Tuesday, February 21, 2023

High Fantasy Worldbuilding: Plenty Vaults

Age of Mythology (2002)

Some friends of mine recently asked me to run a classic high fantasy D&D game for them. Huge journeys, magic item collectathons, lost siblings, mysterious visions, wild crazy dungeons, villainous dukes, the end of the world—the works. 

Recently I've been playing a lot of gritty, low-down D&D, classic OSR stuff. It's fun! I love inventory management and getting trenchfoot and having hour-long tactical discussions to kill three guys—genuinely, I really do—but I've also found myself wondering about other pastures. Not necessarily greener pastures, per se, but perhaps more... saturated pastures.



Here's a question for you: what's the nearest stretch of "wilderness" to you, right now? 

I live in Brooklyn. There are a couple of state parks on Long Island that are a couple miles across, and plenty of places in Jersey and upstate where you could walk for a few hours and not run into anybody, but genuine wilderness? Much harder to come by. In terms of places where you could walk for days, I think the closest to me is either the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the northern end of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. 

And even those places only maybe qualify as true "wilderness." There are trailheads and signs and campsites and other hikers. You can get lost for a few hours, or even a couple of days, but it's relatively difficult to get so lost and removed as truly lose all contact with civilization. 

But here's the thing: in fantasy media, wilderness is everywhere. 

When the Hobbits cross the Brandywine, it's three days through the Old Forest before Bree. After Bree, it's nearly three weeks to Rivendell. From Rivendell, it's another couple of weeks to Caradhras and Moria (a little squirrelly, given time spent going up and down mountains), then three days through Moria and another two to Lorien. It's almost two weeks from Caras Galadhon in Lorien to Amon Hen, where the Fellowship breaks (nobody lives there but it's after this that Frodo and Sam start getting really lost, and the Three Hunters turn westwards to Rohan). Point is, Middle-earth is huge and almost totally empty. Relative to the real world, the Fellowship meets fucking nobody.

Tolkien makes this all particularly obvious since he's so meticulous around time and distance, but gargantuan swathes of untamed wilderness is extremely normal for fantasy. Look at basically any of the fantasy lexicon that D&D draws from—or even newer fantasy, Sanderson or Avatar or even some of Jemisin's stuff—and the wilderness remains vast and wild. Cities stand alone.

By contrast, here's a pretty decent breakdown of what real-life Western Europe looked like. Cities have tons of towns surrounding them, and those towns are in turn surrounded by uncounted numbers of tiny unnamed villages and hamlets. It takes days or weeks or months of travel before you leave civilization behind and get to the truly uncharted wilds.

That's not to say wilderness doesn't still exist! It totally does. Most deserts, some mountains, certain parts of the rainforests, nearly all of Antarctica—uninhabited and largely untouched by humans. But as with our medieval examples, it takes weeks of travel along the gradient of civilization before reaching the true wilds. 

Why does this happen? Agriculture, mainly. Almost all the food humans eat is grown, and agriculture takes up a lot of time and space. Cities need to be surrounded by miles and miles of little farms and villages that grow all the food those cities eat. The bigger the city, the bigger its surrounding agricultural operation needs to be. 

But! This kind of sucks for D&D. Saying "yeah you walk through the nineteenth nameless village of the day, the peasants continue to momentarily stare then go back to work" just isn't as compelling. Yes, there are many diehard historical nerds who love this kind of thing. But for the game my friends want, where cities really are pockets of civilization surrounded by untold leagues of dangerous wilds, we need something different. 



A very long time ago, when the Gods left the earth and the Ancients crumbled into ruin, they left behind a gift: hidden vaults of pure white marble and untarnished gold. Every two weeks, when the full moon shines and the new moon hides, food springs forth within these vaults. Bread, meat, vegetables, cheese, water, salt—everything people need to survive.

Different vaults are different sizes. Some support only several hundreds, while others provide enough for tens or hundreds of thousands. In some blessed places, multiple vaults exist in proximity, leading to sprawling metropolises. From time to time, a vault may have requirements: rituals performed, valuables offered, sacrifices made. If these requirements are not met, food is not replenished.

Over time, the peoples of the earth built up cities around these vaults. Supplemented by a few other reliable sources of food (fishing, gathering, occasionally hunting), the cities grew to their maximum, then stopped: this is where the walls rise. Each city can only support so many; wise cities put food aside for disasters and wars, but foolish cities keep trying to grow, to expand. Yes, new foods are sometimes devised—mushrooms grown in caves, insects raised in cages, vines grown on walls—but these developments are uncommon, and rarely contend with the quantities provided by the vaults.

