log in or register to remove this ad

 

Worlds of Design: Escaping Tolkien

In my previous article we discussed technological differences; this article focuses on cultural differences. Perhaps the cultural differences aren’t as clear in one’s awareness, but can be very important and just as far-reaching. Don’t underestimate culture!

sign-2340096_1280.png

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Part of world building is figuring out the consequences of changes you make from the technological and cultural background that you start with. You always start with something. For example, there’s often an assumption that there are horses large enough to be ridden in the world, even though for thousands of years of real-world history, they weren’t large enough to ride.

Trapped by Tolkien

Some world builders get “trapped by Tolkien” as I like to put it. They think elves must be like Tolkien’s (even though those aren’t traditional), dwarves must be like Tolkien’s, etc. Imagine elves with the capabilities of Tolkien’s, but inclined to be Imperials! It’s a change of culture only, but a mighty one. Imagine if dwarves and orcs tended to work together! Similarly, monstrous humanoids aren’t necessarily antagonistic towards humans and vice versa. These are cultural changes that can differentiate your fantasy world from so many others and while subtle, but they can make a big difference. Turn your imagination loose, don’t let it be constrained by a single author or book.

Magical Attitudes

Attitudes toward magic make a big difference on how a setting works. In one setting the magic users may be the rock stars, while in another they may be dreaded and avoided shadowy figures; they can be as rare as professional athletes or an everyday occurrence.

Modern Attitudes

It’s probably inevitable that modern attitudes will shape how game masters create their fantasy worlds. Using slavery as one example, whether or not it “makes sense” in a world must also be balanced by how it will be represented in the game. If you are going to take on mature topics for a fantasy world that has a long history similar to our world (including the unpleasant parts), you should consider how your players will deal with the topic.

Intentions

I haven’t said much about intentional versus unintentional change to a fantasy world, because in the end it’s the change that matters, not the intention. I suppose you’re more likely to figure out what changes will occur, when you’re intending to introduce changes. But a world is a huge collection of interactions, and any change is likely to affect more than you intended.

Now it’s your turn: In your experience, what was the change (from the “default”) in world-setting that made the biggest difference?
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Raduin711

Adventurer
I wonder sometimes how when we subvert a trope how much we really escape the thing we subvert. Like when Dragon Age presents us with elves that are treated as slaves and second-class citizens, we go "Ah, well, that's different..." but it's only really different because of Tolkien. Part of their uniqueness derives from it's relationship to Tolkien.

Or if we take elves and put them down in a cyberpunk setting and try to work out what elves might be like in this new context... and you end up with something like the elves of Shadowrun. But have we really escaped Tolkein's shadow? We had to invent a lot of stuff to put them in this new setting, sure, but the seed is still there.

I think if we try to say "I have elves in my story, but they aren't Tolkien's elves!" I wonder if we are really being honest about our influences. The professor has a very, very long shadow and I think if you really want to get out from under it you have to look for a new source... if you look older than him, you run the risk of growing along comfortable pathways that were laid by him. I think it can be done though (but not in the context of D&D; that's a lost cause.) Most likely this means looking to other mythologies or even outside of the western cannon. Just be wary of what you bring with you.

Or maybe it's just easier to give Tolkien his due and just get on with making the fantasy stuff you love.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

This is a fascinating case where the title - the editor's title, not mine, mine was something like "World-building: effects of cultural change" - has gotten more attention than my intention, which was to write about how cultural change must modify a world from whatever people think is the norm or expectation or the real world.
I would love setting cultures (and classes) to break out of D&D polytheism.
 

As people here have said (and was pointed out in the GURPS simulation of it, Dungeon Fantasy), D&D has become its own genre, with elements such as gender equality, multiple nonhuman intelligent races working together, vast metropolises selling magic items, and massive underground complexes that never existed in either the source material or the historical Middle Ages. Wizards, with their predefined spells, objective, analytical approach, and academic towers and books, behave much more like scientists of the supernatural than anything else. (One of the Chaosium BRP supplements has the shamanic, priestly, and wizardly approaches to magic, and this has it to a T).

The concept of a default setting has, perhaps, become most mind-numbing aspect of modern gaming.

