The key to great monster design?

One of my favorite parts about roleplaying game is the creation of new monsters. Sometimes you look at a monster and think “I want to do something just as great”, but since there are already literally thousands of fictional creatures that have been made up by writers in the past 100 years, it always seems very difficult to come up with something that doesn’t look like an almost-copy of something else.

I’ve been looking over a lot of monsters from RPG monster books, videogames, and movies over the last years and found that really outstanding monsters are no accidents. If a monster becomes popular with fans or even a famous part of culture is not entirely up to luck and there are some things they pretty much all have in common and do not actually require being a creative genius.

The first discovery I made is that great monsters are never about their looks or their abilities, but about their behavior. Perhaps let’s call this Yora’s First Law of Monsters: “Monster behavior is more important than appearance or powers.” Yes, the alien from Alien looks really cool and it certainly helps for making it famous, but what makes it so great in the movies is not what it can do, but how it acts. The actual powers are not very interesting at all. It is fast, kills with a bite, and its blood is acid. As monster abilities go, that is very basic and even rather bland. It becomes a great monster because of the way in which the characters of the movies interact with it. It climbs on ceilings, sneaks around silently, and waits in the dark for the perfect opportunity to strike. It doesn’t actually fight very well and is quite easily killed in a direct confrontation. But it doesn’t allow you to face it in a direct confrontation and that’s what makes all the difference.

Going through some Dungeons & Dragons monster books again yesterday, I discovered Yora’s Second Law of Monsters: “Great monsters have a backstory.” With monsters in movies and novels, a great part of the plot is about revealing the story behind the monster and discovering its origin. It’s not very pronounced in Alien, but it’s still there. The eggs in the derilict ship, the dead pilot, the attack on Kane, and the eventual emergence of the alien are all clues that are hinting on the creature to be much more than just a regular alien animal. Someone once transported a whole shipload of those eggs and must have been aware of what they are, but was still unable to contain the threat. That hints at something more going on and that in turn makes the creature itself much more interesting. At the Mountains of Madness introduced two of Lovecrafts most famous creatures, and it’s really all a big mystery story about revealing their parts in a much larger picture. A a counter example, Robert Howard had Conan fight a lot of big dangerous monsters in his stories, but none of them ever really made it big. They are just scary looking things with teeth and slimy tentacles. They work for the stories, but they don’t inspire at all. Worms of the Earth is often mentioned as one of his best stories and the worms work well for the plot, but it doesn’t really seem as if there would be much more to them than that. One creature that Howard created did make it big. The serpentmen from Kull. The yuan ti from Dungeons & Dragons and the naga from Warcraft are among my favorite monsters, but they are really just remakes of Howards serpentmen. Other than taking the shape of humans with the lower body of a snake, they have almost nothing in common with the creature from Asian myth. And what makes the serpentmen different from most other monsters Howard created? They have a backstory. They have goals, they have motivations, and they are integrated in the history of the world.

This seems particularly important to me when creating new monsters for roleplaying games. When you read through monster books, the vast majority of the creatures are just very bland. They have an appearance, some abilities, and very often that is it. Two sentences about the kind of environment in which they live does not suffice to make them cool or interesting. Because there’s no plot hooks in that. What are you supposed to do with a big flying white snake that makes ordinary objects come to life? It has a look, it has powers, but what does it do? When it comes to having players confront a monster in a game, I made the observation that very often reputation makes a huge difference. A telepathic monster that can stun people with its mind might be interesting and challenging to fight. But that’s usually nothing compared to “Holy Shit! It’s a mind flayer! We’re so screwed…” Surprising the players with something completely unexpected is nice sometimes, but just as often you’re getting a lot of excitement if the players are already aware of the creatures reputation. If you create a new creature that is yet unknown, try to put a lot of hints about what it can do and make the other people of the game world be terribly afraid of it. Nobody is going to get super exited about the news that there is a pack of weird critters at the edge of the village that is known as a nuisance. Have the villagers get into a total panic because they have heard many stories about the creature and they don’t believe anyone could possibly save them. That is going to get the players a lot more excited as well.

Ancient Lands: Factions

As much attention is usually given to races, cities, and countries when it comes to fantasy settings, I think the most important thing that has a much bigger impact on the overall feel and dynamics of the world are the power groups and other factions that inhabit it. You rarely have dealings with a race or a country, and these don’t really have any shared goals as a whole. In a work about the politics and wars of kings and other rulers, you kind of have things happen between countries, but in practice it’s almost all happening between members of different courts, which really are just one of many types of factions. There are many classic types of generic organizations in fantasy, such as thieves guilds, wizard colleges, great churches, lorekeepers/spies, or medieval megacorporations (Forgotten Realms has a lot of those.) For the Ancient Lands, many of these standard factions don’t really work, as it’s a bronze age setting primarily inhabited by tribal people living in remote villages in the wilds. Can’t really have a thieves guild in a 200 people village or a continent spanning state church when everyone is worshiping the spirits of the land they live on. Coming up with ideas for factions that do work in such a setting was a bit challenging at first and I had been creating a number of groups that I’ve since discarded again. But taking a count of the groups I already have, I realized that this is already quite extensive and easily enough for a setting of this scale.

