World-building Tool Review - Ex Novo

Today, I am going to do a review of a world-building tool / game called Ex Novo, made by by Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos for Martin’s Sharkbomb Studios.

Ex Novo is a game/tool for between 1-4 players that revolves around constructing a community. This could range from a new fresh settlement to an ancient bastion of civilization, a farming village to a great metropolis. This is done by creating the starting conditions of the settlement and then going through a series of major events in community’s history. By going through these key events of the city’s past, we slowly build up the shape, size, major landmarks, resources, and influential factions into a dynamic, more realistic community.

Outcomes are normally randomized with the use of six-sided dice and tables listing the different options conditions and events. The descriptions on the tables influence things that are added or removed from a map of the community or a list of involved factions and their relative power in the city. They also include prompts in the form of questions that can help with story creation.

Early roles are mostly 2d6, but history roles are based on a “d666” system, where the player roles a d6 for each of the digits of a three-digit number. For example: on a 3d6, the player gets a 4, a 2, and a 5. The player then looks up event #425 on the Development table.

The game goes through four basic phases as described by the creators:

  • Discussion – Setting the Assumptions and Expectations

  • Founding – Creating the setting and original purpose of the community

  • Development – History shapes the community

  • Topping Out – Wrapping up loose ends

Sample of Settlement Creation

As an example of the creation process, I will show off a city I created with a forum group. The process starts with several randomly rolled features and a random number of lines drawn lines to create a map. Our final result looked like this looked like this.

Next we used the random table to decide how many factions we should have and the reason why people gathered here. Using these factions and some rolls, we layered on several landmarks and the first part of the city represented by the grey square and the tent.

The fist icons indicate socioeconomic power in the settlement, which are represented in the physical game with tokens. The ruins next to the city center are a source of resources while the fist on the Cult of Olpan’s faction card shows they have a higher amount of power and influence in the city than the other two factions.

Now that we have the beginning of our city, we start going through a series of events using the d666 system. These can cause crises or advantages for our settlement from natural events, outside actors, violence, economic shifts, or invention. After 8 turns filled with the crash of an ancient interstellar probe, the discovery of new plants, the construction of a shipyard, the rise of a criminal syndicate, a peaceful revolution, and a religious schism, our city looked like this.

What is important behind this tool is that the table prompts provide just enough information to prompt interesting discussion and world building that layers on previous decisions. For example, the results for out third roll was this:

634 - New Land Created
A hill is flattened, mountains are terraced, or new lands are made. What does the city do with this new space?
=> Add or Remove a terrain feature

We decided to build on the previous event, “Sky Falls” that had a strange spacecraft crash outside of the city to introduce an alien plant life that created a strange forest These are represented by the purple trees north of the city. Later events and world-building decisions would used a chemical taken from these trees to be used by a religious movement and also the main ingredient in a drug used by the South Point Clique. 

At the end, there is a topping off phase, where pop tokens can be added to indicate population density, extra landmarks can be added, and unnamed landmarks or features are named collectively.

How Useful Is Ex Novo?

As you can see, Ex Novo allows for interesting organic growth of the city and provides it with history in the form of old landmarks and interconnected networks of factions and the sources of their power. It provides a simple way for a group or individual to cooperatively build out the skeleton to develop a base of operations, the region around a village in a campaign, or even a full setting for an urban fantasy game like Blades in the Dark.

This can be useful for a session zero or pre-session zero because it allows each player to integrate history or factions into the city that would be useful for pre-built characters or the seeds of backstory for new ones. This tool does not contain references to races or species or even necessarily magic.

Going beyond TTRPGs, this tool can also be useful for creating an interesting high and low fantasy settings for writers. It could even be the game itself for those of us who are chronic world-builders, providing the tools to participate in our favorite pastime with friends. While I will not score these world-building tools like I do the book reviews, I highly encourage using this tool for a group looking to create their own setting. 

Ex Novo can be purchased in a bundle with his dungeon-builder Ex Umbra or separately from Sharkbomb Studio’s or from the studio’s DriveThruRPG page.

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