D&D Solar System Syncretism I: How This Works

This post is pretty self-indulgent, but it’s also 36 hours past when I usually post the Friday article, so I think it’s pretty clear at this stage that it’s either a self-indulgent post most people will skip or a non-existent post that all people have no choice but to skip.

My recent musings on setting syncretism came from a hobby project to combine as many D&D settings as possible into a single solar system, that you can travel between using some kind of Spelljammer-esque space magic. I’m dealing with copyrights held by like eighteen different companies here, so I could never actually release a finished product, but it’s a fun exercise anyway. Some things fit in, others not so much. I’m going to go through the construction of this setting before delivering the final result, so you can sort of look at this as an example of how to syncretize different settings. I’m doing this on a lark and not because I think it’s actually a good idea, which means I’m not applying the usual standards of “this setting is too lame, we’ll have to exclude it completely” that you’d want to get a really good syncretist super setting, but other than that, I stand by these methods.

First of all, let’s look at what we’ve got to deal with: The 5e DMG lists seven official D&D settings, those being Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Eberron, Mystara, Dark Sun, and Birthright. Not listed but officially supported is Ravenloft, the setting for the Curse of Strahd AP. Supported by previous editions but now not so much as mentioned are Ghostwalk and Council of Wyrms. Also the super-settings Planescape and Spelljammer, but those are obviously mutually exclusive to this single solar system idea, although we will be borrowing elements from them.

Right here we run into an immediate problem: Over half of these settings are very similar. Greyhawk and Mystara have a ton of overlap, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Birthright are politically and tonally distinct but culturally and climatologically similar, and even Eberron is more different in the civilization that occupies its landmass than in what that landmass actually is. They’re all temperate mostly-European settings with usually some jungles and deserts tossed in at the edges. Only Dark Sun and Council of Wyrms have an environment that immediately makes you think “yeah, this is a different planet,” although Ghostwalk and Ravenloft have enough weird weather stuff going on that they kind of work as different planets if you squint (and Ghostwalk isn’t anybody’s favorite setting, so if we make it super cold, no one will complain).

Luckily, we’ve got plenty of settings left to build our solar system from, so we can always use these climatologically similar settings as different continents on the same world or, especially for the smaller ones, moons orbiting other worlds. That still means we need to plumb other settings for what our major planets are going to be, however.

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“Syncretism” is the religious concept that two or more previously separate religions were secretly the same all along. Sometimes this is presented as “both religions contained part of the whole truth” and sometimes this is presented as “your religion is just my religion wearing a funny hat.” We’re not actually talking about religions, here, we’re talking about fictional settings (anyone who thinks adding a “what’s even the difference” joke is still edgy will be flogged), which means we are focusing mainly on that first one, the challenges of combining different settings together.

This comes up a lot in free form roleplay. All my examples are ten years out of date because I last did this kind of thing in high school, but while the specific settings that are popular have changed and the medium for creation has almost certainly moved away from the forums and chat rooms I used as a teenager, I expect the basic principles still apply to babby’s first crossover setting even today. Back before I reached my elderly twenties, the most common crossover setting was Kingdom Hearts. It was popular amongst the kinds of nerds who did freeform roleplay in the first place and had what appeared to be a built-in means of stitching any number of settings together. One example I remember in particular involved someone making a map of an expanded gummi map that included four different worlds from Star Wars (I remember Bespin and I think Coruscant, but the details don’t matter).

I bring up this example because it’s a good demonstration of how not to do syncretism. Method #1: Different settings are haphazardly jammed together without any means of influencing one another, and quick excuses are used to paper over why they have completely different tone, technology and even physics from one another. I’m sure there was some explanation for why the Millennium Falcon could travel to Bespin but not to Halloween Town, even if it was just “we never explored what lay beyond these four worlds because they seemed pretty sufficient,” but the seams between worlds are extremely obvious. The Final Fantasy style fire/lightning/blizzard magic has some overlap with the Force (Force lightning is a thing), but there’s no precedent for mind tricks and telekinesis is a very high-level trick in KH, usable only temporarily as part of a special super-transformation, while it’s one of the first tricks that Jedi learn. Star Wars ships are buckets of bolts clearly distinct from gummi ships, which, as the name implies, are made of some kind of gelatinous or play-doh-like cartoon substance. The fact that the Galactic Empire has a giant army of stormtroopers and star destroyers demonstrably capable of traveling between some worlds doesn’t lead them to become an immediate and overwhelming threat to all neighboring worlds because their inability to travel past the original Star Wars worlds is handwaved away.

