The heroic parent has to do the right thing and put good over family and kill the villainous child.
As I’ve been hinting at over the past weeks, I have once again turned to trying my hand at writing fantasy. I am still very early in the process and just started working on a first outline, but so far a pretty solid concept has already formed. To a large extend it’s an updated version of my ideas I had two years ago, which ended up going nowhere because I was never able to transform my ideas for characters and setting into plot. But a while back I figured out that you actually can write action adventure tales that are character driven instead of plot driven, and that opened up a whole new space of ideas to me that really has me want to get something down to paper.
Oldschool Sword & Sorcery
To probably nobody’s surprise, the style I want to write in is Sword & Sorcery in the style of Conan, Elric, Kane, and Hyperborea. Modern Sword & Sorcery is generally thrown together with Dark Fantasy or the completely unironic and akwardly oblivious Grimdark. But while Kane does match the stereotype of the dour cold-hearted killer, the style as a whole is probably best described in the opening ofThe Phoenix on the Sword, which became the work that led to it’s establishment as a distinctive type of fantasy:
“Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
In my view, Sword & Sorcery is all about tales of encounters with the supernatural. About remarkable individuals who have brushes with vast realms that lie beyond the world of ordinary existance and behold things not meant for mortal minds. And they are also tales of great emotions and passions with great senses of wonder and exhilaration. It is very much a style that has grown out of the tradition of Romanticism. Yet passion and wonder are things that I find missing in most works that I see released as Sword & Sorcery in the 21st century. A niche that has been seriously lacking attention for a good while now, even with hushed wispers of a Sword & Sorcery revival making their rounds for close to a decade now. But by now we have to realize that we won’t be having such stories unless we write them.
My take on it
Sword & Sorcery is a style of stories that lends itself really much more to shorter self contained tales rather that big multi-volume doorstoppers. Yet there is barely any market for short length stories outside of obscure magazines that nobody seems to read, and none at all for stories of medium length. And I can very much see why there is little interest in short stand-alone one-shots where the world and characters are over barely after they have been introduced. But all the big classics of Sword & Sorcery – Conan, Fafhrd & Gray Mouser, Elric, Kane – are not like that at all. When we read them today we get collections of many stories often spanning multiple volumes. They were not written like that back then, but it seems to me the perfect approach to write them now. Instead of one story in three books, we can write three stories in one book. (And of course expand to nine stories in three books.) All set in the same world and sharing the same cast of characters. Very much like TV shows were being made in the 90s. This way you can write stories using the well established and tried structure of Sword & Sorcery while providing the requirements of the contemporary market.
As the saying always goes, “write what you would want to read”. And there are so many things in contemporary fantasy that I think have great potential for so much more than is being done with it, as well as a lot of fascinating themes and elements that I never see covered in fantasy anywhere. The one thing that motivates me most to write is the types of heroes that are common in the action and adventure genres. They are heroes without fear, who are undisturbed by violence and death, and who never question the whole business of constantly fighting hordes of enemies. And they are also almost always more than capable of dealing with seemingly overwhelming opposition because they are just that great and special. You could easily say that I have a great fascination with violence, but it’s far from the heroic glorification of action movies and games. Depictions of violence tend to greatly tone it down to make it entertaining fun, but I am much more interested in treatments of violence as horror in itself.
A major influence in this regard to me is Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid series. Snake is an extraordinarily dangerous fighter and skilled master of stealth, but he is also a pawn who keeps getting used by others who outsmart him, and while he always wins in the end, he usually is left with regrets about having been tricked into furthering another villain’s goal. Snake represents a very unconventional form of heroism that is much more about being of honorable character and regarding violence as a means of last resort that holds no glory. Perhaps an even greater influence on my idea of heroism is Indiana Jones, who is constantly being beaten and outsmarted and doesn’t really have any superhuman strength and power. But his heroic nature lies in his determination and courage, which makes him come back and try again until in the end he comes out on top. A third character I love is Geralt from The Witcher, who like Snake is a superhuman warrior with a very unique insight into violence and a very critical view of himself and his work. As we have a rather unique outlook on militarism and heroism in German culture, Snake, Indy, and Geralt are heroes that resonate with me much more than the average action hero who enjoys his violent deeds. I am with Yoda when it comes to “great warriors”.
