Developing a Distinct Style

I’ve always been of the opinion that the main thing that makes a setting interesting and compelling is a distinctive style. You can have wonderful top notch stories set in the most generic settings with all the default elements, but in those cases it’s the plot and characters that are compelling, not the setting. It works, of course, but when your goal is to make a setting that is a fascinating and exciting place, then you really have to think about a distinct style. Planescape, Dark Sun, and Star Wars all being great examples.

I’ve been playing around with different campaigns and settings for years now, and over time I discovered a couple of stylistic elements that keep coming up again and again, and that just really work for me. With this new setting, I want to build them into the fabric of the world not just accidentally, but deliberately.

Towers

I don’t really remember where the idea originally came from, but several years back I had made the decision that in my fantasy, I want environments to be awesome. This means things that are huge, but in the modern world we are used to cities that stretch to the horizon and buildings with hundreds of rooms. But what still impresses us ars things that are really tall. And here I admit taking an idea directly from Tolkien. That guy put massive towers everywhere in Middle-Earth. Because giant towers are awesome. Why make a dungeon underground when you can have it in a tower?

Another thing that is thin and tall, and can get incredibly big, are trees. And this world is primarily a forest setting with just a bit of forest and the sea. I think associating towers with the tree motif is perfect for the setting.

Really not much deeper thoughts to that. I like steep spires, and I can not lie.

Masks

The idea of making masks a prominent stylistic feature of the setting wasn’t so much a decision but really a discovery. I get easily distracted by whatever cool things capture my intention and want to include them in what I am working on, but that only dilutes the strong initial premise and leads to a generic mush of random components. To counter that impulse, I regularly go back browsing through my image folder to remind me of the cool initial concept I had. I’ve shared a couple of them in previous posts about the setting to get my idea across. And at some point, a few weeks ago, I realized that of all the pictures of characters that represent the visual style of gear and clothing, a good majority of them were wearing mask, or some kind of heavy warpaint. And I quickly decided to take this purely visial element that I just thought looks cool, and turn it into an actual major component of the culture of the setting.

Masks are fascinating objects. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think simply of “mask”, is something that obscures the face. But specific masks also replace the wearer’s appearance with an alternative face. And in addition to that, many types of masks also serve to protect the face. They represent a barrier between the self and the outside world more than any other kind of armor does. In an antiquity, and to some extend medieval cultures, we encounter masks both with priests and shamans as part of rituals to contact the gods, and also with warriors as part of the helmet, the most critical piece of armor after the shield, often displaying a fearsome appearance to the enemy. I think everyone will immediately agree that masks are extremely complex cultural objects with deep and layered psychological meaning when you start thinking about them.

One idea that I got quite early on was that priests and shamans are wearing masks because the spirits they are dealing with have extreme difficulties with distinguishing and recognizing mortal faces. A problem they don’t have with crafted masks. When dealing with spirits, a mask enables the spirit to recognize the shaman as an individual. This has to very interesting consequences. The first is that by switching between masks, one becomes completely unrecognizable to spirits. The other is that stealing someone elses masks is an absolutely foolproof disguise as spirits are concerned. I think this has great potential for very interesting things to happen in a game.

Annother idea for the setting is that in certain very specific situations, while wearing a specific type of special mask, you are allowed to get around certain social restrictions. Because by wearing the mask and putting on a different face, you are assuming a new identity. And it is enforced by cultural tradition that your actions can not be held against you once the mask is taken off. As society is concerned, you did nothing objectionable and it’s a grave social offense to not respect these ancient cultural traditions. I have not put much thought into specific social tabus for the setting, but as society is concerned, the wearing of certain masks in the right circumstances makes you a different individual.

And finally there’s of course the many fun things you can do with enchanted masks. Masks that do hide your identity with unfailing reliability. Masks that shield your mind from intrusions or protect against other harmful effects. And they make of course great identifying features for special NPCs, or iconic helmets for elite soldiers.

Lamps

Once I had noticed that I really love the look of masks on character images, I went back to see if there are other common motives in the reference pictures I had collected. And a less striking but still noticable pattern was the frequent appearance of unusually colored lamps. The use of striking lighting in visual arts has long fascinated made. Primarily in natural environments, but also the highly stylized urban environments of Cyberpunk and Neo-Noir in general. Over the last years I have frequently been thinking how neo-noir aesthetics and sensibilities could possibly be integrated into bronze age fantasy settings. But the neon lighting was something I had always dismissed as being obviously incompatible. But there is actually one important exception, which is the fantastic visual design of Morrowind. I’m not really a fan of The Elder Scrolls as games, but the worldbuilding and design of Morrowind is hands down the most amazing I have ever seen since Star Wars. And part of the visual design of Morrowind is the heavy use of colored lamps and luminescent mushrooms. And the result is neon lighting. I knew I had to have that in the setting!

