roleplaying games, Worldbuilding

World-building, continued: Supernatural elements

Stating something is part of the fantasy genre puts a stake in the ground regarding the appearance of supernatural elements. As I discussed yesterday, the three main supernatural elements in my planned setting are magic, religion, and the cataclysm. All of these elements are commingled to some degree, so it’s best to start with establishing the desired role and feel of the supernatural in the setting before drilling down to the nitty-gritty.

My desire for elements of the supernatural in this setting is to make the world seem less knowable and more dangerous. Magic should be something to be feared, and those who learn how to harness it should be feared even more. Performing acts of magic should be convoluted and complicated, but have remarkable results.

Magic and the cataclysm are related because the disaster that would cause the end of civilization, especially in a setting that does not have the technology for nuclear weapons, bioplagues, or grey goo, is almost certainly going to be magical in nature. That does mean that I need to determine how magic works before I determine how it went so incredibly awry.

Religion is related to magic because the two elements both fall into the category of “unknowable” to most denizens of the world. Belief in Gods does not come from seeing the Gods perform miracles, and belief in magic does not come from an ability to perform it or understand it.

All of this is complicated by my background and approaches to writing and seeing worlds. I am, by training, an engineer. For whatever reason, this has made it very difficult to write fantastical things like gods and magic. That said, if I can think of an internally consistent system and identify core assumptions, I can usually muddle through.

After thinking about this a bit, I have a set of ideas. Basing magic on a four-element construct (fire, water, air, earth) is something I’ve found interesting, but it lends itself to a more high-appearance, “shooting fireballs” type of magic, which isn’t the flavor I’m going for for this game. I’ve also thought about the notion of fate, and magic being an avenue to alter the destiny of other people, places, and things. There are a lot of interesting ways to do this, but it brings into it some pretty hairy questions about free will which are kind of antithetical to my intent of making this setting fairly open-ended.

The magic I keep on coming back to involves more of what a D&D player may call “divine” magic: communing with and beseeching supernatural beings to produce effects beyond the abilities of normal humans. This collapses all three of my core supernatural elements nicely; spirits and other mystical beings can easily form the basis of religion, and spirits could also come up with plenty of motivations to use their power to destroy civilization.

There’s a whole lot of writing that can be done to flesh this out, and even a relatively simple idea can get complicated. In going forward with this idea, I find that there are three questions that come to the fore almost immediately. First, what does the “spirit” ecosystem look like, in terms of types, power level, and spheres of influence? Second, why would any of these spirits be willing to fulfill requests for mortals? Third, how does the spirit world interact with the material world?

Spirit ecosystem

The notion of a vast array of potent ethereal creatures aligns with many fantasy works, the mythos of many cultures, and even the bible itself if you get into the Apocrypha. It also starts to work into a somewhat gameable notion of magical ability. Local tree spirits may be able to grant wishes for good fortune and healthy crops, and ask for nothing more in return than a bottle of mead. The God of Wind could destroy the entire fleet of the enemy city…but what would they want in return?

Requests to spirits

As mentioned above, spirits could have desires fulfilled by mortals, but this only makes sense at the lowest level of favor. Once you get up into serious requests, one can expect serious consequences. For these to make sense, you both need to ascribe more human desires to your spirits, and you need to detail their world to such a degree that those desires make sense.

Spirit World and the Mortal World

Clearly, for spirits to grant requests the spirit world and the mortal world have to interact in some way. This starts to introduce the broader, hairier questions which will have to be answered eventually: is the spirit world an actual place you can go? Can mortals ever achieve these powers without an intermediary? Is there some way to imprison a spirit and force it to do your bidding? In this setting, the answers to all three of those questions are likely no, but those answers themselves then open up the second round of questions: why not?

So magic itself is organized in a sensible manner, and religion seems to fall out fairly directly as well. Considering the nature of the cataclysm will help explain why magic is rare, especially if lesser spirits are fairly common.If the cataclysm was directly caused by use and overuse of magic, it would make most people suspicious and fearful of magic. It may even explain the existence of a group that hunts down those who still try to commune with spirits.

These organizing principles give me a lot of ideas, and I think the supernatural side to my world is beginning to gel. I’m probably going to write further details in a more private setting, both because of the amount of trial and error and also to keep my players from seeing any spoilers. That said, I should have enough of a basic idea to move towards the second big step for developing this setting: making decisions about game mechanics, and what game system to use for a potential campaign.

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