New Fantasy Series Concept: The Old World

I’ve started getting interest in writing stories about a year ago, but neither the format of big novels or various stand alone short stories really got my creativity going much. Novel series take years and hundreds of pages to write and tend to deal with always the same people and places the whole time, while stand alone stories are so limited in scope that I never felt it worth making the effort to create an interesting world or good characters. The pulp series format seems to be a lot more to my liking, and I actually enjoy reading the Sword & Sorcery variety the most of any fiction. However, when looking at classic series like Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, or Kane, there’s always also a bit of the monotony that comes with big novel series. Different places in the world, but always the same protagonist with the same perspective on things. So I came up with an idea of having various self-contained stories set in the same world, but with different protagonists. This has developed into a more complex concept and I would like to hear what other people think about it.

The past four years I had been working on a fantasy setting for roleplaying games and while my interest for that has gone very much into the background for now, I’ve already had lots of great creative ideas that I still want to use. Since the purpose of the world is quite different, many of the changes are quite substential, going much narrower and deeper. I actually like the name Ancient Lands much more, but to keep my notes clearly separated I am calling this new version the Old World for now.

The Format

As I said, the basic concept I have in mind is a series of self-contained stories all set in the same setting. But an idea I really like is to have significant crossovers between the stories. I am really not a fan of the superhero genre, but the idea of having lots of protagonist and having them appear as secondary characters in other stories is something I always considered fascinating. Star Wars novels have that a lot, and you could even say the movies do, with lots of classic characters having minor roles in the Clon Wars movies, with Obi-Wan and Yoda doing the reverse. A very strong influence also comes from many TV shows from the 90s, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, or X-Files. Mostly you have these stand alone episodes with the Monster of the WeekĀ  (or Murder, or Space Anomaly), but every so often you have secondary characters that show up occasionally. Often the stories don’t involve all the main characters but really deal with only two or three, with the others serving only as minor secondary characters or not appearing at all. And sometimes you have clearly distinct subgroups. In Babylon 5, the two characters G’Kar and Londo almost have their own thing going on that only occasionally touches with the story of the crew of the space station. And in Deep Space Nine, the weasly bar owner Quark has close interactions only with the security chief Odo but barely anyone else of the main cast. He does however have several episodes with his own personal antagonists like the Grand Nagus, Brunt (FCA), his mother, or his klingon ex-wife. Who all never have any meaningful interaction with the rest of the main cast.

And that’s the probably rather unique part of the concept I have in mind. At the core is a group of perhaps a dozen or so main characters who have a web of relationships with each other. Some are allies, some are rivals, others share a common past. Geographically they are pretty far spread out, but their common field of interest (more on that in the next section) frequently has them crossing paths.

One almost-example I know about are the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski. The first two books are stand alone stories which all have the Witcher Geralt as the protagonist, but unlike Conan and Kane, secondary characters have regular reappearances. Dandelion is with Geralt on a lot of his adventures, Yennefer appears in several stories, and Ciri, her grandmother, and an old druid also have multiple appearances. From the third book on the format shifts to novels, but the individual chapters are still structurally very similar to the earlier stories. The first chapter of Blood of Elves has only Dandelion and Yennefer (who only met once before as adversaries but are both friends of Geralt) with Geralt not appearing at all, and the second has Triss as the protagonist, with Geralt being one of several secondary characters of equal position to Vessemir and Ciri. Each chapter connects together to a larger storyline and they are nit really self-contained, but it’s otherwise pretty close to my idea.

What I want to do with the writing is to always have only a single point of view character per story and everything that is in the story is what that character sees, hears, and knows. If that character is not aware of something, it’s not revealed to the reader. I also want to do it in a limited form of omniscient narration in that the description of things also includes details and background information that the character knows, without having someone say them out loud or that character saying them in his head. But I have no intention of ever revealing the narrator as a distinct person or directly address the readers in any way. While I like omniscient, that thing is always too cheesy for me.

The Premise

The basic premise of this series of stories is a world that is dominated by wilderness and only sparsely populated, but the deep forest, mountain peaks, and remote islands are full of old ruins originally build by fey lords when they ruled over the world of mortals for a while. The main characters are all involved in the business of artifact hunting, as any small king or chief is very much interested in whatever magical wonders might be hidden in their depth. To use them to protect their clans from threats, to destroy their enemies, or to keep them from falling into the hands of their enemies or their dangerous powers being released by accident. Every ruler has always some of their warriors and witches traveling the surrounding lands, keeping their eyes and ears open for any signs or rumors that might be worth to investigate. Sometimes they find things of value or things of great danger. Sometime they have to deal with monsters or other artifact hunters. They might cooperate to fight a common thread or share the rewards, or end up in a fight over their current target. Some are in it for money and fame, other out of the desire to help, and some to claim the power for themselves. It’s about stories of magical places and strange monsters and of treachery and heroism.

