Worldbuilding: Here is where?

Soundtrack for this: Ico – Heal

Whenever I try to get in the mood for some sweet sweet worldbuilding, the first thing that always comes to mind is a quote of one of my old Japanese teachers, which is in itself actually a quote from some Japanese story that I can’t remember the name of: Koko wa doko? Ore wa dare? – “Here is where? I am who?”
Let’s try to keep especially the first question in mind for what’s to come.

Okay, so I want to start this kind of work log about my own RPG system with the one aspect that’s more or less separate from the mechanics and rule apparatus – the game setting, the world, the things that go “boom” when you throw your fireballs around… providing there even is something like ‘fireballs’ where we’re headed.

Well, going with the travel metaphor, the journey to our destination isn’t as easy as it might seem. Creating a whole new world from scratch takes time and a lot of creativity (or a good sense of what to steal from other people), but that is not what I want to bore you with today. I have already done my homework, I have sketched raw outlines of possible settings and ideas on how to populate them… The problem is: I can’t decide which one to go with.

Here’s the deal: I don’t want “just another fantasy / sci-fi world”, first of all, but I don’t want pure realism either. I do like Steampunk for its blend of fantasy and futuristic elements, but Steampunk in itself seems to be a rather overdone genre, as far as RPGs go. I want to create something that doesn’t easily fit in those preconceived categories, something that you need more than 2 words to describe. I still like the idea of building on an established historical era, for example, to give the players a certain sense of familiarity – it’s supposed to be unique, but not as out there as, say, Monte Cook’s Numenera.

Okay, so with all that in mind, here are the three worlds I have developed so far:

1. There’s Romans in the sky!

"Floating City Kerris", by TylerEdlinArt; not exactly the right kind of architecture, but eh!
“Floating City Kerris”, by TylerEdlinArt; not exactly the right kind of architecture, but eh!

This was the very first idea I had when I started this project. Here’s the gist of it: imagine the cultures of Europe around the year 0 AD, with a powerful Rome, warring Germanic tribes, and so on. Now add to that a kind of Steampunk-atmosphere, but instead of steam, the fantastical technology is based on magnetism. The different cultures, their customs and clothing, are a blend of the traditional ways recorded by history, and a special kind of science-fiction layer on top of that.
Oh, also: floating islands! Yes, the different countries, tribelands and what-have-you are actually large chunks of land just floating through the sky. There’s no oceans, not even real ground between or beneath them… people who played Bahamut Lagoon will understand.

Pros:
+ The setting seems, at least to me, pretty unique. Sure, classic Roman times have been done before, but how many times could you actually play a magnetically powered Sci-Fi-Celt before? Or a Helvetian merchant on his flying barge? I want to keep the Sci-Fi-aspect quite low, though. Think vibro-weapons from Star Wars, but not actual lasers or lightsabers.
+ The historical backdrop makes it easier to familiarize yourself with the world. Mind you, this is not a futuristic Europe, or an alternate history Europe, or anything like that. It’s a ficticious world that just happens to share some striking similarities with my home continent.
+ It offers both urban adventures (in the great metropolis of Rome, for example) and more classic fantasy wilderness to explore.
+ Everybody loves floating islands, right? Right?

Cons:
– EVERYbody loves floating islands, to the point where you can barely watch a fantasy film or play ANY J-RPG without seeing at least one city flying through the sky. It makes this world easy to just wave off as “yet another floating landscape”.
– Magnetpunk might be a bit too wacky. Steampunk is at least rooted in actual 18th/19th century technology, whereas magnetically powered pilums might be a bit far-fetched.
– Building the world will take some serious knowledge about the plethora of different European tribes and cultures during that time, if you want to do it correctly.

Alright, on to the next one.

2. Superpowered kids take over the city!

Honestly my favorite movie of all time, Tekkonkinkreet. Huge inspiration for this.
Honestly my favorite movie of all time, Tekkonkinkreet. Huge inspiration for this.

Now this one is really my favorite of the three settings presented here. Arh, it’s so cool! I just hope I can do the image in my head justice with only so many words. Okay, here goes: You know how as a kid (say, around 10-12 years old), you think you’re a superhero, right? Managed to run away from a very fast bully/dog/car/adult? Maybe you actually have… superspeed?! Managed to lift that rock that none of your classmates could lift? What if you actually have… superstrength?
This setting plays with that level of imagination, and says: Yeah, what if that IS actually the case? It makes the way children view the world into actual reality. The kids in this town ALL have fantastical powers. The neighbor’s dog is ACTUALLY a vicious monster. The strangers living above the bank all wear the SAME suit and have NO face.
The setting is a giant, sprawling, colorful and slightly twisted city. The adults are only background actors, it’s the children and teenagers who have all the power. They formed a handful of warring cliques or gangs, if you will, from the ruffian Hellions who jump from roof to roof with their baseball bats and spray cans, to the magical Acolytes of the Green Princess, who are following the teachings of a young girl that found a magical Spellbook in her parents’ attic. Desparate recommendation for this one: the movie Tekkonkinkreet, which really sparked this idea in the first place.

