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The impossibility of Point of Light settings

Ixal

Adventurer
Points of Light as a setting idea always crops up from time to time and D&D 4E heavily advertised with it. But what always bugged me with that is how it ignores how much interconnected infrastructure (to avoid the term civilization) is required to achieve something like the default technological level in D&D.
Especially when you get to the extreme end of Points of Light where it is literally just one city surrounded by monsters.

Farmland
Medieval farming is inefficient, especially when you base it on European crops and thus do not have access to rice or potatoes. Most of the food grown is consumed by the farmer and his family with only a fraction reaching the market. So even in a city of 5.000 you would need at least twice that number of farmers in the surrounding lands to support it and all land around the city for several miles would be devoted to farms.
If that land is already dangerous and monster infested the city would starve.

And its not only food that needs to be farmed. Flax is a very important crop as you need it for textiles and also would take up large tracks of farmland

Animals
Animals are also needed to support a D&D level of technology. Not only as beast of burden to even allow all the products to be transported to the city, but also to supplement the food sources and, important for adventurers, as a source of leather and also other products like glue. And those animals also need land to graze on or even crop to be fed in the case of larger warhorses.

Wood
Nearly all energy demands are met by wood and especially for smelting this demand is huge.
For cooking and heating other resources can be used like manure or coal (if your point of light has access to coal) but as coal contains sulphur it is not suitable to make steel which the equipment of adventurers need (unless you coke it, but that is outside the D&D technology level). Even wood needed to be made into charcoal first which required even more wood.
One example of the amount of wood needed I found is that to equip one roman legion you needed 44 metric tons of iron which in turn required 600 tons of iron ore and 5100 tons of wood to make

So when your forests aren't safe no iron weapons for you.

Metals
The other required resource for iron smelting is of course iron ore. And you also need a lot of it as during smelting there is a big loss of mass. Luckily iron ore is rather widely available. Still, we are talking about a point of light. Some other metals would of course also be nice like brass. Bronze is hard to make as it is an alloy requiring two metals which not tend to appear in the same place.
And if you want to pay with gold and silver coins a source of gold and/or silver would be highly appreciated.

Stone
Want a stone wall? Or paved streets? Then you require a source of stone and a quarry there.

Chemicals
Often overlooked, even in medieval times people know some chemistry. For example tanning leather required several (smelly) chemical processes which caused those workshop to be located away from the city. That ranges from simple "chemicals" like sides to sulphuric acid to some rather exotic components like gallnut (the remains of insect larves incubating inside tree bark) to make ink which is rather important to wizards. Other required resources was gum arabic and and iron vitriol. Paper and parchment on the other hand are made by animal hides or out of flax (which also required chemicals).

And there are probably many other things I forgot like having access to tar when you want to have ships, etc.
The point is, medieval technology, and with it the technology in D&D, is already so complex that a point of light settlement can't support it, even if that point is the size of a kingdom.
 
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Yora

Legend
I think that's the whole point. Because the economy has shrunk to a scale where it can't normally support itself, salvaging high quality materials and tools from ruins is necessary for survival.

I think you could still have pretty advanced societies with a total population of 100,000 people, which don't even need to be a single city state. You could also have half a dozen towns with their own farming villages, with the various local specialized goods being exchanged over roads and rivers. Which would require heavy guarding, which is of course right on spot for a typical D&D environment.

It wouldn't be a 19th century society, but I think something like 11th century would be absolutely doable without seeming outright implausible.
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
I hadn't heard of this concept. Now that I know what it is, I'd say the issues the OP raised are outside of what I'd want in a PoL campaign. I happen to like very believable settings, so highly settled area must by definition have few monsters in them. Remember in 1e you had fighters and clerics clearing territories of monsters and building strongholds. In such a setting, you have to travel to adventure sites and monsters.

To me (after an admittedly short reading), the key question of a PoL setting is: why did your settlement rise again? I'd want a highly fantastic and even secret reason discovered over time. Your settlement is magically generating resources to keep your people alive, but that source is fading. So you set out into the world of danger, discovering ruins and perhaps the reason for the source of your settlement's magic. Perhaps even the reason settlements rise and fall. In other words, a fantastic setting, not a believable one.
 