The Themes

All the stories that have ever deeply impressed me have highly existentialist themes and the question of what is the right thing to do in a world that is fundamentally ammoral and what you want to be when you alone have full responsibilty for everything you do are the only themes I consider worth investigating. It’s a major part of the Cyberpunk and Noir genres, and my favorite movies are Inception, Ghost in the Shell, and Blade Runner. It’s also the whole overarching theme of my favorite videogame series Mass Effect. And both my favorite fantasy book series Conan and Kane have it in spades. The basic assumption of Existentialism is that there are no objective truths about right and wrong, nothing can be known to be fact for certain, that there is no larger purpose to anything, and that nothing has any intrinsic value. But it also goes beyond mere Nihilism by asserting that life can be made meaningful by chosing to give subjective meaning and values to things.

Another thing that fascinates me about premodern societies is the high degree of interdependence within a community. Nobody exists alone, but is always influenced by and influencing the rest of the group. They need you to survive and you need them. In small communities everything you do affects the wellbeing and safety of everyone else, which adds a whol new layer to the existentialist question of what things you want to value and prioritise. As artifact hunters the main characters are in a unique position in that they enjoy a great amount of autonomy since they are often gone from home for a long time and enjoy many privileges that come with the position, but the nature of their task also means that their action and decisions can have very dramatic effects on the people who depend on them. They are not very deeply integrated into their societies and tend to be people who enjoy personal freedoms, and unlike most other people they really have the choice between doing what is expected from them and what they want for themselves. And it’s just these people who regularly get objects of great power just within their grasps.

Even though I am not a superhero fan, I am highly fascinated by Magneto and Mystique from X-Men. Within the series they are antagonists, but in many ways they don’t really qualify as villains. Their goals are not selfish and very similar to those of the X-Men, but their personal experiences have led them to different conclusions for what needs to be done to gain their security and dignity. Or as I mentioned before, there is Londo Molari from Babylon 5 who is personally responsible for many of the most terrible things that happen in the series, constantly makes deals with devils, and is ultimately driven by pride and revenge. But the results of his actions are not what he wanted, yet he sticks around trying to salvage of the situation what he can. He’s not really a villain, nor can you really call him evil, but he’s still one of the top leaders of a clearly evil group of villains. And in Deep Space Nine you have characters like Quark and Garrak, of who you can only say for certain that they are not heroes. They are also backstabbing liars, but sometimes they take very great risks to save others and either have limits to how low they will go with their methods or do the most terrible of their deeds for purely selfless reasons. There’s also Odo, who is a paragon of justice, but will still not abandon his people, even though they are a race of violent tyrants. I always enjoy conflicts the most that have a lot of ambiguity and in which even the antagonists have goals and motives that you can understand. As such, I don’t want to divide the main characters into heroes and villains or make any clear statements about who is good or evil. There are only protagonists and antagonists and which character has which role depends on tbe perspective from which each story is told.

Though I want to set the stories firmly in the Sword & Sorcery genre, one thing that really annoys me in pretty much all of western fiction is the triviality of death. My whole fascintion with premodern warfare comes from wondering how anyone could have actually fought like you see it in movies. I learned quite a lot about the construction and use of weapons and the mechanics and medicine of killing that way, and the short answer is that all you see in movies is pure fantasy. Dying from battle injuries can take quite a lot of time, and for much of that time the person can still keep fighting and cause lethal injuries. Fantasy always glosses over that and any enemy who gets hit seems to instantly disappear from reality. The hero needs not fear for his life and does not have to deal with the gruesome aftermath os stabbing someone with a sword. So everyone starts using lethal force at the drop of a hat and violence and death is completely trivialized to utter banality. I think combat can be a great element of fantasy adventure stories, but I think the whole parts of considering whether to risk a fight or not and dealing with the ugly aftermath are even much more important than the swinging of blades. I neither want to read gore nor write it, but I think the buildup and aftermath are much more interesting scenes that have a lot more to say. Some characters will be brave, others cowards, and some are more willing to kill than others. But I want my combat to never be banal or trivialize death. Every fight shouls be a major crisis for the protagonist. If it isn’t then the fight scene shouldn’t be there in the first place.

