Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Campaign Design Diary - Days and Nights, Maybe

Continuing on with designing my floating islands campaign setting, now that I have decided what the terrain will be like, I have to figure out some of the elements that surround that terrain, starting with the very basic elements that are taken for granted in many game worlds: day and night.

In most campaign settings, these sorts of elements are simply taken for granted as being more or less identical to the standard in our world. The sun rises in the morning, shines all day, and then sets at night, when the moon and stars come out. The moon has regular phases, just like Earth, which take about a month to complete. After twenty-four hours elapse, the sun rises again, and the cycle starts up again. This is probably the easiest way to set things up, and because it is what players expect, it is simple to get them to go along with it. A setting that accepts these default parameters will be familiar for most players, or at least most players so this is a factor that must be considered.

Player expectations are a powerful force that a DM must account for when designing a setting. The first lesson that a DM must learn is that players will frequently ignore what you tell them and assume the world works the way they assume it should work. If you tell players that each day is 45 hours long, or come up with some complicated pattern involving five moons that takes 126 days to complete, or some other quirky arrangement, then the players will nod along . . . and probably completely ignore you. This is especially true if you put this sort of information into a written handout that you pass along to the players. In my experience, players almost never read background setting material that a DM creates, and unless you repeat something to them verbally a dozen times, they will almost never remember it. If you are lucky enough to have a player who reads your material and pays attention to the background, treasure that player, they will be your best ally in your campaign sessions, because they will actually know what is going on. But the side effect of the typical player's expectations is that you, as the DM, are fighting the current. Even if players nod along with you when you describe your odd world elements, they will frequently forget and revert back to assuming that their characters inhabit a world with a 24 hour day, a month long moon cycle, and four seasons every standard year. Creating a world in which these sorts of elements are different that sticks in the players' heads will require persistent effort.

One critical question that must be answered is the exact parameters of the day and night cycle in the game world. Does the relative length of the day and night vary during the year, as ours does?  Is there even a day and night cycle in the world to begin with? I've already established that lands that float higher up get more sun, while those below are shaded by those above them, and the world ocean that lies underneath it all is shrouded in almost perpetual darkness, so one might suggest that there is no need to have a day and night cycle in the game world. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. First, if the game world has no nighttime, then the areas that are always in daylight become decidedly less potentially hazardous for the inhabitants. Creatures that suffer a penalty in daylight (such as goblins) would probably tend to be disinterested in moving into those areas, and creatures for whom sunlight is dangerous (such as vampires) would be effectively barred from those areas. Put simply, nighttime is where most of our nightmares reside, and removing a day/night cycle from being a feature of a campaign world will remove that (or make it pervasive if you eliminate "day" and have perpetual night).

Another reason to have night as a regular feature of a campaign setting is that without night, you don't have visible stars, and although you can still have a visible moon, it will only show up as a pale daylight imitation of the nighttime moon we are familiar with. And without visible stars, you can't have astronomy and its magical cousin astrology. Astronomy is useful for a lot of reasons, one of them being that observing the regular transit the stars make across the sky is one of the ways that we how we figured how long a year is. But in a fantasy world, unlike our own, astrology is also an important consideration - possibly more important than astronomy. The patterns of the stars and planets can be used to provide signs, portents, and prophecies that serve as adventure fodder. The regular cycles of the moon, the planets, and the constellations can affect magic in the game world, making certain schools of magic, alignments, classical elements, or other aspects of the world stronger or weaker at different times.

