I want to finish up the topic of morality, gods, and cosmic forces in D&D-like games (previous installments were "Gods Against the Cosmos" and "Capital Morality".) This installment gets a little more practical and applies specifically to what I am planning for the namesake setting of this blog, the Nine and Thirty Kingdoms; it also incidentally addresses a passing thought Noisms expressed in today's Monsters and Manuals blogpost, on the subject of detail in gaming and fiction.
In yesterday's installment, I mentioned that the standard fantasy in many D&D-ish settings mixes medieval and classical influences, but leans more towards the latter than the former. D&D worlds tend to be superficially medieval, but with a pagan heart. If that is the intention, I argued, then why focus on Good and Evil as cosmic-level concepts, when that is so alien to polytheistic cultures? But the flipside to that example is to try for a more medieval feel, dropping the polytheism and having most NPCs worry about the state of their immortal soul, seeing demons everywhere. It's actually close to what I plan to do for the Nine and Thirty Kingdoms; I like the medieval-classical blended worlds, but I've long had a dream of a more medieval option as a break in the monotony.
There have been some products aimed at a more medieval setting, from Hârn to Yrth, but the approach of these settings seems all wrong to me. They seem to try for a medieval feel by looking up actual historical cultural details and listing them all, perhaps with some slight alteration to make a consistent, unique medievalesque fantasy setting. It's realism through enumeration. That can be useful for some, but a comment in Noism's post summed up how I feel about it: it's "obsession with the minutiae of the setting which categorises all geek pursuits from Star Trek to Dragon Ball Z and which sometimes feels like stamp collecting".
I call this the "rational detail" approach. The problem with it is that it's not very good for improvised or sandbox-style play. What I'd prefer is a handful general principles and themes that can be used to paint a setting with broad brushstrokes and give DMs a tool to improvise details within the boundaries of that setting. I call this the "leaping and lingering" approach, from the way descriptions work in Scottish border ballads: the writer leaps from scene to scene and focus to focus, treating each as if it were a snapshot of the total sequence of events, and lingers on a few details at each point to suggest the situation as a whole without enumerating every single detail within that situation.
To give a crude example of this approach in something more concrete than morality, consider dungeon design. Some first-time DMs make the mistake of just describing the monster, traps, and treasure in the room without any other detail. If a room has none of these, the DM describes it as empty, or gives a superficial detail to break the monotony of an empty room. Some designers try to help a DM avoid this situation by describing all the contents of a room in detail. A better approach, though, is just to label a room as "alchemist's storeroom" or "barracks", and list a few general points about the dungeon or its inhabitants that help distinguish them from other dungeons or creatures. Describing a dungeon as "ruins left over from the Bronze Age" allows a DM to improvise details suggest this: wooden features show signs of rot, metal tools and features are usually bronze or copper, and there's lots of rubble on the floor. If the players search the rubble in the "barracks", the DM can mention scraps of cloth and wool. In the "alchemist's storeroom", mention pot shards and powder residues. There are no lists made in advance, the DM just improvises based on the needs of the moment.
Back to the topic of medieval morality in a fantasy game, what we know or believe about Cosmic Good and Evil, or Law and Chaos, becomes one of these general principles used to improvise details about the setting. Knowing that a particular creature type is aligned with the forces of Good, and that the stereotypical associations with Good include "light" and things like halos, pleasant odors, self-sacrifice, and service, we can improvise details about its appearance and behavior that suggests a Good creature. Likewise, we can improvise details about Evil-aligned creatures, like a hint of scaliness, or or the odor of brimstone, or a fondness for inflicting pain. We don't need all the details in advance, just the general sketch of Evil and how this particular creature differs from the Evil norm.
However, in keeping with the "leaping and lingering" approach, I would not want to predefine the plans of the forces of Good and Evil, or the events in the upcoming cosmic battle. In fact, the cosmic battle might not even happen in the characters' lifetime. It's better in my opinion improvise details as needed, in keeping with the general principles of what Good and Evil want. Furthermore, the aim of the Nine and Thirty Kingdoms specifically is a sword & sorcery setting with a medieval feel, so despite the fact that the inhabitants of the Kingdoms believe in a cosmic battle, the focus is more on individuals with personal concerns influenced by their feelings about Good and Evil, instead of on large scale maneuvers of the cosmic forces. Even in a setting informed by cosmic forces, it's easier to manage a narrower human-level focus than a broader universal one, and easier to understand as well.