Category Archives: Kaendor

Once more with feeling

This is another post that started out as a way too rambly first draft and that I completely rewrote to make it something more readable. For about the last two months I’ve been occupying myself with thinking about ways to give the Ancient Lands some greater depth and making it more compelling by adding a stronger emphasis on mystical elements and some kind of subtext that is woven into the world itself. To make it more than just another make belief land and something which feels truly wondrous and magical. Something that isn’t just a servicable tool for running campaigns but an artistic expression of my own personal creativity.

When I look at fantasy in books, movies, and videogames, I am always most fascinated when I come across elements that are strange and unexpected and that seem to invite you to think about their meaning within the story. But it is important that “strange” in this context is something very different from “random”. In a lot of old RPG material, or recent material that embraces the old tropes, you can find a lot of crazy stuff with very little rhyme or reason that seem to be there only for the sake of being funny. (Which in Jeff Rient’s threefold model probably would be “retro-stupid”.) While I am totally on board for a short blast of campy fun, this is not something that I would want to deal with when going down to serious business. The strange gives a work a greater depth and makes it more intriguing when its presence has meaning and stands for something.

Very often the strange and weird in fantasy takes the form of monsters. The very concept of monsters in western culture goes back to the Romans who traced the origins of the word monstrum back to either the verbs “to show” or “to warn”. And the original meaning was the occurance of violations of the known natural order – in particular the appearance of creatures of unnatural appearance – which were believed to be the manifestations of something greater and supernatural going on. Seneca described the concept of monstrum as “a visual and horrific revelation of the truth”. And all the things in fantasy and horror that we today consider to be “weird” are forms of such monstrums. They don’t have to be creatures, but can also be objects, environments, events, and phenomena.

What does this mean for the creation of fiction? How can this be translated into an artistic method? For this purpose I want to point to Christopher Nolan’s seminal work on communicating messages and making a point in narrative art.

Contrary to popular believe, Inception is not an illogical heist movie but actually a lecture on communicating abstract concepts to an audience through the telling of an entertaining story, rather than preaching from a soap box. That’s the very concept of “Inception”: You can’t make someone believe something by telling them that they should believe it. Instead you need to show them examples that make them see the issue from your perspective and then let them draw their own conclusions from that experience. And if you’re setting it up right it wil be the same conclusion that you made about the issue. Yes, it’s totally and blatantly manipulative. But that’s what all narative and visual art has always been. The whole point of artistic expression is to communicate ideas.

My goal with the Ancient Lands is to create a world that is compelling and intriguing to explore because there are deeper layers and meanings to discover and experience. Now I am really not sure whether this is defeating the purpose when I am giving a guided tour behind the courtain and outright tell what I am trying to represent with the setting and what the symbolic meaning behind the various strange elements is intended to be. But I don’t regard it as a riddle to be solved and see it more like a method to give the setting a distinctive feel that is consitently evoked by numerous elements that are strewn throughout it. And this post isn’t just about my own setting, but about this approach to worldbuilding in general, so I find it a good way to better illustrate what I mean.

Now let’s get more specific: What are the underlying meanings that I want to be symbolically illustrate through the supernatural elements of the setting? I have some ideas about the meaning of life, the pursuit of happiness, and the structural flaws of western culture. You could perhaps call existentialist eco-socialism or something like that. But nobody wants to hear a critique of western capitalism in a fantasy game about exploring magical ruins. That’s a terrible idea! Instead let me quote Nolan here: “The subconscious is motivated by emotion, not by reason. We need to translate this into an emotional concept.” The best messages that art can communicate are not “do things this way!”, but “think about things this way”. Good fiction that is making a point doesn’t make a specific call to action (that usually just ends up preachy and alienates the audience) but attempts to encourage a certain perspective.

So how could my opinions that I would like people to adopt be translated into an emotional concept? After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve come to see it as “pride and greed are the root of all ills that plague the world”. To perform this inception through the world of the Ancient Lands, this concept needs to be visible within the things that make up the setting. As players are exploring the world and interact with it, they need to encounter threats that stem from pride and greed and see humility and compassion as the source of strength that allows heroes to oppose them.

