Category Archives: writing

If you want to get into self-publishing you’d better know what you’re doing

Getting close to having the design and stats for almost 100 Ancient Lands complete and turning towards writing the individul descriptions, I started looking into options to raise money for commissioning illustrations. I didn’t even get to look up common rates for artists yet but it’s already gotten complicated just looking at the legal issues regarding financing. I am in Germany. So very complicated.o

Fortunately for me, three semesters of German business law in one of my past failed academic endeavors turned out to come in very handy once more. I do speak some legalese. If you don’t it’s probably all much worse.

It did all start out quite simple. Kickstarter is now doing business in Germany and that seems where most backers for RPG materials are already having accounts. This could potentially have been a major obstacle. (I don’t think many people would bother to make a new account on some tiny site they never heard of to make a single 2€ pledge.) 5% fee for Kickstarter also doesn’t seem so bad. Quite reasonable actually.

But then I was wondering about taxes on the money raised. And oh boy… Wellcome to Germany! ^^

First thing, the whole sum that people have pledged is income. And subject to income tax. Not sure about the exact rates but this can easily gobble up some 20% of the money. If you fail to report what you spend it for. Money used to buy art for a book are business expenses. You don’t pay taxes on it. Buying layouting software is a business expanse even when you run it own your own computer. No tax on the money you spend on it. And the 5% fee you pay to kickstarter is also business expenses. If you spend all the money raised on producing your product you don’t have to pay any income tax on it. Income tax is only on the leftover money that you pocket at the end. But only if you correctly list the business expenses in your tax report.

When someone gives you money and you promise something in return, it’s a purchase. Kickstarter pledges clearly qualify for that. And everything that is a purchase is subject to 19% VAT. However, VAT is meant to apply only to sells to end consumers. As a business you can get the VAT that you payed to your suppliers and contracters refunded by the German revenue service. If your contractor is based in Germany. Which to my knowledge very few good fantasy artist are. It’s not to bad if I’d want money from the French or Dutch revenue service but if I’d hire an American artist it would get much worse. Hiring a tax lawyer to do it for you would probably cost more money than you’d get back.

But contrary to common belief, German administration clerks are not total monsters. If your annual revenue is under 17,500€, small business owners have the option to opt out of paying VAT for sales and getting VAT payed to suppliers refunded. Small business owners mostly don’t know how to do proper accounting anyway and the amount of money gained by the revenue service wouldn’t justify the costs of having their accountants spend time on figuring out the exact numbers. I was genuinly concerned about the possible situation of raising more than 17,500€ (which I very much doubt) and suddenly having to pay 19% VAT, possibly ending up with less money in the end. But no, the excemption applies for the whole year, you simply lose it for the next year. No such risk of falling into accidental debt because you made too much money. If you don’t expect to get any significant VAT refunds this is wonderful. Saves you a lot of accounting and you get to keep the whole 95% of pledges from a Kickstarter campaign.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is. Because you are now a business owner. Welcome to the Chamber of Commerce, young initiate. In Germany there are two types of self employment. Businesses and free professions. Business owners automatically become members of the chamber of commerce while most free professionals do not. If you’re an author you are a free professional. If you are selling goods, you’re a business owner. Writing your own books and selling them? That’s a confusing question that leads to hundreds of online search results from the last 12 years and nobody really seems to know anything. As a painter or sculptor your status as a free professional appears to be secure because selling each painting or sculpture is part of the job. This seems not to be the case with books. German law makers and judges seem to assume that only writing books for commission is part of the writers art. Publishing is a trade business and as such not a free profession. And think about it: As a self publishing writer how much money do you make with writing? None. All your income and profit is from selling large amounts of books. The different state revenue services and regional chambers of commerce still seem to be very uncertain about the whole situation and you might be able to weasel out of becoming a business owner. But I don’t think it’s worth the trouble of potentially getting accused of tax evasion.

