Gaming World Cosmology

by Lev Lafayette

An opening section of Rolemaster's much-overlooked Campaign Law argues: "Before constructing the physical world the GM should decide what sort of god, gods, and/or demigods there will be, if any. The nature of these deities, and any interplanetary factors should bes established so that the GM can gauge their involvement in the formation and operation of the world." This isn't quite accurate of course; many roleplaying campaigns are run and some even to conclusion with only the barest reference of such cosmological principles. Many and varied "real world" campaigns serve as a case in point. But it is true that a roleplaying campaign can acquire a greater level of consistency, especially on the epic scale, when they are considered.

As Campaign Law implied (even if in reverse order) there is really one matter of primary consideration; to what level do supernatural events occur, i.e, does the universe have an religious cosmology as well as a physical cosmology? If there are none, move on. If there are some, at some point in the story the narrator will have to decide why there are supernatural events and from what source. Of course, if there are supernatural aspects to a gameworld, the decision may be forced quite early; it is very dangerous to be an atheist in a world where there are active and interventionist gods! Otherwise it is easy enough in a mainstream agnostic story to run any number of sessions without reference to cosmological principles. It is much less so where magic is known, and almost impossible where it is common. It should be mentioned even in the physicalist "real world" campaigns there are sometimes hints towards this; the usually fairly physicalist GURPS makes reference to "wizards of modern Alabama" - and Steve Jackson is not talking about the Klan - in its reputation section, and also the use of Magical Aptitude in the same time and place.

Despite the protests of some theists and some atheists, in the real world we simply cannot determine for sure whether there are supernatural events. No miracles have been really proven to the rigorous requirements to satisfy empirical, oberved, and repeatable evidence of such events, whilst at the same time subjective experiences, whilst claimed to be empirical, are certainly not subject to repeatibility or necessarily observation. Nevertheless it is possible to give philosophically grounded speculative notions of what supernatural cosmologies could be applied, which are tied to the pragmatic worlds of empirical experience. Firstly, and most obviously, is the physicalist metaphysic, the claim that the underlying reality of the universe is matter and energy. Secondly, is the classic opposition of metaphysical idealism, the claim that the underlying reality of the universe is in fact, a mental construct. The third, and a more innovative approach from this author, is to speculative on a metaphysic that the underlying nature of the universe is actually linguistically mediated, a symbolist approach if you will. It is important of course to realise that empirical experiences can be interpreted equally well with each of these approaches; James Jeans, the British astronomer, physicist, and mathematician – the first to suggest steady-state theory in cosmology – once argued that “the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine."

Quite often there are attempts to combine a high degree of physical realism with the addition of magic as another force. This is quite common in a great variety of standard fantasy gameworlds. In Rolemaster's Shadow World the planet Kulthea - overwise described as a normal world that follows standard planetary physical rules - is "on the threshold of a radically different universe. The planet stands just outside the gateway to a plane of existence which has physical laws we can begin to understand... We have access to energies - flowing through this invisible and intangible corrido - which have no explanation... A few of us can even channel this power." It is acknolwedged that this also provided a sufficient and non-contradictory tie-in with ICE's space opera game, SpaceMaster.

For many fantasy campaigns however the sense of wonder of having a fantastic planet in the midst of a physical realistic universe is an uneasy union. It is far more common to find a fantastic world in a fantastic cosmology which includes physical worlds which have similar laws of nature as our own, except with magic appended. The cosmology of Dungeons & Dragons is perphaps one of the most well-known examples of this expression, especially through the elaborations in the Planescape and SpellJammer campaign supplements. First expressed in the appendix of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, the normal worlds are the Prime Material Planes which are co-existent with the ethereal and astral planes, with the latter connecting the inner planes of elemental nature, the positive and negative energy planes, and the outer planes of the various alignments and the deities.

Whilst relatively easy to introduce, the fantasy campaign of "physics plus" can run into problems. Whilst one may explain magic to justify why Terry Pratchett's Discworld has both gravity, an atmosphere, and a turtle that can swim through space (Great A'Tuin), four World Elephants (Tubul, Jerakeen, Berilia and Great T'Phon), a sun and moon which are within the confines of the world. More challenging work is required to consider who happens to various magical spells if they are to accord to normal physical laws. Consider a staple feature of magic (or magic-like abilities, such as The Force in the Star Wars universe); the casting of a lightning or electricity bolt underwater. What happens? Does it move like it would through air? Does it disperse? What about a fireball? What about light-based spells, where the refraction index is different? Do sound-based spells work better? Hand-waving all consideration with "it's magic, they act like normal" can be unsatisfying because of a general sense that the environment and the magic should interact.

The Palladium Rifts setting (the "Megaverse") has received a great deal of attention for providing a wild combination arising from "tears in the fabric of space and time" and a massive nuclear war for good measure where lines of magic energy provide opportunities to bring in all sorts of bug-eyed aliens, augmented humans fighting each other and other-dimensional beings. However the game has received some criticism - to put it mildly - for a lack of attention in game balance. A comparison can be made with West End Games' Torg, which was released in the same year. Also multi-genre, Torg provided demarcated regions (fantasy, high-tech, pulp era) each with their own "axioms" which defined capabilities.

An early version of a strong demarcation of co-existence was RuneQuest and the gameworld of Glorantha, where mana was described as being to the spirit world as matter was to the physical world. A character's POWer attribute represented their ability to accumulate manner and manipulate it using spells. Most importantly, as the title indicated, the runes as physical and material, encapsulated the founding blocks of the universe with plenty of debates and claims of "first rune". Since the introduction of Time, the various conflicts between the Gods has been fought by proxy with heroes going on extraplanar heroquests to both discover cult secrets and to assert their mythological interpretation over the world. Comparison can also be made with another famous Chaosium and BRP-derived game setting, being Stormbringer/Elric, Hawkmoon etc - the Eternal Champion series from Michael Moorcock's novels where the multidimensional science fantasy universe involves a constant conflict between metaphysical Law and Chaos, with Balance somehow managing to succeed with its various champions.

