One of the greatest realizations about running a game came to me while reading my least favorite game to adjucate, D&D 4e. While the game had many flaws, its basic setting being focused on Points of Light lead me to the realization of what I had been doing wrong this whole time.
A Starting Point
When I started creating my campaign world, over 20 years ago at this point, I created a large land mass, populated it with stereotypical creatures – elves, dwarves, halflings – and then went about delineating everything I could into territories, governorships, wildholds, and all sorts of other settled places. Kings and Lords, along with their fantastical counterparts, ruled the land, with a few designated wilderness portions. While the players were finding ruins, temples, hideouts and lairs, they were all located within a claimed and stable framework of nations and countries that enveloped the entire continent.
For the first long while, I didn’t find this to be that great of an impediment. I ran adventures for years within the bounds I had written, creating the formative story lines of an ongoing campaign. However, after a while it felt constrained. There was just something to answer for everything, there was always a higher and more powerful entity that should be handling this problem or that issue for the locals. The adventurers were simply an unnecessary portion of the world.
At this point, I started breaking countries within the game. First one fell, then another, and another. Over the course of years of playing and adventure, of the time between games, all fell except one, and even that one was riven with strife. It wasn’t until even further along, when I read the Points of Light bit in the 4e books that I understood what I had been doing all that time: Creating a game where the characters shine.
The Sound of Darkness
What doing all of that re-working and destruction was doing, I realized, was creating a space for my characters within the world, so that there was more of them than there was of the high and mighty. So very often in fantasy RPG’s, we anachronise the way our world works and apply it to the world and game we are creating. We have highways, clearly defined countries, an aversion to violence, value for life, and a strong sense of security.
I’m afraid that almost none of that is true for the majority of history.
One of the main things that history teaches us, and that points of light makes clear, is that often times each individual settlement, town, and country are alone in the darkness. If bandits arrive, there is no nobility to run to, they must fend them off on their own. When drought, famine and disease strike, there is no local government to help pick them up, instead they will make it through, or not, all on their own. What makes adventurers and adventuring so appealing is that they are perfectly contained solutions to very strong and continuous problems.
The bandits up the road are looting local farms? Why risk your life – and therefore your families well being, when you can tell the wandering adventurers that if they kill the bandits, they can have whatever is there, because you just want them to stop robbing you. When the local stream dries up and all of your crops are dying, why not send the adventurers to figure out why and hopefully fix it?
The common commoner in the times suffers from many ailments. They are dependent on the lord of their area for safety, and if he fails to provide there is no one close who can assist. They are indentured to the lords taxes – If they do not provide enough in cash or kind they will likely be forced to give up a child or two, or even their own freedom. Each individual is often concerned for their life and well being because unlike today, their lives are intricately ties with their family and friends. Widows and Orphans don’t happen on their own.
When everything surrounding you is darkness and fear, it can create a strange sort of paralyzation. When people from the outside enter your bubble, it should often create a desire for action within the populace, one that is often not of themselves, but directed at the wanderers. It is a crude and strong sense of self preservation.
The difference between the adventurers and the common folk is that they are not tied down. They have managed to walk the bandit filled roads, traversing the darkness and finding both fame and fortune within it. They are the uncommon and brave souls who, when death casts is icy gaze on them, gaze deeply back. They are the beacons of light that wander a world of darkness, drawn to the faint and failing points of light within the darkness of the world.
What does that mean to the greater whole? It means that when creating and building a world, leave plenty of places unclaimed and unfortified, leave great plots of land between the shining points of settlement because not only is it more enjoyable, but it is much more accurate. Even in Roman Times, there were dark places in the Italian peninsula itself where bandits and outlaws would take refuge and pillage the land. This false sense of security, reaching out beyond but a a short ride into the wilderness, is a fairly modern and rare occurrence.
So too is this sense of safety that our denizens have. Many basic decisions we take for granted, and basic liberies we have, simply don’t apply when you think the lord, ostensibly your ally or sometimes your enemy, of the next town over could suddenly get it in his head that he needs to own you and your plots of land and simply send soldiers over – those who he could find, recruit or hire to himself – to rape, burn and kill all that they encounter.
as much as it seems like it now, this scenario isn’t as far off as it may seem. Feudal society was not only one of grand knights, ladies and kings, but it was a dirty and harsh place to live for the lowborn and those coming up through the lowborn ranks. Its a dark life, lived in the corners of history and the darkness of shadows.
Empire v. Lights
All of this does not mean that a single, or multiple empires and countries cannot be done. There are clearly some precedence for large, sprawling and safe countries in which the commoner feels secure, but they are the rare exception. Empires like those also tend to be fairly boring and limited in adventuring scope, having long since crushed or removed any danger from the most common of person. This leads to a different, much more urban and intrigue based story. These stories are just as exciting and fun to play, but know that it is not always what is expected of an adventure.
I have come to strongly, as you may have guessed, favor the points of light approach over that of the sprawling empire. It is why i have gone to such great lengths to return uncertainty and confusion to a world that once was balanced. These now wide open spaces of darkness give the characters a tangible reason to adventure and a strong cause to fight against. Even if there is no grand villain, the simple safety of this town, or that person, or some such monument could be the cause of great stories and heroic deeds.
be not drawn to the brilliant light of the empire, like a moth unto the flames. Instead, bring forth darkness into the world, and create uncertianty that even you don’t fully understand. Your games, and your players, will thank you.
till next time.