A year ago, I’ve started following Exponential View (shameless plug, my sister works there!), a smart, deep, multifaceted email wondermissive and podcast. Exponential View talks about our world here and now, and reminds me of both the brilliant exponential leaps that our civilization is making, and the exponential problems that arise from not rolling well along the way. I love to digest EV, mostly because it represents a great study of real-life worldbuilding by untangling the complex relations of economy, philosophy, technology and ecology. It’s a great inspiration for building complex fictional worlds. Every weekly article includes a climate breakdown section, reminding us of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and counting the days until we reach the 450ppm threshold.
Reaching the 450 parts per million threshold for CO2 has some very real consequences:
Such concentrations of greenhouse gases trigger carbon cycle and ice/melt water interaction feedbacks, threatening to release methane from permafrost, bogs and sediments. Further rise in atmospheric carbon gases will result in advanced melting of the polar ice and an irreversible shift out of the conditions of the Holocene (since 10,000 years ago) which allowed development of agriculture and of civilization. […]
Geological records show that, on current trajectories of CO2 increase, we are likely to see sea level rise by around 25 meters, with temperatures 2- 3°C higher and permanent El Nino conditions.Et cetera, ad infinitum…
We are currently at around 410ppm. We have around 3940 days before we reach 450ppm, and our carbon footprint is just barely able to budge towards what we need it to become. While thinking about this, feeling uniquely small and human, and talking to friends about what to do to help (as everyone can help in their own small and human way after all), I realized I’ve never seen a man-made catastrophe quite like this in an RPG. It might seem quite disturbing for my thinking to go from “our world as we know it is going to be irrevocably changed in 4000 days” to “how do I put this into D&D?”, but making my players and potential readers aware of these problems in the coming days is the most I can muster to spread awareness of the problem. None of us can solve this issue, but more of us just might.
Eco-fantasy in Roleplaying Games
Except for the occasional diamond in the rough (like Blue Planet seems to be), ecology is mostly not a living factor in RPGs. Even settings that build their world on large ecological catastrophes (vis any post-apocalyptic setting) seldom venture into exploring the ecological system as an active participant, rather just presenting it as an obstacle for player characters to overcome or work around. Furthermore, civilizations are seldom presented in a state of exponential development while crossing these thresholds: the apocalypse happened, and we’re past it. At the other extreme, humanity is thriving but somehow not affecting nature much in a global way: cities might be affected and dirty, but forests are still lush and there has been little to no man-made change to the environment.
There are many good reasons for the omission of these elements in RPGs: the story of a party of characters is usually a personal story, limited in scope, not in grandeur. The party can solve a number of problems by brute force or ingenuity, and albeit some of these problems might result in a global problem, they seldom are global problems to begin with. From the standpoint of a story, it would be hard to fight the world, and even harder to model and present the world if a force can change it globally at a whim. Societal problems (racism, sexism, etc.) can be introduced into an RPG and are similarly hard to present in a way that can be resolved by the players satisfyingly. These are solved through perseverence: characters usually ignore the problem at the beginning, as it makes the players feel awkward (and it should, if it’s introduced at all!); as they become famous in the problematic environment, their values are distilled into the environment itself, thus leading to greater understanding and a better society. What makes such a development possible is the fact that these societal problems are in their nature expressible through a game about social conflicts, and most RPGs are just that. Why is it then that ecological problems are presented less often?
The Wisdom of Ages
One reason, a pretty obvious one, is that some problems are more often engaged with in every day life. There’s a level of acceptance for talking about issues in a social context, and it might just be that ecology is still finding a place there. This reason should be taken down as soon as possible. Another reason is the cost of change: humanity wants to advance, and that means that we have accepted certain risks and costs, and once they’ve become the norm, even if we ourselves stop, the world continues on. What I got to understand from this is that this path is still following the Hero’s Journey monomythic structure: the hero creates a change that they then learn to hate after embedding it deep into the structure of their environment. The only real difference is that in this case, the Hero is a whole civilization and the journey takes ages… Fantasy grants us a nifty tool to visualize this in a less abstract way: nigh-immortal creatures like elves might receive such wisdom in one lifetime! If elves were of the same progressive nature as humans, one can imagine a parallel industrial revolution taking place. They would discover the same things we did, make the same mistakes, but where we have the opportunity to disappear and not witness the damage we did first-hand, the elves would have to care personally. If they had 10 years to solve a problem that would put their world on a destructive path, knowing that they were going to survive it a hundredfold, what would they do?
