If you ever tried your hand at worldbuilding for any sort of adventure-focused story or game, you likely know it is hard to make an Adventure-Friendly World. The more details, history, and character you add to your world, the hard and harder it is to justify why exactly does it need your heroes at all and why various organizations, countries, or powerful and capable characters in your world haven't deal with the problem your heroes face. Moreover, the more you develop and establish your world, the harder it is to fit all kinds of stories you may have ideas for into it. As you develop the history lore you also run into a risk of tearing away all the mystery of the setting.
Points of Light Setting is a world that is designed precisely to avoid these kinds of issues. It is a world that makes it easy to fit all kinds of adventures and threats as it is deliberately made to be dangerous and not well-defined. Common traits of such a world include:
- Any cities, communes, villages or other centers of civilization are few, isolated and preferably small "points of light" scattered across a "sea of darkness".
- Between these "points of light" the world is filled with dangers and there is no safe way to travel from one place to another. The exact nature of the threats may vary from roving bands of thugs to a Death World where literally everything wants you dead.
- Means of communication between civilization points are few and as such information spreads slowly. It is possible for any of those "points of light" to be swallowed by darkness — terrorized, conquered, or utterly destroyed by some sort of evil — and no one else noticing until the same threat is at their own doorstep or a band of adventurers stumble onto it.
- In such circumstances many settlements are founded and may even flourish for some time, only to ultimately fall, filling the landscape with all kinds of abandoned strongholds, empty cities, or ghost towns. It can also lead to the world being full of strange and fantastic locations for heroes to discover and adventures to take place in.
- As a result, common people look to the world outside their communities with dread, often being distrustful of strangers coming into their town. Very few are well-traveled and even those are more likely to stick to common roads. Explorers are rare and trade is a limited and very risky venture. As such the world is mysterious and full of yet unexplored places and secrets to uncover.
- Common people view those who traverse this world in search of adventure with a mix of reverence, distrust, and scorn, seeing them as extremely brave at best and having ulterior motives or outright out of their mind at worst. Due to this and limited ways to spread information, the world lacks many individuals of legendary renown and status, if it has them at all. Only the greatest and most accomplished of people, usually, some sort of Hope Bringer, can manage to gain widespread fame in such a world.
- The world lacks wide-spreading organizations or groups that could claim any sort of authority and actually enforce it. If an organized military force exists it is likely having a very limited reach from its main base of operation or spread extremely thin, leaving common people defenseless and in need of wandering heroes to solve their problems.
- If there is an organization possessing means to enforce its authority and defend its subjects it may be isolationist, keeping its reach only to its own borders due to xenophobia, the pursuit of a specific goal within the territory it already controls, or a belief it has no resources or responsibility to provide for the rest of the world.
- Alternatively, it may be aggressively expansionist, conquering nearby settlements one after another, making it another threat to fear and not means of protection from one.
- Finally it may even lack the resources to provide security within its own borders. If people live in a kingdom or empire where travel is harder and more dangerous the further away you are from the capital, it can still qualify for this trope.
- Due to all these circumstances the world verges more on fantastic as each settlement can be its own Planet of Hats. Even if one village is a place of a Fantasy Counterpart Culture realistically reflecting the real-world society that inspired it, the next one may be something different altogether. two nearby towns may also exist on a different technological level due to lacking contact or means to share their technology. The determining factor what a traveler will find in the next town over is not realism in how various cultures develop, spread, or interact over time but a simple question in which settlements managed to survive up to this point.
- If different species inhabit the same world they are likely to treat each other with distrust. Fantastic Racism, as well as regular one and xenophobia, can be very common. However, the isolation of communities means it will be very rare for the world to go into detail how different societies or species interact on any level above small and localized to a specific settlement. While Always Chaotic Evil races can still exist they will be treated no differently from human bandits who are just evil out of greed, cruelty or desperation, rather than due to some diety making them evil or Evil Overlord creating them as his servants.
- In fact, there will be very little focus on wider cosmology, with potential deities being either distant, confined to specific locations or limited to protecting only small groups of people. Evil gods are more likely to be a Sealed Evil in a Can and in form verging close to Eldritch Abomination types, whose goals and origins matter less than a direct threat to a hero they pose.