Immediately two of my primary bad guy monsters spring into my mind. Naga and wights. The naga in the Ancient Lands are a race of serpent spirits from whose ranks the dark art of sorcery was developed. Sorcery is the power to ignore the rules of nature that limit ordinary abilities and regular magic. The naga are also few in numbers but rule over vast armies of slaves. They are the prime example of a hunger for power over both nature and people. They are the perfect candiate for a monstrous manifestation of pride. Wights are undead who have retreated into their crypts where they spend eternity with the riches they amassed in life that they guard fiercely against robbers. They can make for a very great manifestation of greed. Another idea I had today was the old concept of the cursed gold. Greed makes people turn against each other and the sudden possession of great wealth changes people and makes them feel elevated over others. Familair motifs and great showcases of greed being closely tied to pride. Rich people being bad people would be rather blunt and so obvious to make it offputting. But displays of opulent extravagance as indicators for self-destructive madness? That’s more subtle.

As a supporting counterpart to this, humility and compassion would be the sources of of good. This can be incorporated into the world by making the good rulers and helpful allies of setting humble people who don’t display their riches and don’t demand recognition from others. Reaching out to others should be a reliable way to gain powerful supporters and dispays of compassion should return to the players through unexpected aid. I am still at a rather early stage with this idea but it’s one I am very excited about further developing.

Another emotional concept I like to include comes from a realization I had from my university classes in cultural studies. Pretty much every major religion I know about regards bodily existance as hugely problematic. The body is the crude shackles of the pure and exalted spirit. If we could just exist without flesh, we would be gloriously divine beings of perfection. Christianity is one of the more extreme cases of body hating, but it has been a central element of Indian theology for thousands of years as well. And of course it’s everywhere throughout mythology and from there spread into fantasy. The flesh is impure and sinful and holds the spirit back. I find this very nonsensical. Sartre once condensed the central idea behind existentialism down to “existance preceds essence”, and while he probably wasn’t thinking about the body-mind duality I find it applicable to this situation as well. We are not preexisting spirits that become manifest in a physical body (essence precedes existance) but our minds are the result of the experiences made by our bodies. It’s a banal statement from a rational scientific perspective, but quite important in a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the meaning of life and the nature of existence. The relationship between physical instinct and rational morality has been of interest to me for a very long time and was one of the early philosophical problems of my young inquisitive self. In Germany in the 80s and 90s, I experienced an approach to raising boys that attempted to suppress their violent instincts to the point they would eventually be extinguished. But what I found was that boys some years younger than me appeared even more out of hand than boys of my age had been. Also, while I have been told that I’ve refused to retaliate to violence in a Ghandi-like fashion from a very early age (which actually got me through childhood and youth very smoothly), I still loved playing with toy guns and really enjoy violent movies and videogames to this day, even though that would have been seen as a big no-no in 80s pedagogy. My conclusion to this was that any attempt to teach responsible use of physical force has to aknowledge the instinct to violence instead of trying to suppress it. Same thing with sexuality. Attempting to suppress natural instincts only leads to a lack of control over those very same instincts. Therefore I regard the self as an extension of the physical instincts. “Instinct precedes reasom.” Yet I am not aware of any religion that puts the body at the center of being. I thought that there should be some religions of this type in fantasy well before I started working on my own setting.

It’s a philosophical concept that has been part of my worldbuilding from the very start. The Ancient Lands have no afterlife and no ghosts. There are wraiths and shades, but these are not actually remnants of living people. They are distorted echoes of people who have ceased to exist, composed of sorcerous energy. It’s a simpler and more straightforward concept than pride and greed being the source of all ills, and I already got a couple of ideas how to represent it symbolically through supernatural elements within the world.

  • Powerful spirits are physically imposing. Feeble looking spirits have little magical power.
  • Magic items are not crafted, but the remains of powerful spirits and witches that contain traces of their original magical powers.
  • Sorcerers are in great physical shape, like Xaltotun or Kane, not frail and weak.
  • I always wanted to do something with blood magic. The body is the source of the mind and therefore the source of magic.
  • Places of natural magical energies are often invigorating or have healing powers.
  • Undead are always insane.