And here is why: In case of releasing a monster book with commissioned art, could I be regarded as acting as a publisher for the artists? I think I very well might and then there’d be no doubt about my status. The revenue service might never know since they won’t be looking inside my book? Well, any money raised through Kickstarter is income subject to income tax. If I want to avoid that I have to show that I spend it on tax deductible business expenses, so I have to hand in the recipes from the artists. Also, if I’d ever end up collaborating with someone else on a book and split the profit, or use my resources to sell a book for someone else, I’d no longer be just selling my own art. It’s just so much easier to register as a business owner right from the start.

I’ve seen people worry about being subject to business tax and membership fees for the Chamber of Commerce if they are business owners instead of free professionals and that this might eat up all your profit leaving you with a net loss. But if you sell some books at the side as a minor second job this will be negligible in Germany. Business tax is only paid on profits after income tax has been subtracted. And as a business owner with no employees you only pay business tax on profits above 25,000€ per year. Good luck ever getting that much out of self-publishing your books. And on that money you only pay 10% business tax. If you make a profit of 30,000€, that is cash in your pocket, you still pay only 500€ business tax. That’d be under 2%. I consider this very reasonable for what I would regard as a big fish.

Membership fees for the chamber of commerce aren’t also that bad. If your profit is under 5,000€ per year you can apply for having all fees waived. If your profit is up to 15,000€ per year you have to pay a yearly fee of about 30€. Above that you also have to pay a small part of your profits. Which in my city is currently the low rate of 0,15%. So if you’re annual profit is 30,000€ you have to pay 500€ business tax and 52.50€ to the chamber of commerce. The later of which are also tax deductable. It won’t ruin you. The vast majority of taxes will be income tax, which you will have to pay anyway regardless of how your enterprise is registered.

This is just an example for Germany and I might very well have gotten very important things totally wrong. Getting here took me about 12 hours of research and I already had preexisting knowledge about the basics of business law. And all of it just to raise some money to sell a small book with negligible expected profit. The lesson here is this: Consider very well if you want to deal with alll this trouble.

In the end I found out that the amount of taxes and fees I’ll have to factor into the cost of the project are basically nothing. If I file all the right registration forms and correctly list my tax deductable business expenses. It’s not magic, but it’s rocket science.

The Green Hell and the Circle of Life and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Villains for the Old World

As I was writing on the idea of Hope & Heroism, someone pointed out to me the importance of motivations for the antagonists. Coming up with a list of heroes who represent all the ideals I am looking for in protagonists was very easy. But examples for good antagonists turned out to be a much more difficult task. I had a few ideas for villains who I think are cool and who I would love to put into the Old World, but thinking of any reason why the heroes would be fighting them was a lot harder.

The more I was thinking about it, the more I came to the conclusion that good motivations for an antagonist are much more dependent on the specific attributes of the setting than it is the case for heroes. Heroes are generally easy to create as they really just need to be good people with the determination to take action against villainy. You can quite easily move these from one setting to another and their motivation to do good always works just fine. But antagonists don’t have to work just with the heroes, but also with the many unique aspects and elements of the setting. They need much more than just a hero to oppose them. They need to have a goal that benefits them and a plan that is actually feasible. And these things really depend a very great deal on what and who else is all in the setting.

So I’ve decided that a post on Villains of Hope & Heroism wouldn’t be making any sense and not be useful. The same narrative principles can be applied to a huge range of very different settings. Instead I am focusing on the nature of antagonists in my own Old World setting.

After going through all the examples of books, ,movies, TV shows, and games for ideas what kind of antagonists could work in such a setting, I narrowed it down to four main types of antagonists.

  • Warlords: Perhaps the most classic type of antagonists. These people are military leaders whose long term goal is to hold their territory against their many enemies, and often to destroy them before they attack on their own terms.
  • Sorcerers: If there are antagonists for Sword & Sorcery type tales more iconic than warlords then it’s the sorcerers. Masters of dangerous arcane powers who are always looking for more knowledge and power and often try to take direct control over the domain of the master they serve.
  • Bandits: Simple but reliable. Some antagonists don’t have any big elaborate plans or higher goals. Some are simply content with taking what they want and killing those who resist them.
  • Avengers: In a world where might makes right and the law is in the hands of whoever carries the biggest stick, vengeance is the way to put the offenders in their place. In many tales the protagonists set out to avenge their fathers and masters, but in a tale of Hope & Heroism nothing good can come from that. But a lot of bad for a lot of people who are only tangentially involved. Whether the tool of vengence is poison, an army, or a horde of demons, it’s always a great source of trouble for the heroes to take action against.

