Thursday, August 8, 2013

Campaign Settings: The Western Environment

[Note: I apologize for the un-timeliness of this post. For those who haven't been following me, I've been a bit split writing for several other websites. Here I am trying to get back on track with this project.]

This is part of an ongoing series of articles regarding a setting I wanted to develop for role-playing. This article focuses on the environment of my "fantasy western" campaign setting. Since this is the first substantive article regarding this setting, I suspect it will have a lot of loose threads that would likely warrant a second visit once more of the characters, organizations, and cultures are better fleshed out.

Environment Concerns

When I use the phrase "Western themed," one of my intents is for the setting to have the look and feel of classic western film. From an environmental perspective, I expect this world to look a lot like sparsely settled Arizona or eastern California. High plateaus, vast plains, deserts, and rocky badlands make up the bulk of the terrain. There may be pockets of dense forest here and there, perhaps nestled away in a secluded valley, but most of the world will have sparse vegetation. Shrubs and cactus are most of the green a resident of this world expects to sees on a day-by-day basis.

There is some vegetation, but the color palette is
made up of mostly reds and browns.
This raises an important question, though. Contrary to what Star Wars tells us, the idea of the single-biome planet seems unbelievable considering the biome diversity we see here on Earth. Keeping that in mind, there has to be a reason why the entire world would look like iconic images of the Old American West. Taking a cue from Dark Sun (and, as previously stated, Wild Arms 3), this is a world that has suffered some sort of catastrophe and is slowly dying. The catastrophic event may be in the past, but its effect can still be felt to this day.

Classic Western style!
Water and Oceans

Filgaia, the world of Wild Arms 3, is interesting because it has no oceans. Instead, it has a sea of sand that the party must traverse with a sand ship. I spent a significant amount of time considering whether this would be something to implement within my own "fantasy western" setting. It emphasized the decaying world message really effectively but it also felt a little bit... well, silly. It was hard in my mind to determine how a sea of sand wasn't just, well, a desert.

Right. Sailing... on sand.
Maybe it was just not translated properly, but the idea of having an ocean of sand just didn't quite feel right. Dark Sun's Athas presents a somewhat more acceptable alternative: the Sea of Silt. It's not an ocean of sand but instead fine silt that the braver souls of Athas traverse using silt skimmers. This seemed like the right kind of aesthetic for my fantasy western.

No ocean is too deep when you're a giant, I guess.
The other option that I considered (and may potentially integrate down the line) is that the oceans of this world are actually water. However, this water would be extremely saline. Imagine a world where the ocean is salty similar to the Great Salt Lake or, more appropriately, the Dead Sea. Like the sea of silt, the salt sea would be a harsh environment that is inhospitable to most life.

At World's End

Why is the world dying? Why have the oceans turned to salt and silt? Honestly, I prefer to take something of a sandbox approach to this issue. People have theories, but the truth will depend on the players. Of course, as I go on, I will elucidate different possibilities as to why the world is dying, usually colored by the perspectives of people that live in it, but none of them should be considered necessarily true. Like the destruction of Cyre by the Mourning, the catastrophe that is causing this world's slow death should be something of a mystery that develops as a party plays through a campaign.

Expansive, dusty plateaus that need be traversed
by horseback seem the right style. 
For now, I intend to just leave it as that. This is a world of sparse vegetation, dusty plateaus, and sandy deserts. It's as if somebody built a single-biome continent that looked like Arizona and was surrounded by a sea of silt (or very salty water).