Worldbuilding Chronicles Part I: My Date with Catastrophe Jane/Joe

Ninth Doctor and Rose in Doctor Who “The End of the World”

After spending a significant amount of time playing Civilization V this Labor Day weekend, I got the bug to start worldbuilding again.  My own world has remained dormant for several years now and it seemed time to return to the project.  The notes were scattered around, and while reviewing what survived several primary computer jumps, the history (or lack thereof) jumped off the page, and my mind centered on a question that has been bugging me for several years now during my numerous excursions through fantasy RPG land:

Why do most major fantasy roleplaying settings, as well as numerous homebrew settings, incorporate a major catastrophe, one which caused such massive destruction that it threw the world into a lengthy dark age?

Many fantasy RPGs (Pathfinder and Earthdawn are my personal favorites.) contain this idea of a significant event that eliminates the trajectory of the setting and represents some type of rebirth to an age where the game begins.  This framework is quite common and is becoming more ingrained in both commercial and homebrew settings.  My own setting contained a massive plague that had wiped out most of the world’s population (which is nothing like King’s The Stand) and where civilization was just clawing back to a state of normalcy.  I have encountered many variations of this framework over the years, but it seems to be defined by these stages:

  1. Colossal Catastrophe – An event of global proportions ruins the world’s current development.  This event comes in the form of a crashing celestial body (in both senses of the word “celestial”); a global meteorological event, possibly an ice age; a massive plague or illness, usually indiscriminate of fantasy race; or a magical event, often one that restricts or inhibits the ability to practice magic.
  2. The Loss of All History Prior to the Catastrophe – The history becomes either lost, buried, or guarded by some sentinel being or fantasy race.
  3. A Gaming World that Starts Numerous Centuries after this Catastrophe – The default game setting takes place at a time far removed from the catastrophe, and much of the default exposition and geopolitical systems account for only a small portion of the time being the catastrophe and the default time.

I am not going to take a critical stance on this trope, as it can be useful in fleshing out a fantasy world, particularly homebrew settings that require an extensive amount of bottom-to-top construction.  My question is what aspects of setting generation and worldbuilding prompt the use of this trope.  Why does it feel like a natural, often expected, convention to use when crafting ye old Republic of Old/Middle English Place Name?  More to the point, has it become a required element that must be present to address the audience’s expectation or assist in the suspension of disbelief necessary to engage with a fantasy setting.  I have some thoughts, but I would like to hear other opinions on the matter.

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9 thoughts on “Worldbuilding Chronicles Part I: My Date with Catastrophe Jane/Joe

  1. kalathur says:

    The cynic in me says that the prevalence in rpg settings is to explain the existence of rare magical artifacts, macguffins, etc. Having the people who crafted them extinction-ed is an easy way to ensure they stay rare and mysterious.

    It also functions to create a sense of precariousness in regards to the current ruling structures and give ‘save the world’ type quests a sense of urgency and legitimacy.

    I think the hangup on a lost golden age is one of those things endemic to the history of western civ, with various cultures (Holy Roman Empire, enlightenment England) claiming to be the natural or intellectual successors of Rome.

    • I strongly agree with your first reason, especially in magic-heavy systems where the magitech and godlike relics can be justified as something from the “lost age.”

      Your third point is also interesting, since there is something romanticized about past nostalgia and the belief of “rediscovering the past.” This romanticism seems prevalent in our modern times, when, as Cutler Becket says in Pirates of the Caribbean, that the edges of the map are being filled in. Fantasy settings, particularly in incorporating the “lost age” framework, allow people to escape such notions and truly believe in worlds without the map being complete.

      • kalathur says:

        A symptom of modernist dissatisfaction and ennui expressing itself in craving for a more stable world in fictional history, or pomo acceptance that the world is fundamentally unknowable? Hrm. You have me thinking now.

      • It could be a symptom of dissatisfaction. What interests me is that if the catastrophe narrative is indeed an expression of present day fears, is it possible to craft fantasy worlds, for prose or tabletop purposes, that exists without it?

  2. kalathur says:

    On one hand, natural catastrophes and cyclical plagues and decaying power structures are just an inescapable part of life on earth. Nature red of tooth and claw and all that.

    On the other, events that shake the ENTIRE world and render everyone back at point zero seem super unlikely and grossly ethnocentric.

    • I agree with the ethnocentrism part. Humans seem to emerge from the catastrophe as the “resourceful” race who tend to dominate the geopolitical landscape. There are obvious exceptions, but it does seem strange that humans remain the dominant post-catastrophe race.

      I understand that in most tabletop settings, humans function as a baseline archetype for those not wishing to experience other fantasy races, but it would curious to see how humans as a minor race would radically impact a tabletop’s mechanics and aesthetic.

      • kalathur says:

        Historically, in fantasy the Age of Man has always been a thinly veiled allegory for the Age of First World White Handwringing. Tolkein employed it to stage a critique of the industrial revolution and the loss of idyllic pastoral society, Howard employed it in the Conan-verse to portray an us vs them cycle of civilization, barbarians, and savages. In Planet of the Apes the Man as Minority is deployed as an allegory for postcolonial panic over western civilization losing its vitality and the fear that the Savage Other would rise up in its place. All of them were reacting to post-Victorian theories of evolution and the fear of post-empirical fracture in european hegemony, I think.

      • Within this vein of discussion, I find Pathfinder’s Golarion most interesting, because particularly within the human ethnic groups, you see striking parallels to a European-colonial version of the world. They are drawn rather closely from their Earthen parallels across Europe, Africa, and Asia, and even engage in activities that mimic our own versions of history. I have often wondered if this decision was made out of simplicity (with all of the whitewashing that comes with it) or some type of cultural projection that speaks to larger issues about the modern human condition and its position to history.

  3. Ryan P. says:

    I feel like having some sort of event, not neccisarily a catastrophe, helps to frame a sense of struggle or conflict. Something has Happened. It implies a world in motion, where the status quo isn’t what had been expected and the future is unsure.

    I know that for my own homebrew world, I have an event that has occured/is occuring where the entire world is being engulfed by perpetual night. It happens slowly over many centuries and I’ve had games going at various points in the timeline.

    While the players haven’t always directly engaged this event and the causes/effects, the story is still there in the background. It helps me form a context for WHY things are happening, not just that they are.

    It should be possible to build a world without this kind of event in it but this should be dependent on the type of story being told. If your story is about city guards/police protecting the municipality, there may not be a need for some huge event to occur that provides context for the story. The context is in the roles being portrayed by the characters and the way they engage with those roles. However, for stories that focus on larger stories there might be an increase of these events to provide greater context for the world.

    Take my fantasy homebrew setting, for example: My world is a “complete” world, with nations and factions and extraplanar threats. Now, those large-scale things may not matter much to Joe Farmer who is trying to protect his family from bandits. The larger event need not ever be even mentioned. However, for Hero McHeroson, who deals with kings and demons and whatnot, the overarching event provides a context for the things they do. Bigger characters/personalities need bigger context.

    tl;dr… Sure, it may not be neccisary but I think it adds another level of color to a world.

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