Regardless of who the antagonists and their minons are, every heroic tale needs some type of villainous plot that the heroes are trying to stop. (I wonder how far back this convention goes. It doesn’t seem to be common in ancient hero tales.) For a setting of city states and barbarian tribes I found these following ones to be a good set of templates to work with.

  • Conquest: Sometimes an antagonist of the warlord type simply wants to expand his territory for greater wealth and fame. It is simply ambition that drives him and a need to show his prowess. Not a particularly interesting motive but a simple and uncomplicated one. Probably works best as an additional complicating factor in situations where tbe heroes are already busy with going after someone else. The conquest might be just an opportunistic small warlord seeing a chance to make his move or be the backdrop for the tale of the heroes. In either case, the conqueror is probably not being to be the focus of the adventure since he’s not very interesting in himself.
  • Resources: In this situation a warlord is in the whole conquering business just for the sake of it, but it really is just the means to get access to very important resources. Something that the antagonists needs, and needs so badly to kill for it and take it from others who need it as well. This is much more interesting as it’s probably easy to see that the antagonist had to do something to keep his people fed and save. But it’s going to be the method with which the heroes will take objection. Simply beating back the antagonists forces won’t end the conflict, only delay it for a while at best. This doesn’t have to be a military invasion of a neighbor. It might very well be the antagonist’s own subjects who have to carry the burden.
  • Defense: Things get even more ambiguous when the antagonist is taking drastic actions as a measure to defend his domain against another foe. The measures taken to improve defenses might lead to hardship for the farmers and workers, but can also mean attacks on and annexation of vital territory. Many of the locals might even support a change in leadership which will only make the antagonist to resolve to even more draconian measures.
  • Magic Power: True magic power is in a wholly different league than ruling over land or people. This alone might lead sorcerers to see the hardships of others as a very accepable price and warlords might very interested in getting their hands on a magic weapon that can secure and expand their power. The plans to attain a new source of magic power can be very complex, but as a motive for an antagonist it’s actually very simple. Many of the lunatic sorcerers who want to destroy the world can be made much more plausible if they are simply searching for magic power and are willing to pay a very high price for it. Or rather, have someone else pay that price.
  • Vengeance: A relatively simple and straightforward motivation, but one with endless possible applications. Pretty much any character imaginable can be motivated by vengeance and the possible plans to gain it are endless. The main use of vengeance in tribal society is to scare away enemies and prevent further attacks in the future. Retaliation as a show of strength. In societies with no police this can put the heroes in quite difficult positions. For a short adventure a group of warriors seeking vengeance against someone in the protection of the heroes makes for a great conflict. But revenge for past crimes that have already been mostly forgotten can be a much bigger source for a lot of trouble that is still to come and the heroes are probably going to much less sympathetic to such a cause. Especially when the revenge comes in a form that affects many other people mostly unconnected to the original offense.
  • Plunder: And sometimes all that bad people want is some wealth and comfort. Other people’s wealth to be specific. Greed is as basic a motivation as it gets and there is little about it that would justify negotiating some kind of compromise between parties. But used for minor antagonists or as an easy break between more complex adventures it’s still something that does the job. Antagonists out to burn and pilage (and that other stuff) might either be in addition to the primary opponents of the adventure, or they might constitute a particularly unpleasant segment of the main antagonist’s minions.

These lists are both not very long, but I think each of them comes with so many variables that they can be reused many many times without becoming overdone. Especially when you switch between them regularly to avoid falling into a regular pattern. Even when not looking specifically for something to use in an adventure of Hope & Heroism or something set in a Bronze Age setting, all of these motives should easily work in most types of tales.

