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Worlds of Design: Baseline Assumptions of Fantasy RPGs

You can write a set of fantasy role-playing game (FRPG) rules without specifying a setting, but there’s a default setting assumed by virtually every FRPG. Moreover, some rules (e.g. the existence of plate armor, and large horses) imply things about technology and breeding in the setting.

fantasybasics.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Basics of FRPG​

All FRPGs start with some assumptions built into the setting, some of them so innocuous that gamers might not even realize they're assumptions to begin with. For example the assumption that there are horses large enough to be ridden, even though for thousands of years of history, horses weren’t large enough for riding (the era of war chariots from about 1700-1000 BCE, and the era before that of infantry only).

Familiarity vs. strangeness is an important question for any worldbuilder to answer. What are gamers familiar with? That tends to be the default. J. R. R. Tolkien’s works (Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, etc.) are nearly a default setting for many, as in the dwarves and elves who are quite different from traditional stories of dwarves and elves. You could argue that the default setting is more Tolkien than it is medieval European, but he largely adopted Late Medieval European (1250-1500), so I prefer to refer to that.

The question is, do you want your ruleset, or your campaign setting, to follow the default? An early example of great deviation from the default was the wonderfully different world of Tekumel (Empire of the Petal Throne, and a few novels). A “different” FRPG might posit no monsters at all, perhaps not even elves and dwarves, just a lot of humans, yet never explicitly say so: if you leave out rules for monsters and humanoid races other than humans, you have a different-than-baseline setting, even if you didn't consciously make that decision. But be warned: too much unfamiliarity may make some players uncomfortable.

Are there baseline assumptions for science fiction? There seems to be so much variety, I wouldn’t try to pin it down.

The Baseline

What ARE the baseline assumptions? In general, they are mostly late medieval (not “Dark Ages” (500-1000) or High Medieval (1000-1250), as FRPGs tend to be magic grafted to later medieval Europe. In no particular order here is a list of categories for baseline assumptions that I’ll discuss specifically:
  • Transportation
  • Communication
  • State of Political Entities
  • Commonality of Magic
  • Commonality of Adventurers
  • Commonality of Monsters
  • Length of History and Rate of Change
  • Level of Technology
  • Warfare and the Military
  • Religion
  • Demography
  • Climate

Transportation

Wooden sailing vessels, late medieval style. In calm waters such as landlocked seas and lakes, galleys; in wild waters (such as oceans), small sailing vessels. River barges much preferable to poor roads and carts. And are there wonderful roads left by or maintained by an Empire (Rome)? See "Medieval Travel & Scale."

Communication

Proceeds at the rate of travel, by horse or by ship. In other words, very slow by modern standards. Even as late as 1815, the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the War of 1812 had ended (in 1814), but before news of the treaty had reached Louisiana from Europe.

State of Political Entities

Monarchies and lower level independent states (such as Duchies) ruled by “the man in charge” (very rarely, a woman). Nobles. States, not nations (the people rarely care which individual is actually in charge). Castles are so defensible that it’s fairly easy for subordinate nobles to defy their superiors. There are small cities (5-10,000 usually), not really large ones (over 100,000 people).

Commonality of Magic

Magicians are usually rare, secretive folk. Few people ever see any manifestation of magic. In some cases the church or the government tries to suppress magic. See "The Four Stages of Magic."

Commonality of Adventurers

Magicians, knights, powerful clerics, all are rare. 1 in 500 people? 1 in 10,000?

Commonality of Monsters

Human-centric. Monsters are usually individuals rather than large groups. Intelligent monsters are rare. (Here Tolkien’s influence, the great orc/goblin hordes, often overrides European influence.) Undead may be common. Dragons are “legendary.”

Length of History and Rate of Change

Slow pace of change of technology. Awareness of the greater days of a “universal empire” in the past (such as Rome), now gone. Technology changed much faster in late medieval times, than in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Level of Technology

Late medieval, or possibly less. (Late medieval for the technology necessary to make full plate armor, if nothing else.) See "When Technology Changes the Game."

Warfare and the Military

Wars rarely changed borders much (Late Medieval) - the great migrations have ended. Wars certainly aren’t national wars, the common people are spectators. See "The Fundamental Patterns of War."