These are two examples of how you can take abstract concepts and turn them into motifs that you can use to create a consistent theme within the supernatural and also mundane elements of a fantasy setting. I hope some of this might be useful to someone and didn’t turn out too much of a rambling mess,

Time is an Illusion, and so are Pants

While I’ve been thinking about Morrowind, Planescape, Glorantha, and Tekumel (and why Dark Sun doesn’t seem to feel fully right as being in the same category) I came to the conclusion that beyond Asian and pre-medieval stylistic influences they all share a considerable amount of metaphysics and religion and have some esoteric aspects that are a big part of their appeal. (Dark Sun doesn’t, which is what sets it apart.) It’s something that I frequently pondered and has always been in the back of my head since I first wrote about the subject two years back. And while thinking about what elements with philosophical and metaphysical aspects I already have, I came up with a pretty decent list.

Most of these things started with me wanting to hav certain aesthetic and narrative elements that turned out to be conflicting with each other. Attempting to solve these conflicts by making various small changes and adaptations led to the discovery of numerous new ideas that are all not entirely original but make everything come together in a distinctive way that gives the world a unique character and opens interesting venues for exploration.

The Mythic Otherworld

This is an extension of Philotomy’s concept of the Mythic Underworld, which treats dungeons as places outside of the regular laws of nature and working by their own unfathomable supernatural rules. In the Mythic Otherworld this idea is extended to entire lands, or in case of the Ancient Lands the Spiritworld. The wilderness is a place of mostly mundane dangers that simply try to eat you. But the Spiritworld and its native creatures are not bound by the normal rules that make the civilized lands and wilderness make sense. Being inherently supernatural, the Spiritworld is a realm where things can seem illogical or outright impossible. There are castles and landscapes that defy gravity, fires that burn forever, underground labyrinths that never run out of breathable air, and creatures encountered in places they couldn’t have possibly reached. There are rules that govern the Spiritworld, but they are often quite different from those of the physical world and rarely make sense to mortal minds.

(This concept started as an attempt to make sense of the illogical layup and keying of many early dungeons, but actually turns out to be a really good paradigm for designing fantastic places with a mythical atmosphere and making spirits alien.)

Life Energy

Anything that exist is infused by energy. Energy allows living creatures to move and think, gives spirits their powers, and is also what makes fire burn and even seemingly unliving stones roll down cliffs and crush things underneath it. Energy is everywhere and while it appears in different looking forms it is ultimately all of the same essence. This life energy of nature has no boundaries and all things and everything that happens is part of the same whole. But within this universal energy is a vast multiplicity of wills, and each will has seemingly complete control over different bodies. But all the wills of each animal and plant within a landscape also make up the spirit of the land and this spirit can manifest a body of its own, even though it simultaneously exists in all the other beings within its realms.

To great spirits it comes naturally to share control over all the things in its domain with the individual wills of each being. People and animals are not normally aware of this touching and merging of wills. But it can be learned to extend the will beyond the own body into other things and other beings, which is then known as magic. Once control is released, things again follow their own natural behavior, which is why all mortal magic is impermanent.

(This originally started by thinking about the actual mechanics by which the Force makes things happen, but it ended as something that also very well explains spirits and divination.)

The Wyrd

Time is always flowing and things constantly changing, so it is impossible to accurately foresee the future before it happens, even with the most powerful magic of ancient spirits. But things never happen without a reason and all beings behave according to their nature, which makes many things that happen predictable. As the life energies of nature and magic flow through everything, great spirits and powerful magical beings have the ability to see what is hidden to the eyes and sense the paths that all creatures are following. This infinite network of paths is the Wyrd, and it is always in motion as creatures make choices and accident happen. But while paths are constantly changing, they rarely change by much and can be highly predictable to those who are experienced in watching them and knowledgeable in the hearts of men and beasts. Divination is the art of reading the everchanging wyrd and recognizing where paths are about to cross. Since all beings tend to follow their nature, great spirits and old shamans can tell which future encounters are fated to happen. They also can make predictions what choices people will make, but these become more unreliable the more unusual their circumstances are, and no power in the world can foresee the great differences that can be made by a loose stone or a serpent in the grass.

(Divination magic is always limited to predicting encounters and obstacles that are likely to happen, but can make no accurate statement of how they will play out. Telling the future without negating player agency and dice results lets me eat my cake and have it too.)