Old World Inspirations

When it comes to worldbuilding, it’s always good to have a distinctive style in mind and working towards staying true to this vision. In my experience there’s always a tendency to go down established paths and before you know it you find yourself with a generic world with two or three gimicks. For the Old World I have a very clear image of what the setting is supposed to look and feel like and what it seems and internal logic should be. The following is what I believe to be a pretty complete list of the books, movies, videogames, and RPGs that inspired the setting:

  • A Princess of Mars by Edgar Burroughs (1912)
  • Alien (1979)
  • Aliens (1986)
  • Apocalypse Now (1979)
  • Bound by Flame (2014)
  • Conan by Robert Howard 1932-1936)
  • Conan the Barbarian (1982)
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
  • Dark Sun (1991)
  • God of War II (2007)
  • Halo 2 (2004)
  • Heavenly Sword (2007)
  • Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn (1992-1994)
  • Hellboy (1993 and ongoing)
  • Ghost in the Shell (1995)
  • Kane by Karl Wagner (1970-1985)
  • Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
  • Mass Effect 2 (2010)
  • Metal Gear Solid 3 (2004)
  • Morrowind (2002)
  • Planescape (1994)
  • Predator (1987)
  • Princess Mononoke (1997)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • Seirei no Moribito (2007)
  • Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
  • Soul Reaver (1999) and Soul Reaver 2 (2001)
  • Stargate (1994)
  • Super Metroid (1994)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • The Thing (1982)
  • Them! (1954)
  • Warcraft III (2002)
  • Yojimbo (1961)

There’s a couple of science-fiction movies and games on the list, but I think with almost all of them the technological elements are just window dressing. At their heart they are still about monsters and magical worlds.

I hate it when this happens

This week my worldbuilding efforts for the Old World have been spend mostly on trying to develop the role and nature of demons and the Underworld. And the unfortunate conclusion that I’ve reached is that my original ideas really don’t work for the kind of setting the Old World has become.

Lovecraft Horror in the Bronze Age is a cool idea, but the focus of the Old World lies somewhere else, and it just doesn’t fit in. I really, really like the six types of Underworld creatures I had planned, but they are just way too much like space aliens. (Partly because five of them are straight up adaptations from sci-fi videogames.)

But it just doesn’t work. The Old World will be a much better setting without them confusing things. In such cases there really is no point in dragging along dead weight that will only be a burden. So they just have to go.

Perfection is not reached when there is nothing left to add, but nothing left that can be taken away.

But I think I might still be able to at least salvage the aboleth archetype. Instead of being some eldritch being from before time, it can still work as simple one big ass evil fish. This picture is just too cool not to do something with it.

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As you know…

Why on earth does the phrase “As you know, …” exist in dialogues? Why would any person ever use it in conversation? It does occasionally come up in lectures and presentations, but then it means “as you should know, but I am saying anyway to spare you the embarrasment of asking the question, …” When you know the other person in a conversation knows these facts, it just makes no sense. Even as a writer, if you want a character to say something that is redundant because everyone in the conversation knows it, why would you draw attention to it by adding “as you know”. It might have gone by unnoticed that the statement was redundant for the characters if those words hadn’t been there.

Don’t draw attention to your flawed scene setup!

Le poorly drawn map

What? Old meme is old?

I was unhappy with the last map I had for the Ancient Lands and after having decided to give the world more of Planetary Romance feel (just without lasers and airships; think Jungle Dark Sun) I made this new one. I’ve been feeling quite happy about it for three days now and usually I think my great ideas are terrible the next morning. That I still like it is a strong indicator that it’s going to work. (Creating a good map is a bit like creating good names. You start with a “not completely terrible placeholder” and once you used it for a week or two you no longer think it needs to be changed.)

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The Ancient Lands v.14 (or something like that)

As you can see, it’s very bare bones. Much more simplified and abstract than previous maps that I made when I was thinking primarily from the perspective of an RPG campaign setting writer heavily influenced by the maps of the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Grayhawk. But now that I am looking at it more from the perspective of a Sword & Sorcery writer, maps of that kind really seem like total overkill. And even when you look at RPGs that are not D&D, a great number of them have maps that are just as much detailed as this one, if not even more simple. The only case where you really need a big map with satellite photo type detail is when you’re doing hexcrawling games. When you’re looking at campaigns and adventures that are more story driven and, dare I use the term, “cinematic”, you don’t really need a map. Star Wars doesn’t have maps. Indiana Jones and Mass Effect have maps that are no more detailed than this one. The maps of Conan and The Witcher are like this, and Kane and Barsoom don’t have any. Satellite photo maps are only useful when you’re tracking daily movement through trackless wilderness. Otherwise you can simply say “the party leaves the village and after a number of days they reach the city”.