While none of these considerations make it absolutely necessary to have a day and night cycle in the campaign setting, they do highlight some of the implications of getting rid of the night. But even if there is a day and a night, there are still other decisions to be made. Even if there is a day and night, there does not necessarily have to be a moon, or even a sun. Because this is a fantasy world, there are any number of possibilities that could be considered for providing light, and a sun and a moon are only one of them. For example, in the Silmarillion the world is first lit by enormous lamps atop giant pillars, and then later by the glowing fruit of the two silma trees. It is only after Melkor destroys both of these light sources that a single fruit from each of the silma trees is coaxed forth and set in the sky as the sun and moon. In a fantasy world, any number of explanations for how the world is lit could be true, and even if there is a sun, it could actually be a hot ball of brass carried across the sky in a chariot. There doesn't even have to be a specific source of light: the sky could simply brighten during the day and darken at night. Or one could choose a science fiction kind of solution, as in Ringworld, where everyone lives on a star-girdling ring and "night" is the result of massive shades that orbit closer to the sun than the ring. Note that the arrangement described in Ringworld would result in a "night", but it would still have the drawback of preventing star gazing. This sort of arrangement would also require a world that is substantially different in shape from our spherical Earth.

As noted before, no matter what daylight arrangement a DM decides upon, they also have to answer questions about the moon. Or, because this is a fantasy world, whether there is one moon, many moons, or no moon at all. The answers to these questions also have implications for the game world, both "realistic" ones and magical ones. The most obvious consequence of having or not having a moon is the tides. Our moon is mostly responsible for the ocean tides that rise and fall on our beaches (the sun has a smaller effect). If the game world has no moon, or if it has multiple moons, but the tides work in exactly the same way they do on Earth, you will inevitably have some player asking how this is possible. Because we are dealing with fantasy, the DM could easily hand-wave the problem away citing magical causes, but that is a fairly unsatisfying answer, and the more answers that are hand-waved away in this manner, the less engaging the world is likely to be. If all the answers are "just because" or "its magic", then there is less in the game world for the players to figure out, and less to hold their attention. You don't need to give the players the explanation for why things work the way they do unless they go to the effort of trying to figure it out, but the DM should have at least thought about it so they have some idea of what the answers might be. Another mundane effect of having a moon is that it helped define our month. If you have a moon with a lunar cycle that is substantially different than ours, or multiple moons that each have their own orbital periods but still have a thirty day month, it will seem odd to anyone who notices.

But in a fantasy world mundane effects like tides and calendars are not the only considerations. The supernatural influences of the moon must also be taken into account. One of the most obvious questions involves lycanthropes. In mythology (and in most fantasy role-playing games) the moon has a strong influence on lycanthropes, so if you eliminate the moon or add in multiple moons, a DM needs to figure out how this will affect such creatures if he wants to include them in his campaign. There are also religious considerations, and in a fantasy game world, this can have significant consequences. In our history there have been multiple religions that associate a divine figure with the sun and another with the moon. If the game world has no sun or moon, this will obviously not be the case. If the game world has multiple suns or multiple moons, that will have a different implication. And so on. Even if you only have a standard single moon, the phases of that moon can be fodder for campaign material: I recall that in the module Return to the Keep on the Borderlands one of the non-player characters was a priestess of a moon deity and her personality (and alignment) changed throughout the month as the moon went through its cycle.

So how am I going to answer these questions for my floating islands campaign setting? I don't want to make things too odd because the game world is already a little quirky due to the layers of floating islands and the fact that they hover above an apparently endless ocean. I'm going to say that there is a fairly standard day and night, with a single sun that rises to give light during the day, and sets to reveal stars and, because I want things to be at least a little different here, two moons at night. I'll say that one moon is giant, appearing about twice the size of Earth's moon in the night sky, while the other is tiny, maybe half the size of ours. The smaller moon is unusual in a different way - it glows a reddish color, while the larger moon shines more or less white like ours. Both moons have phases. The larger takes exactly thirty days to complete its full cycle, while the smaller takes only ten. Every now and then, the smaller red moon will pass in front of the larger moon, creating an "eyeball" effect when this happens and they are both full. Having two moons should create complicated tides, but since the world ocean has no known shore, this isn't something I need to work out right now. I'm going to rule that none of the bodies of water that sit on the floating islands are large enough for tidal effects to make more than a minor difference. An interesting question arises when one considers that the islands are free-floating, and thus might be affected by tidal forces themselves, causing them to sway back and forth in a daily pattern. I'm going to rule that the same magic that holds them up also keeps them from being pulled about by the gravity of the moons, just because it is simpler.

Next time, I'll tackle the seasons.

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