Sunday, May 13, 2018

Making a Standard that Creates Distinctions

Many of you, I know, are seeing your mothers today, but as a pater familias I am free from such things; so I am writing a post instead.

A little background: though if you are familiar with my systems you won't need this.  The map on the right shows the four clan lands of Haugaland, as it exists in a development-5 stage (which I am saying would be about 982 AD in my world.  Each hex is designated by a number, indicating how much of the hex is "civilized."  In this system, less is more, so that the type-6 hex is more civilized than the type-7 hex.  I have tried to reflect this by cutting away more natural vegetation with the type-6 hex than I have with the others.

The reader might think it was the fishing ground, indicated by the small fish in the water, that makes the type-6 hex more civilized.  In fact, it was just chance.  The values of the hex were determined by an infrastructure system that I use, that I will have to sort out in a wiki post; if you know nothing about it, you might start with this post.

My goal is to breathe life into these four hexes, and in such a manner that it sets a template for other hexes, with other landforms and climates, with other peoples, and with other levels of development ... and to create that template with one thing in mind: to feed the imagination.

Some might suppose that my goal is to codify the world so that every hex can be easily defined and recognized, like every other hex of that same type.  The is wrong thinking.  On some level, it almost makes sense: the world is very complex, so the solution ought to be to simplify it, in order that it can be quickly understood without much work.  However, that doesn't really make sense.  We're not making a wall out of bricks, where it is okay that every brick is the same. We are striving to make a living, breathing setting, with which the players will consistently interact with wonder, interest and ambition.  For that, we must not build a system of such excessive standardization that everything ends up being shades of lifeless grey.

We don't want to define the setting; we want to define HOW to define the setting.  What is it about the setting we should know?  And that the players will want to know?  What matters about the setting that deserves our attention.

Here's what I hope to have established so far: a 5-development region is the most primitive form of humanoid civilization that exists.  A 4-development region would be occupied by intelligent apes or other like organized monsters.  A 3-development region would consist of family groups in which bears, lions or other large carnivores would prey on a largely herbivorous population.  A 2-development region would possess lesser carnivores, with large, aggressive herbivores, like elephants, rhinocerous and moose being the dominant creatures.  A 1-development region would consist of large herds of passive wanderers, caribou, gnu, zebras, oryx and so on, where carnivores existed but were made irrelevant by the sheer mass of gentle mammalian herds.  And finally, a 0-develpment region would consist of non-intelligent life forms, mostly insects, endlessly preying upon each other in a hostile, unpleasant environment.

That primitive dev-5 humanoid culture is a hunter-gatherer culture, lacking virtually all technological progress.  Haugaland above is primitive Norway; there are Vikings elsewhere in Norway but they are not coming from here.  Supposedly, in 862, Harald Fairhair completed his conquest of Norway after a great victory at Hafrsfjord near Stavanger, but according to what I have this is a tale told four to five centuries later, wikipedia says Stavanger was not founded until 1125 (I date the place to the year of Harald's battle) and it is all historical falderal anyway.  No one knows for sure, and this is all for demonstration purposes anyway.  For our purposes here, we need only imagine that I'm describing some very primitive clans people living on the Haugesund Fjord.

A type-7 hex is, in addition, the least civilized of rural-form hexes, and therefore we have here three examples of the most backward rural cultures in the most backward of civilizations.  Everything from here is up.  Effectively, we are the warrior figure in the civilization game, without even a settler to build our first settlement with.

How, then, to make that type-7 hex in a dev-5 culture interesting?  Not just for Norway, but for every similar hex, anywhere in our world, from the northern tundra to a group of natives on an island in Polynesia?  What matters here?  Suppose we start a group of players here?  They couldn't be mages, rangers or paladins, or even thieves; thievery is possible, but these clans are based thoroughly upon a persistent sharing dynamic; it is doubtful that a thief in such a culture would live to become a player character.  There are shamans, but those are hardly clerics.  What weapons could they use?  What skills would they have?  Upon what would we base such an evaluation?

