Worldbuilding can often get bogged down in big-picture questions and large-scale issues. Yes, there’s use to knowing how rivers flow from mountains to sea level, what kinds of natural barriers are likely to become borders, and how socio-economic statuses can form political lines. But those questions still just outline nations and factions. At the scale that most players are interacting with your world, it doesn’t really matter in play if the border between Heroton and Badlandia is a river, a mountain range, or a big blue dotted line that runs through a flat plain. What DOES matter to players is how those places feel and act differently while you are within them.
And for that, it’s often useful to throw in just a few little details.
If the common drink for a culturally-interlinked area is a tea just known as Steeps, maybe the people in Heroton like it strong and bitter, while the peasants of Badlandia make it weak and sweetened with honeysuckle. Elves prefer red Steeps, while human throw away the red stems as tasteless. The dwarves of Ironbeard make Steeps with weak beer to ensure no diseases remain in the local water, while the gnomes of Rillridge ferment it until foam forms on the surface which is then skimmed off.
None of that *matters*, but those kinds of tiny details, when used in sparing moderation, can help bring regions and cultures alive. Players who don’t care can wave it off, but those who enjoy engaging in fictional cultures have the option of paying attention, and offering the Big Bad of Badlandia honeysuckle-sweetened Steeps at the peace conference. And maybe he smiles, and notes he actually always preferred it strong and bitter, like his parents made it… suddenly given a new context into his background, based on how he takes his tea.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of cultural detail and, as long as you don’t load ever city with 27 things you expect players to keep track of. Adding just one or two tiny differences can help immerse players, and make regions distinctive.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of detail, but it helps if it’s something publicly noticeable (how the Halfling war bakers of Gnabysko bless their battle muffins in secret ceremonies isn’t going to impact player perception much, unless someone is playing a Halfling war baker), minor (so players don’t feel they must remember the detail or get into cultural trouble, which can feel like homework), and relatable (details that tie into activities players understand are more easily understood and remembered—the fact there are 17 “proper” foot stances for fighting with an orroc gutting axe is interesting… but for players with no melee combat training experience it doesn’t connect to anything they’ve done).
You can also build off a detail, creating slang and cultural notes that play off the detail. This can help the detail be memorable, but it also invites the players to dream up such phrases and ideas as well.
For example, let’s say you have decided that in the Free City of Campaign, street performers put out a boot for people to toss coins into, rather than a hat or other collection device. That’s easy to work into a campaign as an observed behavior, unlikely to make any player feel they have to memorize it, and replaces a common occurrence in a way players are likely to understand.
Once you’ve done that, it’s easy to see how some local slang might develop around the tradition. “Giving you the boot” could mean firing someone, so they now have to earn money on the street, while “Earning your boot” might indicate you are good enough at some performance to make a living as a busker. Having a “hole in your boot” could indicate someone is stealing from you, and “looking in the toe” could mean you’re scrounging for every last coin (like checking the cushions of your sofa).
If players show interest in a detail, and explore it, you can build on it. Maybe the boot tradition dates back to when soldier came back from a war, and without enough work used their hard military boots to gather coins as beggars, and the tradition grew from there. Maybe there was a tax on all labor performed ‘without boots” that was designed to exclude hard workers, but street performers used this to get around it. You don’t HAVE to do that kind of background work, but if players dig around it shows they have an interest in that element of your world.
Tiny details like this should be sparing, to ensure a world remains familiar enough for players to be comfortable with it. These are seasoning for the main course of your world, rather than the entrée itself. But used properly, that kind of seasoning can elevate the flavor of your creations, and make them much more memorable.
Putting My Boot Out
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This grew from the causal thought “What two ideas have I not seen jammed together before?” with the answer being “Minotaur mafia.”
The Bulls of Mingul
When the enslaved people of Mingul prayed for salvation from the scorpionfolk masters, or at least escape from the vast labyrinthine cave complexes the scorpionfolk build as their temple cities, at first no gods answered. The envenomed deity of the scorpionfolk was too dangerous to other gods, her poison able to slay even deities.
But in time the field mother and the sly trickster decided to risk their existence to help the enslaved peoples. They took cattle, who were under the aegis of the field mother, and turned them into something else using the tricksters bag of secrets. Tall now, and powerful, and unable to be confused to lost by the most complex maze, the “Bulls of Mingul” waged war on the scorpionfolk. The minotaurs, as they came to be known, worked with the enslaved people to free Mingul, drive the scorpionfolk into hiding, and build new cities above the vast cavern-cities the scorpionfolk one ruled.
But when the war ended, and the enslaved people were freed, the minotaurs had no further purpose. They had no history of agriculture as a people, no legends of their own, no traditions to call upon. They knew only pathfinding and war. And so they demanded the people give them food and goods, in return for protections. The people were willing to pay an army, but not to trade one set of masters for another. The minotaurs fragmented into great herds of criminals, one controlling each of the mazes beneath the cities of Mingul.