Another topic that greatly fascinates me is failure and defeat. Mainstream American media do not accept failure as the final outcome. “Failure is not an option.” But my own take on existentialist philosophy (influenced by Buddhism) is that failure is always an option. “Never give up” is possibly one of the worst advice that I’ve ever heard. I love stories in which the protagonist eventually grows to be more by dropping the commitment to a goal that no longer seems to be worth pursuing. Finding peace always seems more important to me than winning or being right, which is something that I find very much missing in current and recent adventure movies in general and also fantasy books specifically. Giving up and running away can be a form of personal greatness that can be a satisfying conclusion to a story, which is something I really want to write about. There is obviously a strong Noir influence in everything.
The third thing I want o feature heavily in these stories is a strong mystical element. The treatment of religion in fantasy is often superficial at best and the supernatural reduced to an alternative form of physics. I’ve been taking classes on existentialism, spirituality, mysticism, and Asian and African religions for four years in university and there are huge psychological and social elements to them that have incredible storytelling potential. I see the Encounter with the Supernatural as a core element of Sword & Sorcery and want to make it the center of my own stories. And not simply encounters with fictional beasts and wizards who can throw fire, but by making the adventures spiritual journeys to a higher reality. There are some really incredible lines in Mass Effect, that sadly the series did not really follow up on, but which quite well describe the sense of wonder I want to pursue:
“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. You can not even grasp the nature of our existance. We have no beginning, we have no end. We are infinite. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”
I admit that all of this is very ambitious to say the least. Especially for a first serious attempt at writing. But if you have something fresh and different to say, I think it does not matter that much how polished and refined it is. I am very exited to see how this will work out for me. I think there’s real potential for it to be great.
I intend Kaendor to be a series that covers the adventures of several different heroes. But for the beginning I want to focus on one character in particular, who has been constantly on my mind for years, even though I have not decided on a final name yet.
The Wanderer came into being as a reaction to typical fantasy heroes who regularly tend to be or become the most extraordinary people of their world. Individuals of remarkable talent and potential who end up with unmatched skills and perform the most amazing deeds that become the stuff of legend. Over the years I have developed a great love for the smaller stories. Of characters who are not the best at what they do and who don’t have the skill and power to fight enemies that greatly outnumber them, and who are not assured victory because they are the hero of the story. The Wanderer is a woman without great skills or special powers, who doesn’t have great fame or any significant influence. Nor is she on any mission or quests. What drives her is her curiosity and the search for answers to questions she can’t specify herself. She travels the lands as a seeker of enlightenment, similar to how Conan was wandering the world to gain greatness. In a world full of strange wonders and mysteries, she often joins groups of treasure hunters and mercenaries or travels on her own, with a temporary companion or alone. As she is often on her own and no master of combat, fighting is usually not an option and so her adventures into strange places are more about wits and bravery.
The Lands of Kaendor
Kaendor is a world very similar to my past work for RPGs and is made up of many of the same building blocks, including peoples, creatures, and landscapes. They are my favorite cool things that I have scavenged from other fantasy worlds for years. But below the aesthetic surface it’s a quite different world that is’t tailored to the specific needs of campaigns or build around game mechanics. Instead it’s a world that is mostly about culture, society, and elaborate manifestations of the supernatural and the mysteries of the cosmos.
Kaendor is a forest world covered almost entirely in trees or water. The known lands consist of a long stretch of coast and nearby islands that reach from the arctic to the tropics but still make up only a small fraction of the full size of the world. The sky is dominated by a huge moon covered in changing bands of blue and beige clouds, which causes regular eclipses lasting for hours every spring and fall. The forests are dominated by conifers and ferns and home to many great beasts, including giant reptiles and insects.