And here is where I used the base technologies as a framework for such functional questions.  The dev-5 culture has just three technologies: hunting, fishing and mysticism.  That's it.  Things like weapon-making, boat-building, monolith carving and such are amateur, handicraft skills ... that anyone learns to do, like an aboriginal making a boat from tree-bark.  It is not sophisticated boat-building.  The weapons are spears, stakes, clubs, javelins ... tools for killing animals and then re-purposed for killing other humanoids from other tribes.  There are no weaponwrights, no artisans of any kind, no persons who are professionals in a given field ... except, again, the shaman.  And there are very specific details about what the shaman does and what purpose the shaman serves - and this is definitely not the classic cleric/healer character.  It is more like a monk.

The technologies tell us also how these people get their food; "hunting" includes the process of gathering, or foraging, which I have built into the sage abilities system; actual foraging by peoples in my setting works exactly like that.  Some climates and terrains produce an abundance; some do not.  How much food is produced critically defines the nature and energy of the people.

Our next issue is to define what makes a "type-6" hex different from a "type-7" hex.  What is our logic here?  From what principle does the remaining description of the hex flow?  Remembering that this has to be a principle that can be carried into all other possible hexes, throughout the system, and all other possible levels of development.

My logic is that the land itself is what's rolled for when a random hex is determined to be a "type-6" as opposed to a "type-7."  Here I write of the land's shape and organization ... and to the degree by which a given culture is capable of using the land.  Consider this pile of rock from southern Spain, at a place called Ronda:

For the advanced moors who built the fortification on top of this bluff, it's a convenient bit of topography.  But for a primitive dev-5 culture, it is just a big impediment that has to be walked around.  So land-use and land-richness are relative to how much technological power a regon possesses.

For Haugaland in our year 982, the only thing that matters is how much food exists.  A type-6 hex produces more food than a type-7 hex.

And that would be enough for some designers, thinking that the amount of food alone is the distinction I seek, arguing that I am all about statistics and that statistics are boring.  But this is again wrong thinking, and serves people who will not go the extra step in their head in order to see the real point: why does a type-6 hex produce more food?  What is it intrinsically about the hex ~ that it is our responsibility as designers to designate ~ that makes the hex a better food producer?  That statistic is the clue that creates the structure that explains the statistic ... and this is something that I am seeing designers miss repeatedly when they set out to make a setting.

FIRST, there have to be factors about the setting that are measureable ... and THEN, that measurement has to be described and defined, both in terms of its merit and in its real world manifestation.  The merit of more food is that it creates more people, greater abundance of opportunity, a wider range of possible contacts and more reliable supply for characters adventuring in the world.  The real world manifestation is for us to see how a hex with more food looks to people who are there, who can distinguish it on sight from another hex where there is less food.  This visual appreciation then translates to the DM's efforts to explain why this hex is more relevant, interesting, or potentially threatening to the players.

Understand this and you will blunder less with your worldbuilding efforts and begin to design things that are functional, that encourage imaginative and immersive player behaviour.

What is our manifestation for these four hexes, then?  Consider: the type-7 hexes are less abundant, yes ... but they are remarkably more abundant than the wilderness hexes that have no occupation at all!  Comparatively, the type-7 hex certainly outshines the inconsistent grazing lands that have no type number.  Type-7 land must be at least rich enough to sustain a small band of 30-40 people indefinitely; these are not nomads.  There might be a wandering band of human nomads in the eastern reaches of Haugaland, as shown on yesterday's map, using up the game from one hex and moving onto the next; but that does not describe the type-7 clan represented here.

The type-7 hex is forage land ... which is what we might name the rural block it represents.  The residents forage and scavenge a subsistence food supply (there's none to share with others), gathering, collecting, fishing and occupying themselves with minimal hunting (relying on culling animals out of small local herds or relying on those that enter the hex from outside).  Their food resources consist of patches of harvested plants: seasonal berries and wild apples, mostly.  There are fish runs, notably the spawning period for salmon; late in the summer, there are places where bees provide honey; and there are bird flocks to feed on along the coast, again at certain times of the year.  The residents move from food supply to food supply with the season, squeezing out every calorie their lands can provide; and a 6-mile diameter hex is fairly rich if it can keep 40 people alive year round.