Don't get me wrong. I love Tolkien, Jack Vance, and Greek mythology, but I prefer Tolkien to do Tolkien, Vance to do Vance, and Greek myth to go Greek myth. I don't want to sit down at a gaming table to play Tolkien, Vance, or Greek myth. I was to sit down at a gaming talk to explore the DM's unique and well-crafted fantasy world. The DM might borrow and combine aspects of Tolkien, Vance, and Greek myth, but I don't want to feel like I'm walking into a knock-off. I want to see fantasy from a new angel, through a cerebral prism unique to that Dungeon Master.

Hell, I even like the Forgotten Realms, but I want them to stay Greenwood's table. I like Eberron, too, but but if I sit down to your game, I prefer to explore your world, not Keith Baker's.
 

AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
This is a fascinating case where the title - the editor's title, not mine, mine was something like "World-building: effects of cultural change" - has gotten more attention than my intention, which was to write about how cultural change must modify a world from whatever people think is the norm or expectation or the real world.
The editor’s change is unfortunate. But the attention is it’s own evidence that Tolkien’s presentation is the elephant in the room everyone is trying to ignore in D&D all the time. At this point, it’s basically it’s own essential quality of the game.

D&D settings have tried at times. Like how Birthright made halflings shadow realm exiles, I badly wish the core rules would have taken that opportunity to bring that aspect into greater circulation in the core rules as new editions came around.

Or how Red Steel/Savage Coast and Al Qadim both had each race have the culture of the nation they were born in. Refreshing in their own way.
 

MGibster

Legend
I would love setting cultures (and classes) to break out of D&D polytheism.

I'd be happy of they broke out of the oddly monotheistic polytheism. It seems like most D&D characters are only concerned about their one god and pay no mind to the myriad of others that might exist within the setting. And usually it's only the clerics who care. For one of my characters, a fighter, I once wrote "As Needed" under his deity of choice and the DM gave a little chuckle at that but it wasn't meant as a joke. When going into a fight my fighter prayed to the god of war, when it was harvest time he prayed to the appropriate god, and when he had to do on a sea voyage he prayed to that god. But for a game where some characters literally channel the power of divinity, D&D is an oddly irreligious game.
 

MGibster

Legend
The editor’s change is unfortunate. But the attention is it’s own evidence that Tolkien’s presentation is the elephant in the room everyone is trying to ignore in D&D all the time. At this point, it’s basically it’s own essential quality of the game.

D&D settings have tried at times. Like how Birthright made halflings shadow realm exiles, I badly wish the core rules would have taken that opportunity to bring that aspect into greater circulation in the core rules as new editions came around.

Or how Red Steel/Savage Coast and Al Qadim both had each race have the culture of the nation they were born in. Refreshing in their own way.

And I don't think you'll ever see too many D&D settings where you can't play an elf, dwarf, or halfling. These things exist in the PHB and it would be off brand to create a setting where you couldn't use the basic races in the PHB.
 

I'd be happy of they broke out of the oddly monotheistic polytheism. It seems like most D&D characters are only concerned about their one god and pay no mind to the myriad of others that might exist within the setting. And usually it's only the clerics who care. For one of my characters, a fighter, I once wrote "As Needed" under his deity of choice and the DM gave a little chuckle at that but it wasn't meant as a joke. When going into a fight my fighter prayed to the god of war, when it was harvest time he prayed to the appropriate god, and when he had to do on a sea voyage he prayed to that god. But for a game where some characters literally channel the power of divinity, D&D is an oddly irreligious game.
Yeah, in real polytheism your fighter's attitude is the norm. There are of course are priests and other people who dedicate to (mostly) serving one god, but they're the exception not the norm. D&Ds 'multiple competing monotheisms' version of polytheism is weird. I do normal polytheism in my settings.
 

And I don't think you'll ever see too many D&D settings where you can't play an elf, dwarf, or halfling. These things exist in the PHB and it would be off brand to create a setting where you couldn't use the basic races in the PHB.
Which is shame and silly. Not that I have anything against these species, but I think the creatures that inhabit the setting define it a lot. Designing what prominent intelligent species the setting has is usually the first thing I do, and in terms of D&D this usually means homebrewing rules for the species even if they were based on the same core archetypes. My current setting technically has orcs, dwarfs and elflings, but they're so different from the normal PHB versions that I had to rewrite their rules to properly reflect them.
 