All crime in Mingul is controlled, one way or another, by a Herd Lord. Law and Order have grown in power, but none but a minotaur can move safely through the ancient scorpionfolk tunnels beneath ever city. Thus the minotaur criminals have a secure stronghold, and ways to move unseen through every city. Some become guards of course, and can lead peacekeepers through the dark depths, but their number are few, and those who track down their own kind too often are often found slain, their bull head severed and replaced with that of a pig. Meanwhile criminals of other races often take the “sign of the bull,” a horn-shaped brand, declaring their loyalty to one or another Herd Lord.
The Herd Lords still protect Mingul from outside threats, and see the good and money they demand as their just due. Most Mingul cities and citizens see it as easier to allow the Herds to control and monitor crime, and accept the occasional theft or beating as the cost of freedom and having a vast force securing the underground zones of their land from attacks by drow or other subterranean threats.
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This is a cinematic sci-fi timeline, and effort to create a rich history of advancing technology and the issues, heroes, and morality tales that lead to a moment rich for player character involvement. That moment might be at the end of this progression, or at any point along the way the GM finds interesting.
This isn’t an effort to actually jam all these differing stories into a single continuity, and I am not claiming RUNAWAY is actually the precursor to RoboCop. I am also aware that some of these do have official crossovers (half of then through Dark Horse comics), and I don’t care if I invalidate those either.
Nor am I trying to fit ever science-fiction movie in existence into a single reality. Just a specific subset I feel have some themes and throughlines in common that make for an interesting potential universe.
This is just a thought experiment, designed to place actual inspirations into slots where a pastiche of each *could* form a logical continuous timeline with just a little tweaking.
Each movie includes the year the movie was released, for clarity. No specific set time is suggested for when these movies should occur, but I assume the timeline runs roughly 200 years from 1970 to 2170. The timeline movies forward with each italicized breakdown of how the listed movies represent the events of that point in the timeline.
The Timeline (1970-2070)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The governments of the world come to accept that alien life is real and travelling the stars, but keep the information from the general public.
Crucial moments in the development of the world are impacted by a very small number of time travelers, resulting in multiple, overlapping alternate timelines, proof of some variant of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The Fury (1978)
Perhaps as a step in evolution, perhaps as a response to the first cases of time travel and alien contact, verifiable psychic phenomenon begin to sporadically manifest. The governments of the world alternate between exploiting and just killing such talents, but needless to say thigns often go poorly.
Aliens continue to visit Earth in small numbers and without the public learning, but such visits are not always friendly.
As technology advances, the wealthy and powerful begin to realize it can be used to control the lower classes, to focus even more power in the hands of the few.
As society groans under the need to provide for an expanding population and worsening natural resources, autonomous robots become increasingly common in advanced societies. Something they go rouge, and must be put down. Sometimes an increasingly tech-savvy criminal class makes use of them.
Suspect Zero (2004)
The number of individuals with psychic powers grows, and organizations begin to form to deal with them exclusively.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Predator II (1990)
The pressure on society begins to lead to the collapse of institutions and social norms. As the middle class ceases to exist, the underclass becomes increasingly violent and hard to control. The tiny sliver of the wealthy and powerful, and their increasingly independent corporations, seek to control the masses through any means. This is a rich environment for a small number of alien visitors to exploit conditions for their own amusement or gain.
Red Lights (2012)
Slowly, the scientific community begins to publicly study psychic powers, though skepticism remains high.
Governments begin to collapse and corporations gain more power. This leads to efforts to have corporate-controlled paramilitary forces, and to use cybernetic technologies to enforce obedience on a soldier-servant class.
Event Horizon (1997)
The strain humanity is putting on Earth is clearly unsustainable. The oligarchs and mega-corporations experiment with ways to spread to other worlds, though their reckless willingness to attempt anything that might succeed leads to horrific failures.
Total Recall (1990)
Thanks to advanced in space travel, humanity begin to move to new worlds, though all still within the solar system.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
The need for cheap labor leads to attempts to uplift other simians. But if we made apes intelligent and independent enough to serve as slave labor, they are intelligent and independent enough to rebel. Such efforts are outlawed.
Solent Green (1973)
The world is in near collapse. The upper classes have literally fantasy worlds to play in with their nearly unlimited wealth, while everyone else fights for scraps and is distracted by death sports. Early cyborg technology begins to advance to primitive androids, though these require fairly regular maintenance and human-augmented control.
(If society does totally collapse, a new timeline forms here, with Damnation Alley, Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, and so on, eventually reaching Thundarr. Our timeline doesn’t go that route.)
Minority Report (2002)
The existence of psychics is publicly accepted, and they begin to be integrated into the government and corporate efforts to control a growing population that is increasingly dissatisfied and dangerous.
