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Social Science and Fiction Part 0: Invitation

Have you ever built a world? If you are so inclined, let’s explore some principles for world generation using insights from economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.

Have you ever built a world? I would be willing to wager you have visited a few. Perhaps you have hopped in the cockpit of your trusty X-Wing to battle the Galactic Empire. Or maybe you have slipped into Elf-forged mythril chain mail as you thwarted the orcs of Mordor. Who knows, maybe you prefer squeezing into some spandex and facing down the Kree. But have you ever built a world?

If so, do you use a kit? Tabletop games come with kits aplenty for aspiring game masters. Every Dungeon Master’s Guide I can recall using from First Edition onward has provided reliable tools and tips on how to organize a campaign from soup to nuts. Moreover, choosing a game system in the first place is players’ sub rosa selection of a kit. You are given conflict resolution mechanics (usually based on a random number generator, often dice), conflict generation (monsters, antagonistic organizations, hostile environments, etc.), and perhaps most importantly a setting, or if not exactly a setting, at least the scaffolding of a setting. Dungeons and Dragons is a high fantasy setting; Warhammer 40,000 is a grim, dark science fiction setting; Vampire: The Masquerade has something to do with intrigue in the Russian royal court, I think.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing in a kit world. To the contrary, many of these settings are downright venerable, some with decades of development between dozens if not hundreds of enthusiastic authors contributing to the rich lore of well-established franchises. If what you want out of your gaming experience is to plop your keister down a few times a month and tell a tale of adventure with your buddies, then pre-fab settings are almost certainly what you want.

However, there are a select few of you out there for whom established worlds are insufficient. You long to put pen to paper, drafting magnificent maps, scripting elaborate histories, detailing ancient wars, uncovering the habits and traditions of the inhabitants of your realms, and injecting life into the flights of your fancy.

I am one of you. We are kin, you and I. As a teenager, I would spend more time sketching castle designs than crawling through the Tomb of Horrors. I would draw up tangled dungeons, pepper bespoke overworld maps with cities, and flesh it all out with stories about how this or that courageous adventurer scratched out the foundations of a mighty kingdom that would last a thousand years. And though my age and experience have tempered my zeal for staying up until the wee hours, applying just that one little extra flourish to the Battle of Baeraen-Wray during the Fourth War of Ascension, my love for lore has not been extinguished.

So join me, won’t you? If you are so inclined, let’s explore some principles for world generation using insights from economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. In the coming series of posts, I will cover how to create an internally consistent, robust, convincing fictional setting that is flexible enough to permit your players the liberty to explore and alter to their heart’s content.

I urge you to leave questions and suggestions in the comment section below. Consider this series more of a conversation than a lecture. If there is a topic you’d like discussed in greater detail, or if you think there is a literature I have overlooked, please mention it, and I will do my best to address your concerns.

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21 thoughts on “Social Science and Fiction Part 0: Invitation

  1. Isn’t there going to be a worry about how whether a world looks realistic (e.g. in the field of economics) to me depends on what I think about the roles of private property, or the state etc in the economy?

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  2. I am like you. I have created five different worlds for just D&D (Pathfinder).

    I have also created worlds in the Heroes System.

    Also, cities in Fate, Cthulhutech, Shadowrun, and Rifts.

    I find I love to build my own stuff rather than using something already given

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  3. I have an ongoing exercise in world building. 25+ years ago I was having trouble getting to sleep (career, wife, house, kids, dog, etc on my mind). I had read a piece by a former Vietnam POW who had described how he distracted himself from his situation by building a house in his head: every brick, every board, every nail. I decided to try distracting myself from all the other things by building a story set in the various groups of asteroids, with a history for each of the major sites the protagonist visited and how they had evolved several different approaches to running a society in that setting. (I invented one piece of magic tech to solve a bunch of the problems, but only that one.) It’s an open-ended story, and because the exercise turned out to be successful in putting me to sleep, progress is slow :^)

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      • Creation/control of a local gravity field using modest amounts of electricity is the magic tech. At least so far, I make no attempt to explain it — it’s just a given. Not only does it solve the immediate problem, but you can at least hand wave fusion power and drive technologies out of it. One of my long-standing complaints about lots of SF is people who have gravity control (at modest energy expense) but don’t use it for anything except keeping wine in glasses or water in the toilets.

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  4. Yes, I have created a world, of a sort in my paintings on Instagram.

    It is of the City of Angels in some alternate timeline, where buildings are part machine, part living beings. When I caption them, the writing is in the past tense, third person, like a traveler writing in his journal of a strange place.

    It isn’t meant to be exhaustive and descriptive like a Dune sort, but evocative and suggestive, where it is still shrouded in mystery that the viewer fills in.

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  5. I have created a world, worlds even. For D&D, the Marvel RPG and several other older systems. Then because I had no life I created an overarching ‘verse structure to organize the disparate worlds in relation to each other. I’m looking forward to this series.

    My own tip: commonalities really bind worlds and campaigns together. Makes players feel knowing about what they’re playing in. In all of my worlds normal mundane cats can travel transdimensionally and it’s considered common knowledge that they do. Players can be abducted from their own realities into strange scenarios and contexts but their house cats invariably show up and demand regular feeding and the NPC’s react to this with a shrug and a “cats can travel transdimensionally; everyone knows that.” It was originally an innovation done to deal with a player who would absolutely melt down over being separated from his fur-babies but the custom has outlived the player.

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  6. Though I spent a large part of my teens imagining countries and even worlds (*), I wanted to suggest an alternative that I think about a lot: Alternative life forms.

    SF tends to imagine that highly evolved life forms converge into some sort of anthropomorphism. I beg to differ. Plants, which can survive by converting electromagnetic radiation into food, are a much more successful life form qua life form (i.e. ability to self replicate). What would a civilization of completely different life forms look like?

    (*) one specific imaginary country still accompanies me while jogging, or while I fall asleep; a meditation in which I add bits and pieces of history and geography (**)

    (**) It’s in the NE corner of the Adriatic, south of Austria, more or less where the real Slovenia is. Pre- Roman conquest oral history and mythology was recorded by monks in the High Middle ages

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  7. I have a mundane question. The cover picture for this article is a pile of d20’s. One of them has a “V” in place of a number. Does anyone know the story behind that?

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