Druids

Probably as close as you can get to a real good guys faction. The Druids are a lose and informal association of hundreds of shamans north of the Inner Sea. Most of them belong to the elven Falden, but the influence of the group reaches to all the neighboring tribes, which includes the Eylahen, the northern and southern Skeyn, the human Vandren, and even some Brana kaas and Takari dark elves. The goal of the Druids is to fight the spread of sorcery. Sorcery is a very potent form of magic that can defy the normal rules of nature, but its use sickens the lands and all creatures that inhabit it. To the druids that price is much too high for all the great wonders sorcerers can create, and they are doing everything in their power to prevent the sorcerous arts from spreading and if possible end the practice of all sorcery in the Ancient Lands forever. While in some regions almost all shamans are affiliated with the Druids, their actual numbers are relatively low. But all of them can call upon all the warriors of their clans if they feel the need is great enough to risk the protection of their villages, which makes them potentially one of the greatest powers in the Ancient Lands. But usually most druids simply exchange information with each other and only deal with sorcery that directly threatens their homes. However, when the threat seems great, they often call together druids from neighboring clans to face the danger together, before it grows too big to be able to destroy them one by one.

Sorcerers

Sorcerers are even fewer in numbers than the Druids and have even much less organization or shared goals. Most of the time it’s just a single sorcerer and his apprentices working entirely alone, with perhaps some friendly but distant contact with other sorcerers to compare their work. As most people fear them and the Druids have a strong presence in many regions, sorcerers are usually very secretive, living in isolation from the rest of society or practicing their art in secret. Few people are able to tell the difference between a sorcerer and a reclusive, but ordinary witch, as long as they keep the destructive effects from becoming too apparent. Sorcerers are not inherently evil, but all of them are highly ambitious and at least to some degree reckless, and very well aware that many people would prefer to see them dead if they could get an opportunity. Fear of their sorcerous powers is what keeps most common people from turning against them, and most sorcerers cultivate a reputation of being very dangerous opponents.

While sorcerers usually live in secret or are feared enough to become untouchable, the elven Neshanen of Senkand are one of the very few tribes where sorcerers have some form of acceptance and often wield considerable respect and power. Almost all sorcerers come from noble families and are frequently involved in local politics and and members of courts. Unsurprisingly, the Neshanen have a somewhat doubious reputation among the other tribes, but are also among the most educated and sophisticated people who produce many of the finest goods in the Ancient Lands. And since some of that knowledge comes from the work of sorcerers, the common Neshanen are much more willing to accept their presence in their towns and cities. Continue reading “Ancient Lands: Factions”

Awesome future novel idea #1: Not all is quiet on the Western Front

Here’s a potentially cool idea for a horror storie or adventure: Lovecraftian horror set on a World War I battlefield. Usually this style of horror doesn’t work when the characters are highly armed and there are lots of other people around. But the battlefields of the Western Front are probably as far removed from normality as it can possibly get. You could have creatures stalking the muddy bogs of artillery craters and barbed wire, murdering men left and right. And while there are lots of armed soldiers all around who would hear the screams and gunshots and stumble upon the corpses the next day, nobody would think anything to be out of the ordinary. The protagonist of the story would doubt his senses and wonder if he is simply going mad, and even if he told others what he saw, who would believe him? Either he went a bit mad or he is pretending to be mad to get out of the battle.

Maybe the creature is a werewolf, or it’s a group of ghouls who come crawling out of a crypt burried below a shelled cemetery that is no longer recognizable as such. It could go on for weeks or months, with only one or two man noticing that those attacks are not normal raids by the enemy. And the during artillery bombardment the bunkers would be deathtraps for all inside if a monster gets in.

I’d read something like that.

Eureka!

Suddenly, inspirations! Inspirations everywhere!

spongebob_imaginationI think I found the perfect core concept for my new iteration of the Ancient Lands setting. And if you know me just a bit, it will be no surprise to you: “Star Wars as a Bronze Age Sword and Sorcery setting.” Specifically the two Knights of the Old Republic comic series.

And now I also know what to do with the naga in the setting that isn’t simply making them Yuan-ti. These guys:

Sadow_vs_KresshI am not going to copy the whole Sith War storyline, but I think the old Sith are a perfect inspiration for the overall mindset and culture of the naga.