Outside the walls, the world is dangerous. Monsters prowl, the roads of the Ancients lie overgrown, and strange magic lurks around every corner. Yes, from time to time bands of heroes or soldiers try to tame some stretch of the wilds, but it rarely holds more than a generation. The world is simply too dangerous and sieges remain functionally impossible, so prudent cities invest in their walls, not their armies. 

Travel is rare. It does happen from time to time—gold draws the brave and foolish out, as always—but many travelers vanish and never return. Those who do travel from city to city tell wild tales of other realms governed by strange magic and stranger beings. New modes of travel are endlessly researched: merfolk watercraft, dwarven under-rails, wingling skyships. Anything to get off the ground, where the woods are haunted and the roads are watched.

So most people live their lives inside the walls of their cities: the governments dole out food, and life goes on, safe within the city. Because food is provided for, citizens are free to follow other pursuits: arts, sciences, history, religion, magic. Each city holds new splendors, new cultures, new wonders.



Okay, so here's why I like this idea for a mild-to-moderately self-aware Classic High Fantasy D&D Campaign:
  1. It fulfills the basic requirements that our fantasy media demands: improbably large cities immediately surrounded by huge amounts of wilderness. These cities are self-sustaining because of magic plenty vaults, and that means they don't need farmland. The bigger the vault, the bigger the city—simple.
  2. It means the wilderness can be dangerous. Normally in D&D there's this overriding question of "why don't the 2d100 goblins in the cave just crush the local village?" Here, it's simple: all the towns are really old and well-fortified because they want to protect their magic food supply from a world full of D&D monsters. It also provides some obvious and convenient motivation for those 2d100 goblins to act aggressively towards towns—they want that magic food supply.
  3. It provides a plausible-enough excuse for high fantasy bullshit that's totally out of wack with the standard medieval millieu. If your population-one-million Fantasy Rome doesn't need to have 90% of those people farming, it's not that implausible to suggest that their (magic-)technological speeds would advance quicker than our own human history, thus allowing lots of fun high fantasy nonsense. 
  4. It's an easy way to give each of your cities a very distinct identity: this one's built in the middle of inhospitable arctic wilderness; this one's dug into the face of a gigantic cliffside; this one's atop the back of a huge walking elemental. Why? Same reason for each: people found a plenty vault there, and so now it's a city. You can double up on this by having weird city-specific offering requirements for each vault—the cliff-city's vault demands one pure sapphire for every hundred tons of food, so now it's a major mining hub.
  5. Relatedly, because the wilderness is so dangerous, naturally each city needs some huge high-fantasy entity that protects it. This city is watched over by an ancient dragon, this one is warded by a wizard school, this other one still is run by a megalomaniacal beholder's secret mafia. Monsters that want minions need to feed those minions, and so they gravitate to the vaults. 
  6. It helps keep the world in a kind of relative stasis. While it's very in-vogue for the OSR to have constant background churning—factions clash, politicians backstab, armies march, borders change—your classic fantasy world needs to stay pretty still (until the heroes arrive to mess things up). A world where the outside is super dangerous and every city is quite isolated ensures that, while cities themselves can be a bit volatile, the broader world status quo is unlikely to change anytime too soon. 
All of this contributes to a setting backdrop that, while not 100% solid all the way through, provides enough groundwork to help justify a whole lot of the stereotypical fantasy setting. It lets cities be varied and weird and interesting, it lets the wilderness be extremely dangerous and full of dungeons, and it lets those two things sit in pretty darn close proximity to each other. All those things that normally require squinting and hand-waving can, with at least some measure of plausibility, be safely included.

Obviously, this is all theoretical—who knows how it'll work at the table. But I'm enamored with the idea, and it's got me much more excited for Classic High Fantasy D&D than I would be otherwise.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Quotations from The Well-Played Game

I recently read Bernie De Koven's The Well-Played Game all the way through for the first time. Here are some of my favorite bits.

...as our play community develops, there are particular times when we seek out games withy fewer and fewer rules. We have so affmired our ability to play well together, to be safe with each other, that rules begin to get in the way of our freedom together.