If you remember earlier maps (I doubt I have any regular readers that devoted), you might notice that there are considerably fewer regions on this one than there had been before. This week I did a lot of consolidating and discarding redundancy, which did help quite a bit in making the world feel more crisp and having a sharper profile. Someone I mentioned this to quoted some French artist who said “Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Which I can get behind. The number of different peoples is down from 20 to 12 with lizardmen being completely gone, monsters are down from 110 to 50, and I discarded all the gods of intermediate power between cosmic forces and local spirits of the land. It’s an animistic world after all. You don’t need the god of hunting. Hunters in any given place only need their spirit of hunting. And the same approach also went into redesigning the map.

Creating worlds that feel ancient

In my current work to sharpen the profile of the Ancient Lands setting I am creating, I started looking deeper into the old Planetary Romance genre. In many ways it’s “Sword & Sorcery with laser guns”, but I would say it usually has a more grander scale and glamorous atmosphere to it, which I really love. The old Star Wars movies (and the most recent one) really are much more Planetary Romance than Space Opera, which is the genre of Foundation, Lensman, and Enders Game. Mass Effect, which very greatly inspired me, is both. The business with the Reapers, Cerberus, and the human Systems Alliance is classic Space Opera, while the story branches that deal with the Krogan and the Quarians feel very much like classic Planetary Romance to me. While looking for more in-depth information about the stylistic elements of Planetary Romance, I came across this interesting article adressing the feeling of ancient history that you find in the old Star Wars movies. (I am in agreement that the Expanded Universe mostly missed this aspect.) Basically, Star Wars feels ancient because even though the technology is much more advanced than ours, it is used in very antiquated ways. The Empire builds huge mechanical war elephant. Intelligent robots are treated and traded like slaves. And of course you have knights fighting with swords. There’s a princess and the big bads are adressed as Lord and as Master. Despite the technology, Star Wars really feels like its the ancient past, not the distant future.

And that got me thinking. Certainly you could use the same technique to make a relatively generic fantasy setting not feel like the late middle ages, but as being set thousands or even millions of years earlier in the history of their planet. Robert Howard set the Hyborian Age of his Conan stories in an age between the sinking of Atlantis and before the start of the Neolithic, but is often rather inconsistent in making it really feel that old. When people are trying to put Conan into pictures, they usually cheat a bit and don’t show the armor and weapons that are actually described and replace them with something more ancient Greek looking.

So I started thinking about elements that I would identify as visual clues that a story is set in an age long before the emergency of equivalents to medieval France or England. And I turned up with a surprisingly lot.

