Worldbuilding: Ephemera & Epigraphs

Reading The Butchering Art, with its record of snarky arguments in medical journals, gave me an idea.

The setting for my stories about Miska, along with all the various Andre & Jerome stories I have, is a complicated one. It’s big, in-depth, and just enough like our own world that it regularly leaves people guessing when I try to explain it. Perhaps I should try to simplify some of the setting, but… I think the perverse complexity and deep similarities to our own world are what makes the setting engaging and exciting. It’s a what-if, a thought experiment, and a sometimes-grim sometimes-hopeful social commentary.

Part of the similarity is in geography and place names. That’s the thing that trips up folk the most, I think, and the thing I’ve considered rewriting time and again. The world is—mostly—our own. The continents are mostly the continents we would recognize from our own Earth. As such, I have regularly used our own world’s historical names for cities that match up with a city’s location in this setting (e.g. Paris and Marseille). At times, when I’m trying to convey that there’s something distinct from our own world, our own expectations, I change a city’s name (as I’ve done with most bodies of water). But I know that’s confused readers even more, at times.

It doesn’t help that I’m not totally consistent about it, or haven’t always settled on names for some places.

But those shifted names still don’t address the shift in social conventions, or the difference in histories. Explaining why I’m using some of our own world’s city names doesn’t give a reader any understanding of the detailed history of this alternate Earth. In some ways, I think it actually makes understanding the setting harder for readers—which wasn’t my goal at all.

Enter my flash of inspiration.

The snarky medical journal arguments presented in The Butchering Art conveyed so much more than their surface disagreements. They served as a touchstone for the culture of the time, and they contained such startling similarity to modern academic sniping—and comment section flame wars—that I immediately felt like I had a better connection to, a better read on the world depicted by the book.

So I started writing in-setting documents for this world. Some were the stiffly polite and horribly condescending disagreements of people writing to various society papers’ opinion sections. Another was an excerpt from a personal letter between two people involved in city politics and what might be called clandestine activity. Every so often I have another idea and try it out.

With this, I think I’ve finally found the way to give readers a window into the setting. This material can preface some chapters or stories, or serve as introduction to a section of a book. What I’ve written so far feels clunky as an epigraph, but I think this can finally give enough context to ease readers into the world. Better yet, I can showcase in-setting struggles and disagreements, political squabbles, and personal opinions. I can reveal information that some of the characters might know, or comment on at some point. And, I hope, I can do some of the world-building work that would otherwise clog the rest of my story with exposition.

So here, enjoy the first idea that came to me a while back. It won’t be nearly enough on its own to show you all of this setting, but maybe you can enjoy peering in through the cracks.

***

Letter on the latest troubles of the Inner Sea, to the editor of The Parisian, first and finest of the continental ladies’ magazines

Regarding the recent abuse levied against the fine Doctor Gilarien of our daughter-city Marseille, this writer must protest heartily. It is by no means sensible for any to wage too harsh a battle against the natural allies of our fine city, and this is precisely what La Fleur du Sucre proposes to do. Our daughter-city—along with her denizens—is our responsibility to protect and guide, and the true proof of Parisian majesty will be evident in the beauty, grace, intellect and fortitude of her daughters in the face of the dangers of the world. Certainly I would hope that La Fleur du Sucre would not be the type of mother who so admonishes and smothers her children that they never learn to fly from the nest of their own accord. No, what is needed here is not chastising whip-tongue remonstrations, but rather the gentle guidance and support of a mother for her child. We may prune back ill-reason and train the growing limb of intellect to our trellis where we know it will be healthy and bear fruit.

The estimable Doctor Gilarien is entirely correct that our city’s agents operating as they are, along the coast of the Inner Sea, have brought forth suffering amongst the many tribes present there. But the good doctor must recall that these tribes have long allied themselves with the Ones to the East, the very same who sought to maintain “Enlightened” dominion over all of us despite the wishes of the Good Masters. Given these tribes’ warlike disposition and their frequent exercises upon the borders of our allies, it would be insufferable for us to not interrupt their works, lest they grow too numerous and powerful and form once more the armies that they once were. For let us not forget that those selfsame tribes, the ones the good doctor feels such concern for, were once the engines of destruction which drove the burning of Köln, Rotterdam, and even our lovely Paris. Thus it is that one would do well to balance the—admirable, and well-reasoned!—concern for innocent life made more difficult by our own actions, against the cost of allowing such hostile forces to regain their strength and organization to rampage across our continent once again. This writer is entirely certain that the good doctor will agree that the actions of Paris and her agents must, in the greater balance, come out the lighter price to pay.

