roleplaying games, Worldbuilding

World-building: Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy

Yesterday, I articulated the desire to run a sprawling epic fantasy campaign in a post-apocalyptic world, among other ideas I’d pursue if I had infinite time available. Today, I decided that if that’s what I wanted to do I should do it with what time I do have.

World-building is both one of the most complicated and one of my favorite aspects of running role-playing games. Not everyone likes it or feels they’re good at it, which is one reason that the majority of role-playing games have a setting baked in. I’ve used a baked-in setting in most of my games, and even games where I wrote a detailed world it was usually based on mechanical assumptions that were extant to one game system or another. That’s not to say I haven’t done a lot of world-building and writing, but these worlds rarely make it into games that last for very long.

Recently I have had one game with fairly minimal setting assumptions, that being my Apocalypse World game. Despite having no locations or cast of characters set, Apocalypse World does have an implied setting, introducing assumptions about the nature of the apocalypse as well as supernatural elements like the psychic maelstrom. Beyond that, though, my experience in Apocalypse World is different than what I’m proposing for my new setting because of the direction of the world-building that takes place. Apocalypse World is built around bottom-up world-building, while what I’m aiming to do is top-down world-building.

Bottom-up world-building is starting with the smallest logical unit of space in a setting and working out. In Apocalypse World, you begin any and all world-building by tracing out the sphere of influence shared by the characters, and then inviting the players to detail the world their characters inhabit. Then, as the game progresses you can build outward to the degree that it’s necessary. In the Apocalypse World game I’m running, I think that I’ve detailed maybe a circle with a 50 mile radius worth of locations, and a lot of the places in that circle are still quite vague. And given the way the plot has evolved, with a few local groups and a lot of drama that centers on just one location, I probably can run the entire game without expanding that circle too much.

In the game I’m imagining I may run in the future, the world-building is top-down. I take the entire world and write out all the big ideas that are central. This includes physics, climate, and cosmology, to name a few. Once you know the big notions you draw a big map and start filling it in, once again from large (nations, mountain ranges, oceans) to small (cities and towns, trade roads, rivers).

Needless to say, this is a big endeavor. In order to keep myself organized and avoid losing the plot, I’m going to break down the tasks I’ll need to do for this setting in the form of a list.

  1. Determine the core thematic, historical, and narrative elements of the world.
  2. Make game mechanics decisions that complement and support the core elements.
  3. Draw a geographic map, either deliberately or with a random generator.
  4. Populate the geographic map with cities, roads, ruins, etc., keeping implied development choices logical and internally consistent.
  5. Translate completed map into game mechanics, using climate, proximity, wildlife, etc. as guiding principles.
  6. Place start of campaign on map and write an introduction.

Six items, all quite large. Let’s start with number one.

Determine the core thematic, historical, and narrative elements of the world

Yeah, that’s clearly one straightforward task, right?

This is the task I’ve already started on in my brain, and likely started through the action of writing yesterday’s post. This game takes place in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. The main elements of the world are covered in a couple broad strokes: the world was once host to great civilizations that were wiped out by a cataclysm of massive proportions, sending the survivors back to the Dark Ages. Therefore, the construction of the world will be based upon large networks of ruins, dotted by settlements filled with survivors. The current world is sparsely populated.

This broad description brings us into the next level of questioning. Let’s interrogate each core element briefly.

Post-apocalyptic fantasy setting

The post-apocalyptic part is covered with the mention of a cataclysm. Fantasy has its own implications, but I can boil them down: there is magic in this world, and almost certainly magical creatures of some form or another. My vision for magic is that it is rare, powerful, and often horrifying.

Once host to great civilizations

In the world’s history, there was a point prior to the cataclysm when much if not the majority of the world was covered with organized nation-states and settled. The equivalent technology level of these ancient civilizations is around the 18th or 19th century, quite possibly using magical energy to power parts of civilization. There are likely interesting artifacts of ancient technology, but nothing so incredible that it would look like magic itself.

Cataclysm of massive proportions

I haven’t decided yet what the cataclysm is, but it is likely to be magical in nature. Whatever it is, it has left scars upon the world that need to be dealt with. This is important because…

The current world is sparsely populated

If I want a lonely and unforgiving world to be realistic, there needs to be something that has prevented humans from expanding back into the space they once occupied. Furthermore, it should be something that is going to be addressed during the timeframe in which the campaign occurs, if only because that high level of conflict will produce the appropriate grandness in the campaign’s story.

This all came from my vision of how the game would play out: a desolate ruined world, filled with hostility and scarcity. Now, what I want out of this is not a grim reflection of a ruined world, no…I want this to be a canvas on which the PCs will execute their vision for rebuilding a world. The goal is that I want to write a world where the things that were broken can be fixed, the things that were buried can be dug up, and the things that were hidden can be revealed. And I want the future of the world to be shaped by this. All of my historical and thematic elements tie into that one key narrative element:

Everything that is destroyed can be rebuilt

And this element is important to keep in my mind because it tells me exactly what sort of characters are going to work well in this game, especially the first iteration.

The irony of this idea is that, while it requires a significant amount of top-down world-building to be workable, it’s actually a manifestation of bottom-up principles I’ve learned from PbtA games. The purpose of this world is to have the PCs rebuild it in their image…and if my understanding of both geopolitics and history is correct, there’s going to be a whole lot of very interesting times to cover in this setting if I’m able to pull it off.

There are some very common thematic elements in fantasy that aren’t touched upon here, the most notable one being religion. Religion in some form or another is common to all cultures, and no doubt it exists…but the question in a fantasy setting is how literal it is. In Dungeons and Dragons, to name one example, the gods are quite literally real, to the point where they grant magic powers. In the Song of Ice and Fire series, religion is a common theme but there is a huge amount of ambiguity as to whether any of the religions followed are indeed true.

Additionally, magic will need to be fleshed out. I actually have my basis for how magic will operate in the setting to a rough degree: the reality of magic is fixed, but as a result of the cataclysm the knowledge required to operate it is lost. In terms of what magic will actually look like, I have a couple ideas: first, a notional arcane “physics” that operates in the world in a consistent way, which would allow a character with an understanding of these principles to perform great miracles. Second, a written or spoken language which literally beseeches spirits to come to the aid of the character. I could choose one of these, or they could operate alongside one another…either way, magic should be rare and then get progressively less so as the world is rebuilt.

While there are many details left to be resolved, the themes and “feel” of the campaign is pretty well established from these considerations. A world still reeling from extensive destruction and ruin, unknown forces and beasts, and the few humans left huddled together against the storm. From there, our PCs will join the ranks of those either brave or foolhardy enough to try and rebuild the world in their image. It’s a good foundation, which informs the details to come. Step one isn’t quite done, not yet. Before we can move on to choosing and/or modifying a ruleset, the elements of magic, religion, and the cataclysm itself should be cemented. After these facets of the world’s physics are decided, we can then figure out what sort of game system would best emulate this sort of world.


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