Redirect to: Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

I started a new website dedicated to my attempts at writing Sword & Sorcery stories set in the world that has come together over the last couple of years.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Spriggan’s Den has always been primarily a site about RPGs and various often random ideas about worldbuilding. For the Kaendor stories I want to make something that is more focused and tidy, with content directly related to the stories, setting, and general thoughts on writing and storytelling.

Because of this shift of attention, I am probably noy going to keep up my goal of at least one post per week. But as of now, I don’t consider this site to be anywhere near to closed yet. We will see how this all turns out in the long run and I can very well see myself getting deeply invested in RPGs again in the future.

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim ButtonĀ and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

Fantasy novels suck at selling themselves

I love reading fantasy novels. I barely ever read fantasy novels. Not because I can’t make the time or any such excuse. It’s simply because I can’t find any books I want to read anymore. Thousands of fantasy booksmust have been written this century, but not one of them has me even the least interested in reading it. And I can’t imagine that it’s because there isn’t a single one that I would enjoy. Even with my somewhat not mainstream preferences, there still must be dozens or hundreds that would very much entertain me.

But I’m completely incapable of finding any of these. And I’ve started to blame this on the writers and publishers who are describing the content of the books on their backs. Nothing that I am reading in the descriptions sounds even remotely interesting to me or creative or original. It all blurs together in the same standard generic mush. A mush that looks different now than it did 20 or 30 years ago, but a still a mush. What I like to call the “Assassins & Politics” genre. (By the way, who had this idea of making “assassins” a description for likeable young protagonists?) It’s frequently said that a book needs to make a promise to the readers of what they are going to get from it within the first 50 pages. Readers have to know whether this is a story that has the kind of stuff and themes that they enjoy or if it’s a kind of book that isn’t for them by that point. But I think any book should give at least some kind of impression of what it’s selling points are and who it might appeal to. When I look at the back of a book or look up a description online, it should make a quick elevator pitch to me. But I don’t feel like I am getting any of that.

And it’s not like fans are helping much either. When I asked in two different fantasy forums what people think are the most creative and original books they read in recent years and why, I got a lot of replies. Which almost entirely consisted only of titles but no real information on what is actually in them.

Two of the most praised books from recent years are The Fifth Season and Prince of Thorns. I doubt that so many people can be completely wrong and so I am sure The Fifth Season is a great book. But from all my brief research, the only information about what is in the book is that it’s about a mother searching for her daughter and that it’s set in a world where wizards can predict earthquakes. Okay, but how does that help me knowing if it’s a book that I would enjoy reading? The sales pitch for Prince of Thorns and the rest of its series is that the protagonist is a psychopathic boy who leads a gang of bandits murdering and raping their way across the land. I fully admit that a truly evil child is an interesting idea to explore, but would anyone want to read three books of attrocities? The book is super popular and so I assume that this isn’t actutally what makes up the majority of its content. But then what is the content?

I think that books also need something that works similar to trailers. Some kind of highlight reel that says “If you like this, you will love this story. There’s plenty more where that came from.” Though the current fad of making stories all about central twists that can only be enjoyed if you have absolutely no idea about anything that is happening in the story is a completely different rant.

Is The Witcher Romantic Fantasy?

Working on a new setting that draws heavily from The Witcher and considering starting a new campaign in the forseeable future, I was remembered of how Joseph and Trollsmyth defined Romantic Fantasy and it’s application in RPGs.

And all of them really lines up very well with The Witcher. It’s not actually wrong to describe Geralt’s story as him trying to save the last true heir to the throne of Cintra from being murdered in a struggle between ruthless monarchs. But it’s much better described as the story of an aging warrior who stops at nothing to rescue an orphan girl he has taken in his care from impossibly more powerful foes. And despite being the protagonist, he’s not doing it alone but is always a part of a greater circle of friends.

I think it’s actually one of the best examples around for what Joseph is talking about.

Friendship is Magic.