As to the fine doctor’s points with regards to the treatment of the prisoners of war captured amidst the strife along the Inner Sea, this writer must surrender to their local experience and expertise. It is the doctor’s knowledge of the prisoners’ circumstances which must, clearly, take precedence here, and La Fleur du Sucre would do well to recall that one’s daughters will only grow into their own skills of reason if they are trusted to observe and report their own findings in all earnestness, and assess proper courses of action from there on—with their mother’s guiding hand, of course. Therefore to the doctor this writer suggests that it would be to everyone’s benefit if some documentation could be made of the present circumstances of the prisoners during their transportation. There is no course by which the transportation may be stopped—it would not do to domicile prisoners too near the fighting, nor to leave them anywhere they might escape unsupervised, and as such the verdant gardens of the New Sea must be the best solution—but perhaps the transportation might be made less onerous and perilous to those transported. Certainly there is no need to torture, as the good doctor would have it, those who have surrendered or otherwise been captured. After all, these vanquished foes are not insensate beasts, but merely the doughty and fearsome battle cadre bred and trained from birth to serve in the Enlightened Ones’ armies.

Lastly, this writer must commend the good doctor’s dedication to the ethics of the profession; surely the doctor’s presence in this world is of considerable value to all, and a guiding light for all others of the daughter-city who might seek the health and well-being of their fellows. If this writer lacks any merest atom of knowledge of the arts of medicine, may it nevertheless be that this writer is able to remind the fine doctor of Marseille to think beyond the simpler personal suffering of a vanquished few and to encompass the greater wellbeing of free civilization upon the continent without the dominion of those who once held us all in bondage. It would be a foul sickness indeed were we to squander the freedom granted us by the Good Masters, and fought for by our ancestors, by failing to protect it from the encroachments of those who may wish us ill.

With love and kindness,

A Parisian Mother

World Building: Ancient history of the Fell Met Sea

First off, if you’re playing in my Fell Met Sea game please don’t read this yet. It’s 100% full of spoilers for my current thoughts on setting background that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re not playing Fell Met Sea, I’ve put together some ideas about how the previous civilization(s) that preceded my PCs’ present world fell apart. Check out the consequences of sacrificial blood magic!

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Worldbuilding: The Mad Libs Approach

Building a setting piecemeal is sometimes difficult, but often fun and rewarding. By playing mad libs with your setting, you’re able to cram together a wild group of ideas that fill out your underlying concepts and give the whole thing its own distinct flavor. My favorite example of this was Continue reading

World Building: The Thousand Year Empire

I’m putting together a game for teens stuck in social distancing mode due to Covid-19, to be played over Discord. I’m using Exemplars & Eidolons, which I mentioned here. This is all being run through the auspices of the LARP camp where I work. I created this setting years ago, and have expanded it through several games since; for the quick and dirty version, think Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Avatar: TLA, with a soundtrack by Lustmord and Dead Can Dance.

***

The Thousand Year Empress disappeared 20 years ago. No matter what else they disagree on, everyone can agree on that. Some say she was murdered, others that she died of disease or old age, and yet others claim that she ascended into the Celestial Firmament and left the mortal realm to its suffering.

Another thing all agree on: the Empire has suffered ever since.

Without the Empress’ guidance, her vast Empire has descended into chaos. Provinces take up arms against each other, proclaiming themselves Protectors of the Empire or rightful people’s rebellions. Several provinces claim to have the Empress’ true heir to guide them: sometimes one of her children or more distant descendants, sometimes claiming to have the reborn Empress herself.

Drought, flood, and famine scour the lands. Bandit armies rise and maraud. Some provinces fall to plague. There are rumors of disappearances, of demons, and of other worse things. And it is known that in some places the dead themselves rise and set themselves against the living. Some even say that the dead walk at the behest of the Empress, whose talking corpse leads them to retake her domain from beyond the grave.

