A long time ago (in a galaxy far far away), I began my series of articles on writing a novel, detailing the steps to follow to write your story, how to prepare and break down your tasks in a way that works…for me. And last week I mentioned I was preparing a D&D campaign on my original world, Telia, which I’m building along with some of my players, as they’re incredibly creative people.
One of the things I spent time explaining in that little writing series was the planning stage, and particularly on the world building. In building this D&D world I’ve come to realise the major difference between doing so for a novel and for an RPG campaign.
When it comes to a novel, I always recommend setting down your world and giving details to its settlements and cultures, with greater focus on the places and people involved in the story, directly or indirectly. The more impact it has, the more detailed the description. If you can, sure, write up the entire world, but you don’t really have to, at least not for the first book in the series, if your intent is more than one novel in the setting.
But with an RPG you must have the entire world in place, along with its cosmology, the planes, religions, and everything in between. The reason for this is that although I can set down adventure hooks and encourage characters to stay in one place, nothing really stops them from packing up their stuff and going to the other end of the world. So, if they do that, they can’t reach a town that is in alpha version, with barely an NPC and badly rendered, to use a video game analogy.
The towns must be there, and the people need to have culture, religion, politics, skills, trades and everything else, even if it’s to define the list of stuff they’re willing to forgive and which things will land the party in jail or execution. ‘Cause let’s face it, with the best intentions, adventurers are problem magnets. In the Scion RPG, one of the setting’s details is that Fate draws problems to Scions to give them chances to become famous and increase their legend. Well, I can tell you that it’s pretty much the same in every other RPG, especially if I’m the Dungeon Master.
I always let my players do anything they want, but I do warn them that actions have consequences.
In building Telia I’ve had the opportunity of tackling something that’s always annoyed me about most fantasy settings you find in gaming supplements, especially for Dungeons & Dragons, and that is the concept of Racial Kingdoms or Racial Cultures.
We’ve all seen it. There’s the Elven Kingdom, the Dwarven Kingdom and the Human one—and the same for the other races—and all subtypes of races behave the same. So, all High Elves are aloof and were all born in Elfcity, all Dwarves are Scottish and alcoholic and come from the city of Dwarftown and only humans might have different cultures and societies. I truly hate that. Same way I dislike alien worlds with a single culture or language in Sci-fi.
For Telia I decided there would be several societies, cultures and settlements for each race, with places where different people/species live together being the norm. There are “purist” places of course, but they’re the minority and even in those places there might not be a purist attitude. Within every “subrace” there are different societies so that playing one High Elf from one city is a different roleplaying experience from that of the High elf from another city. Hell, I have 3 major high elf societies already and one of them is blasted lands, corruption spreading, people torturing Evil.
I have Drow but some of them are good people. I have Wild Elves, and some of them are dicks, but others are pretty neat, just bring your own booze and sit by the fire to tell stories. Dwarves live under the mountains, but the places beneath are big and home to many clans, and some are downright alcoholic, but there’s one made of teetotallers, not a drip of booze since alcohol lost them the last clan war.
The Thelomir Dwarves live with Drow refugees from the Underdark, and after a millennium of mingling, they’re now one people, distinct from others of their respective kinds and not just on the genetic side.
My focus is more on creating societies, cultures and religions to fill the world, not so much on giving each race a home. Once I’m done figuring out the flavour of the new kingdom I decide if it’s a mixed place, or if it’s the home of a single race. In some case, the single race kingdom adds an interesting layer to the world’s narrative. That way when my players choose Elf, they won’t pick “High Elf,” but instead will pick “[Insert Kingdom here] Elf,” who will be distinct from the other High Elves, even if their base stats remain the same (with some variations on background proficiencies and such)
Case in point is a place called the Mistelune Kingdom, a nation that was once 5 different kingdoms. In the last century, the kingdom of Castina conquered its neighbouring nations and annexed them. Castinians are master sailors and have the most powerful fleet in the world, but their nobility is ultra conservative and they brutally enforce their societal/religious system—think Inquisition Spain, Torquemada with magic. Yet, Castinians are known outside their country for being jovial, with a penchant for tall tales, but never fearing to back up their claims.
But to most of the outside world, everyone from the Kingdom is Castinian, without considering there are different cultures and attitudes within the kingdom, stemming from it being originally five places and the cultural identities still firmly in place. Hell, one of the former kingdoms is one of my 3 high elven settlements, and most of the great Telian explorers are from that place, their culture obsessed with discovery, some of it uncovering the past, through the many cycles the world and the elves have been through, since very few records remain, and the other just new places, peoples and food. Though their home still lacks a name, haven’t sat down to give it to them, they already have the best wine in the world.
The first race that I decided would have different cultures though were the Orcs. I’m a bit tired of Orcs just being mindless barbarian hordes in RPG campaign settings, with very little personality behind them. And Warcraft has taught me that orcs can be cool, they can be a race people want to play, instead of the D&D thing of having half-orcs that very few people want to play—at least that’s been my experience.
I used that as my starting point, gave them the traditional Blood God even, then said that at some point in their history, all orcish clans joined together under a champion, the chosen one of their god and began a campaign of conquest that ended when their champion was soundly defeated. The orcs joined this out of religious fervour, a certainty that this was the path their god wanted them to follow, that these were the tenets they should adhere to.
The defeat changed that, and some orcs began questioning the religion and the ideals. A group broke off, having come up with a different interpretation. Bloodletting and killing were no longer acceptable, nor was any form of violence or emotional outbursts. They became the Stillblood Orcs, their focus on peace and dialogue, on protecting life. Blood gives life, and that’s how the blood god wants it. He doesn’t want it spilt and dead, but flowing and alive. That’s where the ideology began and from there it evolved and now the Stillblood Orcs are a monastic people renowned for their work as mediators.
There are still Orcs on the warpath of course, some keep to the old ways, raiding wherever they can, with a burning hatred for every other Orc that isn’t in a warband, not a Fireblood Orc. They see the others as traitors.
Lastly there are the exiles and deserters. Those that in one way or another left the Orcish nation during the great campaign with the champion. They all ended up in the harshest continent, living in the desert as no one would take them in. Now they are their own people and have their own distinct culture, separate from all other orcs. They’re masters of the desert, honourable merchants and their caravans are the only bridge between nations in the continent, unless you have the money to splurge on a skyship, which most don’t. I based these orcs on the Touareg.
All three are Orcs, same race, but vastly different cultures and characters.
And that’s what Telia is about, giving my players a chance to play the traditional fantasy races in non-traditional ways, with different cultures and attitudes they’re used to, opening the way for a myriad of stories.
Help the elven archaeologist uncover the secret wine recipe of the ancients and keep him safe from the Dark Elven Knights of the Evil kingdom, their attention set on something else in those ruins. Assist the Stillblood orc in keeping the peace during negotiations between feuding dwarven kingdoms under the Sierra, lest the conflict spill to the surface world.
This way, I hope my players will have things to discover and learn even of their own chosen race, to make the meeting with an elf from another city a refreshing experience, with perhaps even a language barrier as their dialects clash.