This method also has precedent in the “wormhole randomly opens up between Federation Space and the Galactic Empire” conceit that was popular in the 80s and 90s, and while that’s perfectly forgivable in the context of a Star Trek vs. Star Wars hypothetical situation, it’s not so forgivable in the context of actual Trek/Wars crossover fanfiction or roleplay, again because the seams are so obvious that it makes the setting very obviously artificial. It also means that the only thing you gain from the syncretism is the ability to take characters from one setting and put them in another. There’s no shared history.

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Still Alive

Just want to let everyone know that while yes, the blog has been distressingly fallow for a while, that’s just because I need to put together a Pathfinder conversion for my Kickstarter in a hurry, which, it turns out requires me to create about a hundred Pathfinder stat blocks. This is very time consuming and I’m committed to making my December ship date, so I’ve had precious little time and focus left over (it doesn’t help that Sew You Want To Be A Hero followed the same mediocre trajectory as Stuff and Nonsense rather than shedding its flaws to fulfill its full potential – in retrospect, it was foolish of me to gamble on a book that might end up bad while getting back in the saddle). The good news is that I’m something like two-thirds of the way done with the conversion.

Irrational Behavior Isn’t Random

Every now and again, someone will try to defend a fictional character’s incoherent actions by saying that it’s because of realism and that real people don’t always behave rationally. While it’s true that real people don’t always behave rationally, they still have some reason for doing things. It might not be a good reason, but there is reason, and it is the storyteller’s job to explain that reason. Characters can make dumb moves for no better reason than “it was the middle of a gunfight and they didn’t have time to think of something better” or “they’re unreasonably suspicious and think everyone is lying to them, so they don’t trust their partner even despite all the times their partner has come through for them,” or “they really want treasure and are willing to take absolutely suicidal risks to get some.”

Each of these three examples leads to predictably sub-optimal behavior. Someone who tends to lose their head in a fight will frequently make dumb mistakes when fists and/or bullets are flying, someone who’s unreasonably suspicious will be unreasonably suspicious of everyone, someone who’s suicidally greedy will be suicidally greedy for all treasure. And if these motives are set up in advance, no one but idiot pedants will try to nitpick their motives as not making sense.

Even actually diagnosably crazy people have reasons for taking non-optimal actions, even if that reason is “because I’m certain this Kwik-Mart manager is a pawn of the alien conspiracy spying on me.” If there really were an alien conspiracy spying on a plucky investigator through alien spies wearing Kwik-Mart manager skinsuits, it would make sense to avoid that Kwik-Mart’s whole block and maybe sneak there in the middle of the night and burn the whole place down. That’s an insane delusion, but the actions taken as a result of that insane delusion make sense.

The vague, ambiguous statement that “they’re crazy” or “people aren’t always rational” does not excuse characters behaving in a manner that’s contrary to their own goals without explanation. In order for irrational behavior to be used to explain character action, that behavior must emerge from character motivation, because everything used to explain character action must emerge from character motivation.

As one example, when people ask why the protagonists of A Quiet Place don’t just move to the waterfall, saying “people aren’t rational!” is not an explanation. Most people arrive at the “why not move to the waterfall” solution within weeks of watching that movie (if not hours), while the protagonists have had two years and a much stronger incentive to try and find a way to get safe from the monsters. The entire movie revolves around how people have developed methods to hide from these monsters, it is the driving conflict and motivation behind everything that every character does (I mean, except the one guy who gave up and screamed, but that reaction being unusual was the whole point of that scene), and this obvious solution has gone completely ignored. Real people would’ve figured that out and immediately pulled up stakes to get where it’s safe, because that’s what people facing life-threatening danger do. When the Abbotts fail to do that, it makes them less believable as characters and thus makes it harder to care about them. For some people, this problem doesn’t occur to them until after they’ve watched the movie once, in which case it will still impact repeat viewings. For others, it hits them within the space of the waterfall scene and damages the movie as it happens. That’s not a trivial nitpick. It’s a flaw. Characters need coherent motivations and their actions need to flow from those motivations. Just saying “sometimes people are irrational!” does not immediately excuse characters behaving contrary to their goals.

These Kickstarters Look Fun

In an effort to avoid the total implosion of this blog, let’s look at three Kickstarters I’ve happened across recently that look neat.

I’m going chronologically, which means the first one up is also one I’m not sure I want to recommend: Seeds of War. It’s some kind of realm management/mass combat dealy, which is going to have a built-in web app…if you pay a $5/month subscription fee to pay for server hosting. They discussed in an update that there won’t be a downloadable version because they don’t want users to have to download a patch every time it gets updated. Which, uh. That sounds dumb enough to cast concerns over the team’s general competence to the point where I’m reconsidering my pledge. The other end of things is that I really like realm management systems so I figure I’ll give this one a go in the hopes that it might be an interesting failure even if it does crash and burn. There’s nothing stopping me from just using the .pdf without ever touching their web application (my current plan), so we’ll see how that goes.