  • Giant Lizards: Reptiles today are small. Millions of years ago Reptiles could be huge. You don’t have to have actual dinosaurs, but something that looks like it could have been a dinosaur certainly should do the deed.
  • Volcanoes: Given the total age of the Earth and the amount of time between today and the dinosaurs, it seems very unlikely that volcanoes had been much more common during the time of the dinosaurs than they are now. But for over a century, all decent artists painting prehistoric animals put volcanoes in their pictures! It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t have to make sense. Volcanoes just feel and look very prehistoric.
  • Bronze Armor: As I mentioned above, one of the big things where Conan stories feel anachronistic is armor. And it’s something that makes a big difference. Put your heroes and soldiers into bronze breastplates and give them crested helms and big round shields and you instantly have a very different feel than warriors in steel plate armor or chainmail.
  • Oracles: What knight has ever gone to an oracle? Ocasionally you have someone secretly consulting a witch in the night to gain forbidden knowledge. But making a pilgramage to a sacred oracle to recieve the wisdom of the gods is something very un-medieval.
  • Slaves: When these come up in medievalesque fantasy it’s usually in the form of organized crime. But you’ll almost never see the average noble or wealthy merchant having lots of slaves in their homes and as their workers unless the story wants to point out that they are dispicable villains.
  • Skulls: “Why skulls?!” After the great plagues of the late middle ages skeletons became a fashionable motive in art, but usually we consider skull decoration as something primitive and savage. But there isn’t any reason why you can’t have depictions of human and animal skulls in the decoration of the homes of the rich and powerful.
  • Sacrifices: For reasons I don’t know Christians and Muslims don’t do sacrifices. Which gives it a feeling of being primitive and barbaric. But during antiquity many extremely advanced civilizations sacrificed animals to their gods and of course you can also have them sacrifice people. That really sets a very different tone for a fantasy world.
  • Cannibals: Have you ever had a knight deal with people who eat people?
  • Animal Gods: Again, in western thought, humans are created in the image of god. The Greeks did it too. To my knowledge only the Egyptians had gods with Animal heads, but during the middle ages it has always been popular to depict pagan demon-gods with animal features, and we still associate animal features with deities of primitive societies. Also always fun is having your people worship Old Gods like Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, or Shub-Niggurath. As long as it doesn’t look human it’s fair game.
  • Scrolls: Wizards and sages love their books. But there isn’t any practical reasons why you couldn’t also have them read from scrolls. An interesting alternative to parchment or papyrus is strips of bamboo sewn together with thread, so that each bamboo splint holds one line of text.
  • Clay Pots: These never disappeared and where still very common during the middle ages. But in antiquity pottery really was the way to go for all kinds of containers. Switch some wooden tankards for clay cups and some barrels for amphoras and your tavern will feel a lot more ancient.
  • Ziggurats and Pyramids: The only true way to build a giant temple or palace.
  • Halls of Pillars: Before the Romans figured out how to make a self supporting arch, it was really difficult to hold up a large ceiling. While stone is very hard when you press down on it, it actually snaps very easily when you bend it unless you make it really thick and put the support pillars very close together. (Karate chopping roof tiles and cinder blocks isn’t nearly as hard as it looks.) In Egyptian temples you often can’t see the hall for all the pillars which take up half of the floor space. The Greeks got a bit better by cheating and making the roofs out of wood (which is why the Acropolis hasn’t one anymore), but they still needed a lot of pillars and interior walls. Consider this when describing palaces and temples. At least some people might unconsciously make the association.

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Writing Fantasy as if it is History

People interested in Fantasy and especially the aspect of worldbuilding probably have encountered expressions like “his writing has a great sense of history” or “you should describe the world as if it is history”. I’ve seen it applied to both Robert Howard and Tolkien several times, but it tends to show up in many diverse places. There is something about these expressions that sounds very profound to me and I have feeling that I understand what people are getting to when they use it. But what does it actually mean? How do you write your fantasy as if it is history?

The most obvious answer to that question would be to write a big and comprehensive history book that deals with the great rulers, powerful dynasties, and big battles between the great powers of the world. But that’s almost certainly not what people mean by that, and it would also be completely impractical. Aside from being a huge amount of work, how would you bring any of that into your story so that your audience learns about it? And even more important, that they care about it? And when we turn to Robert Howard’s Conan stories, which are regularly getting praise for the sense of history they contain, we actually don’t find any of that. The most we get for almost all the countries are names, as well as the names of maybe one or two major cities. Occasionally the name of a ruler who is currently plotting against Conan, but that’s all the present, not the past.

Some weeks back I was reading some articles about the Conan story Beyond the Black River by people with a very strong interest in historical fiction, which directed my attention to another perspective on the subject. In that tale Conan is some kind of “military advisor” who is using the skills and knowledge he learned as a boy in a barbarian tribe to teach and supervise civilized soldiers who are trying to claim new territory for settlement from the local barbarians. Then the natives are getting restless and Conan is really the only one among the good guys who is capable to deal with true savage warfare. The story has been described as being a fantasy adaptation of tales from the American Frontier, but it could also be a fantasy adaptation of the Romans crossing the Rhine or the Vikings crossing from Greenland to the American mainland.