- If the bad state of the world could be blamed on a single individual it too will be either long dead or withdrawn. If an Evil Overlord or a God of Evil is making the world so dangerous (as opposed of merely taking advantage of it to do things like amass an army) they are more likely to have a hands-off approach, letting their minions and creations roam freely while they focus on their actual goals.
- The world often is presented as some sort of After the End scenario, where much more advanced civilization existed in nearby or distant past but has fallen and the current state of things is a direct result of this fall.
- People fear what they don't understand and in this world they will not understand a lot, meaning any kind of magic, advanced technology, or superpowers will be feared and distrusted. The presence, power, and influence of such things may also be limited to avoid questions why it won't be used to fix this world, with an exception of an occasional villain who uses it for evil and needs to be put down.
- There is less focus on Evil vs. Evil and Gray-and-Gray Morality, the kind of stories this setting provides usually make it easy for the heroes and the audience to decide which side to take. If a villain opposes other villains it is usually in form of Enemy Mine scenario with the hero or is making it very clear that one of them is A Lighter Shade of Black that still needs to be taken down but the other one is leagues of magnitude worse. An exception to that is a Villain Protagonist, but these are limited for darker and more cynical examples of this trope.
- Death is dramatic. While the world doesn't need to be lacking ways for a character to come Back from the Dead, it is likely rare or beyond heroes' reach or requiring an epic quest in its own right. As such death of even a minor supporting character can lead to a heartfelt farewell and a serious injury may result in an early retirement or a lot of drama as the character struggles to adjust to their newly-found disability while continuing on their adventures.
- The setting may throw in some form of aesthetics that will be easily recognizable to the audience as referencing modern days or well-known time period from real life, solely to provide a point of reference for them.
While setting doesn't need to have all of those qualities, they often overlap naturally. In fact, many of Points of Light Settings came to be unintentionally, due to being written to tell a specific story and not focus on other aspects of the world or simply a desire to tell series of standalone adventures without getting bogged down in worldbuilding details.
Many worlds of Heroic Fantasy and After the End stories use this type of setting, especially those with an episodic nature where each adventure is planned individually with no desire to make them into one long narrative. Space-themed settings are a natural fit too due to outer space being harsh, inhospitable, and unimaginably vast, especially if the galaxies are not yet fully explored or the infrastructure needed for easy space travel does not exist. It should also be noted Points of Light Setting can exist as a part of a larger world that does not follow its principles, usually due to being isolated from it by some natural means. In fact, many works of The Western genre or others focused on Settling the Frontier fall under this setting due to the fact they are about traversing wild and dangerous places and slowly bringing civilization to them.
A subtler variety is when functional traits of Points of Light Setting are still present in a world that should theoretically defy its principles. A setting may have wide-spread organizations, religions, and well-defined countries. But within it still can exist areas where protection of travelers and communication between communities are not ensured and other problems that steam from it follow. Many works of High Fantasy have an issue like this.
The roots of this trope can be likely traced back to chivalric romances that depicted the early middle ages as being like this after the fall of the Roman Empire. The reality wasn't quite so disorganized but at the time the romances were written many monarchs with ambitions of empire had a vested interest in that sort of narrative.
It should be noted that a Points of Light Setting is not the same as Crapsack World. The two may overlap but none of the traits of Points of Light Setting in themselves make it a Crapsack World and it can still have an overall hopeful and optimistic tone. In fact, the setting may be designed with the purpose of being fixed by the heroes. On the other hand a Crapsack World doesn't need any of the elements that define Points Of Light Setting to still deliver on its overall grim and gloom tone, especially if it takes place in a totalitarian dystopia. Similarly, while this trope can easily overlap with Adventure-Friendly World, the purpose of one can be accomplished without it turning into the other — a world that eschews all traits of Points of Light Setting may still be adventure friendly, while a setting following them may not focus on adventuring at all.
Trope Namer and Trope Codifier is Nentir Vale, the official default setting of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. "Points of Light" was an unofficial nickname of the setting referenced by its creators and fans alike during development and before it was given an official name. Later, it caught on in writing and roleplaying circles concerned with worldbuilding, becoming its own term. While D&D 4th certainly didn't invent such a type of setting, many of its traits were first defined on paper as its traits by Nentir Vale design principles.