The Empire as it was is gone.

But it need not be so forever; there are still pockets of stability, and many struggle to protect the land and each other. Many members of the Empress’ ancient knightly orders—both honorable and disgraced—and many of her ministers still strive to prevent bloodshed, to restore peace, and to build upon what they saved from that which came before. Here and there provinces band together in amity, supporting each other against the dangers of the world. It is a dangerous time, but it is a time when a dedicated few may make a difference.

What will YOU do?

Setting Work for Swamp Gangsters

I did some thought exercises and prep work for the setting I developed for Latour and their friends, back around the time that I wrote the first story in that setting. I didn’t share any of that work with an audience when I wrote the first stories, but climate change has been eating up most of my brain space today and this seems like an appropriate time to share.

Yes, Latour and Ren and the Pats and Cap all exist in a loose version of our world. No, I haven’t ever decided exactly what year it is.

But there’s a reason that everything in those stories happens on boats and floating structures.

When I was first thinking through the setting for that group of stories (I have more that I haven’t posted, due to wanting to be paid for them at some point) my thoughts were as follows… Continue reading

World Building: Where Have All The Dwarves Gone?

Today’s post is brought to you by the caffeinated musings which have distracted me from my homework and encouraged me to write world background material instead.

The setting of For The King! is largely lacking playable non-humans at the moment.  There are a few dwarves or elves who might be somewhere in the realm of Duval, and there are some gnomes and halflings and others scattered around, but most people, in most places, are human.  The orcs and half-orcs mostly live to the northwest of the kingdom, generally part of the large nomadic tribes which roam through those sections of the Trade Lands.  Heck there are centaurs too, but they generally stick to the lands northeast of the kingdom of Duval, and don’t have much direct contact except with traders who venture out onto the northern plains.

And yet there are remnants of dwarven architecture throughout the center of the kingdom of Duval, and historical records definitely suggest that they used to live in the area.  So… where have all the dwarves gone?

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World Building: Making The Outer Planes Better

500px-Outer_planes

Once again, I find myself investigating the cosmological background of the setting I’ve most recently created.  I was reading through the Dungeon Master’s Guide again, reading the section on planes near the beginning, and I’m in that usual place: somewhere between excited and miffed.  Fortunately, it’s easy enough to change the things that haven’t excited me.

I’m comfortable, for the most part, with the material the DMG offers on things like the Astral and Ethereal planes.  I’m more okay with the DMG’s ideas for the Shadowfell, the Feywild, and the various elemental planes.  I’m not very happy about their ideas for the Outer Planes.  I have some rewriting to do; let me tell you why.

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World Building: The Hells of Errant Souls

Botticellismapofdantesinferno

Hell, courtesy of Dante.

Last time I kept mentioning someone that I decided to call the Most Powerful Devil (MPD), without ever going any further into who or what that was.  But I’ve come up with more background for them since then, and in so doing I’ve also come up with more details for the game-world as a whole.

So, today I have a stupidly simple calendar (though I haven’t yet bothered to give the months names), I have a better idea of what the afterlife looks like (I’ve totally tossed out the basic alignment-based fare in favor of something a bit more complex), and I have a name and backstory for the Most Powerful Devil.  I think you’ll like this stuff. Continue reading

World Building: Magic, Demons, Angels, and Devils

Back in November I wrote about a new RPG campaign that I had cooked up, a game that I’ll refer to as For The King! for lack of a better name.  If you are currently playing in or are going to play in my 5th edition D&D campaign, you might want to be careful with reading this post.  If not, feel free to read this early-concept campaign overview.  I’ll avoid saying things here that could be too spoiler-y, but I plan to explore the nature of magic, demons, devils, and other such inimical forces.  Your character might or might not have access to this information.

Based on the first few sessions that I ran for my brothers, I already know that the setting allows for angels and fallen angels, though the latter are more like Remnants from In Nomine, powerful supernatural beings from other planes who have had some part of their greater nature stripped from them by intent or by accident.

