Worldbuilding Fictional Cosmology

October 25, 2016

Fantasy and supernatural games often tie directly into cosmology – so if you are making a setting for those genres, you might it worthwhile to start from the cosmology of your world and build outward.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be a deep, or long process – probably at the point when you even envisioned the setting, a lot of the following is already something you’ve decided on, even without articulating it.

(I’m sure the field of comparative religion probably has a billion specific terms for all of these ideas.  If you’re so inclined, you probably already have a system to think about these things.)

Universal vs. Local

Are the laws or powers involved universal? Do they exist and influence everything?  Many belief systems include this – monotheistic deities, laws of karma or spiritual power/pollution, etc.

Universal forces bring up the questions of how does any given society deal or interact with these powers? Do they know or understand them, and if so, how? If not, why is it unknown to them? etc.

Local means it affects any area smaller than all existence – most people think of river or city gods, but it certainly could apply to powers that only affect believers or sanctified ground, etc.

Local powers bring up questions about extent of effect and power, and how is it decided how far of a reach or scale the effect has?

Immutable vs. Mutable

Immutable forces and powers cannot be changed.  Gods are not born or die, the laws of enlightenment are always true and always work like this.  Things were deities are born before civilization/time, or die at the end of the world, are effectively immutable – unless there’s some way for a power to come into existence or out of existence during a story/game, it doesn’t matter.

Immutable forces means that there is no way for the players to change the cosmology of your setting, which is fine if that’s not what your focus of play is.

Mutable forces can change or perhaps be changed.  What implications this has for the world, and the future, are pretty interesting and often the source of high stakes drama in many stories and games.

Actor vs. Source vs. Projection

An “actor” is a god or force that affects the universe, but if it was removed, the only effect would be a universe without it’s future actions occurring… much like if a person or animal was killed or removed.

A source is a constant source of some power or effect and without it – that effect ceases to occur.  Perhaps if you kill the river god, the river dries up.  If you destroy the power of Time… well, that can’t be good for the universe, really.

A projection is a force or power that exists because of things or events in the world – worship, belief, actions or environment.  So if people stop worshipping the god, it diminishes and disappears.  If war ceases, the god of war cannot exist.  If the lake dries up, the lake god disappears.

Note how all three of these play out very differently depending on your previous answers.

Known vs. Unknown vs. Unknowable

Do people generally know about this cosmology? (most, some, few, none?)

Many fantasy settings assume a known cosmology.  This is often because the gods/powers are directly interacting with the world on a regular enough basis, magic and such makes it possible to test and see results and confirm things.

In play, a known cosmology is a great shortcut – players do not need to constantly wonder, “Is there a God of lightning? Are we sure this person isn’t just making stuff up?” when interacting with other characters.  Can gods be killed? Can someone become an undead mummy god?  If these things are known threats, then you can just get to the part about stopping it from happening.

Most modern supernatural settings assume an unknown cosmology – either most of the world is unaware and a few people know what’s up, or even the major players are slowly feeling around in the dark, trying to glimpse a bit of the truth.  This makes every action that might affect the greater cosmology… well, terrifying.  Will it work? Will it have consequences?  Will I break some portion of reality?

With the cosmology being generally unknown, it also means actions undertaken by the protagonists end up at odds with society at large – simply gearing up to fight with vampires and banish the demon that leads them might get you on a few FBI watchlists…

An unknowable cosmology is often underused and under appreciated.  It solidly slams the focus of play on the characters – and all meaning thereof. As a group, you have to agree that as far as the game is concerned, “No one really knows”and any actions taken by the characters towards that end are basically for show.

For your game: setting, conflicts, roleplaying

Why think about all of this?  Well, it can determine what conflicts make sense in your game (local, mutable powers sets up fun small scale religious warfare), how societies or cultures shape themselves (mutable projection powers might mean large temples have more magical effects, so societies aim towards mass worship and conversion), and of course, how characters roleplay within that.

However, also knowing if you DON’T want to deal with this, is worthwhile, and something to tell your group.  Having your devout cleric player cast a divination spell with the question “How can I please Thee, Oh Lord, and do Thy works?” might be great roleplaying but can be a pain in the ass if you’re expected to answer it… and answer correctly.

There’s also a few games which can either embrace this stuff or avoid it – Unknown Armies, Glorantha games, White Wolf’s Mage, and so on.  Because there’s both the possibility of mucking around in the cosmology or leaving it as background flavor, it’s really important to be clear on how you should play with it, or not.

The pitfall of divine truth

If you’re going to have divine powers or truth show up, they only appear in one of three fashions:

  1. Fairly human in behavior – petty, flawed, etc. as much as everyone else.
  2. Inscrutable and demanding – perhaps they are wise, but since you can’t have a conversation and they’re kind of assholes for leaving you without enough context, they seem really annoying.
  3. High and mighty – but no wiser than the rest of us.  AKA “Hey Mr. GM prepare to tackle the centuries-long questions about ‘why evil exists?’, ‘predestination vs. free will?’, etc. and solve it to the content of your players.”  This one also annoys people because… well, folks expect a lot from a conversation with a divine power.

So yeah.  Don’t make conversations with gods a possibility unless the gods are effectively super powered creatures rather than primal forces/truths of existence.

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