- Dog Days: Flognard was originally like this in the backstory, where demons roamed the land and leaving the safety of the kingdoms was a death sentence. That is until Princess Clarifier of Pastillage and her band of heroes hunted down and sealed every single demon on the continent, turning it into the Sugar Bowl that it is in the present.
- Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has humanity huddled into a scattered few megacities after the Leonid Meteor unleashed the phantoms. These phantoms aren't corporeal, and can pass through any barrier except special ovoid shields. Such shields have been erected as giant domes over the megacities, protecting them from these phantoms.
- Fist of the North Star presents a postapocalyptic take on this with fantasy elements, like attempts at building first kingdoms in isolated areas and villains amassing medieval-style armies to conquer the wasteland. It was directly inspired by Mad Max and as such also features mostly isolated communities with their own problems upon which main characters stumble and murderous mooks roaming the desert between them.
- One Piece: The Grand Line is an ocean current that encircles the planet's equator. It's littered with hundreds of independent islands, each with their own unique climate and magnetic signature, which play havoc on the weather patterns throughout the Line's open ocean. To the north and south are the "Calm Belts", which are windless year-round and infested with giant sea monsters, making the only ways to enter or exit the Grand Line sailing up Reverse Mountain or using the official government port in the capitol city of Mary Geoise (the latter not being an option for most of the cast, being pirates and all).
- Axa: The titular heroine is chosen to leave the safety of the Domed City, and traverse the post-apocalyptic world, seeking other survivors living in a City in a Bottle. Much of the world has been Reclaimed by Nature, and is full of Everything Trying to Kill You mutated monsters. Some villages have people living as pre-industrial tribes, though there is another domed city, built underwater.
- Triptych Continuum: Only about 6% of the land and 7% of the sky of Equestria is a "settled zone", a place where ponies and other intelligent beings actually live and work. The rest of the continent is all wilderness, often crawling with monsters and extremely dangerous to travel through, and these "wild zones" often separate and isolate individual settled zones.
- Mad Max presents such vision of a postapocalyptic society, with each movie having Max stumble upon a separated community in the wasteland, usually getting tangled in its problems.
- Star Wars: The Galaxy often functions like this, with civilized planets often being distant and isolated from each other, with long stretches of wild space and savage worlds between them. This is more pronounced in the Outer Rim compared to the Core Worlds, as the Core Worlds physically closer together and the Galaxy's governments tend to be based there and thus to have better control and enforcement there than they do further away. On a smaller scale, sparsely-populated planets like Tatooine also work this way, with a few spots of civilization here and there and harsh wild environments, often home to barbarians, outlaws and dangerous alien predators, everywhere else. Most people in the Galaxy spend their entire lives on one planet or even one town, as they deem it too dangerous or otherwise not worth the effort to travel.
- Waterworld is set on a future Earth after the polar ice caps have melted, submerging all the world's land masses. What's left of humanity lives on watercraft, such as the Mariner's catamaran, or on an artificial atoll that functions as a trade hub. Piracy, of course, is rampant and unchecked.
- The Dark Forest uses this as the basis for a very bleak answer to the Fermi Paradox. Because of the immense distances between the stars, alien civilizations cannot communicate with each other in any meaningful way, and inevitably annihilate one another out of paranoia via Star Killing. Those civilizations who are lucky enough to figure this out in time will hide themselves from the rest of the universe however they can.
Shi Qiang: That's... that's really dark.
Luo Ji: The real universe is just that black. The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life — another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod — there's only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It's the explanation for the Fermi Paradox. But in this dark forest, there's a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, 'Here I am! Here I am!'
- The Destroyermen novels are set in an alternate 1940s in which the K-T extinction never happened, and the dinosaurs and their contemporary species have continued to evolve.
- The seas are teeming with predators (including "flashies", essentially tuna-sized saltwater pirannhas; and "mountain fish", carnivorous whales large enough to swallow ships whole), which have largely prevented plants and animals from migrating to different landmasses, allowing for a wide variety of evolutionary paths to take hold.