As we begin to sense our power to create our own conventions, as we discover that the authority for determining whether or not a particular game is suitable resides not in the game but in the play community, we are willing, even, to change the very conventions that unite us.

pgs. 12–13

As we continue to pursue this need to focus on the game alone, we find ourselves less and less willing to do anything other than think about the game. (...)

We create an authority which is no longer within our control, no longer subject to the conditions of our community. This helps us keep our minds on the game. This helps us avoid arguments. We have others now who can do that for us.

As our rules become regulations, we create greater and greater distance between our community adn those who govern it. Not only do we give our authority over to the referees and umpires, but we also allow their authority to be determined by an even larger authority, unnamed, unspecific, to which ascribe the personality for determining the regulations by which we play. (...)

 We have reached a point in the pursuit of our well-played game in which the game has taken precedence over our community.

pg. 32

Rules are made for the convenience of those who are playing. What is fair at one time or in one game may be inhibiting later on. It's not the game that's sacred, it's the people who are playing.

pg. 44 

If anything needs to change, it is much more logical to change the game than it is to change the people who are playing.

pgs. 47 

No matter what game we create, no matter how well we are able to play it, it is our game, and we can change it when we need to, we don't need permission or approval from anyone outside our community. We play our games as we see fit.

Which means that now we have at our disposal the means whereby we can always fit the game to the way we want to play.

 pg. 53

Clarity. Clarity. We can't play unless we are clear that that's what we're doing.

pg. 103

The games [of the New Games Foundation] were called "new" not because people had never played them before but because they were kept new by the ways in which they were played. Whatever rules there were, they were only the starting point, the introduction to the game. They described not how the game had to be played, but rather how the game could be played. People played the games the way they wanted them to be. that was the understanding that made the games "new."

pg. 113

We can play dangerously and still play well. If it works, we can play with more. We can be safe even though we're playing with things that we can't play with anywhere else. We can play with serious things—things of consequence. We could play with silence, with fasting, with patience. We could play with anger, with fear... Because we play responsibly, because we have affirmed our responsibilities to each other, to the sense of wellness, we can become larger than necessity. We can discover a new freedom. (...)

So we play with danger. A little danger. Enough danger. It is thrilling beyond words, this ability to play well with survival—to include in our games the very things that we have never been able to play with before. We can even play with death.

We can do this as long as we maintain our balance, as long as we are fully aware of the consequences, and fully accepting them. But, as our games get dangerous, our community has yet another obligation—we must make doubly sure that everyone we are playing with knows the consequences, has chosen to play.

pg. 125

Playing to win is as absurd as anything else, but if it helps us play well together, if it helps us arrive at a well-played game, we have to know that we all take the effort seriously.

pg. 130

Imagine how incomplete you would feel if, before the game, you were already declared the winner. Imagine how purposeless the game would feel—even though the universal agreement was that you were the winner.

It is disillusioning, being a winner. As disillusioning as it is to be a loser. If you're a winner, you lose the reason to play. The game goes on, but you don't. If you're a loser, you lose reason. You go on, even though the game is already over. 

pg. 138

We seek purpose so strongly that when our purposes are finally, ultimately fulfilled—when we come close enough to see that satisfaction is inevitable—we create, as swiftly as we can, other purposes.

pg. 140

When we're playing, we're not thinking about how well we're playing. We're just playing. We're not even thinking about playing.

pg. 142 

If we can all play well together, if we can find out how to do that, we might be able to raise the stakes infinitely.

pg. 143


The Well-Played Game was first published in 1978—an auspicious era for us elf-game nerds. The way De Koven writes, though, it all feels relevant. One of the quirks of De Koven (as with a lot of game studies text from before the '80s) is that he takes folk games as a default assumption. Games were published, sure, and there were board game designers that were active, but the vast majority of games lacked such a clear designer and direction. They were made, largely, by their players.

One of the quirks of studying RPGs is that, despite the astounding and enduring influence that D&D has had on videogames over the decades, RPGs remain folk games. It's almost impossible to make definitive statements about rules or mechanics or design because they're so unique and individual to their own tables. Even extremely tight, rigid RPGs vary wildly from table to table and group to group.

It's what makes De Koven so relevant to our circles and scenes, I think. He writes for a time when games, as they existed in the collective consciousness, were far more fluid and pliable than we conceive of them now. Yes, videogames can be changed (see Boluk & Lemieux), but RPGs are fundamentally folk-based games. There is no authority that really matters beyond the players at the table.

It's a beautiful thing.