Jan 07

I WAS A GOBLIN: There is another world, there is a better world

FT12 comments • 1,956 views

Barrow-downsA big selling-point of tabletop RPGs – possibly a legacy of the era they appeared in, the liberal 1970s – was their non-competitive, open-ended aspect. Individual players wouldn’t “win” games, the group would only achieve its goals through co-operation. Most games replaced victory conditions with points-based progression systems, which meant that games rarely ‘ended’ as such – the most common structure would be a series of adventures, referred to in gamespeak as a “campaign” (another hangover from the hobby’s wargaming roots).

Which raised the question – how should these adventures be linked? If games were to be heroic sagas, even the most dice- and rule-driven demanded a context. And with context came continuity, and as the hobby developed the idea of ‘worldbuilding’ became more prominent.

It was present from the beginning, actually: early D&D rulebooks made reference to the “Greyhawk” and “Blackmoor” campaigns run by the game’s creators, though detailed descriptions of these settings didn’t surface until the 1980s, when it was apparent that they hadn’t been put together with much coherent thought. The World Of Greyhawk “campaign setting” was fairly typical of Dungeons and Dragons worldbuilding: a hotchpotch of countries with funny names (“the Flannaess”, “Mystara”) ruled by portentious-sounding bodies like the “Council of Eight”. Detail was in short supply: a scattering of exciting though barely described wars would provide the setting with the bulk of its history, and individual countries would be described as sharing ancient emnities, but most of the more colourful locations were simply swiped from Earth history and culture. Every setting would come complete with its own Scandinavia, full of berserkers and giants, and from the mid-1980s it became fashionable to bring ninjas and samurai from isolated pseudo-Japans into play. The approach was mix-and-match, with little thought to causality or consequence, but it fulfilled its function, at best providing players with recurring elements and slight background colour to bring play to life.

As with a lot of role-playing culture, Tolkien was claimed as a supposed model, but the confusing and messy patchwork-quilt continents of D&D “campaign settings” bore no relation to Middle-Earth. One of the reasons is that Tolkien simply isn’t a ‘worldbuilder’ as the RPG generation would understand it. Middle Earth was never meant to function as an ‘alternate world’ – it’s a vehicle for twin interests in philology and mythology, and so its “history” is no such thing. Middle Earth – the Shire possibly aside – has no economy, no society, no culture, and so none of the shifts and changes in these that might constitute a ‘history’. What it has is a series of languages, and a system of cause-and-effect based on the mythological principle that objects, bloodlines and individuals have destinies that can shape and prefigure events generations later. This isn’t a criticism of the man – Lord of the Rings would be a much less resonant and popular book if, say, it had opted to source its central conflicts in a series of trade disputes. (And the idea of family and individual destiny is hardly absent from real-world history: look at the Bushes in Iraq).

The point of Middle-Earth is to provide the events of Tolkien’s books with contextual weight, not to serve as a functioning ‘model world’. Fair enough, you might say, that’s the point of a D&D campaign setting, too. But just as the huge power imbalances between fantasy fiction characters prove hard to put into gaming terms, so a sense of mythic destiny is hard to come by in a game where the players are supposedly free to take any decision they like: high stakes lead to linear games. The muddled grab-bags of Greyhawk and Blackmoor may not have been particularly pretty or convincing but they were fit for purpose, flexible enough settings for the players to muck about in at low or high power level without really damaging them.

(The early RPG closest in spirit to Tolkien’s work, incidentally, was Empire Of The Petal Throne, much cited and very little played. It was roughly contemporary with AD&D, and presented a science-fantasy world called Tekumel, with Mesoamerican and Imperial Chinese influences and assorted alien races. Reissued by admirers many times, its complete lack of commercial success points up one of the main difficulties of RPG worldbuilding: do it too well and you find yourself having to give your players huge fun-killing wodges of background reading.)

The most successful – in play and commercial terms – RPG world was Glorantha, the setting for the original RuneQuest game. It estabilished and fulfilled the basic criteria for game world design: make something that adds meaning and richness to the playing experience, while still allowing for as much freedom as possible for players. The basic question any roleplaying setting has to answer is: can it credibly accommodate groups of freelance adventurers of varying power levels? The Glorantha playing area, with a volatile status quo based on the interaction of a Romanesque empire and assorted free tribes and a backstory that nicely blended the mythic and historical, offered a good answer. Players could feel they were part of a larger narrative, and an increasingly important part, without the burden of carrying the whole story limiting their actions. The best settings, and Glorantha is a good example, tend to have an easy to grasp background and focus on an interzone of individual opportunity created by said background: in other words, RPG settings worked best when they stopped trying to imitate European epic sagas and started drawing inspiration from American frontier stories.

(Glorantha helped make RuneQuest the leading alternative to D&D. So naturally, when another company bought the RQ rights, they junked Glorantha entirely and set the game in a slightly tweaked Bronze Age Europe.)

The next I Was A Goblin will be about how worldbuilding developed in the 1980s, and about my own fumbling attempts to create campaign settings.


  1. 1
    DV on 2 Jan 2007 #

    I’ve always associated Empire of the Petal Throne with a certain kind of tiresome RPG rockist. RuneQuest, though, was top fun. Or at least the first campaign of it was great, travelling around the world and encountering all the weird-ass stuff in it.

    I gather that the reason why the Avalon Hill RQ did not have Glorantha in it was because they had acquired the rights to the rule system but not to the world.

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    Alan on 2 Jan 2007 #

    I might take the time to list some of the campaigns and adventures that never made it among my friends

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    geoff on 3 Jan 2007 #

    great post! can’t wait for the next one; i’ve been obsessed with campaign worlds and worldbuilding for some time.

    there’s a huge amount of interweb resources on this. especially fun/wierd/maddening is all the amateur-Braudel theorizing like “how would scrying spells affect the development of literacy and communication” or “how could agriculture or industry put the gelatinous cube to use” etc

    funny how stuff (monsters, spells, items) dreamed up as locally useful in a “dungeon” then get a whole fabric of fake-history either supporting them or coming out of them.

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    Tom on 3 Jan 2007 #

    Yes! “The Ecology of the Gelatinous Cube” etc. – I was hoping to fit this dreadful subgenre of RPGthink into one of these pieces.

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    side issue: whatever happened to berserkers? was it a scand-only cultural meme and did the gene die out (ftb = ghey, for example?)

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    geoff on 3 Jan 2007 #

    mark check this piece on ww2 called “Losing the War” by Lee Sandlin


    Back when the forest still stretched in an unbroken expanse from Scandinavia to the Urals, the Vikings who inhabited its northernmost reaches wrote down their own stories about war. Their legends may have been garish fantasies — cursed rings and enchanted gold and dragon slayers and the fall of the realm of the gods — but when they wrote about battle, they were unsparingly exact. Their sagas still offer the subtlest and most rigorous accounts of the unique psychology of combat. The anonymous authors knew that the experience of being on a battlefield is fundamentally different from everything else in life. It simply can’t be described with ordinary words, so they devised a specialized Old Norse vocabulary to handle it. Some of their terms will do perfectly well for a world war fought a thousand years later.

    The Vikings knew, for instance, that prolonged exposure to combat can goad some men into a state of uncontrolled psychic fury. They might be the most placid men in the world in peacetime, but on the battlefield they begin to act with the most inexplicable and gratuitous cruelty. They become convinced that they’re invincible, above all rules and restraints, literally transformed into supermen or werewolves. The Vikings called such men “berserkers.” World War II was filled with instances of ordinary soldiers giving in to berserker behavior. In battle after battle soldiers on all sides were observed killing wantonly and indiscriminately, defying all orders to stop, in a kind of collective blood rage. The Axis powers actually sanctioned and encouraged berserkers among their troops, but they were found in every army, even among those that emphasized discipline and humane conduct. American marines in the Pacific became notorious for their berserker mentality, particularly their profound lack of interest in taking prisoners. Eugene Sledge once saw a marine in a classic berserker state urinating into the open mouth of a dead Japanese soldier.