- Living among this Death World are the Grik (an empire of Lizard Folk, heavily implied to be descended from raptors), scattered populations of Lemurians (Cat Folk who evolved on Madagascar but had to pull a Homeland Evacuation when the Grik invaded), and the occasional community of humans who got stranded in this world after getting pulled through a Squall. Not all of those humans are from the same universe, either.
- Over the course of the books, The Alliance started by the crew of USS Walker to fight the Grik explores this alternate world and gradually becomes a Space-Filling Empire; however, much of its territory consist of islands or coastlines, and as late as Devil's Due (the eleventh book out of fifteen) one character doubts more than 5% of the globe has actually been explored yet.
- The Lord of the Rings: By the time of the War of the Ring, millennia of war and social decline have left Middle-Earth in this state.
- The elves and dwarves are Dying Races, the former restricted to four city-states often little more than fortified households and the latter a Vestigial Empire clinging on to life in a handful of far-flung outposts after the center of their civilization was lost to orcs, dragons, and worse.
- The human kingdoms have been in decline for centuries or more, with the northern land of Eriador so completely destroyed by civil war and a great plague that the western Middle-Earth is almost totally devoid of human life, with only ruins and haunted cairnlands marking the old kingdoms' extent.
- Outside of pockets of civilization and a couple of dying kingdoms, Middle-Earth consists of miles and miles of empty lands, dark forests where no one dares to go, ruined dwarf-cities crawling with monsters and lands ruled by orcs and human barbarians hostile to all outsiders.
- The remaining holdouts of civilization are often highly isolated and superstitious — the hobbits have little to no knowledge of anything outside the Shire, for instance, while the Rohirrim have come to regard the elves of Lothlórien, one of the greatest remaining bastions of good, as malevolent fey ruled by a dangerous witch.
- The Witcher: After the Conjunction of the Spheres, the Continent was invaded by hordes of monsters from dozens of universes. The Witchers, alchemically altered monster hunters, were created to fight them off, but often treated as little better than the monsters by the fearful townspeople. By the time of the books and games many monster species are nearing extinction, but there's still little central authority, with small kingdoms and the Nilfgaardian Empire just starting to exert control over the scattered villages and towns.
- Star Trek: Discovery's third season, set in 3188, turns the Trek Verse into one of these. Apparently, a century or two prior, much of the galaxy's dilithium exploded for no apparent reason in an event called the Burn. With little of it left to fuel warp-capable starships, The Federation largely collapsed in the following decades, and now exists as a Vestigial Empire that almost no one takes seriously. While interstellar travel is still possible, the rarity of dilithium means that it is no longer commonplace, and most star systems are left to govern their own affairs.
- Dungeons & Dragons: Many D&D worlds started as this type of a setting, before being developed into something else over time.
- Dark Sun is this in spades, being a postapocalyptic take on a fantasy genre and as such mixing two genres most fit to this kind of setting.
- Dragonlance started as an attempt to combine influences from Lord of the Rings and Gaygax's worldbuilding. As such, it tried to tell a High Fantasy narrative in a world that was only beginning to raise up from an apocalypse, with few remaining kingdoms distrustful of one another and unprepared to defend against world-conquering armies of evil and other races like Elves or Dwarves isolating at large from rest of the world. As with the previous two this aspect had vanished with the release of a large number of other adventures and novels adding more and more to the world until it firmly moved closer to a standard high fantasy territory. The moment the series moved from Age of Despair to Age of Mortals is often seen as when the transition kicked off for good and even later attempts to roll back many of the changes did not manage to shake it off.
- Forgotten Realms uses this in locations isolated from major civilizations, most famous of those being probably Icewind Dale — a cut off by mountains, snow-covered area where main centers of civilization are literally called the Ten Towns because there is only ten of them and communication between them is limited due to extremely dangerous environment.
- Greyhawk was intentionally defined very vaguely with a lot of uncharted wilderness and abandoned, monster-filled locations for heroes to explore before Gary Gygax filled it with kingdoms and history connecting it all. And even then he stuck skimming the details to preserve the "easy to place adventures in" aspect of the world.
- Mystara started as a bunch of standalone or loosely connected adventures usually providing a location and danger presented in it. It was only when these adventures were made into one comprehensible world with its own politics, mortal and immortal alike, that points of light aspect have been lost.
