Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Fog of War and Campaign Settings

In the past two years my reading habits seem to have gotten stuck in a feedback loop with my gaming. If I pick up a book nine times out of ten its often because of a tangential interest kicked off from either the campaign or this blog (or your blog for that matter). Just as inevitably what I read—and its often nothing as obvious as a fantasy novel—fires up whole new areas of thought that color my gaming.

Last night my mind got stuck on a paragraph in When China Ruled the Seas, a history of the massive expeditions that the Chinese Emperor sent to the Indian and Pacific Oceans in the early 15th century. Describing the world view of the Chinese prior to this time period the author says this:
To Confucius in the sixth century B.C., China was the entire world. He called it “The Middle Kingdom,” “The Multitude of Great States,” or simply “All Under Heaven.” Beyond the borders of the empire lay...only wilderness and lawless, barbarian tribes. For time and time again, out of the steppes and bleak wilderness deserts, came marauding herdsmen, wild men dressed in animal skins who brought destruction and despair. To the east, across the endless oceans, lay only the fantasies and dreams of foolish rulers.
I love this passage, it draws a clear, evocative image of how limited the cultural horizons—both self-imposed and more objective--were for many nations for most of human history. The fog lay thick and heavy around the borders of the Middle Kingdom, so thick even that they could think themselves to be the only existent human civilization.

This kind of stuff is pregnant with possibility for fantasy gaming: maybe the world view is correct, there is nothing else out there. This is it and beyond lies vast tracts of true wilderness, getting weirder and more alien and dangerous the further you travel from the one bastion of human civilization. Or maybe like our world, it's just isolation and the world is girdled with large stretches of varied civilization with vastly diverse cultures.

The uncertainty is what's key, it gives player-driven exploration a vast new dimension of meaning. It's not about filling in some hex contents on a map where most of the boundaries are already known, it's about answering an unknown quite big in its implications. 

Yet, I have been scratching my head trying to think of examples in fantasy settings or campaigns that nail this. Think about most settings you have encountered. How limited was the worldview of the players?

In my experience, it's a good deal more extensive than that of above. Even the most foggy of players' maps often have a precision of cartography and cultural knowledge far beyond that of the early Renaissance of western Europe (when the study of cannon trajectories and world-trotting ways of that time revolutionized map making). 

Outside of a handful of settings, the only really effective examples I can think of come more from the science fantasy of Gamma World—in which a common starting point was being a member of a primitive tribe that knew little about the lands outside of a couple walking days--than the multitude of fantasy rpgs.

So far my own home campaign hasn't strayed much outside of the environs of a 100-mile stretch of a border region. The nature of the bottom-up creation has limited much of their knowledge to the sprawling overkingdom that they are on the fringes of with some passing mentions of only one other exotic human civilization, the Scarlet Sultanate.

I am inclined to leave it there—unless they feel the urge to push the boundaries. Maybe it isn't just the just-in-time nature of my world design leaving the edges undefined, maybe there really isn't anything else out there but the howling wilderness. Or maybe not.


  1. One thing that I really enjoyed about your campaign in Austin was that sense that the world was a great mystery. We knew we where on the borderlands but didn't know with what. It felt like the edge of the world which was pretty cool.

  2. Instead of being one of those obsessive-compulsives who design their game world starting with a global map and zooming in to the smallest village hut, I'd have a setting where if the characters sailed too far to the west, the end result would be something like the cover for the Kansas album Point of Know Return.

  3. In my Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign, the campaign wiki has a player map showing all the areas the players have been to or heard about (with no fixed scale—I just say that trackless wilderness takes a day per hex). While they know about the large world map, most of them don't really know where they actually are on the large map. When we recently had a coffee break in our game and I pulled out my version of the regional map from the boxed set, one of the players was totally surprised: "What, there is this huge ocean to the east? I would have never imagined." That introduced a nice glimpse of the bigger world outside without granting modern precision. Since I like the fog of war aspect, I have decided to have more occasional glimpses and rumors from the outside. Without it, the campaign world just feels very isolated (and my players appear have no urge to go exploring for exploration's sake).