The cultures of Kaendor are consist of various nonhuman peoples and are based on a wide range of civilizations from the Bronze Age, a time period that is surprisingly underused as a source for fantasy. There are a small number of city states ruled by regional kings, but most people are living in small clan holds deep in a vast wilderness. Armor consists of simple cuirasses of bronze scales and the weaponry of heroes consists of spears, shields, bows, axes, and small swords. I have a very clear and distinct aesthetic in mind for this world, which is very strongly influenced by The Empire Strikes Back and Morrowind, following my idea of Baroque Fantasy.
Finally there’s the strong supernatural element. The world as a whole really consists of two mirroring realms. The mortal world and the Spiritworld, which are always in close contact with each other and result in a strong presence of spirits in all places. Spirits are strange beings that normally exist outside of mortal perception, existing outside the familiar passing of time. Witches and shamans don’t really have magical powers of their own but possess great knowledge about the spirits and the ways to communicate with and manipulate them. By having access to the knowledge and abilities of spirits they become able to gain insight into the present, past, and also future and have some degree of control over the fortunes of people and settlements.
All in all, I feel like I have a lot of great ideas that are quite different from most fantasy that is out there today while also drawing heavily on classic Sword & Sorcery from the past that many people are wishing to see more of. While it’s somewhat daunting, I see a real chance to do something great with this.
I’ve recently been thinking about the question of originality. When discussing the creation of stories, particularly of beginning writers, frequently the question comes up whether the work feels original or rather derivative. Originality is widely treated as perhaps the most important thing for a new writer. Yet at the same time there are famous lines like “all great stories have already been told”, “all art is derivative”, and “there is nothing new under the sun”. How is one supposed to write a good original story like that?
I think it is important to make a clear distinction between originality of content and originality of meaning. Content is all the many pieces from which a story is assembled. The characters, the setting, the props, and also plots and situations. To come up with a character or plot, or even just a monster or magic spell that is completely original is extremely difficult to the point of perhaps being impossible. When it comes to these elements that make up a story, I believe that all art is indeed derivative.
I think it’s pretty safe to assume that all our storytelling evolved from the telling of accounts of actual events that were embelished for dramatic effect. And it doesn’t take any big leaps to tell stories in which nothing has actually happened in reality. But such stories are not simply made up from nothing. They are constructed from elements that already exist. Any country, state, or nation you can imagine is based on already existing examples in the actual world, and all monsters are evolving embelishments of regular animals. To try to be truly original in these things is not only futile, but also completely unnecessary.
However, a story is not just characters, situations, and environments. What is really interesting about stories is how the characters in them react to and interact with the situations and other characters they encounter. How it affects them, what they want to do about it, and what their opinions on them are. This is where writers have the opportunity to put their own unique stamp on a work and create something fresh and original. You are unique and special. Just like everyone else. While this doesn’t make anyone better, it makes everyone different. And this difference is what allows writers to be original with their stories. When you write your own stories, you can have characters do in a given situation what you think they should do. Feel what you think they should feel. And actions have the consequences you think they should have. Instead of what conventions and traditions say usually happens in such situations. I discussed this in the Fantasy Faction forum and one person called this the Originality of Experience. You have characters that are familiar, in situations that are familiar, surrounded by things that are familiar. There is pretty little that can be done about that. But the reason we’re reading or watching a story is because we want to see how it will all play out this time and hoping that it will provide us with a new experience. That’s really what originality is all about.
Fantasy in recent decades seems to have a big thing for magic systems, and I believe partly becuse of the success of Brandon Sanderson. When I see people talk about magic systems it more often than not seems to revolve around different types of spells and the method of their casting. To the point that it seems to be taken for granted as a basic premise for any kind of magic to appear in fantasy.