Religion

What we’re used to in later medieval times is a universal monotheistic church (Catholicism), though with foreign churches of different stripe (Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist). But in games, more often the setting seems to derive from older, pantheon-based, religions.

Demography

Density of population is low. Depends on whether the local area is frontier or settled. Cities are population sinks (high mortality rates). There may be stories of a Great Plague (later-1340s and onward in Europe).

Climate

Temperate medieval European (more often, English (governed by the Gulf Stream)), with fairly cool summers so that full armor is not impossibly hot. (Imagine wearing full armor when the average summer high is 91 degrees F, as in northern Florida.) But winters are much less severe than in the northern USA. (Modern European climate is currently getting much warmer than in late medieval times.)

Your Turn: Do you see the default setting as different that what I’ve summarized?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio



Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I beleive that one of the major influences which is often overlooked is Fairytales and in particular the common set up of ”a kingdom far away” with castles, heroic knights and magical enchantments and antagonist in the form of witches, giants, dwarfs, fairies and dragons. Its notable too that the best known fairytales to modern players have their origins in England, France and Germany and thus most fantasy worlds look like those countries (temperate, western Europe).
You can add to that Le Morte d’Arthur and also Tolkien and similar ’modern’ authors. Both of these center English/French landscapes and culture and largely helped to codify many elements of fantasy - magic swords, a band of adventurers, and mundane elves. Le Morte d’Arthur is also notable for being chock full of ahistoric anachronism - which is a trait modern fantasy RPGs have heartily embraced to the point they really look nothing like the real middle ages.

Those anachronism and the ubiquity of magic (particularly in D&D) goes a long way to explain why travel, communications and demography in fantasy worlds is very different to real world Medieval. The Galleon for instance is a post-1600s ship but often included in fantasy naval campaigns and fantasy populations seem to be much healthier and educated than Medieval peasants were- which must be due to helpful clerics and druids:)

I want to comment too on then State of Religion as it is area of gaming which is rarely mined for adventure material. So while the Medieval Church had established its monopoly over Europe in the Early Middle Ages it would be incorrect to say it was truely universal. Besides the existence of Jewish, Muslim and other populations in Europe, some Pagan beleifs remained and there were also a huge number of anti-clerical movements which questioned and challenged the Church’s teachings and which the Church then condemed as heresy. Manichaeism was popular, as was Greek Gnosticism and both were synchretised with Christian teachings to create new alternate systems. Its also not entirely accurate to say DnD is polytheistic, it tends to be Monolatrist - the consistent worship of one god despite recognising that others exist, which could be compared to the veneration of Saints.
 
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univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I feel so basic. This almost word for word described my homebrew setting.

Fantasy as a spectrum, this article describes a lower wrung, which I prefer, though I am a big Pathfinder 1e fan. I think your expectations have a lot to do with what introduced you to fantasy in the first place. I have a friend who is all Final Fantasy all day and his expectations are different.

Let me see if I can place a couple games on a spectrum, just for fun, see what others thing. With 1 being low fantasy and 5 being high.

1. Harnmaster
2. The One Ring
3. Dragonlance
4. Pathfinder
5. Soulbound
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I beleive that one of the major influences which is often overlooked is Fairytales and in particular the common set up of ”a kingdom far away” with castles, heroic knights and magical enchantments and antagonist in the form of witches, giants, dwarfs, fairies and dragons. Its notable too that the best known fairytales to modern players have their origins in England, France and Germany and thus most fantasy worlds look like those countries (temperate, western Europe).
You can add to that Le Morte d’Arthur and also Tolkien and similar ’modern’ authors. Both of these center English/French landscapes and culture and largely helped to codify many elements of fantasy - magic swords, a band of adventurers, and mundane elves. Le Morte d;Arthur is also notable for being chock full of ahistoric anachronism - which is a trait modern fantasy RPGs have heartily embraced to the point they really look nothing like the real middle ages.

