So you want to create a world for Spelljammer. Where do you start? How do you make it live and breathe, even if you don’t want to do more than establish the initial contact with the PCs? Here’s some ideas and suggestions that I think will help even a beginning DM animate his world into a living thing.
What’s the Hook?
Chances are, if you had an idea for a planet, you thought of a concept that appealed to you. Maybe it’s a place where dragons are the primary race. Maybe it’s a strange alien landscape like the Far Realm. Maybe it’s the World of Ancient Egypt. That’s your hook. Whatever you design for your world will center around that idea and that concept.
So consider how that concept will affect that world. On a world of dragons, you probably don’t have a lot of humanoid species, because there would be too much competition for resources. If you do, they’ve figured out a way to live in harmony and are probably interdependent. If not, chances are dragons have vast territories and compete for limited resources that are tightly controlled. Also, I imagine taxes on spelljammers would be high in order to fatten hoards.
On the Far Realm landscape world, geography will violate the laws of physics consistently. Language is probably almost completely unintelligible by “normal” standards. Also, consider why such creatures would allow spelljammers to land? What could spelljammers possibly have that they would want? (Maybe they’re dependent on magic to survive in this reality and the “docking fee” is spellcasting from any visiting mages.) Or maybe they don’t want anything from spelljammers, who are viewed as invaders, and therefore, there has to be a way for spelljammers to remain undetected.
On Ancient Egypt world, chances are that Pharoahs are powerful and scary beings who make arbitrary laws enforced by the Priesthood. Or perhaps a tyrannical Pharoah is at war with another Pharoah who wants to usher in an age of peace and prosperity for all. The gods of this world will be as distinctive as the architecture, and Priests who serve them will likely have some bolstered spell power, while the ones who do not will find their powers somewhat diminished. All books will be in the form of papyrus scrolls, and the monsters will be snakes and scorpions and mummies.
Realism Gives Life
It’s my belief that anything you do that is founded in realism gives life to your world. My Spelljammer stories draw upon the technology of the Age of Sail and nautical and aeronautic terminology to make it “feel” real. One of the best things you can do to provide this sense of believability is to have the laws of physics work; except when they don’t.
For example: let’s consider Ancient Egypt world. Egypt’s culture was shaped in the way that it was because it was a desert with an enormous river in the middle of it that flooded in a regular, seasonal pattern, shaping the landscape and the society that developed around the seasonal agriculture. The river also gave Egypt unprecedented mobility by the standards of the ancient world.
A planet modeled after Ancient Egypt is going to have to somewhat imitate those conditions to be convincing, and if those conditions are somewhat grounded in science, it’s going to feel more plausible. So, perhaps our world is mostly ocean like Earth, but it has a single continent surrounded by high mountains. Those mountains are high enough that any storm that builds over the ocean drops its rain climbing them, and by the time any cloud actually makes it over the range, it’s not dropping any rain. Now let’s say that this planet has a moon with an elliptical orbit. Our own moon on earth affects our tides; a moon with an elliptical orbit would have even more measurable effects on the tides as its distance to and from the planet shifted throughout its rotation. And let’s say its orbit is slow and it takes about a year to complete. Every time the moon was at its closest points of the oval, the tides would be huge and any rivers would be thoroughly flooded by the surging sea; and the rivers would dry up again as the moon drew towards the far points of the oval.
On Dragon World, there’s going to be vast stretches of terrain that will be ravaged by the dragons, by overhunting, by overmining, and so forth. But do remember, nature is pretty resilient. If you want to have an area that was destroyed by the ravages of magic (like, say, the Anauroch Desert on Toril,) unless the power that created it is still present, or unless it has another compelling natural reason preventing it, nature is going to devour it in a few hundred years and the damage will almost be impossible for a non-geologist to notice. If you don’t believe me, try not repairing your asphalt driveway for a few years and watch the weeds eat it!
The Far Realm world is likely a terrible violation of nature. So emphasize that, and describe to the players how merely trying to comprehend some of what they see hurts their minds.
Consistency is Important
Maintaining consistent rules, no matter what those rules are, is essential. Editors of speculative fiction want to see that whatever system of magic you come up with obeys the internal laws that you have established, and that it does so consistently. If it doesn’t, the exception to the rule should not be arbitrary and the reason for it should be hinted at before the event, if possible. Give the characters a chance to figure it out before you do it.
Make notes about your important NPCs and their personalities and whatever tricks you use to distinguish them from each other so that they always act that way. Otherwise you’ll lose some of your believability.