Drifting Time

Time is something that seems simple and straightforward in everyday life, with things changing and moving forward. But this is only because people are mortal and always only see short stretches of time and the physical world is followed by seemingly regular cycles of the seasons. But spirits have a much different perspective that allows them to see mountains rising and lands sink beneath the sea, yet at the same time nothing ever really changes and all the efforts of mortals are never getting them anywhere. On sufficient scales time is not a straight river that runs from the mountains to the sea but endlessly meandering without source or destination. Within the Spiritworld even the passing of seasons and years loses most of its meaning and both the weather as well as preservation and erosion are ultimately depending on the moods of the spirits of the land.

Whether days have passed or centuries makes very little difference in the Spiritworld. Ancient castles can be found in pristine states while solid castles may have crumbled to rubble after returning to them a month later. And while spirits may forgive, they rarely forget, and will honor both ancient agreements and avenge slights that happened generations past.

(The benefit here lies in having a good explanation of why there are so many ruins but little current civilization without having to rely on a Tolkienian decline of magic. It also justifies how magical creatures seem to be waiting fo centuries in inhospitable lairs for adventurers to find them. From their own perspective they and their lairs simply exist in a temporal limbo until outsiders interact with them.)

The Blight

The magic used by spirits, shamans, and witches utilizes the natural life energies within the environment and all the things in it and as such is limited to doing things that are naturally possible. But there is a space beyond the borders of reality which is filled with the energies of raw Chaos. Chaos energy has the potential to change the fabric of reality and through this allows sorcerers to do things that are impossible. This makes sorcery an extremely potent force that can be used for both great works and terrible destruction. But Chaos can never be fully controlled by mortals and every use of sorcery or the mere presence of demons weakens reality around them. This Blight warps and poisons the natural world and all living things touched by it. First it causes weakness and feelings of supernatural dread, but long exposure leads to deteriorating health and eventually turns living things into twisted monstrosities. Sorcerers learn to adapt to the changes of the Blight and consider it a price worth the unlimited potential sorcery offers. But most people see them as madmen who are laying the world into ruin in their thirsting for power. Druids and Demon Hunters stop at nothing to destroy sorcerers and demons wherever they can and while their methods are often extreme most people welcome their continual battle against further spreading of the Blight.

(This one started with my fascination of the idea that heroes fighting dark magic accept that this effort is exposing them to its power and eventually changing them. The Dark Side from Star Wars and the Darkspawn Blight and demonic possession from Dragon Age were both big influences on this.)

Red and Black Hearts

The peoples of the Ancient Lands do not think in the concepts of Good and Evil, or even such dualities as Order and Chaos. When judging people’s character, they distinguish between those whose actions bring peace and those whose actions bring suffering. Those who bring peace are usually higher regarded than those who bring suffering and are regarded as better or worse people accordingly. But there is no such thing as a concept of cosmic divine law which people can live in accordance with or violate. Not everyone who brings suffering needs to be despised or be made to stand justice, but they are all dangerous and often feared.

Most people who spread suffering are regarded as having a Red Heart. They are prone to anger, rage, hatred, and violence. While courage and strength are greatly admired by most peoples, those who have no control over their fury and lash out against others without thinking or restraint are seen as very dangerous people. While many redhearted people are regarded as thugs, this quality is also often found in those who have many other admirable traits. Their rages are often seen with sadness by those close to them, but if they prove to be to violent and unpredictable they need to be taken care of, one way or another.

People with a Black Heart are quite different in character and are much more unpredictable. They are not driven by rage, nor do they seek any satisfaction in the suffering of other. Rather, blackhearted people do not concern themselves with the suffering of others at all. They simply worry about their own goals and needs with no considerations about the wellbeing of others. They don’t go out of their way to spite or harm others but don’t hesitate when their plans will made others to suffer. For those who are more foresighted consider the social consequences of harmful actions on their longterm goals, but when they think they can get away with it there’s little that keeps them from sacrificing anyone.

Some people are seen as having both a red and a black heart and most of them are quickly regarded as monsters in humanoid form or being possessed by demons. Many of them are madmen who soon find an end at the hands of vengeful pursuers, but some end up among the most feared warlords and bandit leaders.

(Calling something evil is an ancient shortcut in western culture to not having reflect on an opponents motivation and reasons and get an instant moral justification to destroy them without further questions asked. Anytime I come across fiction that avoids this lazy simplification (usually Japanese but often also European) I really enjoy it a lot, and it makes interactions with supernatural and inhuman beings much more fascinating. So eventually I found this solution to have people “who just need killing” without giving the players an instant excuse to enjoy it. This is also why there are no orcs, goblins, or gnolls in this setting.)