Bayushi_seikuro

Adventurer
Great post, but I think the problem with this kind of analysis is really the discounting of magic. Spellcasters, even if they're fairly rare, will make a difference in how the world functions. Looking at Forge domain's ability to convert metal into other metal, you wouldn't need to worry about impurities - you put 100gp worth of just random crap metal on the altar and can convert it to a block of 100gp worth of steel. They would definitely have an interest in setting up trade/converting the people for profit, and would definitely take a trade secret approach to it, I'd assume.

I think it depends on how common or useful even low level magic is in someone's game. There are a lot of low level spells or even feats that can be 'game changing' - even if you don't have clerics in every village, even having someone with the Healer feat would make a huge difference in the survivability of a farmer who had a mishap in the field, which I would have to figure would be a concern even into our real Dust Bowl era.

YMMV
 

Bayushi_seikuro

Adventurer
I hadn't heard of this concept. Now that I know what it is, I'd say the issues the OP raised are outside of what I'd want in a PoL campaign. I happen to like very believable settings, so highly settled area must by definition have few monsters in them. Remember in 1e you had fighters and clerics clearing territories of monsters and building strongholds. In such a setting, you have to travel to adventure sites and monsters.

To me (after an admittedly short reading), the key question of a PoL setting is: why did your settlement rise again? I'd want a highly fantastic and even secret reason discovered over time. Your settlement is magically generating resources to keep your people alive, but that source is fading. So you set out into the world of danger, discovering ruins and perhaps the reason for the source of your settlement's magic. Perhaps even the reason settlements rise and fall. In other words, a fantastic setting, not a believable one.
I think it was on an episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff - I don't remember the topic - but they talked about having a city built on the outskirts of a ruined dungeon, and one of the prime occupations was for villagers to 'mine' the dungeon of its useful stone walls, and take them back to the city and build the walls and buildings. You're always going to need adventurers to clear areas, or even just to protect the peons who are essentially quarrying a death trap.
 


Aging Bard

Canaith
I think it was on an episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff - I don't remember the topic - but they talked about having a city built on the outskirts of a ruined dungeon, and one of the prime occupations was for villagers to 'mine' the dungeon of its useful stone walls, and take them back to the city and build the walls and buildings. You're always going to need adventurers to clear areas, or even just to protect the peons who are essentially quarrying a death trap.
Great idea. If fact, add to it the older notion of a dungeon as a "living environment"--doors that won't open for PCs but will for monsters, doors that close by themselves, tricks and traps everywhere--and such a city could be infused with that spirit.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
You seem to be forgetting Druid and Dwarfs

All your issues with crops and Animal welfare is hand waved away via Druids, if you go in for things like shape wood being able to turn living trees in to livable buildings then you could have an orchard that doubles as an apartment block.
Dwarfs with cavernous Mining Kingdoms under the mountains solves your supply of metals and similar.
Tanning and smelting is often overlooked but having foulburgs outside city walls is a good place to focus your adventurers, afterall even those wandering orc raiders occasionally need somewhere to trade/raid
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
The Fall of the Roman Empire, the ensuing Dark Age, and the Rise of Charlemagne may help, at a high-level view. Presume even the peasants will fight rather than be eaten / whatever by monsters and you get a reason why "the tide is turning" when new supplies of extra monsters / barbarians / whatever stop arriving in the region.
 

The Fall of the Roman Empire
Exactly, the Roman Empire took centuries to collapse & Byzantium etc. arguably took up the torch... Whilst even in such benighted places as Gaul or Brittan life went on as "normal" in places whilst in other areas the lands were devastated. Just replace Goth, Angle, Jute or Dane with Orc & Goblin et voilà you have your "points of light" campaign...
 

It helps if you think of POL settings as basically Post-Apocalypse settings without guns and cars.

This isn't a civilization that has evolved this way. It is the desperate survivors of whatever came before, trying to survive and - with the help of adventurers - rebuild. The whole edifice may be only a few years away from mass extinction if the players can't turn the tide.
 

MGibster

Legend
Points of Light as a setting idea always crops up from time to time and D&D 4E heavily advertised with it. But what always bugged me with that is how it ignores how much interconnected infrastructure (to avoid the term civilization) is required to achieve something like the default technological level in D&D.
If you're wondering how he eats and breaths /
and other science facts /
la, la, la /
Just repeat to yourself it's just a show /
I should really just relax.