It’s not the classic history book type of history that deals with kings and generals, but much more similar to the currently very popular kind of history that examines how people lived and what they were dealing with at the lower levels. It’s about how things were normally instead of the exceptions when extraordinary things were happening. Especially when it comes to early (colonial) American history, there seems to be a very high interest in the personal stories of interesting individuals that have been preserved, even if their deeds are completely irrelevant when you take a more global view spanning centuries. Part of it is probably necessity because at the time there were no big kingdoms, powerful kings, or many huge battles. But even the tales of a hunter who became an important translator for solving a few specific conflicts between locals and settlers can get very exciting because they are windows into the world of those people involved, to which we otherwise have very little access. When we write down such tales of our own ancestors, we usually refer to it as History. But what it really is is Ethnography. A description of the culture and everyday life of specific groups of people. Not necessarily of an entire population, but also of more specific groups like the American frontier men. Or the Skandinavian sea merchants, or the Roman legionaries on the German border. I think that this is the true sense of history. The feeling that these people we see in the story could actually have lived and that they have a complex and fascinating culture, even if we only get a very short glimps at them.

Another thing that regularly appears in various Conan stories and which makes them different from most other adventure tales, is that his stories regularly intersect with what are important “big history” events. We only see what Conan does and encounters, but the people he fights against or for are generally involved in some pretty big business. There are big things happening in the history of the world, but instead of seeing them in the big picture from above with the kings and generals, we usually get a look at them directly from the ground where you can see only a very small piece but with details usually invisible in Epic Fantasy. Think of the opening of the movie Gladiator. We see the Roman general Maximus in a major battle against German tribes. We are not told what the battle is about. Why the German warriors are attacking, why the Romans are in the area, or how long the campaign had already been going. And once Maximus is betrayed and has to flee, we never learn how that war between the Romans and the Germans turned out. But during this early part of the movie there is a clear sense that this battle is not some random border skirmish that happens once every few weeks and is of no consequence in the greater picture of things. This is something important. A decisive battle in a very important war. The Emperor himself comes to the front to see Maximus in person because he has very big plans for him, based on his leadership during this campaign. We are getting a clear sense that there is an important war going on and that even more important things lie ahead for the future of the Empire. But we don’t actually see any of that. Because it’s not relevant to this particular story of Maximus being betrayed, believed to be dead, and becoming enslaved to be a gladiator. And from that point on his future in the higest ranks of the Empire becomes irrelevant to Maximus. This is a deeply personal story, but it takes place in a location and time where big historic things are happening. We are getting a sense of history, without actually seeing it.

The other writer next to Howard who often gets praised for creating a sense of history is Tolkien, and The Hobbit is perhaps the best example to see that. For Bilbo it is a completely straight adventure tale. Go places, encounter monsters, return home rich and wiser. But for the dwarves it is an important episode of their history. It’s not just a single adventure but a big turning point that completely changes the power structure in the region. But the tale is Bilbo’s tale and so when the big battle between all the regional powers takes place it’s done in three or four paragraphs because Bilbo was mostly sitting this one out and had nothing really to do with it himself. But you know that his individual adventure takes place before the background of big historic events.

It is examining the situation and changes of a fascinating time through the events that happened to a few interesting, though also not really special individuals. Individuals who are not the big masterminds behind the big events or who single handedly decided the outcome of large scale conflicts through their actions. To create a sense of history, you don’t need to go into detail about politics and battles. It really is about creating an atmosphere of the protagonist being surrounded by people who have a real culture, and also a past and a future.

A Typology of Monsters

I have always been a big fan of monsters and are regularly disappointed by the lack of them in most modern fantasy books. It’s always about wizards, soldiers, and assassins fighting to protect an empire. Which sounds like the most boring thing ever to me. I want monsters!

Writing about monsters has turned out to be not quite as easy as I thought. When working on the Ancient Lands setting, one of the first things I started with was making a list of cool creatures I want to inhabit it, most of them coming from videogames and RPGs. But eventually I realized that monsters in narrative stories work very different from monsters that are fought in games. You can’t just have a dozen different hostile creatures in various locations throughout a castle or dark forest in a story and then have the protagonist run into them to have a cool fight. In games this works great. There’s anticipation any time you come around a corner or open a door and every fight is different. But when writing a story that just doesn’t work at all. Any fight scene needs to have some narrative function and that means whatever monster the protagonists encounter needs to have a function in the plot as well. Having a fight scene just for the sake of having a fight scene or making the story longer just leads to terrible results. In movies you can at least show off some pretty special effects, but even then it’s noticable when a fight scene has no point. When writing stories you don’t even have that luxury.