- Nentir Vale, the default 4th edition setting, was specifically intended to be this sort of setting, and was indeed often explicitly described as a metaphorical sea of darkness with civilizations existing as scattered points of light. The majority of the setting's great civilizations all collapsed in the not-too-distant past, leaving the world filled mostly with wilderness and ruins and haunted by monsters and barbarian tribes, while civilized nations are almost all small, scattered, and often little more than city-states. The world was left under-defined so that GMs could fill it out as they chose.
- Ravenloft is a whole demiplane of areas literally isolated from one another by deadly mist, each one filled with its unique kinds of monsters and usually only a few small towns in it, and each ruled with an iron fist by a different tyrant.
- Wilderlands Of High Fantasy, a third-party setting, has this philosophy as one of its core foundations: its setting is very loosely defined, almost entirely unexplored, scattered with ancient ruins, and filled with monsters and unknown horrors. Travel is unpredictable and perilous. Even the mightiest of kingdoms — Viridistan, Tarantis, Rallu, and the City-State of the Invincible Overlord — are little more than petty city-states with only a tenuous grip to the surrounding lands and almost no influence anywhere farther. As the book itself puts it, "civilization is but a candle in the dark".
- Exalted: Creation has gone through at least three apocalyptic events in the backstory, the most recent one happening seven and a half centuries ago. The Great Contagion (a magical plague) wiped out 90% of everything living and then the Balorian Crusade (an invasion of The Fair Folk hell-bent on returning the world to Chaos) killed off a lot of the rest. The world has climbed up since then, but it still has vast swathes of unexplored lands, vastly isolated nations, wildernesses ruled by barbarians, beastmen, petty tyrants, restless dead and The Fair Folk, a fair share of Lost Worlds, and ruins everywhere.
- GURPS Steampunk Setting: The Broken Clockwork World: The Broken World used to be a reasonably orderly, peaceful world of steampunk city states. Then something tore it apart and put it back together wrong, leaving it distinctly post-apocalyptic. Many of the old cities still stand, for now, but the points of light are flickering at best.
- Numenera: The game is set in the wake of a billion years' worth of godlike civilizations emerging, ruling the Earth and vanishing or collapsing, and this has deeply affected the nature of the world. Human civilization — and likely the human species — has only recently reemerged, and is both very fragmentary and constantly in the shadow of the ruins of the prior worlds and the plethora of technologies, entities and creatures left over from their reigns. Even in civilized lands such as the Steadfast, Lostrei or Augur-Kala, settlements are often very isolated and separated by vast stretches of wilderness home to ferocious predators, incomprehensible and usually dangerous machines, vicious abhuman raiders, and good old-fashioned bandits; it's very common for distinct towns to have very unusual quirks not shared by others or to even be unaware of their nation's nominal capital. In the wildernesses of the Beyond, villages and cities are often tiny islands of civilization in vast seas of dangerous, uncharted land, and having arisen in complete isolation tend to be wildly different from one another — one town might be home to peaceful farmers, the next one over to insane cannibals, the next to exotic people riding strange machines, and the next one still not even home to humans.
- Warhammer 40,000: The Imperium rules about a million star systems, which amounts to 0.00001% of the galaxy; besides it, a few Eldar Cratfworlds and surviving colonies also shine here and there, while the Tau Empire maintains another small pocket of civilization on the galaxy's rim. Between these far-flung worlds there is space for roving hordes of Orks, high-tech ruins millions of years old, hostile alien empires, Chaos abominations, bizarre cosmic phenomena, and any threat or adventure you could care to imagine.
- Warhammer Fantasy: The majority of the world consists of vast stretches of wilderness, dark wastelands, barren steppes, vast deserts and harsh mountains home to monsters, dangerous beasts, orcs, beastmen and the forces of Chaos, often littered with the ancient ruins of dead civilizations in which ancient undead lords still lurk and with civilized nations far apart from one another. Even within actual nations, civilization often exists as a loose web of cities and roads woven through vast expanses of wildness crawling with horrors, which periodically rise to snuff out the lights that would shine against the dark.