Blade Runner (1982)
The total collapse of human civilization is prevented by creating autonomous androids to serve as the ultimate slave labor force, while humanity begins to truly move to the stars. But only those who are healthy and talented are chosen my megacorporations to be shipped off Earth, and it turns out intelligent and independent android slaves have many of the same issues intelligent and independent ape slaves did.
Silent Running (1972)
Robots begin to be replaced by androids in most tasks, though simpler robot technology is more stable. Though some governments have gone to the stars, it is the corporations who have the money and resources to push the boundary of the final frontier. What they find doesn’t always go well for the corporate employees who find it.
Blade Runner 2049
Back on Earth, things still boil (details left out as spoilers for the movie)
Colonization becomes standard, and most android behavior issues are solved. But as humanity’s sphere of influence spreads, so does its interactions with other alien life.
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When I get on a “old-school multiclass concepts for Pathfinder” kick I generally do several in a row as ideas rattle around in my head. So far I’ve done the anruth (an old school druidic bard), cavalier-paladin, cleric/assassin, cleric/fighter/thief, cleric/ranger, druid/fighter, fighter/magic-user/thief, illusionist/thief, thief-acrobat, as well as randomly acquired psionics, and even the fighter/illusionist at my patreon.
That doesn’t leave a lot of “legal” old-school combinations… but it DOES leave the dreaded cleric/fighter/magic-user!
When looking to combine the spell power of two of the most powerful spellcasters with the weapon and armor expertise of the fighter, there are two obvious places to begin – the magus, and the warpriest. Either makes sense as an opening class for a cleric/fighter/magic-user, but having built the druid/fighter off the magus yesterday I’m going to start with the warpriest this time.
A warpriest is a fine cleric/fighter, but obviously has no magic-user in it at all. It also has some things we can likely cut while still feeling fairly divinely-inspired and martial, which gives us room to expand its spell list and class features to include some wizardly material.
The cleric/fighter/magic-user is an archetype for the warpriest that also counts as a hybrid class of the cleric, fighter, and wizard classes.
Spellcasting: You cast spells drawn from the cleric and wizard spell lists. You cast cleric spells as divine spells, and wizard spells as arcane spells. You have access to all cleric spells of a spell level you can cast, but must add wizard spells to a spellbook as a wizard does. You begin play with a spellbook with all 0-level wizard spells, and a number of 1st level wizard spells equal to 1 + your Intelligence bonus. At each new class level, you can add any 1 wizard spell of a level you can cast to your spellbook. You otherwise learn new spells and scribe them into your spellbook as a wizard does.
Your Wisdom determines what level spell you can cast, your bonus spells, and the save DCs of any cleric spell you cast. Your Intelligence determines the save DC of any wizard spell you cast.
You can cast any spells you gain as a cleric/fighter/magic-user in armor without having to deal with arcane spell failure, but suffer normal ASFfor arcane spells you gain from other sources.
All your spells gained from this class (cleric and wizard) count as warpriest spells for purposes of other class features (such as fervor).
This modifies the cleric/fighter/magic-user’s spells.
Fight Smarter (Ex): A cleric/fighter/magic-user has learned to fuse his training with gods, spells, and fighting into a single art. At 1st level, you can add your Intelligence bonus, instead of your Strength bonus, to attack rolls and weapon damage rolls. When using a weapon that would normally only allow you to add half your Strength bonus to damage you may only add half your Intelligence bonus, but when using a weapon that would normally allow you to add x1.5 or x2 (or more) of your Strength bonus to damage, you can only add x1 your Intelligence bonus. (If your bonus to damage from Strength would thus be better than your bonus to damage from intelligence, you may use your bonus to damage from Strength.)
Additionally, treat your cleric/fighter/magic-user levels as fighter levels when meeting prerequisites for feats.
This ability replaces focus weapon and sacred weapon.
Domains and Schools: At 1st level you select one cleric domain granted by your god, and one wizard school. These have no effect on your spells per day, spells known, chance to learn spells, and so on. One of these selections is your primary selection, and the other is secondary. For your primary selection, you gain special abilities as if your cleric/fighter/magic-user level was your level in the appropriate class. For your secondary selection, you treat your cleric/fighter/magic-user -3 as your level in the appropriate class.
This ability replaces all minor blessings and sacred armor.
Bonus Feats: You gain a bonus feat at 3rd level, and every 3 levels thereafter, as a normal warpriest does. In addition to combat feats, you may select from any item creation or metamagic feat you meet the prerequisites for as bonus feats.
This ability modifies bonus feats.
Spell Combat (Ex): At 10th level, you gain spell combat as the magus class feature. You can use it with any light or 1-handed melee weapon, or with your deity’s favorite weapon. If your deity’s favorite weapon takes 2-hands, you can cast spells when wielding 2-handed it as if you had one hand free.
This ability replaces major blessings.
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