Saturday, March 06, 2021

Musings on Gaming #3 - Space

All of the fantasy RPG worlds that I set my campaigns in - Terrinoth/Menara, Ferelden/Thedas, Magnamund, Dragon Warriors' Legend, and Fighting Fantasy's Titan - are large worlds, presumably Earth-sized planets.

While it is fun to read about the diverse regions in the world, it is improbably that a single adventuring party will travel to all or even most of the places described in a setting book. Nevertheless, there is a way for GMs to convey the size of the world to the players without having to take the PCs to all these places.

The first is of course to have the PCs come across and interact with people and things which come from these foreign, far-flung regions. Most fantasy medieval worlds have a functioning trade system, and often trade is the chief reason the movement of people and goods across vast distances; others that I can think of are pilgrimage and conquest (which in itself usually stems from a desire to move people and goods...). People and goods from foreign lands are distinguished by the fact that they are different from the local people and goods, and these differences can be expressed both culturally and materially.

One of the most obvious difference between peoples is of course language, and here is where I dislike the concept of the Common language (as conveniently as it makes the job of the GM), unless there is an in-world reason such as the existence of a continent-spanning empire. In settings where the region the game is set in is an analogue of our own Dark Ages or Middle Ages, this becomes even more glaring. In our own world, 'national' languages in the form which we understand them now did not exist in medieval Europe, and that is something that I like to reflect in my game worlds too.  

To a lesser extent this dislike also applies to the existence of "racial" languages like Dwarven or Elvish, unless again there are in-world reasons for why certain races should have a language that changes very little over a span of hundred of years, such as the people being very long-lived, or that the language is being guarded very zealously, such as with a liturgical language, or with a very closed community.

For these reasons I dislike spells that allow PCs to understand or speak foreign languages (I save that kind of thing for my sci-fi campaigns), as it takes away the uniqueness of the cultures. In fact, I lean further into the differences in language, and sometimes describe my NPCs as having an accent that is from a different part of the same nation that the PCs are from, or using a local expression not familiar to them. Where communities of "demi-humans" live among humans, I describe them as speaking the same local language as the humans, but with words from their own languages sprinkled here and there. Where an NPC is not a fluent speaker of the language the PCs are speaking, I describe them as speaking with a heavy accent, haltingly, and/or with a different grammar.

Another way to portray the vastness of the game world, and also its age, is to have indicators of migrations of ancient people in the setting. The fact that much of Europe now speak an Indo-European language and practise a Semitic religion is the result of movements of culture and peoples across a period of millennia, and something that at once speaks of how big our world is and how old human cultures are. GMs can allude the existence of such movements of cultures and peoples by having languages that are related, and having say the head church/temple of a religion or its pilgrimage site being far away from the PCs' native place.

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