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Setting Design Report 29: Re-evaluating

As always, you can find a link to all the posts in this series by clicking here.

Reexamining Assumptions

Designing a setting in a vacuum can be (and has been!) fun, but there’s no substitute for bringing it out and using it in play, even for the design process. If it’s embraced, it can be a real boon to the creative process, but sometimes it also shows you certain things that aren’t working. And, as it turns out, one of the things that isn’t working in Exadria – kind of, anyway – is the whole County/Grim City/Wilds dichotomy.

For those that haven’t read the earlier posts or that need a quick refresher, here’s how that was supposed to work:

  • Counties were civilized areas where The Kingdom of God has basically broken through, and people live in peace with each other, comfortable, safe, and secure, if not in lavish luxury. The pop culture touchstone I had for this was Stardew Valley.
  • Grim Cities were civilized areas that had fallen prey to humanity’s (or elvendom’s, or whatever fantasy races are predominant) baser impulses and where things were really, really bad. This idea is a hard lean into the setting’s heavy metal influences – in particular, album covers like the one from Megadeth’s album Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying? with iconic metal mascot Vic Rattlehead filling the leader of Grim Lord.
  • The Wilds were areas where there was no civilization and people were at the mercy of nature.

A Second Look

Some of the readers of this post have probably spotted some of the problems I’ve been having already. But for the record, let me break down what I’ve been seeing in play.

Counties are too safe to be interesting adventure sites most of the time. In order to really have a good D&D-style adventure in a County, you have to undermine what it’s supposed to be, which means you’re raising the stakes higher than they perhaps should be. A manticore attack in a sleepy, out-of-the-way place like Lostant is a problem, but it doesn’t call the entire nature of the place into question. The same attack in Maghali Da Bina is going to seem a lot more serious, because the whole nature of that society is that it’s been made very safe for the people who live there. That isn’t to say Counties are worthless, however; they can be good places for character moments like the steak dinner my PCs went to upon arrival in Maghali Da Bina, but you don’t normally find villains there.

On the other hand, Grim Cities are terrifying places that PCs shouldn’t even think about setting foot in until they’re at least level 8-12. And they won’t really be prepared to start doing some damage until they’re close to the level cap.

That means you’re left with The Wilds, which would be fine except one of the major features of the setting is that it’s far more technological than the D&D baseline, and having all of civilization either be too safe for adventuring or too dangerous to survive is leaving a lot on the table, narratively speaking. It also leans away from the themes of corruption and redemption I wanted to at least have as part of the setting’s palette by making the entire world into a bunch of static camps of good or evil. That would be useful for a strategy board game, but all of the very complex, human characters my player group brought to the game are frankly kind of insulted by such a simplistic, dualistic world. It cheapens the struggles of the PCs to be better and deal with their baggage and also implies that redemption or falling are always near-instant processes. It also leaves the world in a very hardened, non-malleable state, which makes it hard for the PCs to have a meaningful impact on the setting.

Necessary Changes

So what to do with this knowledge? The answer right now is “add more stuff.” I still like the idea of Grim Cities and Counties as a way of showing the truly exceptional places in the world (both good and bad), but there needs to be a lot more gray in the middle. I’m currently working on two such areas, both of which should provide interesting urban environments for PCs to visit.

The first is Eisenstadt, a major fortified free city and trade hub. Eisenstadt is built inside and around a massive coastal meteor crater, and trades in all directions. It has a major seaport, rail lines, an airship dock, two standard airports, a subterranean trading post to trade with underground races, and an underwater trading hub to trade with aquatic ones. The city is a huge, busy place with all sorts of people constantly coming and going, a significant organized crime problem and some neat fantasy geography (islands floating in air over the harbor, for example). On the spectrum defined by Counties and Grim Cities, Eisenstadt is close to the middle. There’s a lot of good, and a lot of bad, and a huge amount of stuff in between. It’s also full of interesting set pieces and factions, because I discovered with Lostant that I really like those in my setting as a thing for PCs to bounce off of.

The second is Strathilwood, the ancestral home of the elven “1%” and a huge finance city. I’ve channeled all of my outrage at hypocritical ivy league alums, callous bankers, and so on into this very corrupt, but also very classy-looking, opulent, and aesthetically beautiful place, and while it’s well on its way to becoming a Grim City, it’s not quite there yet.

More is planned – the continent with the locations I’ve described so far on it is just one of several, but I think the setting will be easier to design and much more enjoyable to play in if I just let go of the dualism a bit.


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