Earlier today, a chance comment on RPGnet alerted me to the release of Worlds Without Number ([paid link]; there’s also a free version of the game [paid link]), Kevin Crawford’s fantasy version of Stars Without Number ([paid link]; and again, there’s a free SWN [paid link]), which I immediately bought. That in turn led me to think about how I feel like a bad gamer for never having had my own fantasy setting that I’ve tinkered with for years, and run games in, and the ways in which I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to setting creation.
For example, writing two paragraphs before getting lost in daydreaming about what accent colors I’m going to use the in the setting book I eventually publish…and then thinking about how difficult it would be to build up a brand, a company, and a potential audience again; or how I’m going to screw up and accidentally use a bunch of problematic tropes I don’t recognize as being problematic; at which point I abandon the project and go watch cartoons.
But I also realized that getting properly into miniature painting has given me a blueprint that works for my weird brain — one that I might be able to apply to worldbuilding: Pick a big goal, pick a small goal, pick a goal somewhere in between; work on it for at least a few minutes a day; blog about it, as the mood strikes, to help make it real (and because it’s fun if other people use it). I think I can use that model here.
So I sat down with Worlds Without Number, skipped to the worldbuilding section, and started reading. I’ve loved Crawford’s work for years, and we share a strong commitment to not making stuff that won’t have a direct impact on play at the gaming table (unless making it is fun in its own right). Brass tacks, realistic expectations, time spent well — I’m right there with him.
But first, the Larch
I didn’t want to abandon Bleakstone, or its successor setting, the Crystal Marches — but I also didn’t want to feel like I was retreading old ground. I didn’t build momentum last time, so why would it work differently this time?
I love settings with colloquial names formed from ordinary words, and I was thinking about my longtime interest in an island setting — when poof, the name “the Unlucky Isles” popped into my head. I wondered why they’d be unlucky — and hey, wouldn’t it be cool if they were cursed by the gods?
Or what if a god had died there, and bad luck was a lingering aftereffect?
“A world where gods can die” was the boom moment I needed to get my creative juices flowing.
(From here on in, this post is pretty raw — basically just straight from my notes, archiving my thoughts as they first came to me.)
I popped up Worlds Without Number and started answering questions, sketching in high-level setting concepts while I thought things through.
- Gods can die, and in its early days the world was a tomb to many of them.
- Magic and other strange phenomena are attributed to long-buried gods, their essences leaking into the soil, water, and air.
- The current gods will die someday, too — and every time a god dies, their death shakes the world.
- When young gods die, their essence may only influence a small region — but entire kingdoms and continents are shaped by the essences of dead older gods.
- Some gods don’t die, but go into a state of torpor much like death; their dreams can become real, and people can enter those dreams
- Bleakstone, the Crystal Marches, and other setting concepts I have can become part of Dormiir.
After spending the evening answering the questions in the first section, “The World,” I wrote this post. (The free version of Worlds Without Number [paid link] includes this entire section, so I’m not giving away Kevin’s farm here.)
What’s the name of this world for people in your campaign’s scope?
Dormiir (“to sleep” in French, with an extra “i”), but most people in the Unlucky Isles call it Godsbarrow (with barrow being a tomb-mound; Goadsbarrow is a real place in England, which I also like).
Are natural physical laws mostly the same as in our world?
Yes, except that Godsbarrow has two moons. One in a stable orbit (providing Earth-like tides) and the other in a highly eccentric orbit, which causes wildly powerful tides at the two points where it passes closest to the planet. (Coastal communities must be built accordingly.)
The weird moon is believed to be the corpse of a titanic deity, curled up into a ball. Some religions hold it to be the source of all magic.
Are there any spirit-worlds, alternate dimensions, novel planes of existence, or other cosmological locales generally associated with the world?
The Wraithsea is the common name for the un-place composed of the dreams of sleeping gods. People can go there in their dreams — or be drawn there — and if they linger, they disappear from the physical world.
Are there any grand global-scale empires or groups that impinge on the campaign’s scope?
The Arkestran Dominion (“Arkestran” is an elven word for “eternal”) sits atop the tomb of an entire pantheon of dreaming gods, and uses the Wraithsea to extend its influence across the world while its military might expands the borders of their empire.
How interconnected are the parts of your world?
About like medieval Earth, where people have heard things about faraway places — but more often myths and legends than actual facts. Regional weirdness caused by long-buried gods tends to keep people close to home, but nothing stops folks from travelling.
Are there any vast global events that have happened recently?
Bakhmyut, He Who Holds Back Hell — the principal deity of the country of Duspira — died five years ago, plunging the entire world into darkness for three days (one for each thousand steps in the passage to hell guarded by Bakhmyut, the Three Thousand Stairs).
That darkness lifted everywhere but Duspira, which has remained under the night sky ever since. Bakhmyut’s death also unleashed strange magic and stranger creatures, which have been spreading outwards from Duspira — along with ordinary Duspirans, fleeing a land in which no crops will grow.
Up next is “The Region,” which I already have going in my little Notepad file on Godsbarrow.
(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number.)