Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Intellectual Stickup Artist

In some dimly-remembered science course during my college years, the topic of an “open universe” versus an “oscillating one” was discussed. To briefly summarize, the open universe theory postulates that the universe is expanding ever outwards and will continue to do so. The oscillating theory surmises that, if there is sufficient matter in the universe, this outward spread will eventually slow, then reverse direction as matter collapses back in upon itself and returns to the densely compact point it was prior to the Big Bang.

For the record, I’m hoping it’s an oscillating universe: the idea that this universe may just be one turn of many on the cosmic wheel speaks to me on a deep level. But the other reason I’m an oscillating universe fan is what it might mean for time. Although we obviously can’t know for certain, there is one theory that, as the universe contracts, the flow of time will also reverse itself, perhaps allowing that which has once been to be yet again.

It’s a fun theory, one good for cocktail parties or in between bong hits and I’ve never forgotten it (despite the cocktails and bong hits). I’ve long wanted to do something with it in a game, but since I’ve never been one for GURPS Time Travel or the Doctor Who RPG, the opportunity hasn’t appeared—at least, until now.

As T.S. Eliot wrote in a review that is forever being misquoted or paraphrased: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Now, I may be mature or immature, but I’m certainly going to be stealing from all those authors who I listed as influences to build this new campaign world. The trick was trying to decide how to squeeze all the bits that interest me into a single setting without cluttering up the place. The oscillating universe theory allows me to do exactly that.

This new setting is one where the universe is contracting and the previous ages of the world now are being replayed. From the pinnacle of evolution and scientific advancement, the world has now devolved into a new ancient period; a time when civilization was still a new phenomenon and the world a much rawer place. Because of the collapse of linear time, empires that are simulacra of previous eras have risen again and the events that have occurred long, long ago are being reenacted with new roles cast in the cosmic play.

As the world resurrects its ancient empires in new guises, it’s also become a temporary sanctuary for beings from the stars that have fled their planetary homes ahead of the inward collapse of the universe. On this world, some of these races hide amongst the teeming masses, some raise themselves as gods, and others merely gorge themselves on the unwitting inhabitants.

Because of the fluid nature of time, most of the world is completely unaware that the cosmic clock is winding down. Time still seems linear, although the past has become a muddied thing. Those wise enough or mad enough to perceive that the universe is in its death throes have fled this world to other dimensions, universes, or at least worlds closer to the universal center. In their wake, they’ve left behind the gates, platforms, and portals that lead to these unexplored places. Most of these portals were one-way, but a few have allowed things from other dimensions to walk in this world unannounced. And as time continues to break down, relics from previous ages begin to take the stage again. Maybe a cluster of dinosaurs has returned to play out that epoch in some peaceful valley or dark jungle.

I think I’ve just about stolen from everyone with this setting. Dying world? Check off Vance and Smith. Ancient empires that look familiar and exist side by side? There’s my nod to Howard’s Hyboria. Aliens from the outer black terrorizing this world, hiding amongst us, or being worshipped as gods? Paging Mr. Lovecraft. I think you can squeeze Burroughs’ Martian tales in with either the dying world, the relics from other times, travel to other worlds, or—oh! Did I mention this world is hollow? I don’t quite have a suitable Moorcockian antihero vibe going, but I’ll leave that up to the PCs to explore. They’ve got a good start on “shades of grey” Leiber urban fantasy motif.

The one thing that I don’t want to do is make this too much of a sci-fi setting dressed up in magical armor. Others are already doing a much better job of that. The pulp swords & sorcery theme allows me to throw a bit of sci-fi in if I so please, but it’s not going to be a recurring event (other than the alien angle but that’s more of a “look what came here by flying through cold vacuum” thing than “Hey, a saucer just landed!”). This is why I latched onto universal collapse instead of nuclear war as the reason for a return ancient civilization levels. There’s less rayguns and hard radiation hanging around that way.

Of course, this is all just a framework for my benefit and none of it really impacts the characters. They’re just adventurers out for coin, fame, and glory. Having this sort of structure in the back of my head serves me by providing loose guidelines as to what I can include and yet still have an overall pattern to the mess. Even that is tertiary to the players’ and my own enjoyment.

It’s not the greatest campaign concept ever but I’m not looking for that. I just want to find an angle that keeps me and the players excited and coming back for more. This one seems like the perfect balm for a soul weary of a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting and I’m looking forward to building on this framework and eager to see what the players (and their PCs) do with it.


Mel said...

Absolutely cool!

Timeshadows said...

Very interesting, Michael.

Blair said...

The Wilderlands always struck me as a setting that could be an artifact of a universe with oscillating/cyclical time with the weird combination of futuristic and ancient elements. Ruins of Atlantis, Faux Vikings and Mig Jets...

Timeshadows said...

@Blair: Wilderlands was explained to be a far-future Post Apocalypse setting on a Dragonsfoot fora discussion. The evidence seemed compelling.
--I cannot remember if it was in General or one of the D&D Settings threads.

Chris said...

Excellent kitchen sink justification Mike.

Doesn't Jeff's Cinder setting work on a similarly wobbly temporal basis? I recall a post of his about how various historical ages each see the other as being part of their past...

nothing said...

Current science strongly suggests that we live in a "flat" universe.

Really informative lecture.

Cameron Wood said...

It’s not the greatest campaign concept ever but I’m not looking for that. I just want to find an angle that keeps me and the players excited and coming back for more. This one seems like the perfect balm for a soul weary of a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting[.]

It's perfect, but I'm biased: I left the game back in the day because of that same weariness. I have to admit that these days I'm of the opinion that the World of Greyhawk campaign setting was not such a good thing for the hobby - it chiseled too many tropes in stone. Even WotC's latest Ebarron setting is obliged to carry some of that faux-dark ages baggage.

Got my theories on why that is, of course, but that's a blog post for another day.

Anonymous said...

Great idea for combining the influences you mentioned, and keeping pretty much every option you might ever need open to you.

Scallop Skulled Skald said...

Perhaps the best inspirational reading you can find for such a setting is Gene Wolfe's tetralogy The Book of the New Sun. The book is available in a two volume set, each volume encompassing two of the original novels.

You'll either love the books or hate them, but given your inspirational reading list, and the particulars of the setting you describe, it's a safe bet that you'd enjoy them.