The Manifold Game World

Josh Macy and Russell Impagliazzo, designers

The Manifold is a universe for fantasy role-playing. It is designed to facilitate collaborative world design. Areas of the game world can be designed by different people or groups, with minimal need for enforced consistency. Possibly, different game systems, geography, cultures, history, magical and natural laws or phenomena, inhabitants, technology, or theology can be used in these different areas. The object is to give the Setting designers maximum freedom in choices for their part of the Manifold, while still allowing consistency and interaction between these areas. To maintain consistency, some concepts should be used to describe all Settings. They provide a metaphysics, or language for describing the composition and relationships between the various elements of each setting. This helps Narrators moderate when elements from one Setting are introduced in another, and allows designers to borrow as much or as little from one another as they wish. The common features are:

  1. Border regions contain spatial and temporal anomolies, while settled regions are stable.
  2. There are four classes of substance: matter, energy, mind, and spirit. All objects are combinations of these elements.
  3. Objects associated with each other bind and adapt to one another.
  4. The Arcana are objects that represent abstractions. Possession of an Arcanum binds the owner to the abstraction.

These features and their use in Setting design are described in more detail below.


Although, locally, most of the Manifold seems Euclidean, Newtonian, and Earth-like, there is no consistent (3-dimensional) global map. Certain geographical features and artifacts twist through other dimesions, creating spatial and temporal wormholes. On the borders of the settled regions, these are both ubiquitous and unpredictible. Going too far beyond the known areas might take one to the Chaos realms, where all is change and direction is meaningless.

The effect is to make travel between these regions difficult and dangerous, although not impossible. Established trade routes are more stable than wilderness, but even they could simply vanish. Thus, interdependent economies can be separated, or colonies stranded. Conversely, regions can suddenly be thrust into contact, or explorers brought to unknown civilizations. This means campaigns set in the Manifold can either be totally independent; share some ideas and cultures, but not otherwise interact; or shuttle (adventerous) PC's back and forth at the Narrator's whim.


There are four forms of substance in the Manifold. Matter is that with location and mass. Energy causes actions and changes. Mind is awareness: thought, imagination and feeling. Spirit has desire, will, and emotion, those things that motivate action and change. All four come in many varieties. They can exist alone or in combinations, bonded through association.

This classification provides a common language for describing effects in different settings.

Bonding and Adaptation

A universal principle throughout the Manifold is that of bonding and adaptation. Objects, people, creatures, places, entities, energy, and phenomena that are associated develop mystical connections that strengthen with time, called bonds. Bonded things adapt to each other and can draw on each other for energy or other properties.

For example, consider a plains population that colonizes a forest. If they survive, the new inhabitants will become attuned to the forest, adapt to shade and local vegetation, and be able to draw on the natural resources of the forest as an innate magical ability. In time, this will change their physical make-up, their culture, and their philosophy. The forest will also adapt, both producing things the inhabitants need, and drawing on the inhabitants for strength and protection from outsiders. (This is a form of Lamarkian evolution, or co-evolution to be more precise.)

Spirits, demons, elementals, and other supernatural entities often bond to powerful geographic features to share their strength. Forests, rivers, mountains, or lakes are some examples. Similarly, but more spectacularly, gods bond with entire regions or cultures, both drawing on the region for energy, and being drawn on for protection and power. Pantheons can peacefully share the region's resources, or there can be struggles between the gods for power.

The mechanism of bonding plays several roles in the Manifold. First, it explains the diversity found between regions. Each region has creatures and inhabitants that have evolved to meet its unique conditions. The land has itself evolved in response. In particular, technological or cultural superiority in one region does not carry over to another. So no one species, culture, or technology can dominate throughout the Manifold. Initially, would-be conquerors would always be at a disadvantage to the natives. Their technology and magic would be based on bonds to their home regions, and so be weak or unreliable. Even if a culture were initially successful at global domination, its colonies would eventually split into separately evolving sub-cultures. Thus, while inhabitants and cultures in different regions are often similar, they are rarely identical. This means Setting designers are free to steal what they like from each other, but change it as appropriate for their Settings.