The first time I encountered a magic lamp in fantasy was in Baldur’s Gate II, where you first have to find the magic lamp that shows you the secret path to reach the hidden elf city. In the game it was just a key item that lets you click on a new area transition, but I still found the idea fascinating and was always disapointed that I never found any other cool lamps in games or RPG books. But there’s actually a lot you can do with magic lamps once you free yourself from the d20 paradigm of magic items giving you special attacks or stat bonuses.

What I find particularly interesting about lamps is how they are a natural counterpart to masks. Masks hides faces from sight, while a lamp reveals things that are unseen. This realization was what really made me want to build certain iconic elements into the structure of the setting.

The obvious uses for special lamps is to reveal invisible supernatural things to the normal eye. Lamps that make spirits visible, reveal undead creatures, and dispel illusions. But as in the example I gave above, lamps can also be used to show the way to different certain things. A lamp can attract certain beings to it, but its light might also keep various creatures at bay. And though it dilutes the contrast with masks, lamps could also be used as a means to fool the eye and hide certain things in their glare or the shadows they cast.

Fungi

One of the various thing that made the world of Morrowind so amazing and exotic to me was the use of giant mushrooms that are growing side by sides with trees that are about the same size. That imagery has always stuck with me for all the years, and it’s something I often thought of as one part in making a wilderness setting feel exotic and alien.

The last two years I’ve been training as a gardener (soon to upgrade to studying horticulture at university), and fungi are a thing we constantly have to deal with. They are perhaps the most important type of pests plants have to deal with, but fungi are also an extremely critical component of the biosphere within the soil. Mushrooms are well enough known as a vegetable, but on a closer look, fungi are an utterly bizare form of life, completely different from plants or animals.

Unlike plants, fungi don’t use photosynthesis. Instead they get their energy to grow frm, the chemical energy released in the breaking down of organic compounds. They digest the remains from other living things just like animals do, which allows them to live in darkness, subsisting on organic material brought in by animals or wind and running water.

But what’s really bizare about them is that the mushrooms that grow from the ground on on trees are really just the flowers of much larger organisms that live in the soil or wood as huge networks of microscopic strands, often too fine to see with the eye. And the underground networks of fungi can be absolutely massive, covering many hectares of forest.

Then you also have the fact that many fungi are toxic to humans, some even deadly. In a fantasy world, the spores and secretions released by fungi could have almost limitless strange effects.

I actually can not remember ever having seen depictions or descriptions of real glowing mushrooms. But in popular perception they do exist, and I think are well enough established in fantasy. And exotic but believable light sources are something I can never have enough of. Bioluminescens is the perfect solution to get a nonmagical underwater light source for flooded caves and dungeons, though I am not going to tell this to my players.

Overall, I think there is massive potential to use fungi as both monsters and environmental effects.

Worms

This is another thing I noticed only after it had already become a pattern, though this one goes back a couple of years. But at some point I realized that the majority of monsters I have created in the past are some kinds of worms, both directly and in the most abstract sense.

As a fan of Robert Howard, I of course love big giant snakes. What for Lovecraft was his fish and for Tolkien is spiders, was for Howard his snakes. It’s impossible to imagine ancient fantasy or Sword & Sorcery without giant snakes. Snake men are also super cool. But then there’s also giant centipedes. And giant eels. Giant grubs and caterpilars, And on the mammal side, I think the coolest group of predators are weasels. Which also have a generally similar body shape. And then there are various river monsters around the world that occasionally have been interpreted by artists as giant monstrous otters. And damn, I do love carrion crawlers.

So if half of all the monsters I come up with are various forms of worms, so what? It’s not something you have to fight, so why not embrace it? I can always live happily with more wormy critters crawling through the setting.

Relevant to my Interests

It’s always a good idea to step back and consider what you’ve been doing all the time was really the way to go. I had started with Green Sun with the intention to fully leave behind all the Dark Fantasy and Weird Horror stuff and try to make a pure Bronze Age Dinosaur World setting that I had envisoned several times in the past, that also absolutely isn’t D&D in any way, shape, or form. But three months into this, I find myself noticing that I am really missing some great influences that greatly impacted me in the past and my perception of what makes meaningful stories and fantastic worlds. I simply can’t go on trying to keep out any influences from Dark Souls and The Witcher 2, and there’s actually lots of great stylistic elements in Baldur’s Gate II, even though it’s very much an urban setting.

Quoth the Pterodactly

“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
– Star Wars

“Great warrior? Wars not make one great.”
– The Empire Strikes Back

“What is in there?”
“Only what you take with you… Your weapons – you will not need them.”
– The Empire Strikes Back

“Will I still be myself?”
“Your desire to remain what you are is what ultimately limits you.”
– Ghost in the Shell

“Rudimentary creatures of flesh and bone. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There is a realm of existance so far beyond your own you can not even imagine it.”
– Mass Effect

“You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.”
– Mass Effect

“He said it was dead. We trusted him. He was right. But even a dead god can dream. A god – a real god – is a verb. Not some old man with magic powers. It’s a force. It warps reality just by being there. It doesn’t have to want to. It doesn’t have to think about it. It just does.”
– Mass Effect 2

“I’m going to show you how to kill a god. A god of life and death. The trick is not to fear him.”
– Princess Mononoke

“Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”
– The Addams Family

“You seek meaning? Then listen to the music, not the song.”
– Babylon 5

“You can not own a human being. Sooner or later, somebody is going to push back.”
– Fury Road

I know, shamelessly pretentious. I’ll never come up with anything like that during play. But it’s still good to have an ideal to strive for.

