Function and Purpose, Part 1: Purpose in the Ancient Lands

I found an interesting article on world design at Tao of D&D from about a month ago, that had kept me thinking for the last couple of days. It makes the argument that when outlining the goal of a setting and adding elements to it, you should be considering what the function of your world is going to be, and what purpose the elements are supposed to have. But what exactly is the function of a world? Basically, it comes down to this:

“Function, then, is always incorporated into the world with an eye towards the desired behavior of the player.”

I think he’s really on to something here. I have a pretty good idea what I want the world to feel like, and what kinds of campaigns and adventures I want to run in it. But an important thing to always remember is, that a campaign setting, unlike a movie or novel setting, is not a piece of art to be admired from the outside. It is there to be used by people, and unless you’re a terrible GM, players will use it in whatever way they like. For the players, the campaign and its setting are their toy to play with as they enjoy it. They are not helpers who assist the GM in playing with his toy in the way he wants to. If you want players to interact with your setting in certain ways, you need to design the setting so that the player will want to interact with it in the way you envisioned.

Say you want to make a setting in which the PCs are supposed to explore islands with their own ship and crew. In that case, you need to make sure that there are actually fun things to do on the islands, and that having their own ship and managing it is actually beneficial to them. If it turns out that the most fun activities are found on the mainland and that it’s much more economically efficient to just charter a ship for every journey or maybe get your hands on a teleportation item, then there is a very high chance the players will ditch their ship pretty soon. (Unless the players also really want to cruise around on their own ships, regardless of how well it actually works out, but you can never count on this as a GM.) That’s what is meant by purpose, at least I think it is. If you surround an island with corral reefs inhabited by savage fish people, you better know what purpose they have. If you want to make the island really mysterious and unreachable unless the PCs aquire one of the super rare sailing charts only possessed by high priests of the islands demon cult, then it seems like a good idea that would likely work. If you want to provide a strong hint that the players should explore the island that has never been visisted before, then this really might not be a good way to do it at all. The players have their very expensive and customized ship on which they have been working for months, they are probably unwilling to risk sinking it on a whim. If you want players to perform certain behaviors, then these behaviors need to look attractive. If you don’t want certain things to be done, then make doing them look dull, pointless, or counterproductive.

So, how does this relate to the Ancient Lands? I am still at the very beginning of looking at my setting in this light, but here are a few examples that I’ve already been doing unconsciously:

  • Social Rank and Status: In an Ancient Lands campaign, I want players to decide what social background their characters have. Are they highborn, clansmen, or freemen, or even slaves or outcasts? But what’s the purpose of adding this element to both PCs and NPCs? What I want to achieve with that, is to get the players to see society in the Ancient Lands as unequal, and also to play their characters in a way that aknowledges this fact. As the GM, I become able to tell the players “the nobleman looks down on you and tells you to get your master”, or “the servants take a look at your clothing and deny to have seen anything”. By defining the social ranks and making them part of each character sheet and NPC description, it actually matters in interactions with NPCs, and players take it into acount when planing how to approach certain people.
  • Humans are recent newcomers to the Ancient Lands who first arrived only 300 years ago: This isn’t just a quirk, but done for a specific purpose. In the Ancient Lands, the most advanced and powerful civilizations are almost all elves. However, I don’t want players to get the impression, that elves are meant to be superior to humans and their human characters are supposed to look up to and act deferant to them. By making the humans recent arrivals in the region, I hope to show that any advantage the elves currently have comes simply from having had more time to settle in.
  • A large organization of multiethnic warriors conquers small territories and sells their services as mercenaries: These exist simply for the reason that I love the Mandalorians and the Qunari. They are cool, and I want to have something like that. But I can’t simply drop them into the world and leave it like that. Even though there was no need to introduce them, I hav to find a purpose for them being there. They need to perform a role. And I found several. One is being a wildcard in the balance of power. All the clans have a relatively fixed number of warriors and possible alliances between clans are predictable to some extend. But a large and reliable mercenary force that will take up arms for payment and is unrestrained by the trappings of clan interdependencies can change the status quo very quickly and significantly. Getting a single commander to agree to a contract or refuse one can start wars or completely turn them around. Another role of the mercenary army is to present a ideology and spirituality that is not based on worshiping the spirits of the land. The mercenaries wander and have only lose and often temporary ties to the places they currently live at. They follow a strict code of ethics that is geard towards self improvement and equality regardless of birth and powerful friends. This helps to emphazise that the worship of spirits practiced in most places is not neccessarily the only true way, and may even be full of assumptions that may not be entirely true.
  • The Ancient Lands cover an area that lies mostly along a coast and includes some nearby islands: This also was a concious choice. While there are considerable areas of the hinterlands, all the major cities and concentrations of settlement lie along the ocean coast. The idea behind this is, that centers of civilization are relatively isolated and located at considerable distances from each other, and that most of the world is untamed and barely explored wilderness. When players want to get from one civilized area to another, going by ship almost always looks like the first choice. And traveling by ship always has a different quality from using roads. In adventure fiction, protagonists usually are doing their long distant travel between locations by airplane, boat, or even spaceship. A ship really is the only one of these that works in the Ancient Lands, so it needs to be made particularly common. When PCs go on a ship for a two week journey, the players should remember similar scenes from Indiana Jones, James Bond, or Star Wars. Chartering transportation means to make a really long trip to a very different place.

I originally intended this to be primarily on the function of the whole setting, rather than on the purpose of specific elements. But I think I leave it at this for now and explore the meaning of function in another article.


2 thoughts on “Function and Purpose, Part 1: Purpose in the Ancient Lands”

  1. Well interpreted from the post on my blog. I must rush, however to point out that is is part of a much LARGER context, the latter section of the book I will be publishing this summer, How to Run: an Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games. If this one small part got you going on the subject, then you ought to keep an eye out for the book and see how the above fits into different elements of Dungeon Mastering as a whole.

    1. Yeah, I figured that. You just wrote enough to show you’ve actually got something important to say, but only so much that there still seems to be a lot more where this comes from. I totally love books that are about actually running the game and using the rules, instead of just explaining what rules there are. If the price is reasonable, I’m quite certain I’ll buy it.

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