This week I was exploring the idea of converting Apocalpyse World to a Sword & Sorcery game. All in all, it’s a system that strikes me as a really good match right out of the box with the one major thing that is missing from it being a set of rules for spellcasting. But it’s not like the game is completely free of magic. One default assumption of the setting of an Apocalypse World game is the existance of a Psychic Maelstrom, which is the source of seemingly supernatural effects and phenomenons, but whose actual nature and trait are deliberately left completely unspecified to organically take shape during play. There is a single ability that allows one of the classes to use magical power in a somewhat direct way, but it is again very vague and open ended and does not really fit the image of casting a spell.
And looking at older fantasy books, this is actually very much like magic used to be portrayed in fiction. The oldest example of a straight up spell slinger I can imagine is Tim the Enchanter, who can summon up fire without flint or tinder. Gandalf, Elric, or Kane, or any of the sorcerers in Conan’s stories don’t say magic words and have stuff shoting from their outstretched hands. Instead their “magic” mostly takes the form of knowing things and being in contact to powerful entities otherwise invisible to the perception of regular people.
The spell in its modern form appears to be primarily a game mechanic. One that was carried over from RPGs to videogames and from there seeped out into the wider field of fantasy in general. While I am a big fan of fantasy games, I’ve always had reservations about the gamification of non-game fiction. Even with games I prefer mechanics to be as invisible as possible and maintain a more organic feel in the in-game fiction. (Which is why I find Apocalypse World quite appealing and always had a problem with D&D magic.)
With the Ancient Lands, I’ve always felt more like making a “game of the book” rather than a “book of the game”, even with the vast majority of my work over the last year being on game stuff with no actual book anywhere near to sight. But these days I feel once again more drawn to writing fiction, with my game development having reached a point where there’s not really much left to do other than playing it. And even with all the worldbuilding advice for writers that adresses magic systems, I find the idea of a spell-less magic to be a lot more interesting.
I have been dabbling a bit in writing for a few years in addition to working on RPGs and campaigns, and the main problem that kept my stuck with writing something compelling and that’s always been the hardest part about campaigns is to come up with a plot. I am always doing great thinking about worlds and characters, but these aren’t any good if there is nothing interesting happening.
But now I’ve finally come across a great piece of advice. Plot is not really about conflict. Plot really starts with a goal.
Conflict is what follows from the goal not being easily reached and that conflict is what makes up the plot. But the reason why the protagonists are doing anything and how they approach the challenges they encounter result not from the conflict but from the goal.
Instead of trying to come up with a plot by picking a cool and exciting conflict, the process really begins with picking a goal. And then thinking about circumstances that get in the way of the goal, from which you get a conflict. This even holds true when your initial idea starts with a cool villain. The hero does not simply want to oppose the villain just because. He opposes him because he’s an obstacle to reaching his own goal. A villain does not make a conflict. The goal that the villain is blocking creates the conflict and in turn the plot.
I admit that I fell into this trap myself when I started to seriously work on a fantasy world six years ago. So let’s call it a typical beginners mistake. I was young and stupid, just like probably everyone else. I frequently look around in RPG forums for discussions about advice on worldbuilding and I’m always more than happy to share my experiences and discoveries and present various options that I think might be of interest and useful for the people who asked.
But there is this one thing that regularly comes up, almost always by people who are just starting out, that makes me somewhat… let’s say “frustrated”. It’s people trying to make a fantasy world by attempting to model a physically, chemically, biologically, and even astronomically realistic planet. I think the initial consideration is valid. You don’t want to end up people pointing out that your rivers are running upstream or in circles or that you can’t have an ecosystem in which all the animals are carnivores. A basic understanding about geography and ecology is a good thing to have to avoid the most embarassing blunders.
But then there’s always people who start worrying about the size of their world’s sun, it’s radiation output, and it’s distance from the planet. Or how spiders can only get so big because of the way their respiratory system work unless you increase the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere considerably. It’s a typical mistake and I made it as well when I started, but such exercises are ultimately pointless.
The first thing is that it’s still fantasy. If you’re writing really hard science-fiction, then I can understand the desire to show off your real-world science knowledge and make the alien environments physically sound. But why bother worrying about the oxygen circulation in (real world) spiders or the maximum weight supported by bones (real world) mammals and then add 50 meter fire-breathing flying reptiles and ghosts? As soon as you start adding fantastic elements, you already establish that real world physics do not apply to this world.
