The setting, or rather settings, I’ve been making for our Worlds of the Nether campaigns/sessions on Twitter do not appear to be particularly complex. I mean, all you get to see from those worlds are small glimpses that can serve in two or three scenes we can manage to pull off in one evening. Even a TV show that visits one world per week, for 45 minutes, gets a better exposure for their worlds because they can just pull off many more scenes, detailing many more characters and more background elements. So you’d think I don’t need to explore much of the worlds I’m making for these, as long as I make a compelling setting for a few quick fights or talks, right? Well, you’re wrong. I mean, maybe I don’t need to do that, but I do it anyway, because I have some compulsion to write small details into everything that probably borders on a mental disorder.
I want the worlds I create to feel like worlds. I want them to feel real, even though they’re absolutely not. And it’s not about a “hydrogen weighs exactly this much” kind of reality I’m striving for, as you can probably tell by all the magic and crazy creatures. I want these worlds to feel like a real place you could live in. I want them to have diverse people with varying personalities and appearances. I want them to feel like they don’t just exist for us to pop in, do our thing and pop out. I want them to have a culture and history. Even if a person you meet there is some strange centaur that looks like a cat below the waist and looks like a cat above the waist too, but is still a centaur, I want that person to feel like a person – with a history, personality and motivations.
Now, let’s stop talking about these abstract design values and look at a specific example. Darfell. One of the first worlds we visit in our campaigns, and still probably the one we visited the most. Of course, we saw only a tiny corner of it in the shape of the Great Southern Market, the mercantile town where employees of Tower of Krasha do their deals with extraterrestrial traders. And you know, most game masters would probably be happy with just that – “market town, here go buy and sell stuff”. At best, they’d create some characters to serve as vendors and have little idea about the outside world (unless the players insist on going off the rails and go outside the town). But not me. I had to know where this place is. What kind of world this is, who are these people, and why is there this large market here?
The basic conception of Darfell was “place with darfellans”, “tropical island planet” and “market place”. So yes, it starts simple, but I can’t help but wonder why are the darfellans – a race established in D&D to be semi-nomadic survivors of a holocaust by the sea devils – hosting this giant market? And here’s where I start comparing them to existing cultures and impact outsiders made on them. I think about Maori or other Oceanian peoples, and how their history went. They were subjugated by outside empires which proceeded to persecute them. But I didn’t want the darfellans to be that – that would be cliche. Instead, I want the darfellans to be lucky. Their first contact was not with conquerors, but with traders, and this is what influences them.
See, darfellans were before outside contact on very early stages of societal development. They weren’t even tribal. They were pre-tribal. They didn’t even yet create any idea of central authority. They had no princes, lords or chieftains. They considered their whole race one big family, and one man imposing his will on another was something that would only happen on an individual basis. The environment they lived in – small, scattered, often volcanic, islands with no place for farming, only slowed their societal development. There was no place to settle down and begin forming more stable bonds in small, tight-knit groups. And no one has any idea how long they were in this pre-tribal stage – in those conditions, they could have lived like that for hundreds of thousands of years. And then, that society is introduced to an outside influence. But not, like native peoples outside Europe were, to people who bring the ideas of conquest and kingship. They are introduced to commerce.
In a way Darfell is libertarian. There is no government, darfellans never had any. There is hardly anything in terms of law enforcement. When you slight someone, he’s just going to hit you or take back what you took. There is the Coast Guard, but they’re more mercenaries than they’re a police force. Nobody rules the Great Southern Market, or enforces any sort of trade or construction permits. Everybody does what he wants, without government control, and the wealthiest are the most respected and “rule” in a way, as they can bribe people to do their bidding. It’s libertarian, but it’s so much unlike what would happen if libertarianism was inflicted on Earth.
You see, on Earth we were very much exposed to the ideas of central leadership and enforcing your power on others. If you take away laws and control from that kind of society, you may in the very beginning get something resembling Darfell. But very quickly, someone with enough cash is going to grab a bunch of people, pay them, bribe them, and tell them to conquer this large marketplace and tax everyone else to hell and back. And who’s going to stop him? The non-existing government? The mercenary police force he already bribed? The “general decency of common people”? That little libertarian haven very quickly turns into a corrupt dictatorship. But that doesn’t happen to Darfell. Why? Because these people never developed tribes, nations and states. So nobody really thinks about conquering all this, at least not yet. Darfell is exposed to a unique set of conditions that let it be stable and libertarian at the same time.
I’m not saying all this to give any sort of political commentary on why libertarianism is a bad idea (it is, though). I’m saying this to show you how much thought went into designing that world. I may not have drawn maps (yet) or painted huge visages of the rocky islands, or even placed terrain and doodads in a video game’s map editor, but I designed it. I gave this world a culture and history that fits together, and takes into account this world’s unique conditions. And every major world you’re seeing in Worlds of the Nether, such as Darfell, Ivarind, upcoming Djedsut, or even the world with the ape-men and a downed Xa’tac Deathship, all are designed to this kind of detail. I may not have mapped every kingdom that existed on those worlds, or may not have written down every legendary hero of these people, but I gave them life, in a certain, small way.
I may be wasting time on using all that development on small vignettes that will only be used in fan fiction and very niche roleplaying campaign, but I just enjoy the act of creation itself. It doesn’t matter that we’re the only small group of people that will ever experience these worlds. They’re there. That’s what matters. Does that make me insane? It probably does.