Which is shame and silly. Not that I have anything against these species, but I think the creatures that inhabit the setting define it a lot. Designing what prominent intelligent species the setting has is usually the first thing I do, and in terms of D&D this usually means homebrewing rules for the species even if they were based on the same core archetypes. My current setting technically has orcs, dwarfs and elflings, but they're so different from the normal PHB versions that I had to rewrite their rules to properly reflect them.

I've been working on a new world, and that's one road I might have to trot down.
 

Mercurius

Legend
The concept of a default setting has, perhaps, become most mind-numbing aspect of modern gaming.

Don't get me wrong. I love Tolkien, Jack Vance, and Greek mythology, but I prefer Tolkien to do Tolkien, Vance to do Vance, and Greek myth to go Greek myth. I don't want to sit down at a gaming table to play Tolkien, Vance, or Greek myth. I was to sit down at a gaming talk to explore the DM's unique and well-crafted fantasy world. The DM might borrow and combine aspects of Tolkien, Vance, and Greek myth, but I don't want to feel like I'm walking into a knock-off. I want to see fantasy from a new angel, through a cerebral prism unique to that Dungeon Master.

Hell, I even like the Forgotten Realms, but I want them to stay Greenwood's table. I like Eberron, too, but but if I sit down to your game, I prefer to explore your world, not Keith Baker's.

I like your point, but the problem is that the worlds of many DMs aren't as well thought out or deeply made as Baker's (or Greenwood's, etc). Many teams have neither the time nor the interest to do the significant amount of work it takes to bring a "secondary world" to life. Some DMs are good at design-as-you-go, but oftentimes the gaps start appearing in the paper-thin world, and the feeling of immersion diminishes. Published worlds are an easy way to at least provide some pre-made depth and density to the campaign setting.

Now I personally always design my settings - mostly because I love the process. But I can understand why many DMs go the route of a pre-published setting, and if they have no interest (or skill) in world-design, maybe that isn't a bad thing?
 

I'd be happy of they broke out of the oddly monotheistic polytheism. It seems like most D&D characters are only concerned about their one god and pay no mind to the myriad of others that might exist within the setting. And usually it's only the clerics who care. For one of my characters, a fighter, I once wrote "As Needed" under his deity of choice and the DM gave a little chuckle at that but it wasn't meant as a joke. When going into a fight my fighter prayed to the god of war, when it was harvest time he prayed to the appropriate god, and when he had to do on a sea voyage he prayed to that god. But for a game where some characters literally channel the power of divinity, D&D is an oddly irreligious game.

This is something I often remind my players of in most games, as monotheism (particularly Christianity and the Catholic or Baptist churches where our players live) are incredibly pervasive in every aspect of daily life to the point where many people are literally incapable of imagining a church that isn't celibate, strongly gendered or hierarchical, and highly intolerant of other Faiths in the setting. To be clear this is not to knock those with Christian beliefs (you do you), merely that it shapes many a player's opinions of d&d religions subconsciously. I've found often the best way to counter this is to present multiple NPCs who do worship multiple gods as it makes sense to, adding in statements like "Luck god(dess)'s random body part" as what would realistically be slang in universe for people to swear or utter. That, combined with taking time to present dieties with blatantly not Christian style temples (like healing or love gods with literal brothels for temples, or nature dieties whom worship in a field instead of a building) really helps to shatter these conscious expectations.
 

Now I personally always design my settings - mostly because I love the process. But I can understand why many DMs go the route of a pre-published setting, and if they have no interest (or skill) in world-design, maybe that isn't a bad thing?

I believe DMs using premade settings does more harm than good, in terms of quality (not quantity) of play. Of course, not everyone DM's world will be brilliant at first, but everyone's got to start somewhere.
 

I believe DMs using premade settings does more harm than good, in terms of quality (not quantity) of play. Of course, not everyone DM's world will be brilliant at first, but everyone's got to start somewhere.

I agree with you theory in theory, but having been subjected to many a terrible boring homebrew by otherwise decent DMs whose only real issue was boring and lifeless homebrew worlds, personally find it an equal trade off to use homebrew worlds, especially so if said DM isn't okay with players suggesting adding things to their world to help fill in unexpected gaps in their creation.