Perhaps even more extreme, at least in terms of metaphysical foundation, is the world according to the White Wolf game Mage : The Ascension (and subsequent incarnations). In this case the typical scientific world view is inversed entirely, Instead of a consenus of symbolic values signifying reality, the consensus is reality itself - change the consensus or use the force of will and reality itself changes. If one asserts their will too strongly, and this is witnessed as being contrary to the consensus by others, paradox occurs resulting in madness. A similar concept (and unsurpising given the publishing lineage) can be found in the third edition of Ars Magica, where "True Reason" stands in contrast to the magical expressions. Unpopular with Ars Magica players, it was dropped in later editions.

Whilst these are clearly fantatical games, it is possible, if played with due diligence to play some others as a type of magical realism. This is a preferred genre for yours truly, and represents where realism and the fantastic co-exist in an environment which is natural and surreal. It is usually not explicitly and obviously fantastic, but rather such features constantly gnaw at the edges. To quote Jameson in his classic essay on magic realism in film: "... not a realism to be transfigured by the 'supplement' of a magical perspective but a reality which is already in and of itself magical and fantastic". Over The Edge is a classic example of such a game and possibly Nephilim and Unknown Armies as well, although they can be a little too obviously magical. In some cases it is possible to play Call of Cthulhu as well in such a manner, although the dramatic and sudden appearance of the monstrous breaks the psychological uncanniness into horror science fiction - even when the setting is medieval, Victorian, or Interwar.

It shouldn't be assumed however that such extraordinary settings are soley the domain of the fantastic; it is also quite possible to place them within the speculative. For example, to take one of the more exotic planetary options from GURPS Space, the idea of the sapient planet, or at the very least a panpsychic sapient eco-system. This can includes worlds covered by a single immense organism (such as in the famous Lem story, Solaris) or, as an alternative, a hive mind. Lifeforms from earth itself give some indication of plausibility of even extreme forms in this direction; biologists were very surprised to discover in 2000 and 2012 that certain forms of brainless slime moulds were, respectively, solving mazes and using extracellular slime to navigate. Perhaps more interesting as some of the challenges that arise in the philosophy of physics, such as the nature of space and time (is time travel possible? how? what about paradoxes?), and the various interpretations that come from trying to understand the counter-intuitive results from quantum mechanics.

It may be assumed that much of this can be avoided in a low-powered campaign, and indeed this is so. Even in seting where there is magic or pseudo-science (e.g., psionics) it is not necessary to delve into the depths of cosmology if the situations experienced remain relatively low-key. If the game system rules are precise it is possible to play the game with the setting and system as writ, without ever having to even hint at what the underlying foundations of the setting's universe actually is. For example, a low-medium powered RuneQuest Glorantha game where characters may even reach a beginning level Rune Lord or Rune Priest level are unlikely to ever have to worry about such things, despite the fact that the world is explicitly magical and with a magical cosmology, because the rules are so well-defined of how the magical system works. The same can be said with the various implementations of games set in Tolkien's Middle-Eatrh as well. However, when characters start reaching the meta-magical level (“how does this magic stuff work, anyhow?”) the big questions of cosmological engagement are going to be raised, especially where there are competing traditions and interpretations within the game world itself, a significant challenge for high powered Gloranthan games!

The reverse also applies however; one can have a relatively low-powered game, but where the cosmological interest is turned up quite high. Nobody is going to accuse the relatively simple-minded Brutha from Terry Pratchett's Discworld of being a particularly powerful individual. Indeed, to use the GURPS language, with the single exception of Eidetic Memory, he is carrying quite a range of disadvantages, not least being his complete inability to be deceptive. However, as a rare and genuine believer he can talk to his god and his god talks back. The fact he is the only real believer in a religious empire is why the god has taken earthly form as a turtle and with much reduced powers. The questions of cosmological principles are raised relatively early; The Discworld gods receive their powers because their worshippers believe in them. There is an astouding scene in the story where the protagonists discover a ruined temple, home to the ghosts of old gods who are no longer believed. One describes how great temples and sacrifices were carried out for them as they were the god of a mighty empire – but they couldn't remember their own name. An important issue is that the gods of Discworld only have power within Discworld. The famous Turtle is independent, as is presumably anything extra-Turtle. This does raise an important recursive issue in establishing any cosmological principle, either the boundaries are going to have to be limits or it will be prone to endless recursion (“Yeah? Who created the god of creation, eh?”)

It may be unavoidable that an epic collaborative story is going to be generated at some point this is going to deals with fundamental concepts of the game-universe but so can smaller scale stories. It is a lot easier, for the sake of narrative consistency, that the cosmological principles for the story are determined or at least put ias an emergent property, an earlier in the piece rather than later. To conclude with an example, I was developed a world which I wanted to be very scientific in terms of geography, geology, planetology, etc but also with the typical tropes of spell-casting. Unbeknownest to the players, the world history included a precursor advanced species which left various "nodes" of power throughout the land, which were sites of known magical power. These were actually voice-activated nano-technology factories. When the right commands were issued - in the archiac language - the nano-bots would go out and do their caster's bidding. The more people involved (such as in a ritual) the more nanobots were called forth to action. Thus a a standard fantasy world was created but with the potential revelation of the scientific foundations - at least to the players if not the characters - of their world. Certainly not everyone's ideal setting, but at least one which was consistent.

Slime Moulds References