Two of the concepts that I rather like about the new D&D 4e world-building assumptions are “points of light” and “the world is old”.
The first assumption is that there aren’t any nation-states. Every border in the world doesn’t naturally and obviously abut the border of another nation-state. There aren’t necessarily frontier guards and passports needed everywhere, because the ‘borders’ of civilized areas just sort of fizzle out into wilderness that doesn’t really belong to anyone, and is therefore dangerous: dangerous to be in, dangerous to control, dangerous to try to hold; and dangerous to enter, visit or travel through.
Instead, we have ‘points of light’, which I take to mean city-states, independent towns, freeholds, and the like. A band of people, Big Men or leaders, and some take-charge middle-managers with some connections to the divine or the arcane, have established a zone of relative safety within that vast and howling wilderness of midnight. The leadership holds a rough circle of territory about 15 miles in radius, because that’s the distance that their pocket army can cross on foot in a day; in mountainous country, maybe they’ve got less. Could be that you have twelve or fifteen of these pockets strung together along a river or a road network, and that’s called a ‘kingdom’. Leave the road or the river’s safety, or leave your village at night, and bad things are likely to occur. You will probably be eaten by a grue.
On the other hand, we have the assumption that “the world is old.” By my count, there’s indications in the Player’s Handbook that there’s been a human empire, gone about 2-4 centuries; a dragonborn empire gone about two thousand years ago, a tiefling empire, gone about a thousand years back, and in between a dwarven empire, a Feywild empire, and maybe a multicultural shindig stuffed in there somewhere. And way back in history, there was a war between gods and Primordials (hmmmm, it’s nice to see that people have been reading thier Greek myths, and Exalted), and a time when the Giants had the dwarves as slaves, and a time when the Fey were all one race, but divided in three (Eladrin, Elves and Drow).
In essence, you have six or seven thousand years of history squeezed into this worldview, and it’s all gone to shit. The assumption in D&D4e’s basic mindset is that you’re living in the times between the civilized, successful, prosperous empires, when collapse has taken civilization down to some of its root layers.
Let’s consider that, shall we? This guy I read something of yesterday, Dimitry Orlov, lived through Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, alternating between the United States (in the grip of the dot-com boom and burst bubble) and the USSR. So he had a chance to see how things hang together, and how things fall apart (and it’s not too wild a guess if you’d guess that he thinks things are a few decades or less away from a collapse here in the US).
Anyway, he came up with a nifty five-item scale to understand how and to what degree societies collapse.
1. Financial Collapse. First there’s a financial crisis, and the money becomes worthless or nearly so. Happened to Rome, to Byzantium, China, Holland, Weimar Germany, and so on.
2. Commercial Collapse. There are shortages of key goods (food, fuel, clothing, shelter), and massive shuttering of retail takes place because no one can buy, and there’s nothing left to sell. Barter and local economies take hold, with packet-merchants traveling town to town with minor luxuries.
3. Political Collapse. The people realize the politicians can do nothing, and the politicians realize they can do nothing, and first national, then provincial, then local governments shut down, or operate purely on graft and corruption until equilibrium is reached between what people will put up with to have folks with weapons enforcing some kind of justice, and what the governments can extort without being strung from lampposts.
4. Social collapse. Social institutions fall apart, as faith is lost in the idea that “your people will take care of you.” There’s a return to reliance on family and tribe, because the social services rush in to fill the political and economic vacuum and then run out of resources rapidly because they can’t compete with government’s tax-and-redistribute/graft. Social systems can also fail because of internal or cross-platform conflicts.
5. Cultural collapse. People lose faith that “people are basically good”. There is cannibalism and families and tribes disband into individuals competing for ultra-scarce resources.
The D&D 4e world has hit elements of 3. Political collapse, and there may even be some 4. Social Collapse. However, there’s still faith in humanity (and humanoidity), and that somehow we can pull through this and hold the line somewhere. Out in the wilderness, though, there are probably pockets of Cultural Collapse (5.) and they’ve become something dark. Twisted. Monstrous.
It’s a pretty excellent worldview, and if I wind up developing a gameworld for 4e, I think you can probably guess at some of the roleplaying themes and tropes I’ll be playing with.