Honor

While honor is an endlessly complex field, it’s role in the Ancient Lands primarily manifests itself in the two concepts of hospitality and vengeance.

Hospitality is the idea common in most cultures that everyone is obligated to offer food and shelter to travelers within the means of the host and according to the station of the guest. In a world with few travelers there are no places where one could rent a room outside the handful of major trade cities and there are no other places to stay the night or winter indoors than in the homes of locals. While the forests and mountain valleys are not as deadly as the open sea, it has become accepted that offering hospitality to travelers is an adequate price for seeing the same kindness extended to oneself or your relatives when similarly in need of shelter. There are limits to hospitality though and the guest is expected to offer a gift of gratitude in exchange, which again is according to the means of the guest and the station of the host. Overstaying ones welcome or not presenting sufficient gifts, let alone abusing the kindness of the host, is as much a violation of hospitality as not offering travelers a place for the night and just as much damaging to ones honor and reputation.

In a world where visitors from outside are rare, hosting guests is often much more of an honor than a burden to the host. Hosting esteemed guests is a great boost to ones reputation and in most places it is understood that only the mosy powerful families will get this honor. While refusing hospitality when requested is highly dishonorable, offering it freely to travelers can make the lesser families of a village very powerful enemies. Since the most powerful families are usually also the richest who ca best afford hosting guests in considerable comfort for extended time, this is an arrangement that mostly suits everyone involved just fine. Traveling adventurers coming to a new village will usually stay at the hall of the chief or another of the great families.

When conflicts happen, Vengeance is the most common institution to maintain stability. While there often is a desire to see an offender punished, avenging an offense is primarily a means to ensure that nothing of that kind will happen to the offended family or clan again. By getting revenge, a familiy is showing its strength and the severe consequences to anyone who might want to try attacking them. The point is not to get even but to make everyone afraid to cross the familiy again and because of this it is often impossible to let an attack go unpunished, even if the family has no desire for blood. To let an offense pass shows that the family is weak and an easy target for further attacks. Most of the time vengeance can be satisfied by payments of reparations. Paying reparations is safer for both sides and allows the conflict to become forgotten much faster than if someone got killed or maimed. If the reparation is sufficiently high, it means a significant loss for the offending family and it has been established that the attack has cost them. If the offer of reparation is considered insufficient or the crime too grave, the offended family will be after blood. In any such feud both sides come out much worse than they were before and it’s not uncommon that the offended family ends up losing more people and wealth than they inflict in damage on their enemies. Killing is not always necessary and in some cases causing injury will be regarded as acceptable if both sides aren’t eager for a long and deadly feud. But deaths can always happen and sometimes an injured member dying from wounds weeks later can reignite a stalled or solved feud. Feuds can continue for week or months until both sides are too exhausted from the constant state of warfare to continue. If the offended family believes it has shown that anyone attacking them will pay dearly for it, a truce will usually be negotiated though neutral mediators.

Vengeance is almost never between individuals but between families or clans. In tribal societies nobody is ever acting alone and any offense that is being commited is usually done in the presence or at least with the knowledge of a relative. These relatives also share responsibility for the offense, but part of the blame also lies with the elder siblings and older relatives who are responsible for properly raising the children of the family. The responsibility for every offense lies with the whole family. Most people own little personal items and most wealth in the form of land and animals is shared by the whole family,so any reparations automatically affect the family as a whole. The same goes when crops and buildings are destroyed or animals stolen or killed. When an offense is avenged with blood, there are also other practical considerations to attack relatives of the original offender. It is often easy for a family to protect a single member inside their home indefinitely, making it impossible to get at him. In theory all members of a family are valid targets, but many families hesitate to attack children or old women unless the other sides starts doing it first. But when arrows and torches are flying accidents happen and this escalation is not uncommon. Also, even if an offender manages to survive a feud unharmed until a truce is agreed his family will have suffered greatly and they know exactly who was responsible for bringing this suffering upon them. Even if they feel obliged to protect the offender, they will often see that he sees punishment for his offense themselves.