So before I went ahead with making a new list of monsters for the Ancient Lands, I first set down to try figuring out what kinds of roles and functions monsters can have in a story. And the ones I came up with are really not that many:

  • Wild People: These creatures are pretty much people, but they are as foreign as it can possibly get. Trolls, giants, lizardman, fish people, and the like. Not only is their culture incomprehensible and their morals loathsome, they are almost always also very much sub-human. They are stupid and violent, but generally very strong, which makes them a threat. They hate our Freedom and want to steal our stuff!
  • Fair Folk: Like the wild people they are basically people, but instead of being fearsomely sub-human, they are incomprehensibly super-human. They are very intelligent and have magical powers and often live very long or are outright immortal. If they wanted to they could easily destroy and conquer all mortal people and the only reason they haven’t already is that they don’t really care. Normal humans are usually insignificant to them and the best way to stay safe is to keep it that way. When they are around, everything you do can spell your doom because their minds are so alien that it’s impossible to really know what they want and what might provoke them. And they can be very cruel, simply because they don’t really think of humans as actual people but more as talking animals.
  • Guardian Spirits: These creatures are being tied to the land they inhabit and serve as its guardians. Nymphs, ents, some dragons, the sphinx, and so on. Their main motivation is usually simple to get any intruders to leave and stay away. However, they might be convinced to let some people pass through their territory or to grant a request, which requires the observance of strict rules. Their direct interactions with people are usually very limited, but their real role is to serve as a threat what happens when the rules are not observed. Struggling to not break the rules is the real obstacle the characters are facing.
  • Maneaters: These are the most simple monsters. They are really just pimped-out carnivorous animals that will eat people when the opportunity presents itself. The only interaction with characters they have is attacking to eat some of them. Their main role in a story is to be nearby but unseen, posing a constant threat that keeps everyone on edge. They don’t talk, they have no complex motives. They just jump out from behind some trees and disappear again once they grabbed a few people or have been badly wounded. While they behave like animals, they still can look very human-like. Ghouls are one example and some versions of Medusa.
  • Soul Stealers: These creatures are predators as well, but they are usually very much like people and instead of wanting to eat you, they want to make you theirs. These are vampires, succubuses and some other demons, rusalkas, and sirens. They are manipulators who want you to join them, which at that time they make sound a pretty attractive offer. But the true fate of anyone who gets caught by them is much more horrific. Their role is to tempt characters and make them lose their hold over themselves and submit to their own doom.
  • Deathbringers: This type of monster only wants to kill. They are not looking for food, they don’t want to leave, they don’t want anything you have. All they do is kill and continue to kill until they are destroyed. These are zombies, barrow-wights, some demon hords, and darkspawn. Sometimes they want to harvest the bodies of their victims as a resource to make more of themselves, like the Flood, the Reapers, or the Borg, but every place they visit they just kill and destroy everything. They aren’t not even like ammoral forces of nature, because they will target you and try to come after you.
  • Troublemakers: A usually small creature that doesn’t attack people directly but instead damages and destroys things and makes life hard for them. Though when they destroy food or set things on fire they can still be a very serious and deadly threat. Usually they don’t have any real motivation and do it simply out of spite.
  • Fictional Animals: Some creatures are like ordinary animals in every way but don’t hunt and eat humans. From a narrative point of view, these aren’t actually monsters. They are just animals like any other.

By looking at the subject of monsters from this perspective I realized that I had a lot of redundancies on my list. You don’t need seven different types of giant crab-spiders that all fall under the maneater category. Two are already more than enough. And some creatures I had added just because of their looks. There really wasn’t any point to harpies and giant hyenas. I ended up cutting the monster list down from about 110 to 46, which really looks a lot sleeker and more tidy now.