This is part of an ongoing series where we’ll build role-playing settings that we think are good from the ground up. The goal is to pull back the curtain and reveal the gears and thought processes behind world-building.
Though I intend to create some exotic and unusual role-playing settings in later installments of this series, I thought it may be best to start with a relatively standard fantasy setting. The goal is to create a setting where all of the standard fantasy tropes are viable – warriors, thieves, clerics and wizards fighting monsters and plundering dungeons, with a few interesting wrinkles to keep it from venturing into complete boilerplate territory.
The first question to confront when starting from scratch on a fantasy world is that of magic. Does it exist, how commonplace is it, and how does it work? Since I want wizards to be viable PCs, it clearly exists. Once the PCs have magic, it’s more fun to have enemies that have it as well, so we’ll say that it’s relatively commonplace. The standard fantasy tropes call for wizards being actively involved in combat, so I’ll stick with the standard GURPS magic rules.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with GURPS, users of magic learn each spell as a separate skill, and casting spells uses fatigue. There is no limitation on how often they may cast a given spell, aside from the fact that they have a finite pool of fatigue to draw from. Casting times tend to be 1-3 seconds/turns. The spells are broken up into colleges (air, animal, fire, healing, light & dark, mind control, movement, etc) and more powerful spells require the character to be proficient in the lower-level spells that constitute them. So, for instance, if a character wanted to learn Fireball, they must first learn Ignite Fire, Create Fire, and Shape Fire.
There is nothing in the rules that prevents characters from learning spells from a wide variety of colleges, but in practice, characters that specialize tend to be more effective and fun to play. So I’m going to break up the magic-users in the setting into groups, and let each group only have access to certain spells. This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to make a setting feel unique.
The first group that we’ll define will be the woodsy guys, limited to casting spells that effect plants and animals, and maybe some nature-specific searching spells. In my experience, the biggest problem with druid-style characters tend to be that their abilities aren’t as cool as the other guys. Zoltar is throwing fireballs, and Draquan is raising the undead, while Estheriel the druid asks the birds what’s going on. I want a way to make druids more badass and combat-y. I just read a book where one of the characters was a shapeshifter, and that seemed cool. So I’ll reduce the cost of shapeshifting spells to make them more competitive compared to other options. A bunch of woodsy hunter types that change into bears and mountain lions when it’s time to fight seem cool.
So that covers the druids. If it’s a standard fantasy setting, you’ve gotta have the scholarly guy in long robes with a staff throwing fireballs. With that in mind, the second group will be Elementalists, with spells that affect Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. Why? Because I think it’s cool. It’s critically important for the GM to be excited by the setting. The problem with elementalists as a character archetype is that the four elements are not equal in usefulness. Everybody takes Fire and Air spells, maybe a couple Water. Earth? Why would you do that? To that end, we should come up with some sort of limitation on which spells an individual Elementalist might know, something to give them variety.
What if they have to spend most of their time, or at least their time spent studying magic, in the vicinity of some natural place that emphasizes their element? Like air mages study at the top of mountains or in canyons with blowing winds, and water mages study in oceans or near raging rivers. That would mean that fire mages would have to study near volcanoes and geysers, which are a little harder to find, whereas it’s easy to build schools near lakes or caves. It would also mean that places where two or more elements are found in force would be good places to study, and hence build schools. This leads to things like wizard towers built on the edge of cliffs next to waterfalls. That paints a good mental picture. It also makes it easy to include Earth as one of the common elements to study, as mountains and canyons and the like could represent it.
If the Elementalists are using the four elements to power their spells, and have to be near places that embody that element, maybe they are actually drawing on elementals, spritual embodiments of the element, to fuel their magic. We could also extend this idea to our forest folk, and say that they are calling upon ancient spirits of the forest, or totem animals like Bear and Wolf to fuel their magic. I like the spirit-fueled magic. It seems like a cool and flavorful reason for mages to have to specialize. Let’s keep that in our pocket and see if we can do something cool with it.
So we’ve crossed Plant, Animal, Air, Earth, Fire, and Water off of the list of available colleges. What does that leave? Healing, Protection, Body Control, Mind Control, Movement, Necromancy, Light & Dark, Sound, Illusion, a few others. Hmmm… we could have a bunch of ninja-assassin-wizards that use Illusion, Light & Dark, and Sound. That would be kind of cool, but it doesn’t really get me excited. Besides, it doesn’t fit well with the whole spirit-driven magic idea. Hmmm… so what would work well with spirt-driven magic? We’ve already accounted for nature spirits and elementals. The other common magic-bearing spirits tend to be demons (or demon-like objects) and angels/abstract good deities.