In related news, I just learned that the Witcher RPG by Talsorian Games is still being worked on, and from what scraps of information have been released recently, it appears to be very far in the development process, already dealing with the layout of the book. It was announced well over two years ago with barely anything heard since then, so I don’t know how soon we can expect it, but it’s nice to see that it hasn’t completely faded off the world.

Isn’t there anything to read?

Everyone else who is interested in fantasy books seems to have the opposite problem than me. There is almost nothing out there that makes me want to read it.

I don’t even think my expectations are that high or unusual. Tales of adventures of managable length (under 400 pages in total) in original worlds filled with wonder reminiscent of ancient hero tales. Instead, everywhere I look it seems to be huge series about dynastic sagas, super bleak darkness, or semi-steampunk.

Can’t we have any more stories about a dude with an axe discovering magical creatures in ancient ruins hidden in the forests? I know I should simply write it, but all this preparational work gets exausting at times. It just would be nice to just be able to sit down and read stuff like that from time to time.

My Star Wars Headcanon

While writing about the Star Wars games that I played, I noticed that almost all of them are pretty old by now. So I got to work to create some kind of timeline of what I consider the important books, comics, and games of the Expanded Universe and the result I got is this.

You can get the 90s Kid out of the 90s, but you can’t get the 90s out of the 90s Kid. It really seems like the golden age of Star Wars to me, which is not terribly surprising given how old I was then. If I would have been into anything else, I probably would still vonsider the 90s to be the best period it ever had.

Another thing that surprised me in hindsight that there were six years between the release of Episode 1 and Episode 3. Such restraint! It almost seems like they were making those movies one at at time. Which seems incredibly slow by today’s standards. At least I got to be relieved that the time between 3 and 7 was not nearly as long as the time between 6 and 1, which by this point would no longer have surprised me. Still, in trade school I have classmates who were not even born when Episode 1 was out.

My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalogue, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.)

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.

Update: Some more that I totally forgot and didn’t think about: Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.

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.

Background Lore is Secondary Stories

A good number of fantasy works, and in some cases science-fiction, have accumulated a huge corpus of background information that is not directly part of the plot or even relevant to it but still a source of endless fascination to dedicated fans. This isn’t new and has been a big thing in RPGs since the 90s. But it has gained an increased prominence in longer running videogame series and some of them, like The Elder Scrolls as perhaps the most famous example, deliberately focus a considerable amount of the development work on this aspect. And huge numbers of fans love it and enjoy going hunting for clues and trying to figure out the connections between seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of information.

I’ve long been wondering how this stuff really works and how one could deliberatey build it into the worldbuilding for books and RPGs as well. And I believe what’s really going on with all this lore information is that the creators are telling secondary stories within the gaps of the main stories. It’s not uncommon for writers to overdo it with the worldbuilding and tell the audience about things that are ultimately irrelevant and don’t connect to anything else in meaningful ways. But bodies of lore are different. The small pieces of information that are scattered around to be discovered do not stand by themselves for their own sake. They are puzzle pieces for the audience to collect and assemble into more or less complete stories. Often very small stories with very simplistic plots, but it’s the act of finding the pieces and interpreting them that makes these background stories interesting and compelling for the audience.

An extreme case are the Dark Souls games, in which the lore of past events is all the story the players get. The actions of the player character are really insignificant to the story and the hero has absolutely no agency to influence anything. In Dark Souls games the whole story has already happened. What the player does is playing with fun combat mechanics and discovering the backstory, which really is the main plot. The actions of the player character are only a minor footnote or an epilog to the story.

When writing books or creating s world for an RPG with the desire to give the audience lots of background lore to discover (as the A Song of Ice and Fire books do very well), I think it is probably best to focus on content that constitutes stories. People are unlikely to care much about manufacturing, agriculture, or the legal system of a fantastic world. People respond primarily to stories snd stories are also the most suitable content for letting people fill in the blanks with their imagination or deduct the missing pieces from details that are already known.

If you want to create a world with interesting background lore that draws the audience in, focus on stories that happened in the past.