Cooking the Cosmos – Part 2: The Basics (Continued)

Hey guys, welcome to Part 2 of Cooking the Cosmos, my series about world building for role-playing games.

I’ll be kicking this update off by creating a second campaign setting to use as an example throughout this series. After that I’ll discuss ways to expand on the details of your setting, and deciding on what you want your characters to focus on when first introduced to the world.

So, first up, let’s get another campaign setting going here. I’ve decided that I’d like to move away from the fairly traditional fantasy setting that I am using for Project Helleborus. I’ll still be using fantasy, but I’m looking at a modern-day urban fantasy setting, inspired by the Urban Magic series by Kate Griffin. I can not recommend this series highly enough, if anyone is interested in giving it a read please see the end of this post for more information.

Concept: A modern-day city with a hidden society of magic users and supernatural creatures. Magic has adapted to modern society, drawing power from industry and society rather than from nature.

Themes: Changing nature of magic; Hidden society; Urban magic; Clan warfare; Maintaining humanity; The pursuit of power; Keeping magic secret.

Now for a quick back story:

Magic has always been a part of the world, hidden from mainstream society. However, magic as a force is a mirror of the state of humanity and its environment. The shift from a rural society to urban living has had severe effects on the nature of magic and the methods used by practitioners. Where once sorcerers would summon vines to entangle their enemies, now they summon barbed wire. The herbs once used for warding away ill intent have been replaced with a spray painted image of a stop sign.

In the hidden magic societies within each city, there is a truce between the various tribes and clans of practitioners, as well as the supernatural creatures. However, relationships are strained, and small flare-ups are common. Sitting outside of all of this are the sorcerers, the rare natural adepts who are born with magic in their veins. They belong to no clan, but are respected, and often feared, as their powers are unpredictable and near unimaginable. Now though, someone is hunting down the sorcerers, and drawing together lesser magic users using fear and the promise of power.  Those who resist, die.

I’ll be coming back to this setting whenever I need something to use as a comparison or contrast for Project Helleborus. For now though, I’ll leave it as is and move onto demonstrating start fleshing out the details for your world.

Step 1: Decide on what the major features of your world are going to be.

There are a few features I want to focus on heavily for my world. The most important ones, at least to start with, are the politics of the empire, the drive to improve magical technology, and the impacts that the first two elements have on the military.

Step 2: Work out how each feature is going to be implemented.

If I want to give my players a compelling story to play with using these features, I need to have a solid understanding of how they function in the context of the world. So first up, I have to figure out the basic social structure of the empire. I’ve decided to go with a system with one ruling house, and eight lower houses that each have supposedly equal standing in the empire. The ruling house control the central area of the empire, while each of the lower houses control one of the larger outlying regions, and  pay taxes (in cash, crops and general goods) to support the imperial territory (most of which is taken up by the capital city). The Imperial Family are in charge of all major decisions made in the empire, but leave the majority of work to the three branches of the government (Military, Civil and Intelligence services). A majority of government staff are magic users, and those in the highest positions are almost invariably members of the extended Imperial Family.

This leads in nicely to the magic technology aspect. Since so many citizens of the empire are magic users (no matter how minor their abilities may be), there has been a strong focus on developing new uses for magic. Most major developments are derived from military research, as they have the resources and motive to really investigate what is possible. Any results of this work that could benefit society at large and are not considered as sensitive information is passed on to the Civil service to start being trialed and implemented for everyday use.  This means that the military have access to mass-produced magic items that have very specific, limited functions, as well as some unusual uses of magic (I’ll go into this more later), while society at large has access to magic assisted construction and other beneficial processes.

Finally, I have to get an idea of how the military will function. I’ve already established that they are one of the three branches of the Imperial Government, so now it’s a matter of working out the internal structure for them. Out of the three branches of government, the military has the largest number of non-magic users. Because of this, I decided to split the military into four sections. Of these sections, three are directly involved in military service, and the fourth is the research department. Since the research department is going to largely be in the background, I’ll focus on the active service sections. The largest of these groups is the rank and file army. Each unit within the army has a large number of non-caster members, as well as a number of casters to support them (this includes healers and offensive casters). After this, the next largest group are the battle mages. These are specialised teams of magic users trained for specific purposes. Finally, there are the special forces.  This group is composed of small squads designed to work fairly independently of the main forces, and of each other. Each squad contains soldiers with a variety of skills, so that they can adapt to most any situation.

Step 3: Determine a starting point for your player characters.

Now that I’ve got a pretty good, if somewhat rough, idea of how the world works, I can decide where I want my players to start out. Since the military and their use of magic is such a strong focus for this campaign, it is a natural starting point for the players. However, I’d like to avoid throwing them into mass combat straight away, and I certainly don’t want to force them all to be magic users. Because of this, the best starting point would seem to be the special forces section. This works well since each team is supposed to have a balanced array of abilities, so players can choose any sort of character from the available roles. It also allows me to give the group some more interesting missions, rather than just telling them to go out and fight another army. It’s expected that the special forces will be sent on more dangerous, vital tasks.

So now I’ve got my basic world and starting point for players figured out. From here I’m able to start fleshing out the rest of the world around this foundation, but I’ll leave that for next time.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Part 2 of Cooking the Cosmos as much as I enjoyed writing it. Part 3 will focus on weighing up the suitability of various systems for your world, and deciding which one will be the best fit.

This update was written while listening to the Deus Ex: Human Revolution OST (Augmented Edition). I love the whole score for Human Revolution, and have often used the track Icarus, and the opening credits theme, as background music for the more dramatic/epic moments in my games.

For anyone interested in reading Kate Griffin’s Urban Magic novels, the series follows the life of Matthew Swift, a sorcerer that everyone believed dead. He has come back from wherever he was, but it appears that he’s not the only one living inside his head anymore. Upon his return, he discovers that he is one of the few sorcerers left in London, and starts investigating what has been occurring since he disappeared. The following books have been released already, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next one:

A Madness of Angels, or, The Resurrection of Matthew Swift

The Midnight Mayor, or, The Inauguration of Matthew Swift

The Neon Court, or, The Betrayal of Matthew Swift

The Minority Council

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