If we play with that a bit, we get a fairly standard good/bad split. The white side gets Healing, Protection, the Light half of Light & Dark, and the Body Control spells that buff people. The black side gets Necromancy, Mind Control, the dark half of Light & Dark, and the curse-flavored Body Control spells. This is… okay. My problem here isn’t the bad guys. It’s always easy to make cool characters with evil powers, and it’s especially fun to make a morally good character that only has “evil” powers at his or her disposal. The problem is the good guys. Clerics and Paladins just tend to be bland and boring. Also, Healing magic is problematic. If it’s too easy for characters to get healed, then it makes it hard for the GM to balance combat. Every fight is either a joke because they know they’ll survive and get restored, or terrifying because they’re just barely surviving. I think it’s more fun and realistic when players avoid fights because they don’t want to amass injuries. The best way to do that is to make Healing super expensive or just remove it from a setting completely.
Huh. So that’s an idea. What if the healers are all dead? What if there was a huge war between the good wizards and the bad ones, and the bad guys won? The good wizards haven’t been eliminated completely, of course, but they’re in hiding and being hunted. Now this I like. It automatically makes a priest or a paladin more interesting when they can’t reveal their identities for fear of being turned in.
So we have four factions so far. The Druids, the Elementalists, the White Priests, and the Black Priests. Those names are fine and descriptive, but not really suitable for use in a setting. So, lets call the Elementalists the Arcane Order of Brothers, usually just referred to as “The Brothers” (even though they allow female members). We’ll call our Druids, along with the rank and file ranger/archer types that accompany them The Nine Tribes. Maybe each tribe has its own totem animal. We’ll call the White Priests (and their Paladin warriors) the Albanists, and the Black Priests and their armies the Xanx.
The Brothers tend to be scholarly and isolated, studying arcane magics in remote towers. They refrain from intervening in worldly affairs, but are a mighty power once their wrath is incurred. The loose federation that constitutes the Nine Tribes rule the woods and wild places. They don’t care much about worldly affairs, but are angered when civilization intrudes upon nature. Then we have the Albanists, a good and holy order that once ruled most of the civilized lands. They built grand cities of alabaster stone, and their holy knights maintained order with the aid of enchanted weapons and armor. Lastly, we have the Xanx, who have hidden in the shadows for generations, performing savage rituals to gain strength and scheming, just waiting for the right moment to strike.
The Xanx successfully overthrow the Albanists with the aid of The Nine Tribes, promising them free run over lands that had been taken from them. Their army combined the shapeshifting druids, hellish beasts summoned from below, and mercenaries from the savage west. They assassinated the Albanist priests, burned their temples, and established themselves as the new government. But the chaos that they began quickly escaped their control. The mercenaries found that they could make more money plundering than they could being paid for their work. The Nine Tribes were not content with the lands that were promised, and overran the cities of the north. Great forests reappeared in lands that had long been cleared, with roots breaking through the cities of stone. What is left of civilization is in the cities of the south, where the Xanx maintain order with their Dark Knights (accompanied by three-headed hellhounds) and secret police.
Some of the Albanists survived, and they have gone into hiding. They are divided on how to proceed. The people that they would help will turn them in for coin, and they have no army to seize power, nor the money to acquire one. They find themselves in the position of the Xanx of old, scheming in the corners. The Xanx have also had something of a role-reversal, as they are now forced to maintain peace in order in their ill-gotten kingdom, and must fight off the invaders that they invited.
This is really what I’m looking to maximize when I craft a setting, and there are plenty of them here. In addition to the obvious PC options of the mages of the various orders, one could be a ranger/warrior of The Nine Tribes fighting with spear, bow, and poisoned arrows. They could be a treasure hunter, plundering the overgrown cities of the north for enchanted weapons. They could be a mercenary from the west, or a common thief. The most obvious option is to play a cleric or paladin, on the run from the law and looking for revenge.
Depending on the tone of the campaign, the Xanx could make interesting PCs as well. It could be fun to play a Dark Knight charged with hunting down the last of the Albanists, especially if he believed he was doing the morally just thing. It’s worth noting that I never touched on the topic of different races in this setting. The setting doesn’t seem to call for them, so I’m leaving them out. I like having different races, but only when they make a qualitative impact.
The obvious story that presents itself in this setting is a band of good-aligned adventurers trying to overthrow the evil Xanx. Perhaps they’ve heard rumors of a great artifact of power, kept safe (by many traps) in a grand temple to the north, now buried in deep forest. Or maybe they decide to enlist the Brothers to their cause, and become the errand boys of a great and powerful wizard. The most interesting stories in this setting, I think, would emphasize the Xanx. They could be forced to be the good guys, maintaining order and driving away invaders. Or maybe some small sect has seen the error of their ways, and are seeking out the Albanists so that they may join them and work together to overthrow the kingdom. It would depend a lot on the players, and what characters interested them.
