Themes in Worldbuilding, Part 1

The last weekend I have been watching a couple of videos on Youtube by Noah Gervais, in which he takes a closer look at the design of several classic video games and goes into a lot of detail. The games he covers happen to be many of my personal favorites and so much of my apreciation of the videos probably comes from him having very similar tastes to mine. And he’s talking a lot about things that essentially go into the subjects of worldbuilding and the methods of turning themes into actual gameplay and narrative. One observation that particularly stuck with me is how the visual design of Bioshock is not just drawing on designs and aesthetics from the 50s and 60s but overdraws them to the point of carricature. And it works perfectly.

This got me to think about some campaign settings for RPGs that I’ve very long appriacted for being extremely rich in atmosphere and with a very distinctive art design, specifcally Planescape and Dark Sun. These two settings benefit greatly from having most of their art, and in the case of Planescape all of its art, done by a single artist. You may not know who actually wrote the Planescape campaign setting (though I recently learned that it’s by Zeb Cook, who did lots of other magnificent things), but if you’re familiar with the books, you know Toni Di’Terlizzi. The writing is great, but his artwork and overall visual design is really what makes the setting. Planescape wouldn’t be what it is without him. That is nice and good when it comes to making movies, videogames, or big budget roleplaying games that can afford to commission hundreds of pictures, but it’s not much use to hobby creators, novel writers, or simply people who run their own campaigns at home. I brought the subject up in a short but highly productive discussion on the Giant in the Playground forum and I think it really brought some very significant things to light.

Drawings and paintings are nice and good, but it’s not just the art that makes amazing settings with a strong sense of wonder and mystery. At best, the art supports a setting that already has very solid writing. What really makes a setting stand apart and develop a strong individual identity and aesthetic are strong themes. Ravenloft and Spelljammer don’t have any remarkable visual art in their books, but they still get mentioned among the most memorable RPG settings all the time. More generic settings like Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Golarion, and Tamriel of The Elder Scrolls are not generic because they use well know elements like dwarves, elves, orcs, dragons, and unicorns. I think it was Goethe who said that great writing is not about coming up with a truly original plot, but to tell the story in a way that it never has before. And these generic settings don’t really have anything new to say. The Dragon Age series uses the same old generic elements, but it still stands apart because it presents those elements in a new way. And the key to making the presentation of a world very strong is the heavy use of themes at all levels and in all facets.

What do I mean by themes? I don’t simply mean that Dark Sun has a desert theme or Legend of the Five Rings an asian theme. Good (narrative) art always has something to say. It needs a central idea, a consistent mood, or even an actual message that ties all the elements of the world together. But themes are often very abstract things. Topics like “courage”, “compassion”, “self-destruction”, or “delusion” all sound very interesting, but how do you create a city that is about courage, monsters that represent self-destruction, or a power group of important people whose theme is delusion? And how do you create stories that are dealing with these themes without being too much in your face and preachy? That has always eluded me. But in the early 90s, TSR, a company with a very shaky history regarding product quality, was able to produce a good numbers of outright amazing settings year after year for quite a while. I don’t believe it’s coincidence or an amazingly gifted person who was in charge of hiring the best people they could possibly get. And at that time, they didn’t really have a lot of existing works to use as references. No, I believe there’s actually a method behind it which everyone can use once you understand the basics behind it.

One of the first example that came to my mind and that made me see a lot of things clearly is Dark Sun, which I have mentioned before. If you try to boil the world of Athas down to it’s most basic themes, I would say they are “the desert is deadly and everywhere” and “life in the cities is terrible and oppressive”. And you can easily turn these two themes into a single central one. Everyone in the world of Athas is faced with the permanent choice of living in the cities under brutal dictators, or trying their luck out in the desert where you will probably find a terrible end. That’s an interesting idea, but how do you turn that theme into actual locations and characters? What they did was very clever and is actually very simple. Almost everything you find in that setting is an expression of that theme. It’s either an example of those who suffer under the dictators, those who met their end in the desert, or those who are still trying to find a third way.