The Setting

Finally we get to the good part. I have a big pile of setting elements from when I was doing a world for an RPG and a lot of them I intend to carry over. At its heart, the Old World is a high fantasy setting with elves, trolls, and dragons and all that. But one thing that many people copied rather blindly from The Lord of the Rings is the idea that the present time is a diminished age where much of the magic and monsters have disappeared and fey and other spirits have left the world mostly behind. But almost always there’s plenty of mention of an ancient past when that was not the case and the world was full of dragons and giants and the elves and dwarves had grand castles in the forests and mountains. Those references to ancient times always seemed much more interesting to me than the actual story that is being told, and the Old World is an attempt to tell stories in such an older world of mystical wonders and great heroes. (Tolkien actually prefered that himself with the Silmarilion being his main work and the Lord of the Ring being the closing chapter that transitions from the mystical world to our modern world. Sadly, most people immitating him didn’t catch that.)

The world is basically a wild forest planet with trees covering almost every piece of land except for mountains and the arctic. And it is very sparsely settled and has only a few small and young civilizations. Most cultures are tribal barbarians. In many ways it’s modeled after the mediterranean Bronze Age with its many small kingdoms that often were just a castle and a surrounding town, with several villages scattered around them. Greek and Germanic myths of heroes exploring the unknow and fighting strange monsters are a great influence. The Odyssey and Beowulf being prime examples.

Geographically I’ve reduced the world down to two primary areas, which are centered around two stretches of coast between the ocean in the east and a seemingly endless expanse of forests in the west. The northern land of Revand takes inspiration from the many countries around the Baltic Sea, where I grew up, and Canada. It also takes lots of inspiration from the North region of the Forgotte Realms fantasy setting, which is also where almost all the Drizzt novels take place. The ancient history of the High Forest (which of course is now lost) was actually the main thing that originally inspired me to work on creating my own fantasy setting. The southern land of Senkand takes inspiration from both the northern Mediterranean Sea and southern China, which both share rocky coasts and many small islands that make for quite fantastic landscapes. The main influence here is the continent Kalimdor from the old videogame Warcraft III, which again has a long history of ancient and now mostly lost elven civilizations. The sea and the forests dominate the world and almost all people live on a small strip between these two vast environments that are full of hidden secrets and strange beings.

Peoples

There are several kinds of different people who inhabit the lands of Revand and Senkand and their surrounding areas. Humans are only one of the minor ones. Most of them are barely out of the Stone Age and some of them still aren’t. They live in small villages in areas on the periphery, having remained in mountains, marshes, and on small islands a safe distance away from the lands fought over by the civilized peoples. To give humans their own thing at which they shine and that sets them apart from others, I am emphasizing human endurance and durability, which really is quite amazing in the animal kingdom and not something you could necessarily take for granted in every fantasy race. Humans can keep running and working far longer than almost any other creature on earth without having to rest (the best way to catch a horse alive is to chase it until it’s too exhausted to continue running) and they can also survive on a very wide range of foods, which means they are at less risk from malnutrition during shortages of regular food. In a fantasy word that has lots of long distance foot travel through complete wilderness, that is quite a special power and can be a huge advantage. It is what makes everyone else value human warriors as mercenaries. The big players are elves and serpentmen. Elves are all of the woo elf kind and live for only 300 years, with leaves in their hair and dirt on their clothes. They are quite similar to humans and their differences are mostly cultural. They are the Normans to the human Saxons, not some kind of wonderful immortals of endless beauty and wisdom. The serpentmen come from jungles in the far distant south, of which almost nothing is really known. But occasionally they travel north for several kinds of shady business. They are obviously strongly influenced by the serpentmen of Robert Howard, but also the Yuan-ti from Forgotten Realms, the Naga from Warcraft, and also the ancient Sith that appear in some of the more obscure Star Wars stories.

The other people include the kaas, who are tall beastmen living in the North, the skeyn, who are kind of like goblin-gnomes (green but nice, but also viscious in war) who live in mountain fortesses and burrow-villages, trolls, and the kidari, who very roughly speaking are monkey-weasel people who live in the tops of trees.

There are about a dozen different cultures with different customs that reflec their environment and way of farming and includes various systems of social hierarchies and roles. They are all made basically from scratch and not various easily identifiable cultures from Earth history copied over. I never like those and here my background in cultural studies and ethnology really comes in very handy.

Spirits

In addition to having mostly tribal societies, and to really allow their unique dynamics and culture to show, the world is also full of spirits. In addition to the normal world of mortals, there is also the Spiritworld where the spirits of all things in the landscape exist. Tiny things like flowers or pebbles have spirits that are so weak that they all flow into each other without any clear disinction between them but mountains, lakes, rivers, and ancient trees have spirits with very distinct personalties and individuality. Usuallt they don’t show themselves directly, but they do have power to affect the natural world and can control the weather, the growth of plants, or the health of animals and people. Therefore every village has to has shamans who are able to sense the spirits and have the ability to communicate with them, so that the villagers don’t go to places or do things to the land that the spirits don’t want them to. But the common people are also always aware that the spirits are everywhere and can be pleased or angered by many things, and lots of cultural practices are based on that. There are also many ceremonies and sacrifices to keep the local spirits happy and to request their aid in times of trouble.

