Worldbuilding – A Planetary Perspective

Just a few months ago, scientists discovered a planet not too far from us (on an astronomical scale), that may be able to support life.  In reading some of the descriptions of this planet, I began to consider some assumptions that we make about the D&D worlds that we create.  One in particular was a little game changing for me, pardon the pun.  First, here are the two articles so you can see where I’m coming from. One Two

Here’s the key passage that really struck me, from the first article:

“This world is tidally locked to its red dwarf sun and doesn’t have days and nights.  Half of the planet is perpetually drenched in sunlight while the other side is draped in darkness.” 

Think about that for a minute.  Because, when we create a D&D world, we generally assume that the world rotates on its axis, creating day and night, and that it’s tilted on its axis, creating seasons, exactly like our earth.  In reality, however, there is quite a variety of planetary relationships in our universe.  Even in our solar system, we’ve got Uranus rotating on its side, and Saturn which has huge rings that are certainly visible in the day and night sky.  How would inhabitants of Uranus (keep the jokes to yourself) measure time or seasons? What would the inhabitants of Saturn think of the “stripes” across the sky?

These are important things to consider when building a world from scratch because, even if we don’t think about it, our planet’s position and behaviors affect our lives every day.  Were the earth to rotate differently, or be farther from the sun, life as we know it would not exist.

Certainly, science fiction is a much better resource to begin addressing these issues than fantasy fiction.  Science fiction authors have long pondered what alien worlds and alien life look like (news flash: it looks a lot like some of the things you find in the Monster Manuals).  And while some science fiction may seem more appropriate for a setting like Gamma World, we also need to consider things like planetary position and the number of moons (or suns!) a world has when designing a fantasy setting as well.

So, let’s try doing a very rough sketch of a fantasy setting based on this new planet Gleise.

For starters, the obvious: one side of the planet is perpetually day, and the other is perpetually night. As such, there would also have to be a band of “twilight.”  So right away, you have this built in area of physical darkness, and to reach it, adventurers would have to travel through the twilight that grows gradually darker the farther in they go.  Of course, the types of creatures that exist on the night side of the planet would be vastly different from the ones that dwell on the dayside, and they would be different from the ones that dwell in the (you knew this was coming) twilight zone.

Now think of some of the other implications to this type of planet.

First, how is time measured? We measure time in several ways.  We count nights and days.  We watch the phases of the moon.  We observe the seasons.  But a tidally locked planet could conceivably have none of these things.  The bloated red sun hangs suspended in the exact same place in the sky all the time, and without an axis tilt, there would be no seasons.  Even if there were seasons, they would be very short, considering a “year” on this planet only lasts 13 earth days!  Would a creature in such a place have the same perception of time that we do?  On the other hand, creatures living in perpetual night might have a well developed awareness of time, based upon their ability to observe the movement of stars and planets.

It is also likely that creatures living on the day side of the planet would have a strong fear of the night side, and vice versa.  Dayside creatures would have adapted to a life of perpetual light and warmth, so it stands to reason that such a creature would never venture much past the planet’s “early twilight.”  Night side creatures would not be able to deal with the constant light on the other side of the planet, and they may go a little bit crazy without a way to measure time. 

It’s probably safe to assume that day and night side inhabitants know little of one another. In the absence of information, superstitions and myths grow.  Of course, some of those myths could be true.  Dungeons & Dragons has a great list of monsters that are well-suited to the dark, and populating the planet with them would not be hard.

So there’s a quick sketch to get you thinking about how planetary position and movement can have a drastic effect on your game world.  It didn’t take me long to come up with those ideas, and certainly with a bit more thought, you could come up with more, or take things in an entirely different direction.  Explore some astronomy*, and begin to think about how you can drastically change up your game worlds, not just by changing the landscape (jungle, snow and ice, desert), but by changing the planet.  That’s my challenge.  Are you up for it?

*If you need a starting point, try Europa and a Water Genasi campaign

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4 Responses to Worldbuilding – A Planetary Perspective

  1. Nathan Smith says:

    This is cool, I must have missed the news reports on this new planet. You give a great outline of the different world building elements that would need to go into creating a campaign on such a planet.

    One book you will find interesting is “Avatar: An Activist Survival Guide” I was amazed at just how much scientific detail Cameron and his team went into to build Pandora.

    Pandora has an unusual day & night cycle due to it having two suns. I believe somewhere in the book it mentions that the darkest nights on Pandora never actually get all that dark.

    It’s a very good read 🙂

    • Benoit says:

      I’ll have to check that out. It’s interesting to know how much work went into designing the Avatar world, when much of those details went unseen in the movie. But I’m sure having the background filled in made the movie that much more realistic, even if the viewers were never privy to it.

  2. Bartoneus says:

    Re: Avatar – doing a lot of background work on the setting isn’t really worth all that much when you don’t spend enough time making sure the movie itself is written well. 😀

    The beginning part of this article was pretty eye-opening to me, and immediately started me on brainstorming what various types of worlds would be like without seasons, day/night, with a stationary sun. I’ve seen a few fantasy settings similar, but it’s very interesting to start on a big scale and thinking so well outside of the bounds of assumed setting we get in most fantasy worlds. I love it, thanks!

    • Benoit says:

      Yeah, I think everyone knew how that movie was going to end about ten minutes in. Predictable plot aside, it was beautifully done. Fun fact: I don’t know if you play Living Forgotten Realms, but that setting has “airborne islands” (called Earthmotes) similar to the ones in Avatar. I think worldbuilding is one of the places Science Fiction and Fantasy Fiction really have heavy overlap.

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