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 Button 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 cliches I don’t like

There are good reasons to not dismiss something out of hand simply for it being commonly regarded as a cliche. Something being a cliche does not come from it’s inherent flaws, but from the flaws of numerous inferior immitators. Every cliche once started as an original idea that served a meaningful role that was highly important to the work it appeared in. But that being said, there are still real problems with making use of cliches. When an element is included in a fantasy work because the creators believe that it’s expected and a default component, then you have exactly the situation where the element is present without any context that makes it relevant and meaningful. Even more so, when you keep doing things the way it’s commonly expected, you end up just retelling the same bland generic stories that have been worn down to be without any distinguishing features. And so, back when I first started to create a fantasy world, I made a couple of choices what common fantasy elements I really don’t want to include. Not for the lofty goal of being original, but to protect myself from blindly going with the flow and end up in places I never wanted to be.

  • Save the World: This is the lowest common denominator of motivations. Seeing yourself killed and anything you ever loved destroyed is something everyone wants to avoid regardless of circumstances and context. It’s lazy, and that makes it bland. Also, once the world is saved, you really cut off any chance to continue from there in a satisfying way.
  • Dark Lords: Yawn. Vader is interesting because he’s a lackey. The Emperor is interesting because he’s so unassuming and his sorcerous powers come as a surprise. Lord Death Knight Demon Warlocj isn’t.
  • Demonic Invasion: There are a couple of cool ones, but I just don’t want to use it myself.
  • Chosen Ones: I find these intelectually offensive. The idea that a person is perfect and will automatically succeed because the powers that be decided it will be so is not just dead boring, it also implies that effort is irrelevant and some people are just better than others with no doing on their own.
  • Prophecies: There are two types of cliche prophecies. The one type that tells you in advance what will happen with complete accuracy and as such remove any hope of tension from the story. And the type that can only be understood after the the prophecised event has already happened and is therefore completely useless. I actually did end up coming up with an idea to make supernaturalinsights into possible futures interesting, relevant, and non-spoiling, but that came out of my wish to not do either of those cliches.
  • Lost Golden Ages: Like chosen ones, this one just doesn’t sit right with me ideologically. It’s the idea of “everything used to be better in the past”, which in reality always only means “I miss being previleged and getting unfairly advantaged over other people”. Not all development is automatically progress. But this feels way too close to wishing to restore a past that never existed in which the person felt previleged, so I don’t want to touch it.
  • It actually is post-apocalyptic Earth: Get out and never talk to me again.

Writing more interesting characters

The majority of all supporting characters outside of movies are really bland. “Barkeep”, “Guard”, and “Thief” are fully comprehensive summaries of their entire personalities. Even worse when it happens to main characters. And it’s not that movie are immune to it. There are movies with characters written like that. Generally bad movies.

But think for example of any other characters from Conan stories. If you are a commited fan, you might be able to give a name to “the princess in People of theBlack Circle” or “the sorcerer from The Tower of the Elephant“. But it would be close to impossible to describe them as characters instead of the specific things they did. The Lord of the Rings is even much worse. Describe anything about the characters of Legolas and Gimli in the book. One is an elf and son of Thranduil, the other a dwarf and son of Gloin. That’s about all their is to them. I think this is not just wasteful writing, but also lazy.

My solution to this is to draw up a character sheet for all characters that are added to a story. Not defining them by various numbers or parameters, but making a list of traits that could distinguish them from others and make them memorable in some way. Unusual physical features, iconic pieces of clothing, quirky habbits, notable forms of speech, a special weapon or tool. Anything that could make the audience remember the character as “that guy with the thing” instead of “the guy who did that”.

Awesome future novel idea #5: Scouts of the Eldritch Wilds

Unlike previous awesome future novel ideas, this is one I actually plan to give a try very soon. It’s something I am still bouncing around in my head but intend to give a shot as soon as I have more of the basics figured out. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m impulsive and have a very poor track record of completing long term hobby works.

The idea is a synthesis of the conceptual work I did on the Ancient Lands and Dark World settings that also incorporates my love for the great neo-noir and wuxia movies from the mid-90s forward. At the center stands a world that is full of life, but hostile to people. A world in which the spirits of the land rule, with civilization confined to small enclaves along the coasts where priests and sorcerers maintain a tenuous state of stability. It’s a world in which the forces of nature are particularly powerful and unpredictable, as are the spirits who control them. Civilization is in an eternal state of siege and to keep the constantly encroaching wilderness at bay, the priests and sorcerers need to know what is going on beyond the borders of civilization.

Within this context exists a special class of scouts, who are knowledgeable in eldritch lore and accustomed to the ways of the barbarians who inhabit the lands of their wild gods. The scouts are not soldiers, though most of them are mercenaries of a sort, offering their skills and knowledg to the courts and temples for pay. They are a society of their own, at home both in the wilds and civilized lands, but set appart from either population by their delvings into esoteric things. Violence is not their trade, but alone among barbarians and magical beasts, they are highly skilled with spear and bow. Among each other, knowledge is the main currency of their trade and connections worth more than gold. Yet there is also great rivalry and competition and out in the wilds they are beyond the laws of either kings or tribes.