The Map is not the Setting

When you try to look for advice on how to create a campaign setting, the most common answer you get is to start with drawning the coast lines. The possibility that the creation of a setting might not start with the geography is not even considered. My own opinion is that you should always start with a design concept that outlines themes and style and thinking of a map doesn’t come until step four or five, but that’s a discussion for another day.

For the last week or two, I have not been feeling really creative and so I turned to spend my time thinking about the theoretical aspects of the worldbuilding process. The initial spark to work on this setting has not really led to a full ignition yet. And after some pondering I found that all the work I did so far was really about creating a style, but this did not automatically lead to the emergence of something that feels like an actual place. I have put together a toolbox and constructed a lot of prefabs, but these are not yet assembled into actual structures. I actually do have a number of notes for settlements and places, but these feel more like tables of content than actual content. Intentions to make things but not actual things.

And this is something that I actually find in a lot of published campaign settings. They give you lots of things that are interesting to look at, but fail to give you any impression of what you could do with them. Just this week I was reading a discussion about Planescape. And pretty much everyone involved agreed that it is a wonderful setting but they have not yet found any good ways to actually use it for playing. I think that a good campaign setting does not actually consist of places, or even of specific people, but of things to do. You can describe a place with lots of details on the many buildings and their inhabitants. But if you describe a static place, then there is not really a reason for players to go there. Or if they get there, to stay there.

Perhaps it is actually much more useful to create gameable material by conceptualizing a place as a conflict first, and then creating the involved people and buildings second. As a GM, what I really want from a campaign setting book, or my own prepared notes, is to hand me material that I can use as the base to build my next adventure on. This had me thinking back to the Kobold’s Guide to Worldbuilding, which has its best pieces in the introduction. A good campaign setting isn’t an execlopedia, but a precarious stack of boxes of dynamite that you hand to the GM whose players are already fidgeting with matches. I had always though of this on the scope of whole worlds, applying to charged conflicts between contries or global organizations. But now I think it might really apply much more to the very small scale of individual villages. Because that’s where play does take place. That’s where players are personally involved and able to influence things. A big global conflict can be nice to have to tie individual adventures in different places together with a shared theme and common continuity. But it is not a substitute for adventure potential right before and around the PCs. You can have a perfectly fine campaign without a global conflict. But not one without conflict where the players are.

Do you want to build a castle?

Even when you think you already know quite a lot about a topic, sometimes you still come across popular TV documentaries that still show you something new.

This five part series on experimental archeology building an entire 13th century castle is really quite impressive. There’s not any big groundbreaking discoveries being revealed, but to me it includes lots of little insights into how things were actually done in the Middle Ages and especially in the actual realities of medieval industry. It’s a little gold mine in ideas how to make your fantasy villages more than just the Generic Medieval Farming Village that you run across all the time.

I very much recommend watching it to anyone interested in what medieval life probably looked like.

They look like us, but they are not us

They look like people, and they talk like people. But they don’t think like people, and they don’t feel like people.

They are unable to feel compassion for mortals, and they are selfish beings, rarely thinking of anyone else. They are volatile and erratic, but not easily harmed, and strike out at each other without thought. When they get agitated, things get broken. And they get agitated easily.

They are always dangerous to be around, even when they like you. They are proud and easy to anger, but you must never go with them.

Sun and Green

I was hunting for more images to be references for me to remember the core vision I had for my new setting. Going back and looking at the images and listening to the music that inspired always helps me to refocus when my mind is running away with whatever happened to capture my attention that day.

Some of these are so gorgeous that I just want to share them. That most of them is lush greenery and warm sunlight is entirely coincidental. Or rather, unintentional.

The worst thing about worldbuilding

Naming things.

I consider it to be by far the greatest obstacle that is keeping me back with getting anything about a setting typed down. Things are taking more specific shapes and gain more individual characteristics as I write them down, and to write about them they have to have a name.

Names don’t have to be anything fancy. Every made up word sounds a little strange in isolation but it becomes more normal as you are using it. However, in a lot of situation you don’t want your names to look like obviously made up fantasy names. Especially when you are going for a unique style that stands in contrast to Standard Fantasy Settings. And you also don’t want all your made up names to sound the same.

Naming things is the worst part of creating fantasy worlds. It ranges from anoying to frustrating and up to infuriating. But there just isn’t any way around it.

Villains for a treacherous forest world

Almost a year ago, I made up a list of great villains from fiction that I want to use as direct inspirations for my own antagonists. Even though this setting is very different in style and tone, I found that this list is still representing my top picks for great antagonists to emulate. They need to be human in their desires and limitations and failings, but also absolutely dispicable. This is what great enemies look like.