The other thing that makes such efforts futile is the question how such information would ever become known to players or readers? Is anyone ever going to dissect a giant spider and ask for a description of its whole internal anatomy? Is any character ever going to make an atmospheric analysis or calculate the energy output of the star based on its chemical composition and mass? If a detail can never plausibly come up in the fiction, then it’s useless.
The amount of scientific knowledge you need to make a pretty plausible fantasy world is really very basic stuff: Planets are colder at the poles and warmer at the equator. Climate varies little between summer and winter near the sea and varies greatly further inland. You need to have larger numbers of herbivores than carnivores. Water flows downhil; rivers only meet but don’t split up (except for coastal swampy river deltas). As a simple rule of thumb: As soon as you start adding measurements and make calculations, you went off doing exploring real-world scientific phenomena (which is a good thing), but it’s irrelevant for your worldbuilding.
I also want to make an appeal to dream big. An Earth-like planet with medieval culture is unlikely to really inspire people and amaze them. When you set out to build a new fantasy world, then you really should consider to build one that is different and something people haven’t seen many times before. Of course there’s some personal stylisitic preference talking here. I’m unashamedly a huge fan of Morrowind, Planescape, and Star Wars and 70s and 80s fantasy art. There seems to be very little fantasy of this kind to be around these days. But it’s fantasy, you’re allowed to be fantastical.
Not much of a big revelation, but it feels like a somewhat important step of my own worldbuilding work.
My favorite design paradigm is “Perfection is not reached when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.” (My second favorite one is “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”) While it has led me to very good results so far and the Ancient Lands are now much tighter and sleeker, I still frequently find my mind wandering off into wrong directions when making up new details. And what I realize now is that many times I end up following the same paths that didn’t lead to anything satisfying before. There are many fantasy ideas that I really like but which are not fitting for this particular setting.
- Stone Age Fantasy: The Ancient Lands are a world in which civilization is small and short lived, which is mostly wilderness and ruled by spirits. This is a setup that lends itself very much to Stone Age cultures and I frequently find myself thinking of cultures and settlements in a Stone Age context when trying to define them more sharply. But now I realize this is really not what I want. The original concept was of a time where elves and dwarves rule and are at war with dragons and giants. That would be much more like small Bronze Age kingdoms. While it’s tempting to go that route to distinguish the setting, I don’t want to do a Stone Age hunters game. No need to explore this direction any further. What I want is more Morrowind and Kalimdor.
- Weird Horror: I’ve found myself coming back to pour over Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures and Patrick Stuart stuff many times and most of them are great. And there’s a good number of ideas in them that I think will be of great use to me, but I don’t want my campaigns to be like them. There’s a lot of great images and effects to be found, but the setting doesn’t really have a place for bleak dispair.
- Classic Demons: I love demons in D&D. They are one of the greatest parts of the whole generic D&D mythology. I am also quite intrigues by the demons from Dragon Age. But my setting doesn’t really have a place for such embodiments of evil. What I a, going for is something much more like Daedra or Quori, with a lot more weird and less obsession with destruction. If I find myself thinking about evil destruction spirits, I should get myself to stop and instead work on something that’s more on the point.
Creativity isn’t something to just turn on and off as needed but more of a bubbling of ideas that for some reason feel right. But good design needs focus and direction. Knowing what you want is great, but knowing what you don’t want, even though it’s a great idea in general, also might help quite a bit.
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.)
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.)
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.)
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 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.)
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.
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.