Those anachronism and the ubiquity or magic (particularly in D&D) goes a long way to explain why travel, communications and demography in fantasy worlds is very different to real world Medieval. The Galleon for instance is a post-1600s ship but often included in fantasy naval campaigns and populations seem to be much healthier and Educated - which must be due to helpful clerics and druids:)

I want to comment too on then State of Religion as it is area of gaming which is rarely mined for adventure material. So while the Medieval Church had established its monopoly over Europe in the Early Middle Ages it would be incorrect to say it was truely universal. Besides the existence of Jewish, Muslim and other populations in Europe, some Pagan beleifs remained and there were also a huge number of anti-clerical movements which questioned and challenged the Church’s teachings and which the Church then condemed as heresy. Manichaeism was popular, as was Greek Gnosticism and both were synchretised with Christian teachings to create new alternate systems. Its also not entirely accurate to say DnD is polytheistic, it tends to be Monolatrist - the consistent worship of one god despite recognising that others exist, which could be compared to the veneration of Saints.


To your last point. If one reads the life of St. Cuthbert you can see how communities in rural England still held onto their old gods. There is a funny story about the townspeople making fun of monks floating down river, and how their silly god who was not saving them, despite their prayers.
 

nevin

Adventurer
I run pathfinder and dnd HIGH fantasy. Wizards guilds., elves and dwarves have lots of magic, other races, lots of fey, when characters get mid to high level all the spells and options are there for them, and anyone else with the money, power or blind luck to have access to it
 

If you look at published content from WotC and Paizo from the last 5 or 10 years, the presumed tech and social level of D&D seems more 16th or even 17th century now, instead of medieval. Communities are presented as being affluent, literate, urban, with highly sophisticated and developed governments and infrastructure. You see it in trappings like tricorn hats, elegant carriages, masked balls, universities, tall sailed ships, and the more common appearance of firearms.

This trend seems to match a trend in fantasy fiction towards urban fantasy, and more modern-feeling settings and societies. It seems gritty, early medieval settings aren’t what today’s audiences are looking for. I suppose worlds where impoverished and illiterate peasants toil under the yoke of their feudal lords in towns where the world more than 20 miles away is shrouded in mystery are too dark, unfamiliar, or alienating.
 
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Ed_Laprade

Adventurer
If you look at published content from WotC and Paizo from the last 5 or 10 years, the presumed tech and social level of D&D seems more 16th or even 17th century now, instead of medieval. Communities are presented as being affluent, literate, urban, with highly sophisticated and developed governments and infrastructure. You see it in trappings like tricorn hats, elegant carriages, masked balls, universities, tall sailed ships, and the more common appearance of firearms.

This trend seems to match a trend in fantasy fiction towards urban fantasy, and more modern-feeling settings and societies. It seems gritty, early medieval settings aren’t what today’s audiences are looking for. I suppose worlds where impoverished and illiterate peasants toil under the yoke of their feudal lords in towns where the world more than 20 miles away is shrouded in mystery are too dark, unfamiliar, or alienating.
And I hate that. But then, I'm an old fart anyway. Get off my keep's lawn!
 

MatthewJHanson

Registered Ninja
Publisher
I'm curious how you're coming up with these assumptions. In particular the frequency of magic and the frequency of monsters contradicts what I assume in most FRPG settings. (Lost of monsters and lots of magic.)
 


Zander

Explorer
If you want to experience a fantasy setting with minimal Tolkienesque influence and not underpinned by Judeo-Christian ethics, I highly recommend the novels Babylon Steel and Dangerous Gifts by Gaei Sebold. I’m not sure Sebold’s setting would make for a great RPG though. We are so deeply immersed in Western ethics and familiar with the trappings of Tolkien’s kind of fantasy, it would be challenging to sustain a shared milieu unrelated to them.

(To be clear, I’m not a fantasy contrarian who is opposed to Tolkien in principle. On the contrary; I’m a big Tolkien fan.)
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I believe that he's talking about the source material. Lew?
I'm curious how you're coming up with these assumptions. In particular the frequency of magic and the frequency of monsters contradicts what I assume in most FRPG settings. (Lost of monsters and lots of magic.)

Except I dont think he is talking about the source material, rather he is presenting his own assumptions of what a “Late Medieval World” looked like and attempting to generalise that as the base assumption of Fantasy.