Pros:
+ Play superpowered kids! Correct me if I’m wrong (really, do!), but personally, I haven’t come across any RPG that shares a similar setting or tone with this one. You get the chance to play in the world of a child’s imagination, but still use grown-up themes and stories. Contrary to how it may seem, this is really not made for young players to embody themselves in this world, but for adults to once again dive into the imaginary realms of their youth.
+ The world is both realistic and incredibly open for all kinds of creative and wacky ideas. There’s nothing inherently magical about the city these kids live in, so it’s easy to imagine how the place might look. But the adventures the little heroes might have, those are the stuff of legends.
+ Going with the point above, the world can be very easily expanded. There’s really no boundaries here to what can be done.
+ It’s really the most fleshed out of the settings presented here, as I have spent way more time with this than with either of the other two. I know what I want to do, and I have a firm grasp of the atmosphere I want to create with it.

Cons:
– The big one is ironically one that I cannot tell you much about yet: The setting and character types I’d like to create here do not fit perfectly into the mechanics I have already settled with. Though I have to say, I’d rather change the mechanics than change the setting.
– Is this too niche? Personally, I love the idea of playing a 12-year-old kid that can jump 3 stories high and still be one of the “normal” ones in their group, but I’m not sure if it’s really for everybody. I mean, anyone can play an old-timey Wizard or Knight, everyone loves Star Wars or Warcraft, but this here… I don’t know how much appeal that world actually has to the larger audience.

Okay, now for the final one, the newest I came up with.

3. The Roaring 20s… with magicks!

Imagine those women would actually cast lightning bolts out their hands and you're on the right track.
Imagine those women actually casting lightning bolts out their hands and you’re on the right track.

I – LOVE – the early 20th century. Yes yes, minus all the World Wars and stuff like that, I mean that goes without saying, doesn’t it? What I adore is the grandeur of the 1920s, the golds and glitter, the music, and the stark contrast between the partying rich folks and the poorer parts of population below their feet.
Many of you probably know, East Asian art and decoration where ALL the rage back then – that’s actually how Art Nouveau came to be, as a Western adaptation of Japanese design philosophies. Now imagine that the shallow westerners didn’t only import exotic art into their culture, but also traces of actual magic. But, instead of using it to its full potential like the “savage shamans” of the East, it becomes little more than a parlor trick for the rich white people, something to show your golf buddies. There are those who are able to master a bit more of that strange and foreign art, but actual “wizards” like those far beyond the oceans are more or less non-existent in this society.
What would you do with a quellazaire in one hand and a magically powered rapier or revolver in the other? Would you stir up the glamorous parts of society, or venture down from the enormous golden metropolis into the dark, unknown regions of the lower people?

Pros:
+ I don’t think there are many RPGs that combine the 20s with fantasy elements (without turning into horror, so Cthulhu doesn’t count!). Objectively speaking, this might be the most unique setting of the three.
+ Again, it’s based on a historical period, which should help players familiarize themselves with the world and make it easier for gamemasters to find inspiration in other works.
+ Who doesn’t love the 20s?

Cons:
– This being the newest idea of mine, I’m not sure if I already have a good grasp on the feel of this setting, and where I want to go with it. It’s all still a bit blurry in my head, only a few really tangible ideas here and there.
– It’s a bit more tricky to really facilitate all the different adventure archetypes in this setting. It should be amazing for stuff like social intrigue, but wilderness exploration for example, that needs a lot more work to actually be viable here.
– Who do you play? Only the rich white folk, with the risk of the game promoting elitism or even racism? Or can you also play the lower classes? But how would they be equally as powerful from a mechanical standpoint as the upper castes?

Okay, that’s about enough rambling for today. You see, I can’t really decide between the three setting put forward here. Each one has its benefits, but each one also has some very real problems that would need solving if it were to become my setting of choice.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this. Which one do you guys prefer? Do you maybe even have a solution for one of the Cons up there that would make one of the settings more viable? Comment away!

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2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Here is where?

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  1. I’m intrigued by the 3rd idea – it very much reminds me of the book “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”, which has magic appear in 18th century England. The effect here would of course be completely different. The 20ies were the age when “magic” entered American households in the form of electric appliances (fridge, radio etc.). Actual magic might be viewed in similar ways and reduced to mere gadgetry at first. After all, Einstein had just challenged everything we thought we knew about the universe in the previous decade, so magic could just be explained as a manifestation of “weird science” by the sceptical. I’m unsure if I’d go with the “magic out of oriental mysticism” theme; I think that might be a bit too close to clichee and cultural stereotypes. Why not have magic just occur in Western society and give a culture whose faith in the progress of the human race has been shaken by war another challenge to rationality? How long until it will get exploited by the falling regimes or would-be revolutionaries? Very interesting idea indeed, but quite hard to implement I imagine. Maybe the “Unknown Armies” system can be modified for this? Or the “Call of Cthulhu” system which, after all, is already set in the 20ies as well.

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    1. Hm, the angle of comparing magic to the emergence of electricity is pretty interesting. As I mentioned, I originally had the idea of treating magic like oriental art being the big new thing in the upper class, without anyone truly understanding the deeper concepts behind it. I like the idea of it being though of as just another fad, something the rich folks use to amuse their dinner party guests. I suppose that can be achieved with the gadgetry-angle as well, although I don’t want it to become too Steampunk. The core idea shouldn’t be just another “What if Tesla was right?” scenario.

      On the issue of which system to use, I will try to write a whole new system for all this. Will write some more posts on mechanics and such in the future.

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