Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Campaign Design Diary - Mountains of the Sky

I'm putting together a new campaign setting. Its been a couple years since I was able to game regularly, but I miss it. There's something satisfying about gathering around a table with four or five friends and playing a role-playing game.However, I probably won't be able to actually play with any regularity for several months, which means I can satisfy my gaming itch by taking the time now and hammering out a new imaginary world for characters to adventure in. And I'm going to document this process here, as I go. At the outset, I've decided I'm going to create a fantasy campaign setting. This dictates the system I'm going to use, because for fantasy my preferred gaming system is 3.5e D&D with some rules drawn from 3.0e D&D and Pathfinder. If I was designing a science fiction or espionage campaign setting I'd use GURPS, or maybe reach back and pull out one of the iterations of the Traveller system. But because I'm designing a fantasy setting here, I'm sticking with 3.5e D&D as my base and working from there.

The trigger for the particular campaign I am planning on designing right now was the line "I climb the mountains of the sky" in the Kansas song Icarus: Borne on Wings of Steel. That's all I had to start with, and almost all I have at this point in the design process. I don't even have a pithy name for the campaign setting like Forgotten Realms, Mystara, Dawnforge, Oathbound, or Scarred Lands. Right now, the only thing that the campaign is is an embryonic idea. Maybe it was recently playing Skyward Sword, maybe it was watching The Empire Strikes Back or maybe it was reading Ringworld, The Integral Trees, or Gulliver's Travels, or maybe it was something else, but the basic idea for the campaign is this: everything is floating in the sky. Sure, it is a fantasy cliche, but cliches exist for a reason. And I think I can throw enough twists and turns on the idea to make it seem more interesting than just "floating castles and sky cities".

The first thing I'm going to define about the campaign world is that all of the land is floating in the sky, but that underneath it all is an endless ocean. The second is that not all of the land floats at or near the same altitude - some of the floating landmasses drift at low altitude very close to the world ocean, others float dozens of miles above them, with still more meandering in the regions in between. In our world, near space begins about 100,000 feet above the Earth (the world record for a sky dive is 102,800 feet), but at that altitude the air is decidedly thin and the temperature is extremely cold. If I want an Earth-like atmosphere above the world ocean, then I've reasonably got about twenty miles of vertical distance to work with. I'm going to cheat a little bit and make the atmosphere of my fantasy world a bit thicker - about three times as thick, but the upper twenty miles will be a fairly cold and hostile place, the lower twenty will have a heavy thick atmosphere, and the middle twenty will be the "sweet spot" where the climate is mostly temperate with things colder at the upper end of this range and warmer towards the bottom end.

One major factor in the world setting will be sunlight. The higher chunks of land get more sun, while the lower chunks are often shaded by the lands above them, and the lowest masses of land get so little sunlight from above that they are shrouded in an almost perpetual night. While the masses of floating land come in all shapes and sizes ranging from the size of a country to the size of a single cottage, the larger pieces tend to float lower to the world ocean, and the average size piece gets smaller as you rise. This is not a hard and fast rule: there will be large pieces of land floating thirty miles above the ocean, and tiny pieces that float at only a couple hundred feet, but it will be a general trend. One interesting implication of this is that the higher a piece of land is, the more sunlight it will get, but the colder it will be. The upper reaches of the sky will be washed in bright sunlight, but will also be extremely cold. As one goes lower into the "temperate" zone, there will be occasional shadows cast by the small landmasses above, but there will still be plenty of sunlight and the temperatures will be warmer. As one gets lower and lower, the shadows will increase and the air will get heavier and heavier.

The interesting question is whether the lower region gets colder, because of the lack of sunlight, or if it continues to get warmer due to the thicker air and other factors. I think I'd like it to get warmer so as to allow for large scale evaporation from the world ocean (resulting in lots of clouds and rain rising to the temperate zone), and in a fantasy campaign I can hand-wave a little bit and say something like underwater volcanic activity in the depths of the world ocean or rifts that lead to the Elemental Plane of Fire help heat the lower reaches. This also has the side effect of giving me a reason to have updrafts of rising air that help flyers traveling in between the floating landmasses. It is always nice when a design element has helpful consequences like that. Another consequence of this is that the higher one is, the drier the climate is, from the steamy and warm lower lands, through the cooler and drier but still hospitable middle realms, and then higher to the cold, dry upper reaches.

At this stage there are already a number of elements shaped by this. Several are obvious: the "civilized" regions are likely to mostly sit in the temperate middle zone, which is also where most of the trade and commerce will take place. Some standard staples of fantasy campaigns are likely to have much less importance here - the value of horses is likely to be much reduced, sailing ships are likely to be quite rare. Air travel, on the other hand, is obviously going to be of critical importance. The lower landmasses are likely to be mostly populated by dark loving creatures like undead, goblins, and others. Not only that, there's a reason to have dark-loving races running about the game world, which is also a nice side effect. The lower reaches will probably have to have a fungus based agriculture as well (and probably lots of myconids), or something else even more alien. The ocean that sits beneath everything is an inhospitable place wracked by frequently violent storms and populated by dark-loving aquatic monsters hunted by only the bravest and most foolhardy souls. The title "fisherman" in this world is likely to have connotations of insanity.

However, before we get to those sorts of issues, there are several other questions that have to be answered first, questions that I will take up in my next post.

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