Your history needs to make some semblance of sense. Of course, real history rarely does, but you don’t have the luxury of being inconsistent in fictional histories. One of the reasons that Game of Thrones is so successful is that George R. R. Martin’s history is elaborate, detailed, and consistent. The main reason that 4th edition’s Faerunian Spellplague was so unpopular was that it came out of nowhere and arbitrarily changed everything about the world that people liked for no logical reason. In a magic world, anything can happen, it’s true, so there was no reason that the Spellplague couldn’t exist; but people didn’t buy it while they did buy into Westeros.
Culture is Just as Important as Terrain
Giving your world at least one unique culture, and preferably many, is the bread and butter of giving it life. Why else would your characters go there, except perhaps for resupply, other than to interact with the population?
Many writers, especially science fiction writers, ground some of their cultures in actual historical events so that their history sounds plausible, and fantasy writers do the same with the cultures of the ancient world and with mythology.
In our examples, Ancient Egypt world kind of goes without saying. But you might want to consider some different options. Do your cultures mirror the early days of Egypt, when the Pharoahs were fighting over control of Upper and Lower Egypt? Or is it more like the height of the Middle Kingdom, which is the commonly-known Egyptian period? Or perhaps your cultures are fighting over whether or not the Old Gods of the pantheon or the new monotheistic faith of the Sun God will prevail, as in the time of Akhenaten? Or perhaps your culture is at risk of being destroyed by a new Empire, like in the days of Cleopatra.
Our draconic world might look to cultures that had important legends about dragons for inspiration. Perhaps it’s a Viking culture. Or perhaps it’s an ancient Asian empire. Or maybe it’s Mesoamerican or Australian and the dragons are feathered serpents. Or maybe, all four cultures are present, with their own series of trade agreements, diplomatic entanglements, systems of rulership, politics, and wars.
Even the Far Realm world has possible sources of inspiration for culture or mythology. Lovecraft, of course. Descriptions of bad hallucinogenic experiences for another. Clive Barker and some of Stephen King’s weirder stories might give you ideas too. Or maybe there’s a small, desperate colony of humans living in the middle of the crazy Far Realm world.
Make a Map
If your PCs are going to spend any time on a planet, no matter how small, it’s really a good idea to make a map so that you have an idea of where things are. It doesn’t have to be the elaborate creation of Thorfinn Tait Cartography or anything; but a rough sketch of amorphous blobs to indicate where the Emirate of Ankhatuten is in relation to Upper and Lower Kemet, for example, is probably a good plan. Have an idea about how long it would take to get from one place to another by different travel methods. You might even allow the terrain you come up with to influence the culture if you’re fishing for ideas.
Each World is a World!
Unless it’s a type A body, a world has more than one climate, more than one culture, and more than one type of terrain. You can wave your hand dismissively and say that a place is an “ice world,” but why is it an ice world? Is it far away from the sun? Is the sky dark? Is it slushy at the Equator and thick with permafrost at the Poles?
On Ancient Egypt World, you might have some Mesopotamian cultures as well as some Egyptian cultures of different periods, or maybe you could throw in a Mesoamerican culture or two; I think they’d go together well! Give it some variety. Even little Nedethil, client world of the Elven Imperial Navy in the roots of Garden and a type B body, has a Gnomish settlement called Whirlybird. 😉
The Actions of the Characters Have Lasting Effects
Players like to know they’ve had an impact on the world you’ve created. Have their actions affect it! If they stopped a major invasion of undead, they’ll have friends among the populace if they know about it, and there might be even more subtle effects, such as a new custom of burning bodies in pyres as opposed to burying them, and priests specifically dedicated to putting the undead to rest might be en vogue the next time the PCs come to town. If the PCs negotiated peace between two nations that have been traditional enemies, make sure they at least get along for long enough that the PCs can see the result the next time they come back. This can be pretty impressive when you’re talking about elven lifespans! What would happen if those warring nations were still at peace in a hundred years? Think of the changes to their cultures!
If they did something to offend the Emir the last time they were there, that’s bound to affect them also! Have the girl the fighter jilted start rumours about him. Have the child of the mage they killed swear revenge. You’ll never run out of story ideas that way.
Also, don’t ever carve an event in stone. One of the best things I’ve ever seen done in fantasy literature is when an angry priestess did dark magic on Daenerys and subsequently thwarted the prophecy of the “stallion who would mount the world.” The PCs want to know their actions matter, so let them!
Do Something Deliberately Different
Nobody forgets Large Luigi. That’s because he stands out. He’s weird! Every planet will have something that is its own brand of weirdness and people will remember it. Westeros and its winter and summer seasons, and the effects on magic, are what make it unique, and it shapes every aspect of their politics and history. Don’t forget to give your world some character!