Sunday, March 21, 2010

Englandia: Two Design Principles

The more I studied history, the more trouble I had with the supernatural, with magic, monsters, and the divine. Although a great source of gaming fun and a powerful tool in the DM's arsenal for expanding the game's horizons, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that almost any magic item or spell from Dungeons & Dragons could have changed the course of history at some time in some place. If the world were a Gygaxian cornucopia of magic items and crawling with monsters, history would not even remotely have unfolded the way it actually did. Likewise, the divine.

No, to run a historically-based campaign, balancing verisimilitude and fantasy correctly would have to become a central goal. This led to my first design principle:

In Englandia, the supernatural is real but rare.

In 1997 when I was designing Englandia, I had been gaming for twenty years, so I knew this principle was going to be a problem for me. I was spoiled by the supernatural glut of my previous campaigns, in which magic was always at hand to spice up an adventure. As I've written before in this blog, I used it too readily, especially in Dagorëa, leaning on it as upon a crutch, and it delayed my ability to create convincing non-player characters by a decade during which I tried to compensate with the wild imagination of my monsters and magicks. I'd come a long way since then, but still, cutting the supernatural back enough in my games to keep the setting remotely related to real history was going to be a real challenge.

The solution lay in the adoption of a second, balancing design principle. As rare as the supernatural had to be to protect the historical integrity of the setting, it would have to be just that much more interesting than it was usually handled, to get every bit as much gaming juice out of it. That is, I would reduce its power to change history, but increase its originality and memorability.

For example, if I eliminated dwarves, elves, gnomes, hobbits, and half-orcs as choices for player-character races, I could compnsate by making human beings that much more interesting. After all, any DM worthy of the name ought to be able to create endlessly interesting player races out of the diversity of humanity: God-fearing Roman Catholic Saxons, enbattled pagan Mercians, heathen Scottish tribesmen, shamanic and tattooed Picts, headhunting Irishmen on chariots, fatalistic Northmen in long ships, sullen and xenophobic fenfolk, devout and cosmopolitan Moors, and so many more.

So that's how I would pump up my diminished supernatural, too, how the second design principle would work:

In Englandia, the supernatural varies culturally; it works the way each culture believed it did, most strongly in that culture's homeland.

So, for example, though there would be very few magic-users in Englandia, they would be extraordinarily different from one another, maybe between one and three wizards per culture to represent the range of magic in that culture. Likewise the monsters: from selkies on the Scottish coasts, to waterhorses and loch monsters in Scotland proper, to redcaps on the Scottish borders, on down to pagan Mercia where night stalkers haunted the land, to Christian Wessex with its demons and hags, and beyond.

Common throughout the British Isles was the belief that such things were disruptions, intrusions from the land of the dead, the otherworld, the faerie lands, and so I could set aside D&D's armies of undifferentiated humanoids and replace them with highly individualized beasties crossing over from beyond, each one carrying more meaning than just itself because it also represented a breakdown in the natural order of things, some unique kind of corruption that also had to be addressed.

Beverly and I already knew this was going to be fun. Even just the choice of setting combined with these two design principles was enough to solve many of the problems I'd had with my previous campaign worlds. The more we talked about these ideas, the more I could feel my creative juices flowing again. What a relief!

Still, we couldn't help feel some regrets. The price of finding a historical backwater and all the freedom that entailed was giving up some diversity, a cost we felt more keenly the more we designed a supernatural that flourished and unfolded ever more beautifully the more cultural diversity it had to work with. What we wouldn't give to be able to use fabled Baghdad, crossroads of the old world, as our setting, but its history was just too well documented and too foundational for the course of world history.

The solution, though, lay in those two design principles. The world so made not only thrived on diversity, it increased it, creating a feedback loop. The supernatural is inherently destabilizing to history, and so could increase its diversity, but also, as shaped by the second principle it could stabilize history by surprising would-be conquerors far from home.

Beverly and I studied British history in detail as we never had before to find the delicate turning points, the places where the application of these two design principles would surely have changed the course of history, searching for the fewest number of changes we could make—to keep history close to its actual course—that would both follow inevitably from those design principles and also increase the cultural diversity of the British isles in the year 1000.

Between April and September of 1997 we settled on just three changes to British history that would help to illustrate those principles and shape the character of Englandia.