Angels and their derivatives are all essentially moderately self-willed fragments of the god they serve, and might be thought of as something like having a god let its fingernail clippings (or maybe severed finger?) go off and do its bidding in the world.  A bit like some kind of overpowered intelligent celestial dandruff, I suppose.  But I don’t know off the top of my head how to make demons and devils work, and I don’t just want to sign on to the metaphysics presented in the 5th ed. Monster Manual without some editorial input.  I’d much rather doodle in the margins and make their setting fluff more thoroughly my own.  So read on for sweet lore! Continue reading

How to Craft a Good Setting

For me, the most interesting part of a creative body of work is the setting. Many people will talk about the characters, and how interesting they are, or the growth they exhibit. Others will point to the plot. But for me, the setting is the foundation; it sets the grounds for any ‘what if’s that the body of work is asking. Now, there are two general qualities of settings.

The first is the obvious: the familiar. By ‘familiar’, I mean that the setting corresponds to our notions of how it typically is. Familiarity is the reason that elves are tall and willowy and removed from the world, dwarves are short and stocky and miners who love alcohol, and halflings/hobbits are playful but possessed of personal hardiness. Familiarity is why protagonists are young and leave their village with mysterious outsiders, and why young people from small towns are protagonists at all. Familiarity is how we know sons kill fathers and hand-loss will show up in half of sci-fi and fantasy, and everything comes in threes. Familiarity is the stuff on which tropes are built.

In this, a good setting is a lot like a good joke. A good joke is all about establishing expectations, building up a story that we all know and understand, and then, in comes the second element: deviation. I agonized over that word for awhile: ‘deviation’. At first, I thought ‘surprise’. But surprise wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Surprise indicates that you didn’t really see what was coming; didn’t have an inkling. And while there is room for genuine surprise in stories, for the most part, the spectator — the reader, the watcher, the listener — should see the punchline coming. They might not exactly know what that punchline is, but when it does come it should be followed with ‘of course!’ Whether that ‘of course!’ is followed with an ‘I knew it!’ or a ‘How did I not see that coming?’ is largely irrelevant, although it should fall somewhere on that spectrum. That is to say, the context (the setting) should lead up to the punchline.

In a sense, the conclusion — the end of the book, the punchline, the moral — should feel INEVITABLE, even if it wasn’t predictable. When you hear the ending, it should immediately ring true as the ending, or the setting wasn’t established properly. It certainly isn’t impossible that Frodo could simply take the ring at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but it wouldn’t fit in with the tropes of the book: that hobbits are strong of heart and will, that all ages must come to an age, including the age of The Ring and Sauron (much as the age of the Elves is coming to an end even as the books begin), that the thing that distinguished Gollum from Frodo was his close friendship with even just one remaining entity (whereas Smeagol had killed Deagol). Essentially, the plot should live up to the promises that the setting makes, establishing a strong unifying theme.

Now, I’m playing a little fast and loose with ‘setting’, because I’m starting to include parts of the story. But in this case, I don’t mean the plot. I mean the tropes, the imagery, and so on. Sure, discovering the tree elves of Lothlorien happens as a part of the plot, but it is itself not plot; it is a revelation of setting to the spectator. inverting that story in ways we don’t expect but can still clearly see. Reading about a character losing his hand, or being seen surrounded by ravens, or dying and coming back to life is plot, yes. How it happens is plot. But it is also setting, because it serves to establish what tropes the author finds important, and how he chooses to invert them.

If I can walk you through a few examples, I think this will be made clear, but as always, I must warn you of spoilers. In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, on TV), Ned Stark is established as the protagonist quite early on. However, he is killed off before the first book in the series ends. Yes, this is a plot point, but also acts to establish the setting that George R. R. Martin is writing in: in A Song of Ice and Fire, life is short, brutal, and ugly, and you can trust nobody. In a sense, this helps to establish the context of the story. And when the punchline finally comes, that context will be important.

So ultimately, a good setting uses tropes and setting devices to establish the tone of what is expected to happen in the plot.

As such, I’m going to try a new project for my new posts; I’ll be posting a setting I’ve designed, according to these principles, talking about the tropes it exhibits, and how those tropes are inverted, and what those inversions mean!