Some spirits are truly vast, like the spirits of the Earth, the Moon, Fire, or Darkness. These are the gods, but they are difficult to reach as they are existing on a far larger scale than individual people. But the powers of the Moon or of Fire are still accessible to people, even if it’s a relationship that is much more abstract than to a tree spirit or lake spirit. While they are known, they play a relatively small role in the lives of ordinary people, but they are often evoked to focus the mind on a specific task, in the hope of getting some of their power to help.

There are also many other kinds of spirits that are not manifestations of natural features in the landscape and who are more like people or animals and have their own bodies. There are elementals, treants, spriggans, and many animal spirits. But there are also some that resemble mortal people quite closely, like the shie, who are like tall immortal elves with great magic powers; naga, who are half human and half snake; giants, and dragons. Shie, naga, and giants build castles just like elves and skeyn do, and have been doing so for a very long time. Most are hidden in the Spiritworld, but many have also been build in the world of mortals and long since fallen into ruins. These are the places that attract artifact hunters. For a long time the shie have been keeping savage elves as slaves and when these were later left behind after the castles were abandoned, they were the first to bring farming, metalworking, and magic to the primitive peoples that lived in caves and trees. In the distant south the naga never completely abandoned all their castles and still rule over large numbers of lesser serpentmen who are believed to be the altered descendants of captured wild elves.

My approach to religion is quite different from what I most commonly see in fiction. Usually you have various different cultures worshiping different gods but in the end all agreeing on the same creation myth and version of an afterlife and the nature of gods. But that’s not how religion works in reality and religious conflict is a huge field for storytelling potential that almost never gets tapped into because of that. Perhaps somewhat oddly, this world has neither souls nor an afterlife. Both the Abrahamic and the Indian concepts of souls that are distinct from the body seem rather unintuitive to me. Dealing with death in a religious way that does not assume that the dead are still around in some way is much more interesting to me. (And goes along well with the existentialist themes, in which dealing with the prospect of nothing after death is one of the key elements.)

Magic

Magic in the Old World is mostly very simple. There is only a single form of energy that gives life to both mortal creatures and spirits, controls the weather, and is the source of all natural phenomena. And it can be learned to use it for other things than just controlling the body normally. In theory everyone can do it, but some people are much more talented for it and teachers rarely waste their time with students who don’t look promising. Since it is the energy that powers all of nature, it can only do things that could also happen naturally. But it can be used to do things that would not normally happen, like things catching fire by themselves, stones crumbling under a touch, strong wind appearing from nowhere, or plants growing at extreme speed and catching people’s legs. It’s impossible to make a person or thing transparent, but magic can change the minds of people so that they don’t take notice of their presence. (See Sanderson’s Second Law: Limitations are more interesting than powers.) Most people who use magic are either witches or shamans, but the difference is almost entirely in their role and position in society. Their magic is still the same.

Some people have discovered that the world has not always been as orderly as it is now, and that there used to be a time when the laws of nature were not yet fixed and all energy was entirely chaotic. These energies still exist beyond the borders of reality and it is possible to access and use them. This kind of magic is called sorcery and it is not limited by the laws of nature. This makes it very powerful, both as a tool to creating magnificent magical wonders and as a source of incredible danger. (Sanderson’s Third Law: Expand on what you already have instead of creating completely new things.) Every use of sorcery weakens the natural fabric of the universe around it and this corruption can be spread around by creatures or objects affected by it, though it weakens slowly over time. Sorcery is not an evil power, but to most people it is considered as way too dangerous to ever consider it, despite the unlimited potential it has. Sorcerers are regarded as very dangerous and in many places hunted. The only exceptions are the lords of the Neshanen elves of Senkand (which makes them unpopular with all the other tribes, but also the wealthiest) and the remaining naga lords in the distant southern jungles of Kemesh. The hunt for knowledge about sorcery is the main reason that occasionally drives the naga out of their isolation.

There are few magic weapons or anything of that kind in the Old World. Magic objects usually take the form of magically altered gems or the remains of unique powerful creatures, which are of use only to experienced witches or shamans who can use them to increase their own powers in specific ways. Much more common are various alchemical brews. Since the energies in plants, minerals, or animals (or people) are the same energies that power magic, even seemingly ordinary ingredients can be combined as a simple form of magic. In the good old traditions of Sword & Sorcery, these potions have a vast range of side effects that do all kinds of terrible things to the mind and body. Technically speaking there is no difference between potions and drugs. It’s all manipulation of internal life energy by adding the right combinations of energy from various ingredients. There’s also many magic springs, trees, and caves, and things of that kind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *