or, World Building Part 1
I’m running (hopefully) a game of OD&D for some friends of mine next weekend, most of whom have never played D&D before. Now I was going to take this as an opportunity to dust off an abandoned OD&D setting project I’d worked on before which I called Varth (Zarth, Oerth, Vanth…the pattern goes on and on). The intention was to create an explicitly D&D setting, and a fairly traditional one at that, for sandbox play. I usually create settings and then play D&D in them, rather than attempting to derive the setting itself from common elements. I usually dislike most published D&D settings since they usually take the ‘kitchen sink’ approach and I like things a bit more streamlined. Nevertheless, after reading Vornheim I was all jazzed to do some kind of crazy setting where everywhere you went there was some group of pseudo-humanoids hanging out like its no big deal, the ‘Cantina Effect’ as I call it.
So I sat down and thought of all the races I wanted to run around and cause trouble in my new world and all of the ones I wanted to lay back and look sinister and bizarre and I almost immediately realized that I wasn’t doing what I intended to in the first place, which was to have a world that unfolded naturally from the first adventure. But I am a natural cataloguer, and while many people have gone through and classified and historicized all of the critters in the Cantina, that scene didn’t start out with Lucas sitting around thinking, ‘OK, in this galaxy we have humanoids and non-humanoids, the latter being divided into five further subcategories…’
But the attempts to reconcile the two impulses in my brain (one towards randomness, the other toward divergence from common principles)(OH MY GOD I thought I was done writing philosophy papers) led me to some interesting thoughts regarding settings. I am a compulsive setting-builder; it’s something of an addictive habit for me (since settings are easier to control than real life). I have read many good articles about world-building from multiple perspectives, and there are whole books devoted to understanding how different versions of mythic worlds (Tolkien, Howard, Moorcock, real Earth cultures) are the results of different kinds of psychological projections blah blah blah etc. I won’t attempt to do one better. But I want to talk about D&D settings, in general, as being a combination of the mythic and the weird.
Mythic settings are akin to the mythologies of Northern European cultures in this context. Strictly speaking, all indigenous mythologies are mythic, but many of the world’s mythologies can come off as weird to us living in the good ole USA since we don’t necessarily have the same network of associations (or at least the context is underdeveloped). So I beg you to excuse my cultural simplicity for a moment. In the Northern European (Tolkienesque, to many) mythologies, many of the monsters that predominate echo concepts of time, natural elements and anthropomorphism. Hence, Giants are associated with things like snow, are impossibly ancient and look like big people. Elves are also old, hang out in forests and look like pretty people. Varieties of other humanoids have exaggerated human characteristics and natural associations and are usually associated with elements (and on occasion human things like occupations or even articles of clothing). Now, if you look carefully at genuine Norse or Celtic mythologies the weird starts to become more apparent (the Nuckelavee for instance), but the generalized form (again, often best represented by Tolkien) has a universe which blends the human experience of nature with the human experience of itself.
The weird, on the other hand, deals with the different. While well-presented mythic settings often drive home just how different the perspective is of a giant who has sat so long in the same place that he resembles a part of the mountain itself, the differentness of the weird deals with that which is incomprehensible or unapproachable. If you could live as long as a giant, and if you could be as tall, you could maybe understand where that giant was coming from. But an ooze resembles nothing in your experience, and offers precious little to orient you. I find there are usually two distinctions of the weird: the weird/alien and the weird/primal. The weird/alien is something that is designed to be other to your experience, with no real correlation so much as a kind of overall contrariness with the familiar. Such is the Lovecraftian horror, which could be said to function as a kind of anti-life (anti-comprehension?). The weird/primal is an element of experience divorced from all human connection; an ooze is hunger, and maybe the ‘memory’ of being an amoeba, but we have nothing in common with either of those things in this distilled form.
Now there are many overlaps, and obviously I could talk all day (and nearly have already) about the differences between these two poles; but this simple distinction is enough for my purposes. We must at least mention the obvious conflation: creating your own unique mythology, and letting your PCs figure it out. What shall I do? Hmmm...
I’ll take a break here and talk about urban vs. rural next time.