At least running in an established world gives me some idea of what to expect for a game. Also, let's not write off some of the benefits of using a published setting: players and DM's can use preexisting maps and other forms of support by others online, and can swap "war stories" with others of their time in Ravenloft, or how they handled the Tomb of Horrors, or whom their players decided to kill or romance in a certain module. As a DM who often runs prewritten modules I can tell you both of these benefits have greatly improved the quality of my games and I have only really ever felt constrained sometimes with not being able to make my dungeon from complete scratch if I'm using a well known dungeon, i.e. making changes to the tomb of horrors or castle Ravenloft.

Of course my games almost never use dungeons anyway, as my players avoid the classic dungeon raid for loot model like the plague, they'd rather spend 4 hours speaking with random NPCs or running a tavern any day. Your milage may vary.
 

Tonguez

Legend
I'd be happy of they broke out of the oddly monotheistic polytheism. It seems like most D&D characters are only concerned about their one god and pay no mind to the myriad of others that might exist within the setting. And usually it's only the clerics who care. For one of my characters, a fighter, I once wrote "As Needed" under his deity of choice and the DM gave a little chuckle at that but it wasn't meant as a joke. When going into a fight my fighter prayed to the god of war, when it was harvest time he prayed to the appropriate god, and when he had to do on a sea voyage he prayed to that god. But for a game where some characters literally channel the power of divinity, D&D is an oddly irreligious game.

Henotheism is a thing though and Monolatry (consistent worship of one god while acknowledging the existence of others) is the particular form seen which you are referring to as ‘oddly monotheistic polytheism’. SO I dont find it at all weird that an educated cleric gives exclusive service to the god that blesses them with spells.
Its also not at all weird for common folk to not care about religious matters unless they have to - at which point they will pray to the deity they know...

In Late Antiquity a sense of monotheism was pervasive in the educated circles wherein Zeus as king and father of the gods was considered supreme, all-powerful and all-knowing with the other dieties interpreted as aspects of one supreme Divinity.
Equally you get things like the exlusive worship of Aten in Egypt. Then you have the national/tribal gods of the Canaanites. So while El was a supreme diety amongst Canaanites the Philistines worshipped Dagon, the Moabites worshipped Chemos, the Edomites worshipped Quos and the Pheonicians worshipped Baal.
 
Last edited:

Aldarc

Legend
I'd be happy of they broke out of the oddly monotheistic polytheism. It seems like most D&D characters are only concerned about their one god and pay no mind to the myriad of others that might exist within the setting. And usually it's only the clerics who care.
I suspect you are talking about what is called 'henotheism.'
 

Scott Christian

Adventurer
I'll be honest, I do not see D&D being trapped by Tolkien. Yes, there are commonalities, but there is a lot more difference than likeness.

Start with races. Elves - similar. Dwarves - similar. Halflings - similar (in some settings). The other twenty races - different.

Move to magic. Middle Earth and D&D are world's apart. I mean, magic is magic. But, D&D's is off the charts magic, while Tolkien's was understated.

Creatures? No comparison. Tolkien had nine or ten. D&D has hundreds.

Religion? Tolkien's mythos was awesome. But D&D's mythos houses hundreds of gods. It is almost the difference between mono and polytheistic.

Even combat is different between the worlds. Look at the Icewind Dale trilogy and compare it to the Hobbit.

Just my 2 copper.
 
Last edited:



Scott Christian

Adventurer
That's fine. Religion is mostly a half-baked afterthought in D&D settings anyway.
I'm not sure. There are classes dedicated to religion, an entire system of magic dedicated to religion, major events with hundreds of pages of lore dedicated to religion, races were created due to religion. How is that an afterthought?
 

Aldarc

Legend
I'm not sure. There are classes dedicated to religion, an entire system of magic dedicated to religion, major events with hundreds of pages of lore dedicated to religion, races were created due to religion. How is that an afterthought?
Because there are classes that are dedicated to gods, not religion. There is a system of magic that is largely shared between all casters, though some believe that divine magic connects a caster to their god. Major events with hundreds of pages of lore that are dedicated to gods, not religion or common piety, or cultic practices, etc. And there are races that were created due to gods. You are basically conflating gods with religion. Gods and divinities may receive a lot of attention, but religion in D&D settings are mostly half-baked afterthoughts.
 

Halloween Horror For 5E

Advertisement1

Halloween Horror For 5E

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top