history. But that's also coming from a PC perspective. I'm used to playing with a group that's more story based. We can sit around a table for eight hours, not rolling any dice, just talking.

    But, I 'spose for a megadungeon adventure such as Dwimmermount, the story would come only as needed. And even then, just enough to leave the players wanting more. That is the trait of a good DM, isn't it?

    Anyway, the only real dilemma I can see is what happens after Dwimmermount? Yes, you do have very interesting plot twists in the game. Yes, I've read all of the gaming recaps about it. It's an excellent and exciting campaign setting. But what happens when Dwimmermount is done, and it's time to move on?

  27. James!

    Great article, my friend! Indeed, there are many strong pros and cons for either approach to campaign/world building.

    As GM, it can be both wildly fun and crazy in trying to balance both--particularly if you have *players* that strive to ask deep, or bizarre questions, and seek to know more, more, and more about the campaign world.

    A contributor posted earlier about history...the Britons bathed regularly, while the Romans did not...I must disagree entirely. The Britons when compared to the Romans, lived in a brutish, primitive world of mud and squalor.

    How did the Romans conquer Britain? Not just by military might alone--they did so with the thousand lures of superior Roman civilization and technology. It was the appeal and huge benefit of Roman bathhouses--now discovered by archeologists to have been quite plentiful throughout Roman-occupied Britain--and long range Roman trade, that brought silks, fine clothing, brightly colored clothing, jewelry, exotic perfume, oils, spices, wine!--as well as soaps, tools, technologies, laws and commerce.

    It can be seen through the historical and archeological record fairly well how the great family and political divisions ripped through the Celtic culture in Britain, as well as in Gaul before that.

    The Roman traders and merchants brought Roman coins, commerce, the fine perfumes, clothing, and so on into Celtic tribal lands. Very soon, the Celtic women were enjoying a much higher standard of life and pleasures than before, as well as the men. The women worked to persuade their chieftain/husband, etc to make alliance with the Romans, so they could continue to have bathhouses and all the pleasures of a Roman culture. The men--and the chieftains/leaders etc saw and felt this as well, so you had increasing numbers of Celtic tribes allying with the Romans. The problem rose, however, as they did so, and embraced Roman culture, that they began to rapidly change, and became very different from their relatives and other tribes deeper in the interior--that had yet to fully trade with the Romans. These more distant tribes viewed the allying tribes as *sell outs*--and *betraying their culture* and all that. Thus, you had virtual civil wars between various Celtic tribes--some where fighting to continue to enjoy the *new era*--and all that it promised--while others were fighting against the *corruption* and *change* they felt was sweeping their traditional culture, and in their view, destroying it insidiously, from within, from the demands and yearnings of their own kin and family members. Their resentment, fear of change, and desire to remain independent fueled their desire for war against the Romans--and their fellow Celts that allied with them.

    It's fascinating...of course, the Romans were not entirely innocent--they also used gold to bribe, assassination, foment rebellions, deception, screwing with treaties, and naked aggression and conquest--but depending on the Roman general in command, or the Roman Governor, these policies and attitudes could and did vary widely, from sincerity and respect for the Celts, to greed and arrogant contempt.

    The Roman conquest of the Celts occurred for a number of reasons--some of which were the superior cultural goodies that the Romans could provide that the Celts never experienced before--like plumbing, sewers, and bathhouses, which allowed the Celts to bathe regularly in comfort. For centuries, it had long been a Roman custom to bathe. Romans also routinely used soap, and scrapers, to scrape their bodies of dirt, oil, dead skin, etc.

    The Romans were rigorous in their cleanliness and worked hard to develop their culture in having one of the most accessible and clean society in the world.

    Semper Fidelis,


  28. Even if a given civilisation had detailed knowledge about its history etc, that doesn't mean that a group of armed vagabonds would have the information. Where did that first-level Fighter learn about the planes?

    And scholarly types might just have more misinformation; biology via Aristotle and history via the legends of King Arthur.

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  30. Grwat article James and even though I don't entirely agree that you should leave out common names such as f the world, continents, ect are called ( then again calling the plant the " world" is sort of doing just that ;-) ) I think your absolutely right that the GM must keep many of the "mysteries" a secret to be reveled later on... or maybe even never. Even if the players explore every nook and cranny of a dungeon, there should always be that lingering possibly that there is still "more" to be discovered.

