Creating a Changing World
by Brent Knowles
Designing a game world is a challenging task. Each new world demands novel features to hold the players interest. Suspending a player’s disbelief is a major undertaking for any world creator. A way to accomplish this is to design the laws and rules behind the newly created world — specifically how the world was created. In this article, you will see two types of world — the Natural World and the Created World.
A Natural World is a world that progresses without divine intervention. This world has been formed over the course of billions of years. Continents shift, life migrates from the seas onto land, and volcanic eruptions surface islands. Species generation and modification follow rules of evolution, not creation.
Creatures (be they human, elf or dragon) have evolved due to a long series of survival adaptations. Those with superior abilities and a large dose of luck survive. The ideas presented by Darwin can be used here as a model. Individuals with characteristics that make them more capable of surviving pass their genes on to the next generation.
For new species to develop, nature simply modifies existing species. A small group of birds may fly from their home on the continent to an offshore island. There, the climate is similar enough that they survive, but food acquisition requires different adaptations. Those birds with longer beaks may be able to dig for insects easier. These birds survive, mate, and pass on their genes. Eventually a new species will form, a long-beaked variety, which may not be able to breed with birds of its original ancestral line.
Now a few of these long-beaked birds may fly off and land on another island. This island is a dull, barren land. Brightly colored birds make easy targets for predators, so the least elegant birds survive. Eventually another species has been formed; these ones with dull plumage. This process can continue indefinitely.
With a little imagination, you can apply these same rules to the creation of monsters. If the players complain of being able to anticipate what all the monsters in your world do, then evolve some of them. Have the players discover a chain of islands, where commonly encountered creatures, such as orcs and goblins, have evolved over the course of time to adapt to unusual terrain. These creatures may display different physical features or behaviors than their parent race.
Another evolutionary scholar was Lamarck. He proposed that evolution is based on the ideas of use and disuse. If a physical property is used in an individual, then this property could be passed on to the individual’s offspring. For example, a giraffe’s neck is so long because generation after generation, giraffe’s ancestors stretched their neck’s higher when trying to reach food. In this worldview, a person who becomes a bodybuilder will have children who will be more muscular than other children. Although this theory has been disproved in our world, it could exist in a fantasy world setting with interesting implications.
In a Lamarck world, a group of humans, who become isolated from the rest of their population, could change substantially. Imagine that this group of humans becomes trapped in a cave complex. They have to stoop to crawl through the tunnels. Using Lamarck’s theory, their descendants would become shorter. In this way, you might explain the creation of dwarves or goblins. Reversing this process tells how dwarves may have emerged from caverns beneath the earth and started to stretch in order to reach fruit from trees–thus giving rise to humans.
An intelligent being guides the building and populating of a Created World. The DM needs to create a comprehensive creation story to describe the duration of creation, and the things created. This story must explain evolution and global changes as well.
A divine being may create a world, populate it with six humanoid species (one of which is man), and then fill the rest of the world with all manners of animals. For the animals, the divine being may apply Lamarck’s rules of evolution. For the humanoids, there is no evolution.
Alternatively, a divine being creates a world where all animals change generation to generation, to adapt quickly to changes in the environment. As an Ice Age encroaches, and temperatures plummet, human children may be born with thick hair.
Herein lies another important idea. Does the world undergo stages (like the Ice Age) or has the temperature patterns, tectonic activity and other physical properties remained the same since time began. The DM may keep random tables of natural disasters for this purpose. Perhaps the deity has written out all his plans for the world. Perhaps a party of adventurers discover these prophetic writings…
Imagination is the only limiting factor when using Created Worlds. The main consideration to remember is to keep the world consistent. Players will balk at playing in a world where the rules change randomly, or at the DM’s whim (unless it has been made clear from the start that this is the way the world works.)
The Origin of Species
If it is accepted in your world that the human race has a shared ancestor with apes, it might be fun to see what the other fantastical races have for relations. What line of descent may have branched to create the elves of your world? Dwarves? The DM may create new species to fill in the evolutionary holes in these other lines of descent.
Magic may introduce a new form of evolution, called Proximal Evolution. In this form of evolution, any species that survives for a long time near a source of magic may begin undergoing mutations in successive generations (much as radiation may affect people today). If this mutation proves successful than it could lead to the creation of a new species.
Example of Proximal Evolution
An old village exists near the Hidden Temples of the Aiku, old worshippers of the Stone Gods. Abandoned several decades ago, the livestock has gone wild. Among these are chickens. Through the years, the chickens have found that the site of the Temple itself is the best place to peck for food, because worshippers still come here to offer worship and leave food offerings. Gradually over time, their bodies change and they undergo Proximal Evolution, influenced by the magic of the Stone Gods. They grow talons to better ward off their enemies and to capture different prey. They change from herbivores to carnivores. They gain the power to change flesh to stone. These chickens become cockatrices.
In a Natural World, hybrids among animals are rare. Even when live young are born, they are often sterile. The DM must determine mixed-breeding of animals on a species by species basis. In a Created World, the rules change. Divine beings may allow certain species, or even just individuals to interbreed, according to their own set of rules. An elf maiden and her human lover may find themselves gifted with a child, simply because she prayed to her god for it to be so.
Table 1, gives possible results of mixed breeding in a Natural World. These assume that both species are physically capable of breeding with each other. The interpretation of the results will be at the DM’s discretion and change with every circumstance. For a Created World, the same Table may be used, or the DM can simply decide what the divine being in charge would want.
Table 1: Results of Species Interbreeding in a Natural World
d100 The Young…
01 – 50 Dies during pregnancy
51-75 dies in 2d6 days
76-89 receives weakness of both parents (and is sterile)
90-95 receives strengths of one parent, weakness of other (75 % chance sterile)
96-99 Receives strengths of one parent, weaknesses of other (50% chance sterile)
100 Receives strengths of both parent (25% chance sterile)
(1) Peasants have found large bones buried in rock deposits. It is up to the party to piece them together. This could lead to the discovery of a lost valley of dinosaurs.
(2) The party could find work as guards for a scholar who is discovering the evolutionary processes at work in the world. In this way, you can introduce the laws of science as they exist in your world to the players.
(3) Certain animals have been disappearing near an isolated community. In their place have emerged hideous creatures, looking like patchwork combinations of the missing animals. The players must investigate and stop a mad mage from creating hybrids that are even more hideous and dangerous.
The type of world creation is an important decision to make when designing a new world. A world created in a span of days as compared to billions of years will show differences in geographic and creature diversity. This difference can become a theme for your campaign, serving as a framework for the adventures your players find themselves involved with.
©2002 · Brent Knowles