A Whole New Civilization Over the Valley

Tull from "The Gunslinger" by Stephen King;
Art by Michael Whelan
Games like Dungeon Crawl Classics make the suggestion that one should strive for a smaller scale world - a world where the way to find out what is in the next valley is to go to that next valley. Maybe there's travelers who can give you some hints of what is out there if you're lucky, but if you want to be sure, you need to go there.

I'm a big fan of works like A Song of Ice and Fire which deals with large nation-states, battles for the throne, long distance travel, worldwide threats and organizations. That's pretty far in the opposite direction.

I got to thinking what are some examples of works that focus on a smaller world. Worlds where when you go into a new village it feels different, with a whole new set of traditions. It's been a while since I read Jack Vance's Dying Earth series but that is one inspiration that came to mind quickly. It's also something you see in his science fiction - the novel/collection Ports of Call is a great example of of this, where every place the characters visit is greatly different from the last one.

A more modern example that came to mind was Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Though it is in many ways an epic fantasy with multiple worlds, the main setting is a world that has "moved on". Time is funny, the great civilizations have fallen. However, people live on. Throughout the protagonist Roland's journeys, we see a variety of settlements, all distinct from one another. From memory, I can think of several:

  • Gilead - Seen only in flashbacks, once a shining beacon of civilization, now just ruins.
  • Tull - In The Gunslinger, a stereotypical "Old West" town, with a honkytonk bar and a revivalist preacher.
  • Great Western Woods - seen in The Waste Lands. We don't see any civilization here but we do see remnants of one, a rather primitive one.
  • River Crossing - Also in The Waste Lands, inhabited solely by old men and women who give the heroes a well needed rest and provide them with some idea as to where they are headed and what transpired here.
  • Lud - A great ruined city in The Waste Lands, it is nearly abandoned, with rival tribes eking out a living and making sacrifices to a PA system which occasionally plays ZZ Top.
  • Hambry - Capital of Mejis, the main location for the flashbacks in Wizard and Glass. Roland and his companions are sent here, primarily for their own safety, only to uncover a plot against Gilead. Mejis has the feeling of a southwestern American or northern Mexican town, with its large cattle ranches. It is also home to numerous ruins of the world before (the Citgo) and a creature/location where reality breaks down (the Thinny).
  • Calla Bryn Sturgis - The main location of Wolves of the Calla, a friendly settlement with the unusual trait that nearly all births are twins. Like other settlements, it has remnants of the world before, including a robot that provides occasionally useful information.
Each of these is a distinct setting. If one were running a game set in this world, most of them would be able to support a fairly lengthy campaign. As I've gained in experience in the DM-ing front, I've finally begun learning one doesn't need to create everything. It's a tough habit to break, as world-building is a fun activity. However, overdoing it runs the risk of creating things which never get used and worse, needlessly constrain yourself in the future.

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