  31. erm, SHARK, I think you should suspend your fides for a moment and read this:

    "It had been reported that a factory producing soap-like substances was found in the ruins of Pompeii (AD 79). However, this has proven to be a misinterpretation of the survival of some soapy mineral substance,[citation needed] probably soapstone at the Fullonica where it was used for dressing recently cleansed textiles. Unfortunately this error has been repeated widely and can be found in otherwise reputable texts on soap history. The ancient Romans were generally ignorant of soap's detergent properties, and made use of the strigil to scrape dirt and sweat from the body. The word "soap" (Latin sapo) appears first in a European language in Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis, which discusses the manufacture of soap from tallow and ashes, but the only use he mentions for it is as a pomade for hair; he mentions rather disapprovingly that among the Gauls and Germans men are likelier to use it than women.[2]"

  32. You are right though about the Roman baths etc. I just don't think it means that all ancient British tribes were as dirty as the Roman historians would have us believe.

    Not sure what's happened to the British sense of personal hygiene since then... =P


  33. @ Timeshadows "Multi-ego solipsism is the paradigm."
    I'm getting a shirt with that on it! That totally sums up my ethos!
    A pox on world-building fascists! Unless someone is as savvy and engaging a world builder as say, Tolkien or Barker (not likely) - don't go there ;)
    Why not spread the imagination around, instead of feeding a single ego.
    Arneson made a new character class 'cause some player wanted a dude with kung-fu skills. It would have been kinda lame if he went "No, there's no background history of martial arts in my campaign so I won't consider it", instead he rolled with it.
    @Badelaire - I think the term "organic" (which I understand as naturally-changing) is better suited to "made-up on the spot consensus reality" rather than a "rigid enforced history". The latter actually strikes me as "iconic". Your terms seem a bit mixed-up, to my sensibilities. Perhaps you meant holistic?

  34. Not really history as such, but sort of the same thing; the bit that always trips me up when designing a setting is "Where does the food come from?" I have put away a number of setting ideas simply because I couldn't answer that question for myself, but I wonder, would the players even care to ask?

  35. @ B. Porty, Esq

    I don 't think you need to be Tolkien or Barker to come up with names for your world -or at the least- a GM should start thinking about that stuff in general. I mean, authors doit all the time so why not gamers?

    Personally, I think it helps the creative juices when you do have names for the world, countries, the gods and all that stuff. But ,you reveal it only when your ready.

  36. And don't be afraid to have contradictory "historical facts" crop up! Real historians deal with that sort of thing all the time. The cause can be as simple as differing traditions recorded from different perspectives to blatent rewriting of history (for example, Ramesses II and his "spin" of Kadesh as a great victory when it was at best a narrowly averted disaster). No need to keep everything straight.

    As for this:
    While Europe were a skin-wearing, lice-infested lot, the Near and Far East and portions of Africa were at levels of sophistication undreamt of until after the Crusaders returned with their bloody swag. The citizens of those bright lands were well aware of some version of world history apart from the conquests of the Romans and their upstart inheritors.

    Not sure where this comes from, but it is inaccurate as written, and apallingly ignorant in certain particulars.

    For starters, pretty much every human society has a problem with lice, which persists even into the modern era with pesticides and so forth.

    Europeans were certainly not exclusively "skin wearing." Evidence of textile use in Europe goes back to the *Neolithic*, and actual fragments of textiles have been found preserved in the Halstatt salt mines. There isn't the faintest factual (or even rational) basis for such a bizaare assertion.

    Regarding the comment about "sophistication" this sounds like the words of someone who knows nothing of ancient metalwork, European or otherwise. As someone who makes reproductions of ancient jewellry, arms, and armour from the Bronze Age to the Renaissance I have first hand experience with the degree of mastery ancient European artisans had. Bluntly, you have no idea what you are talking about.

    (Parenthetically, the Minoans and later Mediterranean civilisations had indoor plumbing - they were hardly the savages you make them out to be)

    And this was all a thousand years or more before the Crusades, which, modern political correctness aside, were hardly unprovoked...

  37. James: I was going to address each of your points and dig around in the article for more, but then realised that I had already addressed this topic in my own way back in November:

    Hope that helps, if it matters.


  38. Yeah!
    That's the "problem" with the Main Stream campaign settings of today. For a DM it is such a turnoff to try and fit your story into a world that has already been done. I call sandboxes from the inside out and campaign settings from the outside in. This happened with a group I was in called Colabore. A great big world with huge continents that lost steam after a few years of hard work. I warned them all to just make one country and from there make the world but none would listen and the group died out.