    Another Viking term was “fey.” People now understand it to mean effeminate. Previously it meant odd, and before that uncanny, fairylike. That was back when fairyland was the most sinister place people could imagine. The Old Norse word meant “doomed.” It was used to refer to an eerie mood that would come over people in battle, a kind of transcendent despair. The state was described vividly by an American reporter, Tom Lea, in the midst of the desperate Battle of Peleliu in the South Pacific. He felt something inside of himself, some instinctive psychic urge to keep himself alive, finally collapse at the sight of one more dead soldier in the ruins of a tropical jungle: “He seemed so quiet and empty and past all the small things a man could love or hate. I suddenly knew I no longer had to defend my beating heart against the stillness of death. There was no defense.”

    There was no defense — that’s fey. People go through battle willing the bullet to miss, the shelling to stop, the heart to go on beating — and then they feel something in their soul surrender, and they give in to everything they’ve been most afraid of. It’s like a glimpse of eternity. Whether the battle is lost or won, it will never end; it has wholly taken over the soul. Sometimes men say afterward that the most terrifying moment of any battle is seeing a fey look on the faces of the soldiers standing next to them.

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    Chap on 4 Jan 2007 #

    Some of the later d&d worlds, such as Ravenloft and Dark Sun, were actually rather interesting and elegant conceptually, or at least seemed that way to my young mind. I also liked the Warhammer world for its low-fantasy griminess (sorry if I’m skipping ahead of proceedings a bit here).

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    Tom on 5 Jan 2007 #

    Chap: Yes :) Well, I never played many games of Ravenloft or Dark Sun as settings per se, but they did seem to be resolving the problem a little more elegantly. I’ll touch on them next time hopefully. (if I remember to anyway)

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    mince on 12 Jan 2007 #

    Well put. I hadn’t realy logged the lack of the trappings of a society in Tolkien, the whole authority of his mythology sold it for me. Asimov pulled a trick a bit like it in Civilization. The role playing game ‘Aria’ is worth a mention in terms of a game that lets GM and players work together in making their game world.

  10. 10

    i think tom puts the “lack of trappings” in tolk point a touch too strongly — the various cultures do actually make things (the issue of the ethics of making is pretty much what the whole book is about): one of the things i really like abt the film is the amount of attention paid to the various different interior decoration and craft details in the various places

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    nickbjorn on 18 Jun 2009 #

    For me, whether it’s fantasy/SF literature or RPGs, you have to make a decision what it is you’re going to focus on and provide a level of logical and cultural consistency for that aspect of the world. For example, if you want to focus on heroic powergaming make sure there’s a logic to it that the players can grasp and use to their benefit. By contrast in a heroic powergaming world econmoic reality should be less important – exchange rates, weak currency, trading etc. Some games had this inbuilt – for example Call of Cthulhu focused on sanity management, Ars Magica on development of new spells and so on. The same seems to be true in the best fantasy literature I’ve read, Mieville, Moorcock and even straight up Tolkien rip-off stuff like Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow & Thorn books concern themselves with events specific to the narrative, not abstract exposition.

    The greatest mistake a lot of fantasy writers make, and I imagine this comes from their experiences reading RPG sourcebooks, is to name drop inworld historical/cultural/economic/sociological facts with no narrative context in a vain attempt to make a world feel lived in. I just read Night of Knives by Ian Esslemont and it’s full of stuff like ‘Temper had seen this before at Splanjclonk during the wars of the Chablatz and at the Battle of Blibel’s Hall’ and it just sounds stupid because it’s pointless information that the author clearly made up on the spot.

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    slideyfoot on 16 May 2020 #

    I absolutely loved Dark Sun and (to a lesser extent) Ravenloft, I think helped a lot by the associated SSI CRPGs (which IMO still hold up pretty well today, I’ll dip into them on an emulator every year or so). I also loved all the extra worldbuilding lore, I devour that kind of thing even now.

    E.g., the relatively recent Volo’s Guide To Monsters was wonderful, providing a load of what I guess you could call fantasy ethnography on orcs etc. Or from back in the day with 3.5, those wonderful sourcebooks about the Nine Hells, with all the various subdivisions of devils. :D

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