View Full Version : Worldbuilding/Conworlding -- MMO Edition (Now with race and gender issues!)

Liosse de Velishaf
02-08-2016, 06:29 AM
(Bear in mind this is world-building intended for an MMOROG video game. That shouldn't matter too much for general purposes, but I thought I'd mention in case there was any confusing terminology or a mod felt the desire to move this thread.

I'm putting it here because I think the Fantasy elements and world-building in general would get the most value from people here.)

I'm doing some world-building for a hobby game design project. It's an epic fantasy MMORPG, more S&S/gritty epic than traditional Tolkien/WoW high fantasy. It's an all-human milieu for all intents and purposes right now.

You can respond to one or some or all of the sub-topics, whatever most interests you.

Background History

Basically, there's a powerful Empire with several tribute states. A few hundreds years prior to the start of the story, the ancestors of this Empire burst out of their small city states and pushed their Northern neighbors out of their lands all the way to the coast of a large sea. The neighbors fled across the sea, leading to the collapse of the local imperial power in that region and a Dark Ages style period of unrest and anarchy. It transitioned to a semi-feudal system sort of like pre-Imperial Japan, with various states claiming to be the true inheritor of the fallen empire's mandate. A great deal of historical knowledge was lost in the upheaval, and a hundred years or so later, the southern Empire reached out across the sea and conquered the new mixed states ruled by their neighbors. Think Rome conquering the old Indo-Greek territories, say. Now the remains of those powerful states are tributaries being milked for manpower and resources to fund the various imperial designs of their Southern neighbor.

A group of pre-Empire political dissidents from the South also established a country across the sea, conquered by the migrant wave described earlier, who retain a very muddied memory of the history and motivations of the Empire. However, no one in the North really has a good understanding of the Southerners, and even call them by a variety of corrupted names which the Southerners make no moves to correct.

The reasons for this relate to religious and philosophical beliefs of the Southerners. (In the video game, this secrecy is a major driver of events and player behavior, so I need a decent reason for it.) They believe themselves to be a chosen but metaphysically/cosmologically beleaguered people, and their secret knowledge of the universe is what they get their power from. They see themselves as true civilization, while the Northerners are barbarians. No one knows what happened to the nations that supposedly existed south of the Southern Empire, because the Empire cuts off communication and information.

Are there any really obvious holes here I'm missing.

ETA: The Magic System

The magic system is different from a lot of prose magic systems and game magic systems. The primary difference is the effect of the environment. The only close parallel I can think of is Sanderson's Elantris system. Natural and artificial geography has a powerful effect on magic, somewhere between focusing it and flavoring it. Water magic is easier near water both because there's resonance, especially depending on structure and position, and because, you know, water. Like, it's easier to make a stream of water if you have high humidity. You can call lightning better in a storm, etc. Certain objects/structures, artificial and natural can be used to tune or restrict magic.

Second, magical energy works a bit differently. Kinda like electromagnetic communication: (Man-made, generally) Magic is caused by an interruption the normal flow of energy. You mess with natural patterns just right to get around a physical law. So magic can interfere with itself, because the energy manipulation can cancel out, or reinforce other energy manipulation. It's kinda like a radio signal: you can bury it in background noise, it attenuates with distance, etc. So the more magic you do in an area, the weaker a spell gets, because the difference between it and it's environment is less, or the less likely it is to work at all. Or, if the output is big enough, it overrides interference, but maybe the effect is staticky.

While "mana"(or whatever you call the energy) is necessary, to be added, removed, or changed from its natural flow, you also need mental focus and physical dexterity. The farther you are from a perfect casting, the weaker or more failure-likely a spell/ritual is. It fatigues you to cast spells alongside the mana cost. Further, you can use pure willpower to replace a ritual, but it costs more magic energy, or fatigues you more, or weakens the effect depending on the magic being used. But it can also be a lot faster than the whole ritual, or you can do it silently, or with bound hands, or whatever. And if your emotions are more or less in sync with a spell, that effects the casting, too.

