So now that we have a setting, let’s add in some details! One thing that can derail a campaign most are details. Why? Well, because details are at once meaningful and arbitrary. That is, details have to be consistent with your universe, and they shouldn’t establish any themes which your universe/story isn’t tackling, but they also aren’t always important. I once had to name a tavern at random. So I decided on a color and an animal/cooking object. After all, Black Bull, and the White Swan, or the Red Ladle, are all perfectly good tavern names. And this is how I ended up with the Red Bull Tavern, something Henry was so nice as to tease me about it here, and I’ll probably never hear the end of how I named the Mayor ‘Hamer’, which was intended to be pronounced “ha-Mare”, but ended up being called “Mayor ha-Mayor”. So it is important to make sure to make sure that your random details are unobstructive. But how do you craft important details that are meaningful?
Let’s take the following example of a detail: the name of a random, unimportant character. Obviously, this character’s name doesn’t REALLY matter. But how you decide on the details DOES matter.
You can just pick a random name, but make sure that it doesn’t say anything weird about the character. For example, naming a Swedish man ‘Jamal’ (or an Dwarf Alfirinor) is jarring enough that it should only be done for the purpose of being jarring, although there can be many reasons to be jarring (maybe that Dwarf’s father once befriended an elf named Alfirinor, and that elf died for him). Now, note that this in some ways doesn’t stick to reality. After all, I’m a brown-perceived man (most recently, I got Saudi Arabian!) with a Swedish name. But this name does mean something; it means that I’m half Swedish (hence the trouble some people have figuring out where I’m from).
And you certainly shouldn’t give the character the same surname as another important character unless you want the reader to think about the possibility that they could be related (preferably for some extrinsic reason).
Now let’s apply this to an important-ish detail. In Azorius, I decided that there was a dominant “religion”, and that only its magic was legal. Because of a particular scene I wrote, I decided that the religion had a symbol that was worn around the neck. When I first imagined the scene, I saw the symbol as a cross. This is very natural, given my exposure to Christianity. But it would be entirely the wrong way to go. The cross isn’t some arbitrary symbol that happens to be associated with Christianity; it is a direct icon for the crucifix, a very important part of Christian mythology. Understanding why a cross is meaningful helps you understand Christianity. So if I just took the cross for my religious icon, people would be wondering if I was making a Christian reference. Plus, it wouldn’t make any sense! Why would people be wearing a cross? This leaves me with two options:
- Keep the cross. This forces me to:
- Subvert or use Christian allegory as a minor or major theme
- Explain how the cross came to be a religious symbol
- Make a new icon.
Ok, so I chose #2. I’m not interested in rehashing Christian allegory (been done to death), and while I know enough to subvert Christian allegory, I can do that anyways, even without the cross. If I really decide that the subversion is a major theme, I can change it back to a cross. But instead, I want to flesh out my world with ideas. So I started to think of images, and after about 5 failed ideas (and thinking ‘oh, wait, that’s a real religious icon’ a few more times), I settled on a simple image: two concentric circles flush with each other. What could two concentric circles mean? I’m sure many things, but I immediately jumped onto solar eclipse:
This leaves me with a lot of options, but the one I like most is this: the religion of this world worships two gods, symbolized by the sun and the mood. When these gods meet, you have a solar eclipse. Maybe something special happens during the solar eclipse. Options?
- The undead stop moving until the eclipse ends.
- Magic is abundantly stronger. Maybe all magic, but certainly the magic of this religion.
- New undead arise only during a solar eclipse. Perhaps people caught outside during a solar eclipse can randomly fall dead at the start of the eclipse and arise, undead at the end?
These choices also affect the theme of the universe. If we choose option 1, there’s a lot less of a faith element. Belief becomes more of a practical thing. If we choose option 2, on the other hand, direct revelation is only possible to a few. And if we choose option 3, perhaps we can choose to interpret the undead apocalypse as divine punishment. Of course, there’s room for many other ideas that aren’t related to solar eclipses!
But back to the iconography. In my head, the circles rotated freely on the necklace, not on any particular axis. I started to worry about the physics of that, but then I realized that I didn’t NEED physics for that. I have magic. And why would you use magic on an icon? Many reasons! After all, don’t exorcists use crosses to expel demons? Perhaps the act of imbuing this image with magic in just the right way causes it to have some constant effect. I could wrack my brains for more details, and I’m sure I’ll add more, but for now, it can have two purposes.
- It repels minor magical beings of some kind. At least the undead, given the nature of the setting!
- It serves as a ritual for young priests; it is one of final steps between apprenticeship and priesthood.
So there we go! I spent 5 minutes trying to think up an image, and once I had one, I was able to determine tons of things about the setting, through the lens of what sort of thematic choices I wanted to make. Instead of two concentric circles, I have some part of the metaphysics of a major religion, a worldly phenomenon that occurs, and can add storytelling tension, if an eclipse is near (maybe I should make solar eclipses more common on this world?), and a ritual within that religion!
Of course, there’s another way I could have gone, and that’s in reverse. I could have started with the idea that I wanted solar eclipses to have some effect, and then from there, moved to concentric circles. But I find that to be less fruitful, since you’re going from a big detail to a small detail. If you already have a big detail that can give you a small detail, by all means, go for it. But I prefer to put my small details to work, building the big ones.