On Worldbuilding (Them Deeper Bones, design diary 7)

Them Deeper Bones is my OSR-adjacent retro adventure game that can be found over on https://themdeeperbones.com/ (as of writing this, version beta.1.1). There is a short preview on the site, and if that piques your interest, anyone can get the full 245+ page long text by joining the game discord.

Been a while since I updated this, as we’ve been doing a lot of playtesting, but this time on the design diary I’m going to talk on one of my weaknesses, the world, and the two ways I’m cheating on that part of the design process.

Forging of Sampo, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, CC0 from Kansallisgalleria

When it comes to writing, I’m a systems guy, and normally would be happy just having the rules in the document and have people use them any way they want. But with Them Deeper Bones, I wanted there to be a world frame supporting the game’s themes in the game text.

My first playtests were done with“generic fantasy worlds” with just enough backstory to justify things like the existence of the Rediscovery Company. But still, it was generic, so it was kind of boring. And using a generic world felt like it was automatically pushing me mentally towards the wrong themes of civilization vs. barbarians that I didn’t want to go to.

Stealing from my Past Self

So I needed something. But, as a person who likes to discover a world instead of creating it off the cuff, I didn’t want to build something from scratch. With my typical method that would require a full blown campaign’s worth of played games before I was ready to write anything down.

I needed something somewhat unique but still recognisably part of the “common” fantasy genres. So I cheated, and looked at what I had done before. The help I found was in the College of War (or CoW amongst friends), my old “workhorse” campaign setting. It is an old world I’ve run tons of games in and written a few simple rulesets for over some 20 or so years. I figured I could just cheat and take the knowledge and vibe I have of it and pour it on the paper. And since in the fiction of the world, there was already a baked in the truth of recurring apocalypses, I knew it wouldn’t be that hard to tweak it to fit this post-post-apocalyptic fantasy genre I was building towards.

The original setting has two pillars — love for the Finnish nature/history with some of that old time-y romanticism, and true High Fantasy milieu with almost JRPG levels of powers wielded by characters.

Digging into the “fantasy Finland” roots and some of the central conflicts present in the high fantasy cosmology (Light/Dark and Light/Elemental in particular, in the form of the Sun God’s pantheon dominating the way it does) made fertile ground for building the every day setting of the Black Shield canton of the north and life there for the players to set their characters against some form of a backdrop. It’s grounded enough, but allows me to remind players easily that this is a high magic setting — the cataclysm has left everyone touched by one form of magic or another, so there is an ever-present trace there. The rebuilt part of the world is familiar and easy to write for as it’s returning to something old and wonderful for me.

History as Treasure

The other side of the border is a different tale.

The official history of the world the characters live in is a bit under 300 years old. Before that, there was that strange magical cataclysm that left the world in shambles. And only through the intervention of the mighty Sun Drake and their pantheon of lesser sun gods, humanity and nine cantons who swore allegiance to it somehow survived. And because of the pact, anything outside the cantons’ borders is taboo now, as humanity per their pact, needs to focus on rebuilding without extensive magic and being humble in general.

This is super-convenient for the Sun Drake’s temple and the Central Canton that leads the Holy Confederacy of the nine cantons. In the three hundred years of rebuilding the world, the Confederacy has been built back up into more or less a monoculture, even if each of the nine cantons used to be more unique before the cataclysm. The history as we know it is short and simple.

That’s where the player characters come in. Because the Holy Confederacy has been built on a divine pact, there are things that govern it that don’t necessarily make sense to those most benefitting from it. One of these is the Rediscovery Company, groups of liminal travellers to outside the borders. Allowed and encouraged to go out there. To be the curious ones and by that keep the common folk from wanting to go out on their own. They are viewed with suspicion, as many return from their travels as heretics and rebels.

And that’s where my other big cheat with the worldbuilding lies. The Rediscovery Companies find out things that are not true by the official record. There are things out there that contradict what has been said and done. The timelines don’t necessarily match up. The official truths of what is out there don’t hold up. And because this is supposed to be fun and surprising and adaptable, the guide is allowed to take a lot of liberties to what is outside and make the truth their own. The cosmology, and life inside the borders, will be explained in the final book to the extent that things make sense, but what happened with the cataclysm and before that is left up to the guide and for the players to discover. The guide can bring in aliens, dragons, time-travel, or whatever high fantasy shenanigans they want, to serve as their world outside.

It’s a way to allow a wide variety of things in the world while keeping an anchor in one certain place.

And to part with, one of the songs I’ve been listening to a lot while writing the game:

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