Monday, 6 November 2017

Localism: the adventure as microclimate

We started with the stories, and in the stories almost everything was unique. There was one maze, inhabited by one minotaur. There was one chimera. There was one golem made from stitched-together human corpses. There was one vorpal blade. One holy man once turned sticks into snakes. Early D&D took these and expanded them into types, so you could meet 1d6 minotaurs, or 1d3 flesh golems, or cast Sticks to Snakes for the third time that day, or kill your fourth chimera and find your second vorpal sword in its lair... but it still didn't quite have the assumption that everything could be found everywhere. The game assumed that there were populations of elves and dwarves and halflings around the place for you to recruit PCs from, but there was no expectation that every region had a population of thouls.

As time passed, standardisation set in. Creatures like mongrelmen, originally created to play specific roles in specific scenarios, were added to the generic D&D repertoire: no longer just one particular remnant population in one particular forbidden city, but a monster race who could potentially turn up anywhere. One-off oddities like the Froghemoth were rewritten as species. It became accepted that the swamps of all D&D worlds contained populations of bullywugs and lizard men, just as all D&D underdarks had populations of derro and duregar and drow. You were doing something noteworthy if you didn't include them.

What had been a tendency in the AD&D days became official policy with third edition. With everything suddenly available as a PC option, everything had to be everywhere - because otherwise, what would you do if somebody wanted to play one? Every single book came with a long list of new races, classes, and prestige classes, each of them trailing a sad little paragraph about 'Illumians in the world', or whatever, which supposedly told you how to integrate them into your campaign setting. Default D&D-land became a place where dozens or hundreds of intelligent species rubbed shoulders on the streets of every major city, practising dozens of different forms of magic (each with their own guilds and academies), and worshipping hundreds of different gods (each with their own churches). It got crowded. 

DiTerlizzi tieflings
Yes, Sigil was great. But surely not every D&D city should have to be like it!

The trouble with this kind of 'top-down' approach, where every race and class and god and form of magic is assumed to be more-or-less universal, is that it gives each individual addition a very heavy 'footprint' on the setting. If the same gods are worshipped almost everywhere, then adding a god means adding a new temple and a new religious order to almost every city. If all your monsters are widespread species rather than one-off freaks of nature, then adding a monster means finding a place for it in your ecosystem - and, if it's intelligent, in your cities and cultures as well. But more isn't always more: and while adding a goblin ghetto to your human city could lead to some interesting world-building, if it's just one of twenty-seven non-human enclaves scattered around the city's outskirts then it shrinks from something important and noteworthy into just being part of a long list of token background elements.

Recently, I've been increasingly moving away from this sort of model, in favour of one in which most monster populations, divine cults, schools of magic, and so on are assumed to be intensely local. Maybe that shrine to the Queen of Storms up on the mountaintop is the only place in the world sacred to her, and the three old men who tend it are her entire priesthood, and no-one outside this valley has even heard of her. Maybe the lizard-man tribe who live in this swamp are the only lizard-men in the world, the result of magical meddling by some long-dead magician who once inhabited these lands. Yes, if your PCs kill them all, that means there are no more lizard-men - but so what? It's not like you're in any danger of running out of monsters...

There are a few things I like about this approach. It lets me use enormous numbers of different monsters, divinities, and so on within the same campaign setting, without making the world feel overcrowded: sure, there may be a hundred-odd intelligent races, but they live in a hundred different places, rather than all jostling together through the streets of every major settlement. It provides an easy way of differentiating areas: a wood full of trolls is going to be a very different sort of place to a wood full of hobgoblins, and can fulfil a very different role in the campaign world, rather than both of them just being 'generic monster-haunted fantasy woodlands'. It means that each thing is much more rooted in the campaign world: gnolls go from being 'one of a dozen annoying low-HD creatures who populate wandering monster tables' to 'those creatures which inhabit the badlands east of the City of Fallen Spires', with all the specific resonances and relevances that go with that. Perhaps above all, it preserves a sense of strangeness, of never knowing what's over the next hill or what might be living in the next valley. Top-down settings feel familiar and cosmopolitan: everywhere you go, you'll encounter the same creatures, the same religions, the same magical traditions. But more local settings can be much more mysterious, with the PCs genuinely not knowing whether, say, ettercap exist in this campaign world until they actually happen to encounter one.

Source: captvinvanity                                                                                                                                                      More
'Bugbears can only thrive under very specific environmental conditions...'