The thing that I like the most about this setting is that it has a lot of potential player characters. I can easily come up with 5 off the top of my head, and probably another dozen PC-worthy characters with some effort. The place where this setting would struggle, in my mind, is that it’s a bit too simple. There are a few obvious story hooks, as I laid out above, but it would be very difficult to run a Dann Campaign in this setting without introducing several more factions. Lastly, while I really like the flavor of the Arcane Order of Brothers, there’s very little reason for them to involve themselves in the events of the rest of the world. Going along with the adage that if you introduce a gun in Act I, somebody has to get shot in Act II, the GM can’t introduce something as obviously cool and powerful as The Brothers and not use them somewhere in the story.
I’ve been thinking recently about NPCs and players’ investment in them: basically how to get a player to care about an NPC. I think it’s clearly a common trope in fiction for a character’s family to be threatened or killed as a major motivation for them. However, this only really works if the author can form a positive bond between the audience and the threatened character. In movies or books, the author has a lot of control over how much time the audience spends getting to know the family members, as it were, and if the trope is well done, there will be an attachment between family and audience when the Evil Dude comes in and slaughters them all while the Hero is off gathering fire wood. Similarly, the author has control over how the main character reacts to their family. If the protagonist acts sympathetically towards another character, that’s a signal to the audience and a starting-point for the audience’s perception of that character. Both of these things are not really under the control of a GM.
I think there’s a fine line with NPCs that have close relationships to players. On the one hand, you want the fact that they exist to matter; especially if the player was the originator of the idea, you want their character to interact with the NPC in meaningful ways. On the other hand, if they get too much screen time, you risk edging out the other PCs. Specifically, I’m cognizant of the fact that the GM talks a lot during a session. Or maybe that’s just me. But I’m wary of any situation there it seems like the best way to handle it is for me to talk more, whether it’s a meeting between a bunch of NPCs that the PCs are at, but aren’t really participants in, or an NPC who’s always around.
Also, I think there’s a line of interaction between companionable-but-out-of-the-way and annoying. The Valve team talked about this a bit in their Developer’s Commentary for Half-Life 2: Episode One. In an effort to instill a sense of urgency in the player and also because they felt it was realistic for the character, they has originally scripted Alyx Vance to frequently say things like, “Let’s keep moving, Gordon.” when things were tense and dangerous. While that might seem realistic, they started noticing a really big spike in their test-player data of the number of friendly-fire incidents to Alyx’s head. She’d crossed the line from helpfully instructive and adding to the atmosphere of tension into this region of stop-telling-me-what-to-do-you’re-not-my-real-mom annoyingness. The solution was generally to have her shut up (I’m paraphrasing the commentary, here, of course).
That’s well and good for Valve because even if she’s not saying anything, you can turn around and see that, yes, Alyx still has your back. In roleplaying, unless the GM says it, it isn’t likely to be in the players’ minds. It’s really hard to have something just sort of be there without having the spot light on it. So the PC’s wife who’s smart and capable and not supposed to be a major hindrance (until she get’s captured by the Big Bad) can’t just sort of sit around not talking and form any kind of bond.
If you were hoping for some solutions, you may be disappointed. Like all posts labeled “Crazy Ideas” this isn’t a fully formed thought ready for use in a campaign. Instead, I’m going to finish off by offering up some leads that I think are fruitful, but that I haven’t managed to follow up on all the way. If you’re wanting to make an NPC likable, consider this grammatically inconsistent list:
- Competent – The players are going to like NPCs that can get things done. Especially if they’re surrounded by people who are working at cross-purposes to them or at least uninterested in helping them, the PCs will be glad to be able to ask someone to gas up the Mystery Machine without their needing to intervene.
- Distinct Voice – I think this is important for any major NPC, but doubly so for sympathetic ones that’ll get a lot of screen time. If you can just say the line without the players having to wonder who was speaking just now, then that seems like a good step on the path to their realizing that character in their imaginations. This doesn’t have to be an auditory tone, but can include speech mannerisms.
- Personality – Like having a voice, it really helps if an NPC is witty or droll or has some kind of eccentricity as long as it’s not annoying. This ensures they don’t think of them as a short-sword vending machine like the NPC shop keepers in Final Fantasy.
- Non-Adventurey Conversation – The NPC should be capable of having conversations that don’t have directly to do with the campaign’s events. This one seems hard to me, but I feel like it would go a long way towards making the NPC feel like they’re a real part of the PC’s life outside of whatever crazy events warranted focusing the narrative lens on this time and place.
I really don’t have this one nailed down, so I’d appreciate any further thoughts or experiences in the comments. I have a feeling that my next campaign (set in the Firefly ‘Verse) will present an opportunity to exercise this skill set quite a bit, but I figure there’s no reason to start from a blank slate in session one, as it were.