From the game mechanic end, this is represented by rather than doing standard mmo spells with cooldowns, and whittling away HP bars or whatever, you can cast counter-spells, specific or general by using perfect interference waves, or inundating the area with energy. You can store up a small number of spells depending on your mental focus, rather than casting the full ritual on the spot. Instead of cooldowns or restrictive mana pools, your fatigue level or having to wait for the proverbial air to clear, or for everyone else to be metaphorically quiet so you can be heard. I wanted a unique/creative/innovative way to limit the power of magic, and I wanted it to make sense story-wise and mechanic-wise. So non-magic folks can defeat mages by playing to their weaknesses. More traditionally D&D-like, mages tend to be physically weaker, and they aren't gonna wear plate armor to cover for it because it might affect their dexterity or endurance. One mage can't necessarily wipe out an army unaided, because they can only cast so many spells. Or stop so many arrows. Or their focus or spell-ritual might be disrupted. Certainly, dodging an arrow or stopping to switch spells is gonna really fuck up your ritual movements.

You're free to respond to the mechanical aspects, but as this is a writing forum and I'm posting about world-building and not hard-core game balance, I really want opinions on the flavor and how it relates to how cool the mechanics seem, or to the story issues of the system. Does it seem like not being a magic-user is just better, or magic is a waste for most people? Would it require serious specialization in society? Would you need a patron or employer to realistically pursue learning and supporting yourself with magic? Would there be mercenaries who could work for cheap enough?


The story is based on folks from the tributary countries trying to make a living. The Empire is sorta like America and the British/Chinese Empires crossed with Rome and Carthage. Everyone wants to live there because it's generally higher standard of living and education and safety and such. Immigration into America might along he various real-world lines might be a crude analogy. For story reasons, partially covered in the history section above, movement into the Empire is highly restricted. You need visas, work visas, or student visas, or whatever. And there's illegal immigration/entry. But it's severely punished if discovered. Everyone wants what they have, but no particular outside tributary or colony is relevant to them except for what it sends as tribute/raw materials. They're far more advanced technologically and magically.

Particularly, the Empire wants raw materials, wealth, and mercenaries from the tribute provinces. Imagine the allied army units in the Roman Empire. The mercenaries and other immigrants are kept fairly secluded from the mainstream Imperial society. Think the Varangians of the Byzantine Empire, or Swedish or Gallic or Greek Mercenaries. As players, (or as readers if I did a prose story version), it follows characters uncovering the secrets behind the way the Empire works and why they do what they do. There's no high fantasy question. More like GoT martial conflict and political intrigue. Some commercial activities like trade or farming or manufacture. There's a lot of flexibility as long as the main premises are adhered to.

The story arcs play almost more like character development and mysteries than quests or battles. The goal is to figure things out from clues scattered in various places, and the more complete and accurate a picture the player/character/reader builds up, the more the stakes rise in following events. Is that something a reader/player might be into?

ETA 2: World-building Matters

I may or may not have devised a system of narrative progress where you do have to care about every little world-building detail even though you aren't the author. It also may or may not have been on purpose. The question is, will people reading/playing put up with it? The narrative progression is based on a lack of knowledge. You get dropped into the world with a vague sketch of the way your home country works, and that there's an Empire you're a tributary of. The rest of the narrative is learning more and more about this world. Knowledge is literally power, and you can't advance without it. Ideally, readers/players would not come together and crowd-source this narrative progression. I'd prefer more limited cooperation because a great deal of the fun is the exploration and sleuthing. There will be puzzles, mysteries, mazes, etc. But no official info beyond the short descriptions in the character creation screen. You won't know anything at all.

Racial Tension:

There are only humans in this story world, or as good as for quite a while. Those humans have "race" like in our world, although they divide things up a bit differently. The main political power is run and populated by black people. Many, many darker-skinned folks also reside in the tributary lands. White people and Mediterranean people exist in large numbers, as the native population. At some point, there will be vague equivalents of East and South Asian folks, as well as Native Americans. But there's a huge difference between the power of white culture in the real world, and how the peoples with that appearance exist in the story world. How weird would it be to enforce that racial balance on player/reader characters? More likely than not, a great number of (white) folks will be dealing with viewpoint characters of a different racial background, prolly black. How much trouble would this cause, do you think? Many fantasies get away with having races/cultures of non-humans for this purpose. But my races/cultures are all human. There was a sort of Empire run in the North by Mediterranean ethnic groups that got destroyed. Is it likely some sort of real-world racial tension might force it's way into the game? Will the black Empire, being so opposed to most protags, be perceived as evil or implying POCs are the bad guys?