Now that I’ve set expectations very low, let’s soar over them by talking about Almost Real, a 60 page illustrated book (available in .pdf format) about creatures that didn’t evolve, but could’ve. The first one is already a thing, but rather than buy it at full price I backed this Kickstarter at the $15 level to get .pdfs of both. They’ve already made one of these things, so I see no reason to suspect they’ll fail to deliver this one, and the premise sounds fun.

Finishing on the one I am most looking forward to and which also has the most time left before its deadline, Spellcaster University is a video game in which you build Hogwarts in order to raise a graduating class of wizards strong enough to defeat Sauron. I’m not sure how much depth it’s going to have, but it does look like it’ll have a reasonably charming art style and lots of fun customization options, so whether or not the gameplay proves particularly engaging, I’m willing to back it on the basis of being a build-your-own-Hogwarts kit even if fighting Sauron comes down to, like, spamming fire wizards or something.

Tune in Friday, when I may or may not have posted more Threadbare and will probably keep this blog alive by posting about Kickstarters I’ve backed which are already finished or something.

NPC Arcs

In a tabletop roleplaying game, the PCs are the main characters. This is an important conceit. Players should feel like they’re important. But also they’re usually boring, static character who very stubbornly resist anything like a character arc. Players usually do not create characters with the intention that they will change and evolve in any way except through ever-growing power. If your group is all really invested in narrative and roleplaying and such, you might all sit down together and intentionally create a party where this is not so. Probably your group doesn’t want to do this, though, which means the narrative has be carried entirely by NPC character arcs, and it has to do that without taking the spotlight off of the PCs.

This is tricky, because the PCs are boring, but fortunately you have an ace up your sleeve: Anything that happens to a PC is automatically going to be more interesting to the player running them, because it is happening to them, specifically. While ordinarily having the role of pushing the plot forward handed off to a character who is not changed by that plot at all would be terrible, for the specific medium of TTRPGs it’s actually totally fine.

Side note: There are exceptions to this rule even amongst books and movies. Batman, Paddington Bear, and Samurai Jack change the world around them rather than being changed by it, putting other characters through arcs by forcing their flaws into conflict with their redeeming qualities and hoping their noble ideals triumph over their base instincts. If you want to pull this off outside of a TTRPG, your static protagonist needs to stand for something and be so unwaveringly committed to that stance that they can bend the world around them. As mentioned earlier, though, for a TTRPG your audience will cut the protagonists insane amounts of slack just because they designed the protagonists themselves.

Other than handing off responsibility for plot momentum to the PCs, an NPC’s arc works mostly the same as a (regular, non-static) movie or book protagonist’s would. I’ll drop the standard disclaimer here that this should not be treated as a formula to be rigidly adhered to but rather as loose guidelines that should be followed when they work and discarded when they don’t, although if you need a blog post to tell you that then you’re probably at the level of craft where following guidelines exactly is your best bet anyway.

Continue reading “NPC Arcs”

Please Stand By

Certainly I do not intend to entirely abandon this blog. That said, it is more important that I stay on schedule for the stuff that people have already paid me money for than for the free blog posts. Regular posting should resume some time soon, but I need to get the .pdf text done by October 25th so I can get it to my layout guy David Shugars in order to have the .pdf ready on schedule. After that, I should have more time for secondary projects like this blog.

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

I warned you guys earlier that I might not be posting Let’s Read updates daily while fulfilling Kickstarter rewards, since it’s more important to keep those on schedule than to keep the Let’s Read updates consistent. That prophecy is coming true today. I’m having some trouble with Kindle in-browser, and using their downloadable app messes up my workflow for highlight/copy/pasting relevant passages. This relatively minor hiccup wouldn’t ordinarily be a big deal, but right now I just don’t have the hour or so to spare getting used to the new workflow or transferring to a new browser, so instead I’ll try to figure that out in time for the Monday update.

Fifty Followers

With the Sew You Want To Be A Hero posts, my blog has knocked over another tiny milestone: I now have fifty followers. I’m also pretty rapidly heading towards breaking 10,000 views from 5,000 visitors before the end of the year (I am reasonably likely to get that much by the end of October, even).

These milestones may seem paltry compared to the Kickstarter that had four times that many backers and made me a significant amount of real, actual money, but that’s all for tabletop roleplaying, and I have no idea where the ceiling on that is. Obviously it’s possible for Matt Colville to make $1,000,000 for one splatbook, which would cover my art and living expenses for approximately twenty-five years, but there’s no reason to believe I’ll be able to reach even a tenth of that level of success – I don’t have his charisma on camera, and the audience for my work is not “everyone who wants to play D&D” but rather “everyone who wants to play a specific kind of D&D that’s badly neglected by existing adventure paths.” I really wouldn’t be surprised if $4,000 per adventure is the upward limit on what I can achieve, which would require me to produce about eight of them to make a living off of them – and that’s assuming both that I can get nearly 100% of my art assets in a permanent library and that the whole thing doesn’t crash and burn on me somewhere in the next few months.