But what Le Morte d’Arthur and Fairytales show is that even people living in the late Medieval were telling fantasy stories about “Kingdoms far away” which looked like more idealised versions of their own world where heroes contended with monsters for treasure and romance
 

jgsugden

Legend
Inserting my thoughts - Not lewpuls statements
Communication - Not in my world. The poor man's information (family news) travels slow, but there are too many magics that allow fast communication, and travel, for information to not spread in hours, if not days.

State of Political Entities Not in my world, either. It is highly varied by region / kingdom / country / operation. My world is the size of 12 earths, so there are a lot more places on my prime for variety to exist. I have a huge nation that spans multiple earths worth of land, and other regions that are filled with small kingdoms.

Commonality of Magic Varies by location. Some places are very light on available magic, and in others everyone knows at least a little magic.

Monsters Varies by location. My fallen empires areas are mostly full of ruins and monsters, while civilized lands are mostly humanoids and thinking creatures.

Length of History and Rate of Change Much longer history, and technology follows a cycle where it becomes more common, and then is wiped out. Ancient technology is treasure. Secrets of ancient technology are protected secrets kept quiet by an Illuminati type group. There are secretive places in my world with technology we'd consider futuristic. However, technology is considered to be a different form of magic, so the view of it is different than in the real world.

Level of Technology See above.

Warfare and the Military Absolutely not true. There are constant wars, changes of control, exoduses from fallen lands, new expires established, etc... My world is a very violent place.

Religion I have a Pantheon of 99 Gods. The first one was Ao, and he is fairly abstract. Then he created the Light (Good) and Dark) Evil. They created the three Dragon Brothers (Tiamat, Bahamut, Vorel), who created the world as the cast off of their fighting, which in turn spawned Dragons, then Giants, then Elves, and Dwarves - who in turn rose up as the Lesser Gods. They then spawned more Gods and formed pantheons. If you wanted to be a Medieval Holy Knight, you Might Worship the fairly abstract Ao or the Light, but if you wanted to be more of a fictional cleric, one of the Dawn War / Greyhawk / etc... powers I stole might be a better fit. (I overhauled my pantheon after a move and merged the personalities of the Gods of the pantheons I created when I was a teen into the Dawn War / Greyhawk / etc... pantheosns to make it easier to learn for new players).

Demography Highly Varied. I have a couple places that are insanely dense (fed by magic), and other places that make North Dakota look over populated.
Climate A huge range. My poles are extremely cold (impossible for an unaided human to survive) and my equator is incredibly hot (so much that normal humans need to spend days underground.
 

Quartz

Adventurer
For example the assumption that there are horses large enough to be ridden, even though for thousands of years of history, horses weren’t large enough for riding (the era of war chariots from about 1700-1000 BCE, and the era before that of infantry only).

A simple observation like that can spark a campaign point: halflings rule the plains because they're the only race small enough to ride horses; there they war against the goblin wolf-riders. And didn't cavalry long pre-date horses thanks to camels and elephants?

When I think of fantasy RPGs I think monsters are common.

Just because PCs commonly encounter monsters (and mages for that matter) doesn't mean that the monsters (or mages) are common.
 

A simple observation like that can spark a campaign point: halflings rule the plains because they're the only race small enough to ride horses; there they war against the goblin wolf-riders. And didn't cavalry long pre-date horses thanks to camels and elephants?



Just because PCs commonly encounter monsters (and mages for that matter) doesn't mean that the monsters (or mages) are common.

How about when many villages have a dungeon or a monster problem? And every village has casters in it? And the wilds have monsters. Seems common enough to me.
 


Ace

Adventurer
These assumption feel very old school, and new players ask for are a greater diversity of style.

I'm not seeing that.

Even highly variant settings like The Empire of the Petal Throne which is clan based Islamic , Aztec and SF in its influences and Glorantha which is is Bronze Age with Shamanism are configured for adventuring.

There are narrative games out there as well as games with vastly different assumptions and I assume people play them. In my experience though the vast majority of players want something like Lew's assumptions with some variations to taste which make for very optimum adventure gaming.

The only exception to this that I saw a lot of play with was Vampire the Masquerade (VTM)

. For any new gamers , from 1991 onward VTM was the second most played game sometimes the first beating out AD&D 2nd edition. It was not exactly an adventure styled game being far more RP and social than almost any D&D game.
 

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