Secondly, the concept of binding provides a common framework for describing and reasoning about magic, without making it mechanistic. Magicians create effects by creating, strengthening, or weakening associational bonds. They can tap into the pre-existing network of such bonds, which is different in each region. Symbols and rituals create the kind of associations needed to form bonds, and their power depends on their cultural significance.

The Setting designer can use this framework to describe and design the rules for magic in an area. What are the strongest bonds in the area? What supernatural entities or natural phenomena have energy that can be drawn on? What rituals and symbols have been invented to tap into these energies? The answers help create a form of magic that is neither arbitrary nor mechanical. Players can learn the answers to these questions through skills or play, and use them to improvise and role-play magic. They can also help the Narrator determine the effects of unprecendented situations. Finally, they also help determine which parts of magic are portable between Settings.

Bonds are always symmetric: energy can be transmitted both ways, and adaptation is equal on both sides. They are partially transitive, in that if one thing is bonded to a second, which in turn is bonded to a third, the first and third share a weaker bond.


The Arcana are objects, animals, places, or phenomena that mystically represent abstract concepts. Possession of an arcanum gives the owner some form of control over and bond to the corresponing concept. However, the exact nature of this control varies with the owner. The Arcana allow abstractions such as "love" or "prophesy" to be elements of the network of bonds in an area. The Setting Designer can use this to create region-specific rules for magic. Since ownership of the Arcana determines to a large extent how magic operates within the region, the Setting Designer must choose the placement of the Arcana carefully. Through the Arcana, the PC's might be able to change the basic balance of power and rules of magic in the region. If this is not desired, the Arcana can be given strong, stable guardians, such as gods or god-like beings.

Other Regions of the Manifold

Outside the Radiant Empire there are several other regions of the Manifold that have had some influence on the history of the Empire.

The Spice Islands are a nexus point for several regions. Relatively stable sea routes connect the Islands to these regions, which makes the Islands a focal point for trade. The Islands are under the protection of the goddess Huna, who is amoral and disorganized. Thus, pirates co-exist with traders, and the region is lawless and wild.

One of the other regions that actively trades with the Spice Islands is Neng, a coastal area a fair distance to the North. Neng was recently settled by humans. The human's heroes and gods, with the Arcana they brought with them, managed to create dissension within the old Pantheon. Eventually, a new Pantheon was formed, and humans were freed from slavery to the previous masters of Neng, the evil, sophisticated Nefari. The Nefari retreated through extra-dimensional passages. Neng is the site of a campaign run by Josh Macy.

To the northeast of Neng, the Sea Raider's island home lies. Sea Raiders usually interact with other areas only through raids and piracy. They worship a volcano god.

Between Neng and the Spice Islands are the Holy Lands. To the (human) worshippers of the One God, the Holy Lands are a lush, fertile Paradise. But to those who refuse to break their bonds with other deities and swear allegiance to the One God, the Holy Lands are an unpassable, hellish desert. The Holy Lands also trade with the Spice Islands and Neng.

The area directly to the north of Neng is the home of the barbarian Varagh. Like the Varagh of the Empire, these are creatures of tradition, with phenomenal memories and vast command of legal and social lore. However, their law is still based on individual combat. They are larger, stronger, and uglier than the civilized Varagh of the city. Since their sea coast is uninhabitable, the barbarian Varagh trade is largely via Neng.

The Dismal Swamps to the East of the Empire are the home of the merpeople, favorites of Huma. The Swamps are places of strange visions, and travellers are at risk of becoming disoriented. Many never find their way out again.

Tales tell of the Quetzl in the jungles to the South. After the Great Betrayal, the Quetzl chose isolation. They have seldom been sighted since.

The Northern tributary of the Sipsa is the Timeless River. As the name implies, time distortions are particularly strong along its banks, and travellers could return to the Crystal Palace thousands of years after they leave.

To the West of the Empire are the Unicorn Praeries. The well-maintained Pilgrimage Road has kept stable contact between these two areas since the dawn of the Empire.

Somewhere far to the West, across an ocean, lies the Dragon homeland. In historical times, there was a reliable trading route between the Dragon and Radiant Empires. But during a civil war in the Dragon Empire, the route was lost.

Adding to the Manifold.

If you have a game setting that you would like to add to the Manifold, please feel free to do so. Next: the Radiant Empire