Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Case for the Small and Complex

It's a truism that the world is getting more complex in the digital age. In fact, the truth is the world is in many ways much simpler than it used to be, and that complexity tends towards simplicity over time, growing merely complicated rather than complex.

One of the best examples of this is language. Ancient languages are much harder to learn than their modern equivalents. Chinese characters, when they were first invented, were insanely complex, requiring dozens and dozens of brushstrokes. Now they require orders of magnitude fewer. Old English nouns had five cases, three genders, and could be categorised as strong or weak. Modern English nouns basically do not have cases or genders. Japanese used to have counting systems for literally hundreds of different objects (including many different species of fish); now Japanese linguists observe that the counting systems are collapsing into a mere handful.

This is also true at the granular level: five hundred years ago people living in Cumbria would not have understood people living in Cornwall because they spoke different languages. Now almost nobody speaks Cornish and the Cumbrian dialect is basically standard English with a funny accent and a few odd words. The linguistic landscape of the British Isles is becoming ever more uniform as minority languages die out and dialects merge and flatten. Multiply this by a million for the rest of the world.

Law is the same. Once England was a patchwork of, in effect, different legal systems, for different regions, different purposes, different disputes. Five small towns in Kent, the Cinque Ports, had their own entirely separate courts. So did the Church of England. Now there's uniformity. Again, multiply that a million for the rest of the world - and add the universalizing effects of international commercial law.

And consider politics. Read Herodotus and you get the impression that almost every square metre of the ancient world had its own ethnic group, city-state, language, unique culture and fiercely independent ruler. Thracians, Phrygians, Scythians, Lydians, Lycians, Paphlagonians, Pamphylians... Just think of modern day Turkey - one country with one main language and ethnicity and a few minority groups - and compare it to Anatolia in the age of classical antiquity and you will see how much the world has simplified geo-politically.

Why do I harp on about this at such length? For many reasons small, dense campaign maps are to be favoured, but you can add realism to that list of reasons. Small geographical areas packed with different cultures, legal systems, languages, religions and polities reflect what a pre-modern world would be like.


  1. It's the ability to easily and conveniently participate in global communication, travel, and commerce that has led to the universalizing of language, law, and even culture (as filmmaking and pop music around the world looks more and more alike).

    In many fantasy campaign settings, such ease of communication and travel would probably be lacking without the facility of magic.

    1. I think global communication, travel and commerce have accelerated certain trends, but those trends were there in the first place.

      The effect of magic is interesting to think about. Would there be a universal common tongue for magic-users, who are the only people able to routinely travel long distances? Or is that how the common tongue developed in the first place?

    2. Actually, I was thinking of it as an excuse for use the generous "number of languages known" quantities found in older editions (Holmes, 1E). As magic-users have the highest INT, they would (of course) be expected to be "well-travelled," having been whisked hither and yon by their masters during a long apprenticeship.
      ; )

  2. Every time I start to work on a new setting or campaign, it gets smaller than the previous one. And so much better because of it. My current setting is only the size of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics, and that's all of the world I care to describe at all.

  3. I agree, and I definitely much prefer the smaller, richer setting these days. I loved Gygax's 50 mile wide Yggsburgh/Eastmark setting, for instance. A campaign setting the size of Britain, but centred in an area the size of Middlesex, is just about perfect IME.

  4. One trick I recommend for new worldbuilding GMs - instead of starting with a continental-size map, start with a map 1 mile to the hex (or cm) - and fill that map with a Skyrim-sized amount of cool stuff.

  5. The world is large and full of hotels. You cannot move quickly without a smoothness and the sweeping curve of an on ramp, cutting neatly through the maze of alleys, exposing their forgotten corners to the air.

  6. How long should it take for someone from Hamlet A to lrarlthe customs, laws and dialect of Hamlet B? Certainly there were differences, but were they so vast that a traveler (i.e. an adventurer) couldn't overcome them in a given period of time?