Why your game needs Gloamings

Written By: Stephen Dove - Nov• 17•13

I first coined the term ‘Gloaming’ in 1992; well before WoTC used the same word to describe a rather lame monster in one of their many Monster Manuals. My Gloamings are basically ‘mini-otherworlds’; folds in space and time that create a sort of pocket universe where physical or magical laws can be different to the mundane world. I love them because they can be as small as a single cave or as vast as an entire Kingdom, and they are essentially hidden away from the common world because they can only be entered via invisible doorways or portals, many of which only touch the waking world during the hours of darkness, during a full moon or when certain constellations hold sway. In fact I love them so much that they occur in various forms, in most of the Fantasy worlds that I have created for the last 18 years; and that’s a fair few worlds in fact.

Why are Gloamings a good thing; well they are a world builders dream because my goal in creating fantasy settings has always been to make worlds that ‘feel’ right at the level of the heart and the gut? I want to create worlds that draw on all the half remembered history and mythology that is lurking in my unconscious. Indeed, I would say that for me Fantasy is all about the unconscious mind, not the rational one sitting on top of it. That’s why cross genre Sci-Fi meets magic never really works for me because it’s hard to be truly mythic when there are lasers and guns around. I have played Shadowrun and other similar games, but they’ve never really sat all that well with me. Fun for a one-shot or the occasional session but never for an extended campaign.

The result of always wanting ‘mythic worlds’ and settings for my game is that I constantly face various world-building challenges; the first is how to have magic and monsters and yet not allow them to so change the rules of the setting that we end up with Eberron or Forgotten Realms. I will confess to loathing ‘magitech’ in every one of its various forms, since the moment magic becomes science and technology then we are in the realm of rationality; and to me the rational kills any sense of Fantasy stone dead in a heartbeat.

I can see from this thread on RPG.net, that I am not the only GM to have faced this kind of world-building dilemma. I mean how can we make magic powerful, evocative and pervasive yet not have it break the setting to the point where the instinctive ‘medieval plus magic’ setting actually becomes impossible? Then there is the issue of monsters; many games treat them as just a part of the natural world in some fashion. Goblins are just cave dwelling aboriginals and Dragons just big intelligent lizards. I have always felt this is a mistake. Once they are a part of the natural world, they are mundane and the setting must actually account for them. How does trade happen in a world where rampaging monsters are to be found littering the countryside like some sort of animate confetti? Where every ruin is the haunt of some hideous beast and where powerful magic users could quickly take over the entire world using the simplest of their dweomers?

The common reaction to this is the one found in the D&D 3.5 DM’s Guide (p142). They have this to say:

Some DMs create cities in their campaigns that functions just like medieval historical towns. They are populated by people who aren’t accustomed to (or don’t believe in) magic, who don’t know anything about magical or mythical monsters and who have never seen a magic item.

This sort of creative work is a mistake. It will cause your players serious strain in their belief in the reality of your world for them to see that they wield spells and magic items, and the lands and dungeons surrounding the city are filled with magic and monsters, but yet in the middle of the city everything looks and acts like Europe during the middle ages.

The presence of magic in your setting forces you to deviate from a truly historical setting.

It goes on to suggest that everyone in your world should be aware of magic at some level and have defenses against invisible people or against levitation etc.

Whilst I agree with the statement that magic changes things, I loath the ‘solution’ they suggest. The sort of ‘magical arms race’ accepted as part and parcel of many d20 worlds is simply not acceptable to me and this is why Forgotten Realms and Golarion and all those types of worlds will never really capture my heart. I did enjoy playing in them long ago, but again only in the sort of ‘beer and pretzels’ type game that is great as an occasional interlude between more creative works, but not fun week after week.

My solution to the ‘magic and monsters’ dilemma is different; I hide monsters and adventures sites inside Gloamings. In some of my worlds, magic only works inside these Gloamings, in others, it works outside, but only for low level magic. Monsters can always leave these otherworlds, but often they are much weaker when they do so. In addition, monsters are not just animals; they are supernatural! They do not need to follow the laws of biology; they might not need to eat nor sleep. Gloamings allow me to create mythic dungeons that feel like something out of Pan’s Labyrinth; one’s that don’t have to make rational sense. They follow strict laws all right, just not necessarily the ones that the mundane world outside runs on.

Part of my world-building is thus always focused on explaining how these Gloamings came to be; I have used explanations that have ranged from them being petty gods’ realms, to otherworlds created by ‘Dreamstones’. As long as you have your particular ‘Creation Myth‘ then you can avoid the magical arms race suggested by Monte Cooke et al.

Why am I so intent on preserving a ‘medieval world feel’ you might ask? The answer is simply because it feels right to me. It is no accident that most fantasy fiction falls back on worlds with a very low penetration of magic and monsters into reality; it’s because we can relate to those worlds without a lot of thinking. They just feel right. So I want a world where magic is mystical, feared and misunderstood. I want a world where the idea of monsters is well known and where ordinary people take precautions against Fey (Rowan-wood fires, doors and window frames) but where the threat of these creatures is much more widespread that the reality. I want a world where everything functions the way medieval people believed it did and yet the setting is not so radically changed by magic and monsters, that it becomes something utterly alien. Gloamings allow me to do all that, and that’s why I believe that most FRP worlds that want to avoid the ‘medieval cartoon theme-park vibe’ need to include them.

Having said all this, a game with Gloamings in needs to make various adjustments. Magical classes might at first seem less powerful, but this is not necessarily true, because there are now no checks and counters to magic built into the mundane part of the setting and so invisibility spells are suddenly very powerful, as are simple illusion spells. Indeed a hint of magic is enough to terrify even the bravest in such a world and even a 15th level warrior could not counter the simplest of dweomers because his magic items will only function inside a Gloaming (assuming that magic is largely or completely contained within these otherworlds).

Magic items also command no true value any longer because most are very weak in power outside a Gloaming; the sort of place that only adventurers would ever dare go. So there are no magical item shops.

But the real difference comes in the feel of such games; the very mundanity of the waking world contrasts so strongly with the mythic feeling inside a Gloaming, that both parts of the game benefit from the juxtaposition. You can now have your urban murder mystery without worrying about those pesky divination spells but you can also change gear the next session and have them back, working normally inside a Gloaming; indeed I often have certain spells only work in certain types of Gloaming so if the PCs want to cast a powerful divination spells, then they must travel to a special magical location. And perhaps that location is only open to the waking world at certain times of the year……..

Indeed Gloamings allow vastly different changes of mood and scene without plane hopping all the time. You can, as a GM, ‘shift gears’ into different types of adventure, in the same backdrop without any feeling of dissonance.

Everything in a world full of Gloamings feels so much more like it ‘should’; at least for me. I am sure many of you have also been using them for many years, minus perhaps the name. I hope they inspire you to do something different with your next Fantasy world. Anyway, have more fun gaming!



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