Brant Guillory, 30 May 2019
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
An RPG book you could show off on an academic bookshelf. But what’s the payoff?
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Digging through my boxes of game books (if you ever want to know exactly how much game stuff you really have, pack up and move a few times) I found this old treasure.
I can remember when I bought it – it looked like what all of us gamers had been holding our breath for all these years: A serious intellectual take on role-playing, which addressed an adult audience in an adult fashion.
It succeeded on that level.
Aria Worlds addressed world design from the ground up, and you could do it in any one of a dozen different ways. You could first design the planet and the ecology and build up from there; adventurers expanding their world through their travels could start small and get bigger as they went; you could even (very easily) pick an historical period and adapt it to game term (Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc.)
The book did not address much beyond the initial age of gunpowder. It was intended as a fantasy game supplement. And it did this very well.
Every possible factor is addressed – from political structure, to geography, to money & trade, to military to technology, and others that I don’t have the space to list. Every one of these is also quantified along a scale of progression so that describing a the technology of a particular race of people gives you insight as to their ingenuity, craftsmanship, and scientific prowess.
The biggest beef I have with this system is that magic is very difficult to work into these numeric factorings, because they are all based on Earth-bound, human race examples. Magic changes so much of the playing field that it is tough to quantify and the author chose to ignore it rather than try to assign numerical values to it. After all, how do you assign a value to the technology built up around magical smelting instead of old-fashioned fire-based?
The art is excellent, with several artist who have since become recognizable names (Liz Danforth). The additional graphics, tables, and charts are all well-done. This is the high point of desktop publishing – the entire thing obviously having been created on a home computer. Don’t let that stop you – it is a visually beautiful book and looks great on my shelf right next up there with The Castle in Medieval England and Wales.
Now – the bad part: you get a fully quantified world of exacting detail… with zero soul. In the end you have a huge pile of numbers, with possibly some scribbled notes on the bigger things in the nations/continent/planet, but so what? Things that aren’t addressed with a great amount of substance: languages, clothing, festivals & holidays (though briefly considered as a part of religion), customs and courtesies.
In short, all of the daily nuts & bolts that your characters you encounter while exploring new lands are left completely to the GM’s own design.
Normally that’s fine, but you just paid $30 for a beautiful and exhaustive book about world building. I enjoyed reading the book – the jargon took some getting used to, but once you get used to it the book is a joy to read. It is not overbearing (White Wolf) or dumbed-down (AD&D Historical References) but targeted just perfectly to the experienced role-player. However, when I was done, I was left feeling flat. It was like the ending to Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail: great build-up, enjoyable trip, flat ending. Think of the great college road-trip cross-country to … Fresno. That’s how I felt.
I would recommend this book used to someone who’s looking for help world-building. I’d recommend it new to the academic role-players out there (you know who you are) who enjoy seeing their hobby taken to another level. I’d highly recommend to the gaming scientists out there who want everything laid out in front of them step-by-step and piece-by-piece.
However, even once you’re through with the book, you’ll still have miles to go before you sleep.