From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Worldforge #1

Welcome to the first installment of my setting creation column here at Fantasy Magazine. In this and future editions, I intend to go over the concepts of world building as applied to both fiction and gaming. Most folks familiar with tabletop role playing games know them to be a kind of interactive fiction where players work together to craft a story. At best these tales are every bit as rewarding as fiction written by the masters of fantasy.

Like an author, the game master, (called Judge, Dungeon Master, Storyteller and a million other titles, each more or less unique to the game in question) is responsible for setting the stage and driving the action. The former is what concerns us in Worldforge, and we’ll look at various aspects of creating the environment that our characters will explore regardless of whether they’re a group of friends or the products of our imaginations.

Writers and game masters seeking to create a unique world must both start at the same place. We’ll call it the spark. This spark can be a specific idea, a theme, a scene or image that springs to the mind’s eye, or a character. Whichever the case might be, the spark can be thought of as the fire that any good forge needs, in our case a vast, primal fire in which our imaginations are shaped and tempered until finally, a well-realized and intriguing realm takes shape.

The spark can come from anywhere, and go anywhere. It is the molten core of a world. It is also the easy part. Virtually any idea can start the forge’s fire, but many, many more are required to fuel it long enough for a convincing and engaging setting to emerge. Like our own world, a fantasy setting is layered with themes, histories, inhabitants and cultures. Like the smith who turns various ores into steel, we must add these elements in just the right amounts until our visions take shape and eventually develop life of their own.

Looking at various sources of speculative fiction, we can see many amazing worlds, each containing brilliance and magic. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea is a world where civilization exists on scattered archipelagos in an endless ocean. The world of Midkemia is one of many worlds in Raymond E. Feist’s vast galactic fantasy, where different planets and realms are connected by tremendous magics and the whims of the gods. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern is a realm settled by human explorers, located so far from earth that culture essentially rebooted itself in the face of the mysterious and deadly thread. Most of Michael Moorcock’s work revolves around the concept of the Eternal Champion, a sort of eidolon existing in many times and places.

These are the heights to which we, as writers, game masters, or both, must stretch. Fortunately, we are afforded the chance to stand upon these giants’ shoulders.

There is nothing new under the sun, they say. They are more or less correct. Everything has been done, but as creators of fantasy, we have seen uncounted new things in our exploration of the genre. Let’s call it the “tomato principle”. Everyone’s seen a tomato. We all know it to be a juicy red fruit with an acidic tang. But we have learned to do many, many different things with it, combining it with other ingredients to make ketchup or pasta sauce or a crisp salad. Tomatoes can be baked, stuffed, grilled, steamed, sliced, cubed and crushed. You get the idea.

To apply the principle to fantasy, let’s take a look at the age-old staple of fantasy species: the elf. There are a variety of elves in fantasy fiction and games, each new and different. Tolkien’s elves are tall and graceful. Elfquest, a comic book by Richard and Wendy Pini, chronicles the adventures of a tribe of primitive but shamanic elves that ride wolves. Dungeons & Dragons holds numerous “subraces” such as sea elves and the Drow who live beneath the earth. There are winged elves, blind elves, anime elves and shape-changing elves. They are all, to our modern mythologies, elves. They speak elven languages and do elven things. The elves are like tomatoes, you see, and if their telepathic cats are parsley and their silent sorcery is basil, we have the beginning of a fine elf sauce.

If we examine such wide elements as culture, technology and systems of magic, we can see how the perfect admixture of various elements comes together. The D&D setting known as the Forgotten Realms is a world based on cultures of our own earthly past, focusing on Eurasia, while the Dark Sun setting is a harsh, sun-burnt world where halflings (gamer hobbits, since the Tolkien estate owns that word) are brutal cannibals. The tinker gnomes of Krynn turned their rustic craftsmanship into a proto-steampunk technology.

In this way world builders fashion unique creations. The spark of inspiration grows into a grand melange of well-known elements that can finally be shaped and quenched. Thousands of little details are set into this creation, glimmering like jewels. The whole is polished again and again, in revisions and rewrites and edits. Elements are introduced and discarded freely, borrowed from the sources of our inspiration and hopefully tuned until they fit just so into our worlds, becoming something new.

The spark is elusive and mysterious, of course, and its secrets are legion. There is one undeniable fact, though, that ties all these sparks together into the universal consciousness. The spark is good.

That is to say, your spark is good. The idea that fires in a world builder’s head is likely to fail only when ignored. Gaming groups fall apart, life intercedes to prevent writing, and good ideas fall to the wayside. But never because they are flawed. With enough effort spent in the forge, enough time and care, enough research and diligence, your world can burst into life.

To find the spark, we must be ready. Whether it comes as the result of hard work or an unbidden burst of inspiration, world builders must be open to the idea. All those who work creatively should keep the resources at hand to record their ideas, whether initial sparks or the flood of concepts that surely follows.

Here are some great ways to invite the spark:

  • Read. A lot. Read on the internet. Read novels and short stories and poems and text books. Buy comic books from the 25 cent box and visit the library three times a week. Read what you usually wouldn’t (for me lately this has been “young adult” fantasy and Agatha Christie).
  • Travel. Even a weekend jaunt to a state park can provide tremendous inspiration. Visit historic places and learn about those who lived and worked in them.
  • Adventure! If you’re going to write anything at all, you need to be intimately familiar with new things. There cannot be a good story until your characters depart from their status quo. That’s where adventure starts, and to keep yourself in that spirit, take classes, act in a community theatre or renfest, make new friends and explore new hobbies.
  • Know everything. The life of the best creators are underpinned by constant study. The more you know, the more minerals you have for the alloy of your creation, and the more tools wait at your disposal for the shaping of it, the more wonderful it will be!