Ecosystems in an RPG
So I promised this post in my discussion on rethinking cannibals, and I wanted to take some time to flesh out how Barrie builds out the "ecosystem" of Neverland, as I think it sheds light on a good way to design a region for your roleplay games, fiction stories, etc.
To get us started, we'll look at how Barrie structures the five "clans" on the island, and how they fit together into a balanced system of mutual dependence that leads to the balance of power that we discover when the reader arrives in Neverland. Then we will discuss ways to do this seamlessly in your world.
I. The Balance of Neverland
There are five primary clans in Neverland: the pirates, the Lost Boys, the Indians, the cannibals, and the beasts. It is worth noting that the mermaids don't factor into this matrix - more on that later.
Each of the five clans hunts one of the groups and is hunted by another group. So the pirates hunt the Indians, as they have a ship and guns, giving them an advantage over the Indians who use flint-based weaponry.
The Indians hunt the Lost Boys, as their stealth and cunning gives them an advantage over the clueless boys. They have moccasins that pad their feet allowing them to move quietly, and the Lost Boys are not as brave or cunning as the Indians.
The Lost Boys hunt the beasts, and wear their pelts as proof of their victories. While the Lost Boys may not have the strongest weapons or the greatest tactics they can set traps, and this is how they win against the beasts.
The beasts hunt the cannibals, as the cannibals are primitive and lack the strength of the wild beasts to fight them on their own terms, and also lack the technological advantages to compensate for this lack of strength.
And the cannibals hunt the pirates, as the pirates are humans and flesh and blood, which the cannibals enjoy eating, and since the pirates live on a ship they have to come to land to replenish their supply of food and water. And while they are on land, the cannibals find them and carry some of them off by attacking en masse.
Beyond these, you have the mermaids, who are very much an external force that uses their place underwater to avoid conflict between all parties. So while they are not part of the ecosystem of the island, they also don't disrupt or destroy the ecosystem, and are generally feared by all of them due to their great power.
II. Creating a Balance of Power in Your World
An ecosystem gives a reason for the developments and history of the elements in your world. If there are eagles in the region, this will 1) have an effect on the vermin populations and bird populations of the region, and 2) the eagles will need smaller creatures for them to eat. Eagles don't live in places that are only filled with larger animals, because they will not be able to hunt the larger animals effectively (unless you go for great eagles or rocs, which is why some ecosystems in fantasy worlds do).
A good ecosystem makes your world more believable: creatures, nations, and even plants are the way they are because of the world around them.
If you have two or more strong powers in a region, you need a reason for why they both exist. Perhaps they know that they are roughly as strong as the other, and they are looking for an advantage before making their move (and the party has a chance to swing that balance in favor of one or the other). Perhaps one relies on numbers while the other relies on quality, technology, or physical size. Perhaps one cannot live in the same environment as the other, or has some other biological reason for not invading the other.
It could also be geographical. Perhaps a wide river separates the clans, and the ones on one side have biological reasons for not attacking each other (perhaps one is harmed by sunlight so they live in caverns, while the other is blind in the dark, so they cannot invade the caverns effectively), and the jagged rocks in the river keep clans from invading across the river with ships. Perhaps one side has a flower or moss that the clans on the other side have not encountered before and it emits spores or pollen that poison the other clan.
And of course if you have more than one culture, the complexity just continues to grow. Why wouldn't multiple clans gang up against the others? The cannibals don't team up with the pirates, for example, to kill the Indians because the Indians are too sneaky for the cannibals, and the cannibals would rather feast on the pirates anyway. But think through why different groups don't form leagues or coalitions to take on a threat, and give them motivations for what would make them ally together (if any) for when the party arrives.
We want our world to make sense, but we also want to give the party agency to act as they wish, so that they can have a meaningful impact on the world around them. This means that, in order to satisfy their curiosity, we should have some forethought to why the world looks the way it does, what keeps it looking this way, and whether and in what ways it is changeable.
Until next time,