All this to say, I definitely want to keep my options open regarding a literary career path in case this tabletop thing doesn’t work out, so I’m glad to see my blog – which is popular mainly in proportion to how often I write about books – passing these little milestones.

On a somewhat related note, I may end up doing another NaNoWriMo thing this year. If I do, that’ll mean another interruption to the LitRPG reviews, which is one of two major reasons I’m considering not doing it (the other major reason being I don’t want it to interfere with the schedule on my Kickstarter rewards). On the one hand, I don’t want another interruption this close to the Kickstarter interruption. On the other, I will at some point need to actually write a book if I’m going to make this work.

Petals and Thorns Kickstarter: Complete

A couple of days ago, the Petals and Thorns Kickstarter reached its conclusion. After the slump of week three, week four saw the struggle between increased rate of last minute cancellations and increased rate of last minute pledges. There was an early blow when, about four or five days from the end, one of the $100 pledges cancelled. By three days before the end, we’d recovered from that, but we were still fighting to get back up to the $2,800 goal that had seemed so easily within grasp a few days before.

Then the 48-hour reminder emails went out. $300, then $800, then finally over $1,200 in the final 48 hours came flooding in, the biggest spike of any 48 hour period in the entire campaign, even the day one spike when a combination of my pre-existing supporters and a Giant in the Playground post surpassed my original goal and first stretch goal with over $800 in the first two days.

In the end, we raised over $4,000 and had 199 backers. That’s over five times the amount of money and, more importantly, over four times the number of people reached that I was willing to call the Kickstarter an unqualified success. Not only do I have the funds to afford a full set of maps and tokens to make each unit of each faction distinct, I’ll even be able to commission some extra illustrations to make the .pdf a bit less barren. Not only that, but some of these tokens and art pieces are becoming permanent parts of my library, which I’ll be able to reuse indefinitely (although to be clear, that is only true of some of them). And this improved version of the work is going out to well over a hundred new members of my audience (not for this blog, specifically, but for my work in general).

I mentioned before that my primary fear at this stage is that people won’t like it, and that is still the biggest looming if: if my new audience actually likes my work. We are still firmly in the period where all of this could end up being a huge waste of time. The money raised from this Kickstarter is all earmarked to be given to people who are not me – the writing was done completely for free out of hopes that I would make money on selling it in online marketplaces after the Kickstarter concluded, and there is no guarantee that there’s anyone left out there who wants what I’m selling. There’s no guarantee that the people who pre-ordered what I’m selling will like it when they get it. Maybe, upon actually receiving the product, it’s going to turn out that people like the idea of having to grapple with the limitations of mortal power and make compromises, but they don’t actually like doing it. Maybe there’s just not enough there, since a lot of neat ideas I’d had did have to be cut in order to fit into an adventure I could plausibly afford to produce. My original adventure concept would likely have cost twice as much as was raised, and included the entirety of the Eastern Frontier and a much more thorough exploration of the factions involved. How much of that adventure – the one I wished I had the resources to write – wormed its way into how I presented this much more compact adventure without my noticing?

If this adventure leaves most of the Kickstarter backers satisfied, then I can probably count on similar success in the future. As I get a larger library of art assets permanently at my disposal, less and less of the new money will have to be directed towards commissioning and licensing new art, and more and more of that money can be dedicated towards my goal of self-sufficiency on my creative work. It will also increase my backlog, and if I get a steady stream of new fans seeing my latest release and buying up my old work, then the amount of income each new fan brings will grow over time.

But there’s still a lot of ifs in there. If my backers actually like the adventure once they have it in their hands, if my adventures sell beyond the initial Kickstarter audience, if new releases then reach new fans and bring them to my backlog rather than just getting the same number of sales from the same dedicated fans every time. Nevertheless, I am certainly now closer to achieving my goals than I was before, and while a lot of things could still go wrong, there’s no strong reason to believe they actually will go wrong outside of my standard pessimism.

On a slightly related note, Let’s Reads should be resuming in a few days, although with how busy I am assembling my Kickstarter rewards I can’t promise we’ll be going back to daily blog posts. I haven’t quite decided which book I want to read next, but I’m leaning towards Threadbare, since I’m curious to see whether that series gets better as it goes or succumbs to its flaws to crash and burn. I think these reviews are at their best when I don’t know how things are going to turn out in advance, and Threadbare is the one series so far where that’s still true even after the first book.