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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!

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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?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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Aldarc

Legend
It directly relates to coercion during gameplay, about reallife aspects that are ethically and culturally sensitive.
Maybe you are not the best person to talk about such ethically and culturally sensitive topics on this board, so maybe you should drop this line of discussion that attempts to equate theism to slavery.
 


AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
Some people were forced to join a religion against their will.

It is wrong.
Some people were forced to join armies as children or slaves, fight as against their will.

Some people were forced to join cartels and mafia to commit crimes against their will.

Some people were apprenticed as children and abused by the person who they were apprenticed to.
 


Lylandra

Adventurer
Regarding RP religions, I always love to point at the complex and very different religious systems of the Warcraft setting. It ranges from worship of the Light (basically a philosophy based upon a cosmic principle) to the Earthmother to the cthulhuesque Old Gods and their elemental servants to the Moon Goddess and her Wild God companions to demonology to using one's own suffering as a divine fuel to Shamanism, to the August Celestials, Voodoo and the Titan Pantheon. And fun fact: Most of these religions don't hate each other.
 








AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
3.5 and 5e seem definite about the clerics serving the gods. PF offers that some are "free of a deific abstraction."
5e DMG page 10: "As far as the game's rules are concerned, it doesn't matter if your world had hundreds of deities or a church devoted to a single god. In rules terms, clerics choose domains, not deities, so your world can associate domains in any way you choose."

Then following that on page 11–12 we get a section on "Other Religious Systems"
– Tight Pantheon​
– Mystery Cults​
– Monotheism​
– Dualism​
– Animism​
– Forces and Philosophies​

So this, to me, means it is a conversation with the DM why you couldn't have a cleric of a force or philosophy.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
5e DMG page 10: "As far as the game's rules are concerned, it doesn't matter if your world had hundreds of deities or a church devoted to a single god. In rules terms, clerics choose domains, not deities, so your world can associate domains in any way you choose."

Then following that on page 11–12 we get a section on "Other Religious Systems"
– Tight Pantheon​
– Mystery Cults​
– Monotheism​
– Dualism​
– Animism​
– Forces and Philosophies​

So this, to me, means it is a conversation with the DM why you couldn't have a cleric of a force or philosophy.

Right, and I dfinitely like that. It feels like putting it in the book the players explicitly don't go look at (at least traditionally) isn't very helpful for getting the players to bring it up. :-/
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I feel like the escape velocity on the Tolkein things has been reached long since. That was a real issue in fantasy for a long time, but i don't teally think it is any more, at least not for any serious student of the genre.
 

Right, and I dfinitely like that. It feels like putting it in the book the players explicitly don't go look at (at least traditionally) isn't very helpful for getting the players to bring it up. :-/
How the metaphysics work is ultimately a worldbuilding decision so it is natural that it is in the DMG.
 




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