Dark Villains

I am drawing quite heavily from Noir with the Dark World and villains in Noir are all about deception, betrayal, and magnificent style. So here are a couple of examples of what I think a Dark World villain should be like.

Those bastards.

Refocusing

Building on my post from last week, I have made some more significant insights into the telling of fantastical stories. I had my start in creating fantasy material with drafting up a campaign setting of my own after I had become dissatisfied with the world of the Forgotten Realms, and the Ancient Lands literally had their origin as the realms of the High Forest 4,000 years in the past. It quickly grew into more and more of a unique thing as I made changes I considered improvements and artistic upgrades and added ideas from other sources that I found very appealing. However, I have to admit that I never was really satisfied with the Ancient Lands as a campaign setting. In the several campaigns that I ran, I always had the feeling that I wasn’t really able to showcase it’s creative features and make it feel to the players as something more than a pretty generic D&D world. I had great ideas that I still really like, but was never really able to work them into the active game.

When I started dabbling at writing, I took a lot of the aesthetic ideas and concepts from the Ancient Worlds, but for this purpose they turned out to work even worse. And I think I am starting to see why. The style I refined and the worlds that I designed are tailored to what I consider interesting, inviting, and attractive. But at the same time they are completely different from the many works that I find really inspiring. Asthetically, the Ancient Lands style takes a lot from Warcraft 3, Morrowind, and the Tales of the Jedi comics. But I don’t really enjoy any of these for their stories and they are actually pretty bad in that regard.

When I want to tell a story that I find compelling, or set up an environment that funnels players into creating stories of that kind, I need a setting that is designed for such stories. A quick look at my favorite stories that inspire me to be creative makes it very easy to discern a pretty specific shared style and tone: There’s movies like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Princess Mononoke, Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell. There are the Witcher books and the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics. There are videogames like Metal Gear Solid, Thief, Legacy of Kain, Mass Effect 2, and Mirror’s Edge. None of them are set in vast wildernesses inhabited by barbarian tribes. I find it a culturally fascinating environment and aesthetically very pleasing, but these works are all dark and set in quite advanced societies with complex political environments.

Bronze Age tribes are a very fascinating environment, but I am starting to see that I don’t really have a good idea what kinds of stories would fit into such a setting that I find compelling. This is not where my creative capital is located. I don’t have the toolbox to craft stories for it.

So with the creation of the Kaendor setting I want to go all the way back to the start and refocus on what the essential elements are that I want to and can work with. With the Ancient Lands I put some considerable effort into not doing what has been done a hundred times before, like going with Dark Lords, demonic invasions, lost Golden Ages of magic and technology, a good and evil duality, an intelligently designed universes (that is about to break down), and a generic medieval European setting. But in hindsight I think I went a bit overboard in some of it and ended up designing a world in which there isn’t really anything to replace these things as big background sources of conflict that force characters into action. Right now, I think I might be able to salvage the idea of small clusters of civilization separated by vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness. While a tribal Bronze Age society and settlements don’t look like they would work, I can take the asthetic styles of various Bronze Age empires to create a style that is distinctively different from the medieval European Standard Fantasy Setting. And the ambigous and unsettling spirits could become more actively prominent with a big Lovecraftian boost of weirdness.

In a way, I could see many of my ideas work in a setting that is actually more similar to the fantastic world of Morrowind. More great houses, more tongs, more daedra, and more living god kings.

Good plus Good doesn’t always equal Great

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve gone back and picked up an old plan to try my hand at writing fiction. And as some might guess based on my activity here in the last two months, it has not really been going well so far. Progress is there, but it’s very slow. Yet still, every couple of weeks I do make a realization of what doesn’t work and how I have to approach it differently.

The discovery I made this weekend is that not all plans and choices that are great ideas in themselves will actually work together when combined. I have been working on a protagonist who combines all the elements that I find admirable and avoids all the traits that I often see being used in annoying ways. But this leads to a very big problem. While I made what I consider a basically perfect character, it turns out that this character actually makes a terrible protagonist.

I don’t like it when protagonists are forced to be heros because otherwise the world as they know it will be destroyed. I also don’t get thrilled when protagonists do heroic things because they selfishly hunger for riches and glory. And I am also not a fan when protagonists keep running around looking for opportunities to risk their lives for random strangers. Which is all nice and well, but when you have protagonists who don’t fight to save the world, save strangers, or get rich, then why are they fighting at all? Turns out when I am envisoning the ideal character, that character is not someone who is going on adventures. Which for a protagonist in adventure stories just doesn’t work.

Not all good ideas work together as a good concept. When that is the case you simply have to make a choice which ones are more important to you or which ones you think will be more fun to write about. I also like the ideas of having lots of magic and magical creatures throughout the world, as well as everything magical being really strange and unfamiliar to characters. Both are cool in stories, but you simply can’t have both in the same story. A decision needs to be made which one is more important and what can be dropped to get a working concept. In this particular case, I am obviously going with lots of magic and monsters. It’s my thing!

A Wanderer on Kaendor – New writing project

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 ConanElric, 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.

The Wanderer

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.