I was running a Deadlands: Hell on Earth (post apocalyptic future) set in the remains of Little Rock, Arkansas and one of my players started asking questions about the vital statistics of the settlement. What was the population, how many were men, how many were women, how many children, how many households, how many mutants, and so on and so forth. As I answered each question, the look of realization dawned on her face and she asked, "You're just making this all up right now!" And it was the truth. Other than having a rough estimate of the total population, I didn't give any more thought to the demographic makeup because it didn't matter to me. Perhaps if we were playing futuristic census takers in a post apocalyptic world I would have paid more attention.

My use of the theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000 up there is tongue-in-cheek. There's nothing wrong with building a world that might actually work in real life. Personally, I'm much more concerned with creating a world with a ton of adventure hooks and cool things to do and I don't worry overly much about things like where the city gets food, who do they trade with, what are the demographics, etc., etc. Unless those things are going to come into play during an adventure. All I require is a little verisimilitude and I'm fine.
 

"The impossibility of Point of Light settings"
  • Cites historical research.
  • Ignores fact that magic spells and abilities and items are not real.
  • Ignores fact that fantasy races do not exist.
  • Ignores fact that most fantasy RPG monsters do not exist.
  • Ignores fact that fantasy deities, typically active and involved in the world, do not exist.
  • Ignores fact that vast ruins of a prior magical civilization do not exist.
Attempting to use historical data, typically extrapolated in modern times from projections of what probably existed at some earlier time, while ignoring all of the other elements that make a fantasy setting a fantasy setting is a pointless exercise.

At a practical level, as others have mentioned, this kind of setting is typically post-apocalyptic. Resources and tools left over from the prior situation are often critical to survival and the dwindling supply of those resources with an inability to recreate them is a huge motivation for adventuring.
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
I don't see what's wrong with trying to do a little world-building--some people enjoy it and it can sometimes serve as the basis for adventures. Tolkien said we were created in God's image, so of course we like to make up worlds too. ;)

That said real life had no magic or monsters, and you're probably not going to stat out every inhabitant of the village (and certainly not of Waterdeep/Palanthas/Gotham).

I think it was the revised 2nd ed DMG that argued for the 'fallen empire' as a source of the magic and treasure. In an apex society, the staff of magi and longsword +5 are going to be in the High Wizard's Tower and carried by the General of the King's Forces, respectively, and your characters will have no chance of getting them. (Where do we put nuclear weapons nowadays? How about expensive medications? Large airplanes?) But if the Empire fell...
 



Emirikol

Adventurer
Fantasy food is more nutritious and requires a lot less land.
Fantasy technology is more efficient and requires less to work out.
Sickness isn't really a thing either in fantasy settings.
PCs can be artisans who evdently can make things 10x faster (during an adventure no doubt), therefore it is the same for everything else.
[Insert remaining handwaiveyness here ;) ]
 


hopeless

Adventurer
Well what isn't taken into account is exactly how much food and drinkable water is available within the settlement itself.

If its a post apocalyptic society for example they may have vast underground levels used as hydroponics and access to the sea with the means to remove any pollutants or even turn salt water into drinking water.

Maybe part of the reason for expeditions outside is because sooner or later those resources are going to falter meaning they need to expand and fortify the new boundaries to keep their growing kingdom safe and secure.

And of course its very likely they're going to run into the borders of nearby kingdoms or settlements that they need to create diplomatic ties or might go to war with over the resources both need to survive.

Do the Cleric's or Druids have a hand in healing or creating that food and water?
There is so many questions a fantasy POL setting needs to answer that a regular one doesn't.

A game I had been running even had a dwarf run submarine intended to allow them to maintain a bridge designed to move allowing large mast ships to pass up or down river meaning scuba dwarves!

Another big deal I wanted to get into, but never got far enough was reveal that vegetation and crops were being aided by access to the Feywild so if that tie was cut all the vegetation would start to die as nature on that world was dependent on that access.

Has anyone tried that in your games reveal the Feywild is extremely important for life on that world?
 

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