(I’ve long been intrigued at how vengeance and hospitality really worked in practice as their portrayal in fiction always seemed just as dodgy as that of warfare (which is mostly sensationalist nonsense). I’ve spend years researching social organization and public order in pre-civilization societies as a cultural studies student and it’s a very fascinating alternative to the typical medieval fantasy approach. While it’s a highly complex subject I think breaking it down to these two key concepts lets the players gets the most out of it while being pretty easy to grasp.)

I think nothing here is really new and ha been seen in one way or another several times before. But I doubt that all these elements and ideas have been used in this particular configuration and I am feeling very happy with the setting getting my own unique stamp because of it.

Baroque Fantasy?

My view of creativity is very much in agreement with the thought that great ideas come from filling a mind with lots of fascinating concepts and evocative images and letting them ferment until one day something new comes growing out of the compost heap. A considerable amount of my creative “work” consists of looking for more ideas to add to my heap by reading lots of stuff remotely related to what I am working on (professionals call it “researching”) and pondering of what use they could be to me. It’s totally not slacking!

Morrowind

One thought that has occupied my recently is that many of the fantasy worlds I find highly inspiring for the Ancient Lands seem to share some common features or at least aesthetic. The two biggest influences are Morrowind and Planescape, and I know that the former was directly inspired by Glorantha. And I was actually surprised that Glorantha came into existance completely independently from Tekumel. I had assumed that there’s a direct link between the two, but both appeared in the world of fantasy games in 1974/1975, the very dawning days of RPGs. I’ve been wondering if there’s a name for the style shared by these worlds but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

Planescape

Looking further into it I also remembered additional settings that seem to share at least some similarity. There’s the Young Kingdoms from Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, Dark Sun, and what I’ve seen also the RPGs Talislanta and Exalted. But it might all have started with Clark Ashton Smith’s proto-Sword & Sorcery tales set in Hyperborea and Zothique (though I admit only having read the former).

Glorantha

One term I’ve often seen to describe both Smith’s stories and Barker’s Tekumel is baroque. Which is described as an “artistic style which used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, theater, and music” or “characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance”. Yeah, that seems to about fit.

Tekumel

What all these settings have in common is that they are clearly not an imagined ancient history of Earth, but set in worlds that are only distantly “earthlike” in having mountains, forests, and seas and populated by cultures and creatures that have no obvious earthly counterparts. (Glorantha and the non-Morrowind parts of The Elder Scrolls aren’t sticking too close to that.) It’s something you can also find in Star Wars that adds spaceships and lasers to the mix but otherwise plays it perfectly straight. This is what sets them apart from the Tolkienian mainstream but also Howard’s Hyborian Age, which tend to be close to alternate histories with magic set on Earths with the coasts and rivers redrawn.

Dark Sun

So: Baroque Fantasy?

It’s not a term that has really been used so far, but I think it is definitly a thing that exist and has regularly shown its face through the last 40 years, often to very high praise. (I’ve found it used once, for exactly the same idea.) When you say baroque it comes with the connotation of “elaborate” and “complex”, and often also “confusing”. But I don’t think that it’s really necessary to have worlds with giant piles of information to evoke this aesthetic. Glorantha and The Elder Scrolls are massive beasts of settings, I’ve heard Tekumel is not very accessible either, and fully grasping Planescape means a lot of reading. (Though if you can get your hands on the box sets, the later is not too difficult to understand.) Hyperborea, Elric, and Dark Sun are all kind of borderline or fringe examples, but they all make do with very little exposition. And as a player, both Morrowind and Planescape can be a total blast even when you explore them without having any clue what you’re getting into.

Elric

The key elements of the baroque that makes this term applicable to this style of fantasy are extravagant, flamboyant, and grotesque. And I think that few people would content these qualities in the worlds I named. There is a certain downside in that baroque also is the name for a time period in European history with a distinctive architecture, music, and fashion, which don’t have anything to do with these works of 20th century fantasy. But it’s certainly a term that would be quite fitting.

My Sense of Place in the Ancient Lands

I was actually going to write about something completely different but while I was gathering my thoughts I kept doing some researching that I’ve been doing for the last days at the same time (the wonderful exciting world of ADD) and came across an old Hill Cantons post on the Sense of Place in fantasy. While my mental image of the Ancient Lands doesn’t come from one single place I actually can think of a number of environments that hugely impacted my own image of how I see the perfect fantasy world in my mind. All the pictures here can be clicked to embiggen.