- World Tree RPG: The titular World Tree has many branches, and is constantly growing. Civilization tends to gather atop the newest and best-sunlit branches, in handfuls of mighty cities and smaller villages, each normally surrounded by powerful and deadly magical walls. This is because outside of these areas are many monsters and dangers deliberately created or encouraged by the gods to populate a world of adventure, while the geography of the Tree encourages civilization to exist as long series of cities strung out along the (relatively) narrow branches, which makes it very difficult to enforce any kind of large-scale rule. While there are old and broken cities deep within the shadows of the lower branches, some possibly with treasures worth entire new cities, they might as well not exist anymore once the monsters take over.
- BlazBlue: The Earth is almost completely covered in seithr, a magical toxic gas that not only renders all but the highest mountaintops uninhabitable for humans, but has mutated and generated magical beings, some of which are friendly to humans but most of which are hostile. The result is humanity being reduced to roughly a dozen cities around the world located on these mountaintops; despite there being The Empire that governs these cities, there isn't much means of or interest in communicating with each other. Unlike most examples of this trope, none of the main characters are all that interested in traveling the world — the ones that have are not fond of it at all — and most of the story is set in the city of Kagutsuchi.
- Borderlands takes place on a planet called Pandora, where populations are separated by long, desertic routes filled with bandits, dangerous creatures such as Skags and Rakks, and (in the General Knoxx DLC) Crimson Lance soldiers and Skyscraper spiders, among other hazards.
- Fallout is mostly this kind of setting. Although a few regional powers begin to rise as the series progresses, the world is mostly made up of isolated settlements cobbled together from the ruins of civilization and a handful of Vaults that haven't managed to kill their inhabitants. The wasteland is otherwise populated with raiders, mutants, ghouls, pockets of radiation, and various other horrors which only a few brave traders and heroes attempt to navigate.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: The game's version of Hyrule is set in the wake of a fantasy apocalypse that almost completely destroyed it a hundred years in the past. The extensive ruins found throughout it show that it was fairly densely populated before this, but in modern Hyrule civilization is limited to seven isolated villages — three effectively human ones and the four other species' base towns — and a handful of roadside stables. Outside of these, the world consist entirely of vast stretches of wilderness littered with the broken shells of villages and sites of ancient magic, and travel between the surviving towns is difficult and dangerous — numerous monsters live in the ruins of Hyrule, often making their encampments in the remnants of towns, along major roads or even right outside the surviving settlements, while central Hyrule is so infested with the powerful, deadly Guardians — Magitek robots that were the ones to destroy Hyrule to begin with — that nobody lives or goes there anymore. Link, of course, is going to spend his quest hoofing it through this wilderness, fighting monsters, living off the land and uncovering a great many wondrous and secret things.
- RWBY: The Creatures of Grimm are found everywhere throughout Remnant, seeking to destroy humanity and their creations. In the countless years that humanity had roamed the planet there have only been four locations that have survived throughout the centuries. Those being the four Kingdoms, Vale, Vacuo, Mistral and Atlas, only surviving due to humanities tenacity and the natural barriers, such as mountains and frigid temperatures, keeping Grimm away And though small villages have been built, they do not last long thanks to the Grimm.
- There is also the island Menagerie, a safe haven for the faunus, though two-thirds of the island is covered in desert and there is deadly wildlife keeping people from expanding, there have yet to be any Grimm seen in the show itself.
- In Girl Genius, most of Europa (an Alternate History early 18th century Europe) is a wilderness where travel is made deadly dangerous by Mad Science-generated biological and mechanical abominations and more mysterious beings. Civilized life is confined to a number of fortified cities and strongholds ruled by Sparks.
- In Avatar: The Legend of Korra, during the story of Avatar Wan, there were four civilizations, watched over by four lion turtles, who would grant the power to bend elements to those who wished to journey out into the wilds between each civilization. It was only when bending was granted to humans full-time and the spirits left for their separate world that humanity was able to expand their civilization beyond these four separated cities.
- Samurai Jack: The Future That Is Aku is technically ruled by a single authority in the form of Aku himself, but he and his subordinates seem mostly concerned with hunting down Jack and snuffing out any remaining points of light, filling the world with more monsters and criminals.