“World-building” is a challenge that faces many people: novelists, RPG hosts, screenplay writers, and most other categories of storyteller. Settings are the literal and figurative background of tales large and small, and for all that they are rarely the focus of a narrative the way characters and plot rightfully are, they are critical to that narrative making sense. Worldbuilding can be a forbiddingly large task, but it can be both efficient and rewarding if one keeps a few pointers in mind.
Tabletop roleplaying games are a site of boundless creativity. The fact that the processor that runs them is a series of human brains rather than a computer means that any given instance of a tabletop game can venture much farther from what its designers had in mind than a PC or console game is likely to support, but more than that, whole new games can form much more easily. In addition to venerable institutions like Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, and Warhammer, with huge bodies of accumulated resources and long histories, numerous smaller games populate the less mobile shelves of gaming stores. These don’t often get their due, even with demonstrations and endorsements from the likes of Wil Wheaton.
There’s a tier below that, though, of roleplaying game rulesets released to the public without any hope of eventual profit. Some folks write entire new roleplaying games and turn them loose on the Internet for fun and notoriety, and these efforts are fascinating, unusual, and (importantly for us) don’t cost anything an RPG enthusiast hasn’t already paid. They represent monumental undertakings in conceptualizing, integrating, and devising game material, without even the glimmer of profit that might someday visit the games that do get formally published.
I’ve come across two of these in particular that are now freely available online, extraordinarily different in tone, scope, and intensity and worth every tabletop gamer’s time at least once: Pokémon Conquest and Actual Cannibal Shia LaBoeuf.
The classic Western-fantasy adventuring party, appearing across a wide variety of media and baked into what Dungeons and Dragons in particular expects adventuring groups to be capable of, consists of four very different characters. By default, there is a “fighter,” who wears armor and specializes in swordplay or another close-range martial art; a “wizard,” who is a combination mobile artillery piece, library, and miscellaneous magical toolkit; a “rogue” or “thief,” whose specialty is stealth, lock-picking, smooth-talking, acrobatics, and similar skills; and a “cleric” or “priest,” who provides the favor of the gods to their allies, usually in the form of magical healing and defensive magic.
That last person raises difficult questions about the overall shape of the fantasy universe, which every D&D setting tries to answer one way or another. It’s not difficult to imagine a fantasy world where the term “cleric” means something more like what it means in our world, and refers to someone an adventuring party might visit afterward for wound-tending and soul-cleansing rather than a steadfast and magical battlefield ally. Ivanhoe is probably the work of fiction most famously within this tradition. But most Western fantasy assigns clerics and other agents of the divine power well in excess of the demonstrated abilities of real-world religious figures, including the power to raise the dead on demand, instantly heal deadly injuries multiple times a day, and brandish holy symbols to disperse zombies. The deities of a fantasy world that is home to this kind of priest are, thereby, much more powerful than the god of Ivanhoe and any deity associated with real-world religious practice, and have far more direct and overt effects on the world at large.
Last weekend, I finally managed to bring my D&D campaign to a close. I started conceptualizing the story that became this campaign close to ten years ago, in a different city, with different ambitions. It was part of my first serious attempt to be a Dungeon Master, after two previous games that devolved into high-powered absurdity. It evolved hand-in-hand with the expansion of my campaign setting, a homemade version of the detailed worlds published for reference and inspiration. The end of this long-running game gives me a lot to think about, including what to do with all this extra free time. Somehow, I think I’ll find something.
Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons with me knows that my favorite themes and monsters always tie back to the aberrant. The D&D category of “aberrations” is where the particularly bizarre composite creatures, the monsters with mind-control powers, and monsters that manipulate the forms of others tend to be. Here reside the giant paralytic tentacle-caterpillars, formless multiple-minded masses with the ability to attack through moveable portals, and mounds of flesh that constantly shriek alien curses from their thousands of mouths. It is difficult to beat their thematic potential and stage presence, even with such iconic creatures as manticores and sphinxes. Fantasy adventurers who encounter an aberration don’t get to dismiss it as “we fought a dragon”—they always require a description.
In recent years, these strange creatures became not just strange for its own sake, which is good enough, but strange in a cosmic sense. Recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as dozens of other fantasy properties, draw on the fictional universes created by H. P. Lovecraft to provide background for their aberrations. Once upon a time, many of these aberrant creatures simply were, but now, most of them are implicitly or explicitly tied to a distant dimension whose laws bear no resemblance to those of the rest of the cosmos; owe fealty to alien masters that wish to unmake the universe; break the minds of those who attempt to understand them; or otherwise unsubtly nod to the antics of Lovecraft’s creations.
Lovecraft’s fiction first appealed to me as an atheist. Lovecraft had no fondness for religion, and few of the religious characters and themes in his fiction say anything good about any variety of it. Deeper than that, though, the central conceit of Lovecraft’s world is that the underlying nature of reality is far beyond humankind. Lovecraft’s world is not for us. Earth is a blip in a teeming cosmos; life on earth is the youthful dalliance of an insignificant planet. A full description of Lovecraft’s universe begins eons before the emergence of humankind and proceeds for millions of years after the last human is forgotten. Humans are a footnote, tiny against the cosmic impact of creatures such as the Elder Things and the Great Race of Yith, and still smaller against the power of beings like Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Hastur, and Azathoth. These beings command forces utterly beyond the physics known to Lovecraft’s humans, reshaping life into new servile forms and manipulating hidden dimensions of space. To all of these creatures, humanity is a diversion at best, and a distraction at worst; our irrelevance to them is as the irrelevance of seaside huts to a tsunami, or, sometimes, as deer to a hunter. Learning that the commanding forces of the cosmos have no affection or regard for humanity and would no more consider us in their actions or goals as an earthquake does is the final straw that undoes the sanity of numerous Lovecraft protagonists, the truth that fills his stories with their supposed horror.
I always found the thought…comforting.