I grew up in Hamburg, which really isn’t a place to inspire fantastic landscapes. (Though it does have a fantastic zoo with lots of big animals from all over the world.) However, my grandparents lived on the edge of a village just about an hours drive away until recently and me and my brother were staying with them over weekends about once per month. And this is what we had right out the door.

Northern Germany clearly doesn’t make it high on anyone’s list of fanciest places in the world but this is what we got and I think it’s actually pretty cool. That river used to be the Iron Curtain. The far shore is Eastern Germany. But you couldn’t see it from the west shore because all the border fortifications were a good distance futher back for secrecy. (You could occasionally hear land mines going of, though.)

When I was in first grade we had our first school trip to the Lüneburg Heath, which I don’t think many people suspect to start right outside of Hamburg. We did five day trips and fortunately had amazing weather which really made it a huge experience that stayed with me forever.

I think the pictures aren’t really doing justice to the real place. Or at least to my memory of it. But it doesn’t really matter if I remember it as much more impressive than it really was, since in a fantasy world I can make it as amazing as I want.

Then there was this place:

I can not overstate what an enormous influence The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had on me. More than anything else, seeing these movies on a friday night and saturday morning on a tiny TV at a friend’s place when I was 11 defined what my creative imagination is today. Only playing Baldur’s Gate when I was 16 comes close, as it introduced me to the whole world of fantasy RPGs.

I think it was in summer 2000 when we went on vacation to Norway. (Because I remember being excited for Diablo II which would be out when we got back). And what forever stayed with me wasn’t the fjords, but the mountain tundra of the Dovrefjell.

I instantly loved this place and it’s still easily my favorite place in the world, even though we stayed in that area for only two or three days. There isn’t really anything to do, but it just looks amazing. And I think it might have reminded me of having seen the Lüneburg Heath. It doesn’t really look like you’re high up in the mountains because everything has been flattened by glaciers during the Ice Age, but even in the middle of summer, when you got something like 20 hours of daylight, it still gets really cold even that relatively far south.

The next year we had a one week vacation to Denmark, which isn’t really much of a deal when you’re from Northern Germany and we’ve been there before, but this turned out to be one of my favorite vacations ever. I’m not completely sure, but I am pretty certain that we stayed in Løkken. While looking for pictures I came across several that showed old World War 2 bunkers and a paragliding club, which I both remember being nearby.

While thinking about what kinds of pictures to hunt for, I became aware of a consistent trend that goes through most of these places. And you’ve might have noticed it from looking at the pictures. I really like dried yellow gras. And looking at it now, also huge open skies. But I guess the later comes naturally when you grew up in cities in Northern Germany. Once you get out of the city you immediately get this vast open view.

There’s also something else I got reminded of by the aesthetics of these pictures:

Dinosaur Books!!!

The love for dinosaurs is in my genes. (I am pretty sure it’s the y-chromosome.) What could possibly be more awesome than dinosaurs?

Dinosaurs with freaking laser beams attached to their heads!

Okay, getting a bit overboard here. (But seriously, was there ever a toy line more awesome than this?) But still, I’ve always been a big dinosaur lover, and I think even more so than the average 6 year old boy. And the landscapes shown in dinosaur books from the 80s always had a certain style that I think really had an enormous impact on my sense of environmental aesthetics. And all these places I love share some resemblance with it. I originally planned to write about the finding emotional core of my plans for the Ancient Lands (which I’ll hopefully get to tomorrow) and this environmental aesthetic is a major part of it.

The Green Hell and the Circle of Life and Death

Today someone mentioned the idea to me that most decent pulp settings appear to have some cool major distinctive feature that also works as a kind of source for all manners of conflicts within the world. For example in Dark Sun, the magical technique of defiling was what killed most life on the planet, is what gives the sorcerer kings their power, and allows them to keep the few surviving cities from being burried by the desert as well for the time being. In Star Wars the Dark Side of the Force created the Empire, drove the Jedi to extinction, and also is the main reason why the Jedi exist as an order of knights in the first place. In Morrowind the Tribunal and their belief to be living gods led to the creation of the Dunmer, their extreme conservatism and hostility towards outsiders, and the existance of the Ashlanders. And in the vast majority of stories of Conan the whole trouble comes from sorcerers desiring power. I think to make my Old World setting more pulpy than my old Ancient Lands setting, some kind of similar universal driver of tension could possibly be a great help.