This sort of intensely local setting design obviously fits in with more sword-and-sorcery style settings, where the world is full of isolated pockets of strangeness, rather than the more 'joined-up' worlds typical of high fantasy settings; but I think that it can also be used to lend settings a more down-to-earth, folkloric, quasi-historical sensibility. In most folkloric traditions, every moor or forest is associated with its own specific supernatural denizens: Black Annis lived in the Dane Hills, the Yeth Hounds lived in Wistman's Wood, and so on. Entire pagan mythologies, with their own distinctive pantheons, existed in regions which in many campaign settings would only be a dozen or so hexes across. (How much space would Wales or Lithuania take up on your campaign map?) The traditional, 'naturalistic' D&D approach acts to flatten out those regional variations, collapsing all these distinctive figures into one race of trolls, one race of hags, one pantheon of gods, and so on. But if you want a world which is at once more varied and more grounded, I think there might be something to be said for thinking of adventure locations as unique geographical and cultural microclimates, featuring creatures and gods and forms of magic entirely unknown elsewhere. Don't feel you have to pick just one of D&D's many, many takes on, say, fish-men: take them all and put them in different bodies of water. Go small-scale. Go local. Zoom in for a change!


  1. Yes

    I also like making lots of one of and unique things. Stormbringer did lots of take normal animals and mess them up with mutation tables. Rq has lots of unique monsters with history. Helps if unique things have a story behind them

  2. You really are an academic. That's a solution that's so obvious, most DMs would have never thought of it, on account of it being so obvious. But even though it's a simplistic idea, it's positively sublime in its ingenuity.

  3. An excellent proposal - providing, of course, that the hellhounds of the Black Gorge aren't too close to the dire wolves of the Ebon Woods.

  4. This relates to a consideration I've long found to be under-emphasized: a campaign/setting is flavored more by what the DM excludes than what he includes. The vast numbers of monsters/magics/gods, et al. available in D&D aren't intended to all be used at the same time! Indeed, cut out two thirds, and divide up the rest by regions...or simply save a bunch for your NEXT cool setting! :D

    1. Yeah. Knowing what to include and recognizing what your setting is about and what fits or doesn't fit into the flavour is really important.

      Just throwing anything and everything in as a brainless assumption can do a lot of harm. Magic and the supernatural have no significance if you give them no uniqueness or breathing room. Ten different nonhuman monster races all waging war on humanity and mostly differentiated by hit dice isn't as intresting as just one can be.

      In a way, the supernatural real world campaign, in which I play, in where most of the world is just medieval Europe and ANYTHING supernatural is rare feels MORE fantastic than the standard kitchen sink fantasy setting.

    2. Honestly, 'leave most of it out' has been my default approach for a long time. This post is me thinking through how I might be able to put more stuff in the same world without it all collapsing into indeterminate fantasy mush...

  5. Significance is really important in a setting! Like you say, you can have a lot of different fantastical creatures, monsters and things in your setting, as long as there's actually meaning to them. If you just have every demihuman monster race marauding the countryside a la regular kitchen sink D&D, they just muddle into an unrecognizable grey soup your players will likely just shrug at. But if they're done like that, as specific brands of weirdness tightly associated with specific places, they'll have a face and a meaning. They have significance in the setting, and even more crucially in they players' minds.

    Of course, significance can come from other sources as well. I did a campaign with a strong Law vs Chaos vibe where marauding humanoids of many kinds all over the place were the norm. In the setting they were remnants of previous civilizations fallen into Chaos and degeneracy, driven to destroy and consume the new rising civilizations out of jealousy, hatred and misery for their current, pitiable state. There being multiple, virtually identical types of marauding monsters actually worked for that game, since it still signified something - namely the circular nature of creation and destruction, how countless civilizations had come and fallen before and all that.

    Though, even then, I guess it was more of a "vile mongrel hordes of the cosmic enemy" vibe where individual monster types were pretty much just flavor. Still, it felt appropriate there.

  6. This is what the Dungeon Crawl Classics book tries to drill into the GM's head. Of course the adventures succeed to varying levels.

    This is also why I like Mutant Future more than Gamma World- less creature baggage and more potential for diversity in creatures to interact with over a campaign.

    1. Yeah, some of the DCC adventures I've looked at are really good at this. I loved 'The Well of the Worm', for example, which did a brilliant job of integrating a distinctive monster with a distinctive environment in a very memorable way. Others seem to be a lot further on the 'murder another random tribe of kobolds' side of things, though...