In the city states, absolutely everything is about opression and fear. The economy runs almost entirely on slave labor and everything is ultimately controlled by the templars. The templars are at the same time priests, police, and administrators. The sorcerer kings are almost invisible to the common people, but through their templars their power reaches everywhere within the cities. Templars can arrest, torture, and kill almost everyone they like and nobody can do anything about it. But at the same time every templar is equally helpless against their superirors and ultimately the sorcerer kings themselves. Then there are the gladiators who fight but have no freedom. The muls are a whole race of slaves. Life in the cities is terrible and almost everyone would like to get out, but outside the city walls there is only the desert.

Out in the desert, almost everything is trying to kill you. There is the heat, quicksand, lack of water and food, and of course lots of terrifying monsters. And when you’re traveling through the desert, you are likely to frequently run into the gnawed bones and dried out husks of those who died there. Abandoned camps, deserted villages, and ruined cities. Often inhabited by whatever horrors became of the former inhabitants.

And then there is the Dragon himself. There is only a single dragon and it represents both the terror of the cities and the deadliness of the desert. This creature is inctredibly powerful and wherever it appears it brings down complete and total distruction, usually killing anyone and everything it comes close to. Of all the monsters of the desert, it’s the most dangerous and terrifying one. But it’s also the ultimate horror of the cities. Every year the dragon will visit each city and demand a human sacrifice of 1,000 people, which will be provided by the local sorcerer king. And that is part of the reason why the sorcerer kings can rule as they do. If they don’t make the sacrifices, the dragon will come and kill everyone. True freedom and peace in the cities is impossible. They always have to be horrifying dystopias.

But finally, there are also some groups who have found a kind of middle ground. The elves and the slave tribes. The elves have learned to live in the desert as nomads, living without any of the comforts of the cities and in a very dangerous environment, and wherever they go they are pretty much hated. They are free, and usually they survive, but the price is to always be poor and outcasts. The slave tribes are bands of slaves who escaped into the desert in a desperate try to win their freedom. But life for them is even nastier, brutisher, and shorter than it is for everyone else. This aspect of the theme is also represented in the last remaining big forest. Not all of Athas is dead and dry, and there is indeed a place full of water and lush plant life. But it’s also one of the deadliest places known in the world and home to huge numbers of the most dangerous monsters. It seems like an alternative to the cities and the desert, but it’s not really a third way out. It is a possible third way, but one that might actually be even worse.

Dark Sun is a briliant example of the use of themes at all levels and in all elements. The elves are a race of outcasts, the muls are a race of slaves. Independent villages are highly unstable and dangerous, and all the places where you can find stability are kept that way only through terror and opression. There is really no place in the world of Athas where you are not faced with the universal question of “surviving under opression or dying in the desert”. All the people you encounter are in some way or another struggling with that. The theme is backed into really every element of the setting. And as a result, almost every kind of adventure you can imagine to take place in this world will also deal with the theme in one way or another. The most brilliant thing about it, that it’s both so effortless and also subtle. You don’t need anyone to go around and constantly tell people “Slavery is bad!” or “Be good to the environment!” The way the setting is set up, this will happen naturally, all by itself.

And I think this is the key to incorporating a strong theme in worldbuilding: The theme of most settings is some kind of struggle or conflict that most, or perhaps even all people in that world are dealing with. When you create a place, or a group, or a culture, consider how they stand in regard to this theme. Create some groups that successfully managed to find an answer and a middle way, but also a lot of groups that failed and ended up suffering the consequences of leaning too much to either side. Show the audience how people within the world are dealing with the problem and what happens when they fail. Not only does that lead to a web of strong connections between the individual pieces, it also does wonders for creating and maintaining a unique mood.

I am planning to write two more articles on this topic. One about another example of one of my most favorite settings ever, and one about how the ideas presented here affect my work on my Ancient Lands setting.

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