A few weeks ago I read a post by someone writing about having seen a somewhat unusual nature documentary that showed life in the wilderness just how it is without overly dramaticising it. And it seemed to him to show that nature is not at all nice and pleasant, but really full of violent death. The vast majority of it being the deaths of children. Around the same time I’ve read a post by Zak S. about Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown being mostly a revulsion against life, which I found to be very convincing. Life means feeding and reproducing which in many cases, or perhaps even most, is neither pleasant not pretty.

In my years at university dealing with cultural studies I made the discovery that almost all major religions disapprove about the physical aspects of living and promote a detachment from bodily things and a focus on the purely mental. And it really made me wonder why all religions that praise and approve of living seem to promote having sex with the cult leader? I’ve been wanting to do something with a very body-positive approach in a non-creepy way in my worldbuilding for a long time but never really got around to it.

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And I think here might be the perfect opportunity to adress all these things. I had often thought of the Old World as being “a lot like Dark Sun, but with forests instead of desert”. In Dark Sun the driving force behind all conflicts is magic that drains nature of life. How about a setting in which the source of conflict is an overaboundance of life?

Life is not just life. It is also death. The Circle of Life is also a Circle of Death. To actively live all living things have to consume. In the end everything dies, and then it gets eaten. The only way a species can survive is to reproduce faster than its members are getting killed. It’s an endless breeding and feeding. Breeding is feeding. And in the center of all this killing and reproducing are people. And nature doesn’t care for them a bit. Like it does for anything else. The cycle just continues and there is nothing that one could do to stop it. People simply have to arrange themselves with this simple truth. And this process of arranging is where ultimately all conflict comes from. The desire to feed yourself and your relatives and to avoid being fed upon for as long as you can is what all conflict ultimately comes down to.

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I’m still not 100% sure if I really want to go with this. Things like these always take two or three days with me before I know how I really feel about them. But I think there’s certainly a lot of potential to give the setting it’s own distinctive character and quirks, which really is a major thing in Sword & Sorcery and pulp in general. Here are some applications I have already in mind:

Civilization is fragile: This is something I’ve had in my mind for a long time now. I don’t want to do the standard fantasy thing where the world was once great and then everything declined into some kind of post-apocalyptic world or another. Instead the Old World is a world in a constant cycle of growth and decay. Settlements are founded, grow, decline, and are eventually abandoned or destroyed to be reclaimed by the wilderness. This has happened countless times before and will happen countless times again. Abandoned and ruined settlements are found everywhere in regions that are settled by people. There are many great stone ruins as well, which had been build by the various fey folks. They are still found in many places and many of them hold magical wonders beyond the powers of mortals. But their builders were not killed by some kind of catastrophe. In truth their reign over the land came to an end when they realized that even with their great magical powers the attempts to build lasting kingdoms and empires was futile in the face of the power of nature itself. Shie, naga, raksha, and giants are still around, but they all live in the Spiritworld once more, as they did for countless eons before.

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The Green Folk: I’ve long been a fan of both treant and spriggans (duh…) and also like the idea of shambling mounds and other big beasts made from vines, branches, thorns, and moss. All these walking plant spirits are collectively known as the green folk. There are many types of them and they are literally found everywhere not covered by water or ice. In a way they might be the true masters of the world but they normally care little for either mortals or fey.

The Swarm: It’s not only plants that dominate the Old World, but also animals as well. In particular insects which though small outnumber all the larger beasts combined. Though not all insects are simple tiny bugs. Every now and then huge swarms of big insect creatures appear from seemingly nowhere and by the time they start stripping the surrounding region of all available food they have already been building their nest to raise even larger numbers of young. The swarm is a natural disaster that can happen anywhere where there is food to be found, which is almost everywhere. The immediate surroundings of a nest are soon reduced to barren wastelands but drones swarm out for many more miles to hunt for any kind of meat they can find. The only protection is to bar oneself up in a cellar and wait for the swarm to move on, which can often take several days. Once the hunting stops, the nest is soon abandoned with the creatures seemingly vanishing into thin air again. Many believe that they are not ordinary animals but instead creatures from the Spiritworld, perhaps to forrage for food for their young before they return back to their home.