Fiction Writing, roleplaying games, Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Aliens

In perhaps a sign that my gaming ideas have gone even further off the reservation than usual, I have begun thinking about ideas that would let me set a future RPG campaign on an alien planet. The most significant of these ideas is of a native and sapient alien species the characters would interact with. Aliens are something that shows up in science fiction all the time, but most of the legacy of popular depictions of aliens is rather poor, ranging from exaggerated cultural stereotypes (Star Trek) to under-considered biology (Star Trek) to a lack of consideration of external elements (also Star Trek). In writing something new I want to avoid this, while also bringing something to my game that would not exist if the inhabitants were just humans.

Perhaps one of the best depictions of alien life in my own recent memory comes from the PC game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. The two dominant forms of life on the planet are a red fungus and psionic worms. While the aliens are not thought to be sapient at first, you discover through the game that these flora and fauna form a planet-wide neural net, taking the Gaia hypothesis to its logical extreme. Why Alpha Centauri succeeds so well with this is that these aliens are both believable and also utterly, truly alien. This also made the introduction of a more run of the mill bipedal species in the game’s expansion somewhat underwhelming.

The Alpha Centauri example shows that you can make truly new and weird aliens, but you have to remember that the sort of interactions that your characters will have with these aliens will not represent communication or diplomacy in the conventional sense. If you want to create alien life that organizes itself like humans do (and are not, say, a fungus), you run into more limitations. The key is to slot in somewhere between “psionic fungus” and “humans with latex head ridges.”.

Let’s assume that you want to include intelligent aliens. Intelligence evolves in a set of narrow circumstances, so while “humans with latex head ridges” is an unrealistic paradigm, giant insects or lizard people are not necessarily better. This is the one failing in the Alpha Centauri example…it’s not clear why the worms and fungus evolved psionic abilities. The worms make a bit of sense, as they produce terror in their prey…but it’s still odd. The focus on these more interesting flora and fauna also left the planet devoid of an ecosystem that let you understand exactly what the worms were either eating or defending themselves against.

Ecosystems imply the setting against which intelligence develops, so thinking about set and setting of your alien world helps establish what your species will look like. Human evolutionary biology, likewise, provides some key examples of what circumstances make intelligence beneficial, and therefore will help a species evolve to become sapient. Now, humans evolved from an ape-like species that were opportunistic feeders. Tool use came from many theorized places, including the ability to break the bones of kills picked clean and eat bone marrow. This kind of scattershot diet helps explain why intelligence was a favored trait, because advanced memory and the capacity for logic would help pre-humans find food that they couldn’t compete for with either predators (who were larger and stronger) or scavengers (who were faster and sometimes could fly). Feeding isn’t the only reason intelligence would be a favored trait, but it’s a strong one in a relatively short list. When you consider the number of behaviors that do not require sapience, the only things likely to make it an evolutionary benefit require actual thinking about a large number of discrete scenarios, specifically ones which instincts are unlikely to prepare you for. In general, situations of stress (food or water scarcity, intelligent and/or large predators, rapidly shifting or dangerous weather) are more likely to favor intelligence. Once again, though, it’s important that the threat is a dynamic one…if the main threat is and always will be a lion, evolving the ability to run really fast is more likely than evolving intelligence.

So after self-awareness comes language. Once again, while many animals have the ability to communicate, language is, whether written, spoken, or something else entirely, a construct that can expand to fit emergent concepts as they come up. As such, I honestly believe it goes hand in hand with sapience, along with other interpretive media like visual and sculptural art. Of course, how this actually works is likely to change a lot in differing environments. You want to make things really weird, look at ancient sculpture and note what parts are exaggerated. Think of what an alien would look like and think about what they’d exaggerate in their sculpture. This is the point where we start to leave evolution and get into anthropology, and this is where it gets interesting.

So form follows function when talking about the body. Humans developed cooking as their primary way to prepare food because it saved a lot of time…prior to the presence of fire as a common technology, humans chewed. A lot. This constant chewing made eating a much more involved and significant activity than it is now. That said, cooking doesn’t have to be the primary mode of food preparation. Imagine a species who prepared their food with acid…basically an entire culinary framework built on ceviche, if that helps make it more logical. They’d likely be from a biome where fire is less important (i.e. where it’s warmer), and they’d likely have significantly more gut bacteria, as acid-denaturing food doesn’t kill as much bacteria as cooking it. This would be truly odd from a human perspective, but based on what cooking actually got us (less time chewing), it could have happened and may happen on another planet.

Then, let’s mess with a few other things. Let’s say the two eyes are arranged vertically on the species’ head, and that sexual attraction is based on scent instead of sight. In both of these cases, the changes would result in something quite alien, but they don’t stray too far from normal biology for good reasons. In the case of eyes, there’s likely not that much of an advantage for more than two eyes, and interesting organs like insectoid segmented eyes would be very difficult in a human-sized form (and the aliens would likely be a similar size if they’re also evolving from opportunistic predecessors…too small and they’d be vulnerable and have small brains, too large and the square-cube law makes it hard to get enough blood to a proportionally necessary brain). Similarly, sexual reproduction can nearly be assumed, as sporing or other asexual means are unlikely to produce the genetic variation necessary for sapience to arise. Also, despite the number of times it shows up in science fiction novels, more than two biological sexes are highly unlikely simply because each additional sex reduces the probability of a successful mating significantly.

So there are constraints. An alien race is likely to be a similar size as us, reproduce sexually and have a varied diet. That said, they may not be symmetrical in the same way we are, their physical manipulators could be quite different, and the presence and attitude towards hair or even chitin could be varied. And it’s worth noting these assumptions all stem from a planet which humans could colonize… there may be intelligent aliens on a world with an atmosphere that’s 15% ammonia, but if humans can never go there it makes this exercise a tad less necessary.

Ultimately, alien species introduce interesting story opportunities when they get to clash with humans. On a planet that can support both, another species could be competitor or collaborator. And knowing how humans have treated each other in the past, it could get quite nasty. But all of this makes for some great story potential.

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.

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.

roleplaying games, Worldbuilding

The joy of maps

A few days ago, I posted an interesting image. Pulled from an interesting Google Maps extension called, the image shows, roughly, what New York City would look like under 70 meters of water. 70 meters is not a depth chosen at random, it’s roughly the amount of sea level rise that would occur if both of the Antarctic Ice Sheets completely melted, an event that while quite unlikely given current projections, fits perfectly with the Black Swan narrative that produces the conflict and hasty action which is perfect for a game setting.

There’s two parts of this which makes it perfect for writing. First is the implications of a world where this event happened. If you zoom out on this map, the Eastern Seaboard is decimated. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC are all underwater. Delaware, the entire state, ceases to exist. Two thirds of New Jersey is just gone. The amount of population displacement that would occur in the event that an ice shelf broke off, that is to say if this level of water came rushing in over the course of weeks and months instead of decades and centuries, would destabilize every coastal country and by extension the world’s economy. What’s excellent about this (for the story, not if it were to happen) is that disasters breed opportunists…there’s no better backdrop for someone to propose something as crazy, expensive, and frankly stupid as a massive planned floating city adjacent to the largest lost population centers. It also sets up a great backdrop for the combination of corruption, desperation, and massive surges of capital that make a corporation-centric Cyberpunk game so damn interesting.

So we’re off to a good start. The second part which is so great for writing is the micro details of the New York map. Due to the relative hilliness of Long Island and Connecticut, as well as the interesting river/ocean geography of the greater New York area, using the FloodMap layer produces a really neat map. There’s a sizable island left of Long Island, a strip of former Jersey City, and the top of Staten Island is above the water too. Add in a large number of buildings in New York that are taller than 60 meters, and man, what a setting. I’m going to have to write some custom moves for The Sprawl around SCUBA gear and underwater fighting, but that’s just going to make this pop even more.

A map, especially in our days of satellite imagery and highly accurate surveying, is merely a depiction of landforms. But the shape of the land is so vital in how humans organize themselves that any map, be it real or imagined, can spark some incredible creativity. With this simple visualization layer, an entire storyline and city idea came to me, as well as numerous ideas I likely wouldn’t have had if I didn’t have the image. I now have the basis for a campaign that is sure to be quite different than any other Cyberpunk game I’ve run, and hopefully quite a bit of fun as well.



Worldbuilding: A Primer to Wrapping your Head Around Modern Worldbuilding

The most famous worldbuilders in literature were all fantasy writers. In TV and film, the two most significant exceptions to this rule, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, created Star Trek, and Star Wars, respectively. And for the sake of this conversation, I’m going to split along those lines.

The difference between Star Trek and Star Wars happens to perfectly illustrate my primary mental block about worldbuilding of any sort, but especially modern worldbuilding. Star Trek is how my mind typically works: You take the world as we know it, introduce some changes, and roll out from there. In the case of Star Trek, this roll-out was huge, introducing countless alien races and new planets. But the human role made sense, as it was based on an assumption that society continued from history as we know it into the future.

Star Wars takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Humans presumably started their existence on a planet, be it Coruscant, Corellia, I don’t know…but the dynamics of how the universe evolved to its current state are somewhat more truncated than those in Star Trek, even with 10,000 years of history in the expanded Star Wars universe. It comes down to a large number of assumptions made about elements of human nature that wouldn’t change in a markedly different universe. Admittedly, the end effect works out well. But when you put things into a completely new context, some of the discrepancies can be jarring. XKCD lampooned this quite pointedly recently, regarding the name of the Millennium Falcon.

In case you haven’t guessed already, all of my worldbuilding projects to date have started with Earth, and gone from there. As much as I’m writing for games from a fairly escapist perspective, if I was to write a whole-cloth new universe, I’d want to do a lot of history-writing and expounding on just how humans would actually turn out, with the result being quite different from our world, possibly. If you think only about writing alternate history, you can make thousands of utterly different Earths…and that’s even leaving most of the real world intact.

So what I can do well now is Earth-based worldbuilding. What I have difficulty with is whole-cloth worldbuilding. As a result, in the future you will see more posts about both…as I expound on one, and frustrate myself trying to learn through the other. There are distinct strengths to both. My cyberpunk settings have benefited greatly from Google Maps in some cases, as finding real world maps is a lot easier than trying to write your own. Also, I’ve been drawn into the appeal of the alternate history gambit more than once…some changes are so dramatic, you really can make a whole setting from a what-if question (I have written about that before).

On the other hand, there are benefits to the whole cloth approach. For one, I love drawing maps, and I’m sure any GM, especially one who plays or has played D&D, will agree with me. I mean, half the fun of the dungeon crawl is writing the thing with the crazy maps and placing all the monsters. I similarly love playing around with a software package like Fractal Terrains and seeing what comes out…and after studying a bit of geopolitics, this is even more interesting, because so many non-physical world features (borders, cities, particular warzones) are based on geography.

In the end, I couldn’t possibly say one method is better than the other. Easier isn’t even fair, because anyone can put in more or less effort depending on what they want out the other end. What I’d like to do for my next world is something whole-cloth, especially as it’ll be more challenging for me. I already have an idea, and through the wonderful plot device of slower-than-light space travel and cryogenic freezing, I can have my cake and eat it too with regards to writing a totally new world, but still saying the humans come from Earth. Later, I’ll go into more detail as I build this world from the top down.