RPGaDay 2021 #11: Wilderness

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Wilderness”, which is quite a staple of fantasy-based roleplaying games.

The origin of the common trope of civilization versus wilderness likely has its origin in the medieval period. In the Middle Ages, life outside of towns and villages was absolutely dangerous. “Wilderness” was an area just outside of the confines of town. In a place such as the Netherlands, this is unimaginable nowadays. The Dutch approach to wilderness is to neatly cordon off a natural area, and put down a sign saying “this area is intentionally left unmanaged.” This contrasts heavily to my wife’s experience of countryside, given her life growing up in the US: there, stray animals roam the streets and carry disease and danger. Outside of the city, there’s large stretches of wild forest where whatever might happen. That, actually, is much more like medieval life in Europe: going out into the forest is risking death, as wild animals with little fear for humans roam there. That’s why “outlaw” is a term for criminal nowadays—you were placed outside of the law of a lord, which was a realm of safety. In 15th-century Germany, that was called vogelfrei: you were as free as a bird. On the one hand that means freedom to move wherever you wished but that also meant that nobody would protect you if you got attacked (after all, birds get hunted, that’s just natural).

Quite naturally, the wilderness has become a trope for fantasy roleplaying games. This is to such an extent, that the Torchbearer RPG makes this into a mechanical concept: gameplay is split up into an Adventure, Camp, and Town phase. Interestingly enough, in Torchbearer, both the Adventure and Town phase come with their own risks. In the Adventure phase you accrue conditions that you can only easily get rid of in the Town phase; however, the Town phase costs resources that you can only obtain in the Adventure phase. In that sense, each of these spaces represents a danger, albeit danger of quite different natures.

I’ve never put this idea into practice but I’ve had a game idea for quite a while to set a fantasy adventure solely within the confines of a single large city. It would be interesting to up-end the idea of a wilderness but creating an urban wilderness. In an exaggeration of cities in real-life, town centre would be strongly regulated, safe, and a hub of commerce. Farther to the reaches of town, though, amenities and civil control decreases and sources of danger increase inversely. Another possible angle to take this would be to set this to a circadian rhythm: in the light of day, you are safe and well-kept; at night, however, the unscrupulous denizens of the city crawl forth from whatever dens they use to hide from the light. In my head, I’ve termed this version “What A Horrible Night To Have A Curse”.

It would be interesting to explore concepts of “wilderness” and its opposite “civility” through this lens, and to deconstruct the civility by laying bare the barbarous nature of society.

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