Gender Roles:

Gender roles for both culture groups are also somewhat different than in the real world. And there's a lot more support for homosexuality(and other alternate sexualiites) and transgender and gender-queer/gender-fluid folks in society. I wonder how that might go over with readers/players? How tough would it be for them to accept the physical descriptions and behaviors of the characters in this world? (Also sexual politics issues and sexual mores besides orientation.)

02-09-2016, 09:24 PM
Hmm, lots to think about, and so little time to comment. My brief input, mainly to deal with gender roles & sexuality. If you want people to just accept, for no reason at all, that there is a great deal of gender equality and tolerance of sexual orientation, then that is totally fine. I don't care, I'm ready to accept that a gritty fantasy world has better values out world with no problem. Heck, I enjoy seeing that.

If you explain, or at least imply, why it is that these attitudes are so progressive, then your setting will only be better for it. To cite an example:
Elder Scrolls- Men and women are equal, lots of tolerance, some fantasy race issues but things are pretty good all around. And no one knows why. And it doesn't matter.
Dragon Age- Feminism is a respected strain within the orthodoxy of the church, women are priests. Someone thought this through, and the setting is the better of the two for it.

All for now, more to say!

Liosse de Velishaf
02-10-2016, 01:35 AM
There are non-progressive values, as well, but they're easy to explain by the old crap about people of their time. So their idea of age of consent is a lot different than what I would advocate personally. But also they come down more harshly on specific situations perceived as abuse regardless of general social mores. It's far from a utopian society, and I want the people experiencing this world from our point of view to have a complex set of feelings towards how it functions.

02-10-2016, 02:43 AM
Oh yeah, no doubt. I think that's why it's good to acknowledge how these attitudes came about in your setting, show that it's a bunch of different people with different opinions and not a perfect vision with everyone in lockstep. And, of course, different cultures are going to have different attitudes, and they're all going to rub up against each other.

Other thoughts: Read 'The Traitor Baru Comorant'? I think in the UK and points beyond it's just 'The Traitor'. Good book, touches on some of the ideas about colonialism and progress you're talking about.

Liosse de Velishaf
02-10-2016, 11:49 AM
I always go all-in on world-building. Even though this is for a game, I'm taking an approach with the narrative arcs for players that takes advantage of in-depth world-building, and rather than basing new content on quest progress, it's based on players figuring out the world and a living-world system. If you don't have scripted quests and set-pieces in an MMO, you have to take a different approach to world-building and the structure of the narrative. And having realistic algorithmic reactions from NPCs and the world-modelling systems requires a lot of details.

I'm still gonna cheat on the backend, so if players do something real crazy like mass-murdering NPCs, the game engine can counter it. But I wanna at least put the man behind a really pretty curtain. If you're gonna play political, sociological, psychological, and diplomatic tricks instead of level-grinding, you need a deep background and a system capable of responding.

(Yes, player-characters can honey-trap the NPCs for advantage. So you need to be able to figure out how to appeal to their orientation, kinks, and what attracts them. There's no graphic sex, of course, because it's not a porn game. It abstracts away the physical deed, but leaves the character development and manipulation possibilities open. (There's slavery, and sex-slaves in the world, but for this kind of thing, you have to find a player character willing to actually roleplay the thing, rather than using a scripted quest to sell the NPC an NPC sex-slave or ask an NPC to be the honey-pot or something. I want gritty, not gross, and strong player involvement. Players can't rape anyone, for example, although you can murder or kidnap people. To do really heinous stuff, you have to be willing to lose an avatar to a bad ending, even if the player-base in general might get closer to the good ending because of it.))

Since the game itself is unlikely to be made, I want the setting to still work such that I can write stories set in this world, which adds a bit of extra complexity to deal with.

One of the motivations to immigrate to the Empire is that tributary countries are very much more player-run/influenced. As long as you meet your obligations as a tributary state, you don't have to follow Empire law. So depending on the player-base or your individual priorities, life outside the Empire could be pretty shitty. More freedom, less security.