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Howling Tower: A Terrible Place to Visit

Princess of Mars by Frank E. Schoonover, 1917
How often have you heard the phrase, “It’s a great place to visit but I’d hate to live there?”

When designing a fictional world, you’re actually aiming for the opposite reaction: “It’s a terrible place to visit, but I’d love to live there.”

Your world is a terrible place to visit because it’s falling apart at the seams. It might be threatened with conquest by a godlike necromancer and his undead legions; it could be undergoing some sort of magical catastrophe; it might be in the final throes of social collapse, overrun by zombies, engulfed in war, split into dozens of squabbling city-states ruled by iron-fisted, would-be emperors, or at the beginning stages of rebuilding from the ashes in the wake of any of the above.

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Howling Tower: Apocalypse or Post-Apocalypse?

Babylon Fallen by Gustav Dore
All my favorite RPG settings are either apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. Yours probably are, too.

Is that a surprise? Take a moment to think about it.

The most obvious footprint of the apocalypse is the ruins it left behind. When was the last time you saw an RPG campaign map that didn’t have a symbol for ruins in its key?

Somewhere in the Gazetteer there will be a discussion of the empires that rose and fell in the centuries leading up to the current era. The causes for their downfalls always involve megawar, anger of the gods, or techno/magical calamity on an unimaginable scale—assuming the place wasn’t just overrun by zombies.

The fact is, an apocalypse has much to offer a world of adventure.

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Howling Tower: Question #1

Left of a pair of six-section folding screens (byōbu) painted in Chinese Southern School style. This screen depicts the Zuiweng Arbor at Mount Langya in which literati hold a gathering.Worldbuilding is about telling stories. Storytelling and worldbuilding flow from the same spring. When no one knew what lay on the far side of the hills or across the wide river, any story about those places was set in an imaginary land that could be as fanciful as the storyteller cared to make it. (“Snakes there have two heads, fish speak in riddles, and the people walk on their hands! I have seen these things, and I tell you they are true!”)

When beginning to sketch out a new world, the first question I ask is not about cultures, races, geography, politics, science, or gods. All of those come later. Question #1 is, “What happens here?”

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Howling Tower: Taking Players Outside Their Comfort Zones

Arthur Rackham, “Exquisite Fairy Dancing”
Balance has always been a big concern among RPG players and designers. My friends and I had our first debate about whether D&D’s classes, races, spells, monsters, and magic items were “balanced” during our very first D&D session. We reached no definite conclusion other than that balance is a fleeting target.

D&D is not a competitive game. Players are not trying to force the DM into checkmate or each other into bankruptcy. The whole situation is fluid. If characters are winning too easily, the DM can ramp up the opposition; if they’re losing unexpectedly, the DM can toss them a lifering from the S.S. Deus ex Machina.

In this regard, playing most RPGs is less like playing a game and more like playing music. Sometimes the trumpets are loud, sometimes they’re overpowered by the violins or even the flutes. No one’s purpose in the band is simply to be the loudest. Whether the musicians are the Boston Philharmonic or Phish, their purpose is to give a musical performance that is pleasing to the ear. There’s a reason why the word concert means both “a musical performance” and “working closely together.”

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Howling Tower: Power Fluctuations

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (Artist: Gustave Doré)
In roleplaying games, sometimes the characters who make up the adventuring party aren’t all at the same power level. In the olden days, that could be because a few characters died and had to start over at 1st level while the survivors were at 4th or higher, because one unlucky soul bore the brunt of the wight’s level draining, or because someone rolled a string of 18s during character creation. In newer editions, it tends to happen because a few players are experts at cramming every possible bit of destructive power into a character while others take a more casual approach, prefer to invest their points in something other than combat prowess, or simply don’t pay much attention to swords and arrows and other nasty things.

No matter what the cause, the result from the GM’s point of view is a group of characters that’s hard to challenge. While Grimjaw and Skullbuster are chopping monsters into coleslaw, Sunflower and Gigglebear are being pulled inside out and dropkicked back to the Bush administration.

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