Interestingly, many of the answers to this question lead me to the default image of nature-friendly, slow-in-wisdom elves that fantasy loves to portray. The errors of their way would probably linger around them, depending on how far they got with development, and how fast they understood that they need to change. Imagining the interactions with humans and other short-lived races becomes interesting through this lens: elves will still be there when the humans die out due to the changes they provoke, and the world might not be what they wish for. Will they really be content to let these races make such an impact?
Would elves, for whom human lifetimes are but a fraction of their lives, feel that these small yet impactful changes (for good or bad) are somehow special in an otherwise boring universe? It is known that nature would revert to its own ways in an objectively short timespan if humanity disappeared, so would the elves wait both them and the destruction out, like a cinemagoer waits out the apocalypse on the screen with popcorn in their hands? This is just a bundle of ideas that can be put into the backdrop of any game, to make it feel more real, or just more sinister.
The Old Ways are Gone
How does one write ecology into an RPG? I’ve spent some time thinking about this. Session 0 should establish that this world is changing and the changes are dire. Not for the world, but for the people. Furthermore, the world isn’t changing as a result of its own cycle, but rather this change is inflicted by the people, including the characters. It may be the same industrial rise to power as in our world, it might be the abundant use of magic that no one knew was slowly draining the world.
If the characters are used to the world as-is (rules as written), some of those rules could gradually be house-ruled in a way that makes them slightly less useful. The characters can discover this through use, for a more immersive time. All spells might have a chance of failing in some peculiar way, maybe taking away a bit of the character’s memory with it. The introduction of this option to fail shouldn’t be something that would stop the world from functioning — quite the contrary, you should investigate ways in which it can be overruled, maybe by some magical cascade that guarantees 99% “spell uptime”, but drains the world even further. Look at our technological developments for ideas, for instance the link between global warming and bitcoin. Sprinkle these around, make them contribute in minuscule ways.
Next, thread the plot of your story beats around the change that happened in the natural environment around your characters. For example, if the location where the party mostly is had seasons before, how can we introduce conflicts and encounters if the seasons disappear or change? Fantasy, again, gives us many possibilities in this domain: there are races that have connections to seasons, such as the Eladrin. These are elves of the Feywild, with the following trait:
Shifting Seasons. At the end of each short or long rest, you can align yourself with the magic of one season, regardless of the season that is dominating your personality. Doing so allows you to cast a certain cantrip, as shown in the Shifting Seasons Cantrips table. When you align yourself with a season’s magic, you lose the cantrip associated with the previous season and gain the cantrip associated with the new season. Your spellcasting ability for these cantrips is Intelligence or Charisma, whichever is higher.
Would global warming bring the eladrin (and other elementals) closer to being bipolar — as summers become harsher, would they go into their summer season more often, only to then feel drained enough to go directly for a sorrowful winter feeling? The world influences races like these very actively, so using them more often can make the non-social natural world gain a personality. The turmoil of the world can therefore be shown in an active way. What would it be like if Eladrin had 4000 days until they’re bound to lose mental stability? All of a sudden, this is a very different question than it was before.
Another group of beings that would drastically be influenced by environmental changes are deities: for example, the power of Auril, the goddess of winter might be waning, and she wouldn’t be happy about it. Where nature itself is content with our influence today, Auril might not be, and it’s interesting to think about how and what she’d do with this situation. The characters might even be champions of such a deity, working on solving their issue in some way. Solving this issue, however, might not be possible, and certainly not within a given time frame. Would the goddess disappear midway through? What happens then? Or does she forge an alliance with some other deity that is thriving, surviving as best she can, in a changed way? What does it mean for a deity to be so moved by the wills and acts of mortals that its power shifts drastically?
It is quite captivating to think about nature that wouldn’t wait around for us to make the errors we are making, but stop us in our tracks, but this opens up some deeper questions: is the existence of such forces why fantasy is constantly in the middle ages, developmentally? Is being in that time frame a good thing that we might soon forget? We’ll see in 4000 days.