After quite some time I am finding myself drawn back to writing and one thing I quickly noticed when going over my notes again was that my ideas for magic were really not that interesting. I’ve been reading Elric and Hellboy and played a lot of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and one thing I really like about all of them is how the magical elements in them are windows into a much larger reality of alien weirdness and religion. I also think that the only topics worth writing and reading about are the basic existential questions of what you want, what you should do, and who you ultimately want to be. In a world dominated by immortal spirits that inhabit and empower nature and a single force that is both the source of light and magic, these two fields lend themselves to blending seamlessly together. To decide what you want to do and to be, you need to understand how you are connected to the rest of the world around you. And there really isn’t a lot to explore with a magic system in which sorcerers replace the natural instincts of animals and tendencies of plants and the elements with their own stronger will. It’s easy, practical, and reliable and doesn’t overlap in meaningful ways with philosophy and cosmology. There is nothing mythic about it.
So I went back to the drawing board to take the ideas about what magic can do that I already had and weave them into a more metaphysical framework of spirits and reality. The end result was a magic system with no spells. Elric and Hellboy have no spells where someone waves a hand and says a magic word and a bolt of lightning shots out or someone turns into a chicken. There aren’t spells in Kane or Thief, nor in Indiana Jones, and very few in Conan. Yet they are all full of magic. Slow magic and indirect magic, that often is tied to objects or spirits and doesn’t just jump out from a sorcerer’s mind.
The basic idea for magic is that all things in the world have energy, which is the source for both life and also magic. The most simple form of magic, if it can even be called that, is Alchemy. Everyone can do it if the right ingredients are known and properly used without any special power required. Alchemy is not just the brewing of potions but also the making and wearing of amulets that ward off various spirits simply because they are made of substances that these spirits avoid. Alchemy is the secret knowledge of substances that can be used to do miraculous things. There is no real line between occult alchemy and commonly known herbalism.
Life force and magical energy is in everything and connects everything, making the whole world with all its creatures, spirits, and landscapes into one. Spirits are automatically aware of these infinite connections but people can also learn to sense their presence. Through this awareness they gain moderate abilities of telepathy and precognition and a stronger ability of persuasion and dominance over others. How strong these powers of Perception and Persuasion are depends on the Personal Power of the person. Partly it is confidence, but since all things and beings are connected through their life force “power resides where men believe it resides”. Overpowering an opponent through combat, cunning, or any other display draws some of the opponents power to the victor and he gains even more power if his accomplishments are recognized by many people. But not only people can gain power. Beasts can too, as well as objects. Relics or the weapons of great heroes become powerful themselves and add their power to whoever is wielding them. Both those who lead and those who use magic greatly seek these Items of Power.
While these things and abilities are magical, the highest form of mortal magic is Summoning. Those who practice this high art are known as witches, shamans, and sorcerers. To summon a spirit, a person has to draw its attention through the use of alchemical substances and sacrifices and mentally calling out to it. Often considerable personal power is required to make a spirit come, and even greater power to subjugate it to ones will. Anyone can perform a summoning but the risk is great for those who lack the power and knowledge of alchemy to controll them. Spirits can be made to perform services for the summoner, but they also can do much more than that.
Once summoned, a spirit can grant a summoner its powers through Possession. Anyone lacking sufficient power and experience with spirits can easily fall under the complete control of the spirits they summoned. But those who are experienced and strong enough can control the spirit inside them and use its powers for themselves. The most commonly summoned spirits for possession are minor elementals that allow a summoner to breath fire, survive at the bottom of the sea, or open the ground beneath the feet of their enemies. Experienced summoners can summon such minor elementals in a matter of seconds and then release them again, but it’s always a considerabe risk and an exhausting battle of wills. Beast spirits can be summoned to allow a summoner to change his shape into that of the beast, but this can also be used against enemies who lack sufficient power to control the spirits and become permanent thralls to them, cursed to remain beasts forever.
As magic systems go, this one is pretty fuzzy and it is so by design. Mechanics and rules are not something I am interested in and it’s also a magic that is not intended for magical battles. Witches, shamans, and sorcerers are not people who throw around spells when convenient but are defined by their occult knowledge of the supernatural realm and mostly practice their magic in consulting spirits in hidden seclusion. It’s not what you’d usually come up with for a game, but for stories I find it much more interesting.