A Guide to RPG Design

by

Ramsey “Tome Wyrm” Lundock

Part 3

Close the Circuits

 

One of the basic principles of any kind of electronics is that power will flow only through closed circuits which form a complete circle. (Sometimes this circle involves a lightning rod or the body of an unwary electrician, but there is always a closed circle). But a ‘circuit’ doesn’t have to be electronic. It can refer to any circular journey. So this basic principle applies to your game world as well: unless you close the circuits, power won’t flow.

The most important circuits to worry about are the ecological and economic ones.

The first refers to the ‘circle of life’ also known as the food chain, where plants are eaten by herbivores, which are in turn eaten by carnivores, which return nutrients to the soil through their excrement and their bodies after death. This is of course an over simplification. A single ‘loop’ around the circuit might involve half a dozen predator/prey relations, not to mention scavengers, omnivores, parasites, fungi, etc. Every year scientists discover new surprises about Earth’s complex, diverse ecosystem, so no one honestly expects you to plan out the entire ecosystem of your world (and if you did, no one would want to take the time to read it), but don’t populate your wildernesses with nothing but giant predators who exist for no other reason than to attack the adventurers.

Although it is important to close the large scale circuits, your readers are more likely to notice the small scale ecological imbalances. Simply put, everywhere you have a concentration of living creatures, be it a city, a dungeon, or a spaceship, you need to include ways to get food, water, and fresh air (oxygen) in; as well as a means to get refuse, waste water, and stale air (carbon-dioxide) out.

Economic systems are also circular. The first economic transactions were barter: I give you something and I get something. This is a simple circle between two people. A famous example of an economic circuit is the “Golden Triangle” of 17th and 18th Century Atlantic. This trade circuit operated between Europe, Africa, the New World, and back to Europe; trading rum for slaves, slaves for sugar, and sugar for rum along each leg of the journey respectively. This example also shows that an “economically viable” system is not necessarily “moral.”

Money complicates the issue, allowing loops involving numerous people who may be unaware of all of the participants, but the basic principle remains the same, everyone has to give something and everyone has to get something. Even in the case of imperial Rome, which lived off taxes collected from the empire “importing everything, exporting only power,” you need to remember that “power” (military strength of arms, police services, government administration) is a valuable commodity. How people in the outskirts of the empire felt about Rome, and whether or not they wanted those services, is a different matter, which does not change the fact that taxes<–> power, is viable economic circuit.

Even criminal activity must obey the laws of economics. Pirates and other robbers don’t steal for the joy of burying the treasure; they fully intend to spend the loot somewhere. Unless there was someone willing to do business with the thieves and monsters in your world, there would be no reason for them to steal money. And as ironic as it sounds, through various exchanges, this money must make it back into the hands of the very people who were robbed (or others like them). Unless the victims have a chance to earn back what was taken from them, the victims would soon run out of money, thus the thieves would run out of victims, and the entire cycle would collapse.

When creating your circuits, you can’t include the player characters. Almost by definition the player characters break the preexisting circuits. For example, rescuing a princess breaks the ransom-for-hostage circuit. This means that every treasure, person, or weapon the characters liberate from the enemy was intended for some other use; it wasn’t put there just for the characters to find. So rather than throwing in a pile of currency or a cache of high-tech weapons to reward the player characters, put serious through into where those items came from, and where they were intended to go.

Player characters will establish their own circuits, but those will play out over the course of the game and are not necessarily part of the prepared setting.

In a perfect world, all of the cycles would be closed. But Earth is not a perfect world. There are numerous examples where a new species is introduced to an area “short circuiting” the local ecology by taking too much and not giving back the nutrients in a form that other organisms have evolved to accept. In economics, if one person or group spends without producing it leads to a variety of social problems involving indebtedness and poverty. You should feel free to include “short circuits” in your setting (a dragon who hordes treasure without spending it; or a vampire who preys on humans without returning any nutrients to the soil), provided that you realize that these short circuits are not viable over the long term. And if you let the realistic consequences of these short circuits play out in your world, your readers will be amazed by the realism of your setting.

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