The forage land itself is full of steep drops, with difficult and uneven rocky terrain, stony or sandy areas that produce nothing, lifeless beaches, innundated bottom lands of bog and mud, high banks that deny easy access to algae-infested waters, and water courses marked by rapids and sharp falls (water falls are pretty but inconvenient to a hunter-gatherer).  Dense vegetation, brambles or briars provide more obstructions.  What trails exist are rough and tiring.  Passive wanderers are welcome, but carnivores and assorted vermin, like stirges or giant insects, and the occasion verminous creature from the sea, are all threats.

So it is harsh.  And it lends itself to adventure, somewhat ... but only in the loosest terms.  We have a role-play event where the players meet the clan, and some moment where the party encounters a wolf or a bear, or perhaps loses their footing on a trail and has a bad fall, but we're not talking truly exciting.  It is more interesting to imagine a party staggering around in the hexes outside of the lands of the Vormed clan, being thankful to find at least this much civilization, at last.

The type-6 hex must differ; and in my imagination, it does.  As a block title, we might call it fruitful land ... featuring wide, natural meadows, springs of fresh water that supply clear ponds and lakes, surrounded by low banks giving easy access to the water.  The rivers run slower, there is less wild water, and in many of these the fish feed all year long on the bottom.  Animal trails are more numerous, as the ground is less sloped and easier, while wild oats grow along the river banks, providing greater sustenance to herds, which produce more offspring.  The meadows are filled with flowers, granting more sustenance to the bees, which produce more honey and enable more fruit on the trees.

Without any change in the technology, the residents of fruitful land have less arduous journeys to make across their lands; they have more time to make structures that are more permanent, tan leather, make clothing, improve the strength of their spears or other tools.  More food means they have food they can bury for winter, or store in carved gourds.  Non-food producing labor is comparatively abundant, thus the little hammer symbol in the hex.  The open land makes it easier to clear out predators, so that it is even friendlier for herds to congregate.

It is less harsh.  The residents are happier, better fed, potentially stronger but on the whole, more willing to share with outsiders.  And all this we can surmise from reading the actual landscape of Norway (there would be many different nuances to this if we were describing these two hexes in a Russian steppe or on the edges of a jungle in central Africa), applying it rationally and building up two different schemes for life based on nothing more than a measure of privation.

In turn, a type-5 hex would have even more abundance than a type-6.  What would that look like?  How would you describe it?  I have described it, and we will certainly get there ... but I want to get the reader's imagination functioning.  I want the reader to seek out a book or two about anthropology, or hunter-gatherer societies, and wrest your brain out of the "everywhere is a bland fantasy setting" framework and into something far more concrete and applicable to the human experience, yours and mine.  Envisioning a field full of flowers, that the party encounters upon stumbling out of a deep wilderness, where they have almost died, is far more arresting to the imagination than another tiresome description of perfect elves in perfect elf costumes.


Ozymandias said...

And at any time that we choose, we can imagine a fantastic element in place of the ordinary. That field of flowers can have special properties, affecting anyone who rests or sleeps there, maybe granting one quarter or one-half as much benefit for the same time. Or maybe it's a pathway to the Faerie lands or a sacred site for one of the nearby tribes.

Concerning a type-5 hex (in a dev-5 region), what if it's a naturally occurring plot of some edible plant or a gathering place for a herd of herbivores? There's easy access to a slow flowing stream or a pond, the ground is fairly level and the conditions are right for a field of flowers, a groove of fruiting trees, maybe with edible fungus or lichen covering the forest floor, and the area is shared by an abundance of rabbits or squirrels or deer, this being a spot that frequently blossoms year-to-year, bringing animals back every season.

Or is that going too close to a type-1 (dev-5) hex?

Alexis Smolensk said...

That fantastic element is always the option; I am striving more and more not to turn to it in my game, as I am finding that players who are expected to wonder at their environment all the time soon turn off and cease to be impressed.

Because dev-5 regions are so sparse, with so few people, anything above a type-5 is highly unlikely. This dev-5 version of Rogaland has only 1,300 people for about 3,000 square miles ... that's very empty. There's not much chance of a better than type-5 hex, so we should feel free to imagine a type-5 at this stage of development, where there's no possibility of agriculture, as the best dream environment we could possible imagine: sylvan, even.