I’ve already been planning to do a group like the Mandalorians and the Qunari from Dragon Age for a long time. And two of the races are directly inspired by Jarael and Sylvar.

Air Genasi
Air Genasi
Kaas
Kaas

The Dathomir Nightsisters also have many great pictures I can use.

Kaska Witch
Kaska Witch

Of course, I am also taking liberally from Mass Effect (the second best thing after Star Wars), and the naga get a race of obedient servants inspired by the Geth.

Serpentmen
Serpentmen

And there will be both wood elves and dark elves as well.

Falden
Falden
Yagashi

This is coming along pretty nicely so far.

Why Mass Effect is my favorite fantasy game

Most people are under the impression that Science-Fiction and Fantasy are very easy to tell apart. One has space ships and lasers and the other has swords and magic. But when you look a bit deeper, neither genre is actually described acurately that well. There is plenty of sci-fi, like for example Ghost in the Shell or The Matrix, which have neither starships nor lasers; just as there is fantasy with barely any swords, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or with very little magic, like A Song of Ice and Fire. And then you have something like Star Wars

The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is instead one of themes and narratives. Sci-fi is a genre that deals with technological progress and how it might affect our life in the future. Fantasy on the other hand deals with worlds that always have been fundamentally different and usually explore how our past could have turned out differently if some basics facts of life had been different; most commonly the addition of magic and monsters. And if we go with this definition for sci-fi and fantasy for now, it’s easy to see why Star Wars quite firmly falls into fantasy and isn’t really sci-fi at all. In this universe, the technologies of space ships and lasers have been around for thousands of years and different species from different planets living side by side just as long. There is neither technological progress nor social change, everything stays as it always has been. The story itself is the classic fantasy plot of the Hero’s Journey, about fighting a dark lord and his evil legions with magic and courage. Technology is not used as new tools to deal with old problems.

Now the Mass Effect series would seem quite different on first glance. It’s not set long ago in a galaxy far, far away, but is about humans from Earth just a little more than a century in the future, who just discovered advanced technology and met other intelligent species for the first time within living memory. And the writers went to great length of effort to include the most recent discoveries of physics and technology as part of the explanation how stuff in this world works. That all looks a lot lik science-fiction. But once you start looking a bit deeper and look at the themes and plot elements, it really turns to be a pure fantasy story at heart for which the technological elements are really almost entirely decorative. Very much like Star Wars, which isn’t a coincidence. A few years before developing the first Mass Effect games, the developer BioWare had made a huge commercial and critical success with the Dungeons & Dragons based series Baldur’s Gate and continues their amazing rise to probably the most important roleplaying game developers in the West with the Star Wars game Knights of the Old Republic. However, at that point they stepped away from doing licensed games and created their own series with their own setting. Dragon Age as a successor to Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect for KotOR. Particularly the first game resembled KotOR greatly in style, presentation, gameplay, and controls. But, as I know want to show, it also is really a fantasy story at heart as well. Obviously total spoilers for all three Mass Effect games below:

  • The games have six character classes. Three pure and three hybrid. The Soldier, Engineer, and Adept are really the same thing as Warrior, Rogue, and Mage.
  • The main villains are the Reapers, who are immortal beings from outside the galaxy of incredible power whose sole purpose is to kill all living people in the galaxy. A classic demon invasion plot.
  • Their main soldiers are the husks, which are made from the bodies of their victims, and are basically zombies.
  • The plot of the first game revolves around a powerful madman with strong magic powers collecting ancient artifacts, which he then uses in an attempt to open a portal to the distant realm of the reapers and allow them to invade invade the galaxy. An evil sorcerer opening a gate to hell to summon an army of demons is an old fantasy classic.
  • On the search for the artifacts, you encounter an ancient immortal creature that has been living in the deepest chambers below the ruins for tens of thousands of years and is telepatically controlling the villagers of a nearby settlement and sends them to stop you.
  • Later, in a different ruin on a different planet, you encounter an old artifical intelligence, which is basically the guardian spirit of the place, which tells you how to use the artifacts to stop the evil sorcerer from summoning the demonic army.
  • Right at the start of the second game, the hero is killed, but two years later brought back to life with magic! I mean with SCIENCE!!!
  • At the end of the game, the hero and the team of companions have to travel through an ancient and mysterious portal to find the lair of their enemy. To do that, theh first have to find a special key that allows them passage through the portal without being destroyed like the hundreds who tried to pass through it before them.
  • They find that special key in the very heart of the gargantuan corpse of one of the ancient demons. Where of course it’s spirit is still present and turned the earlier explorers into zombies.
  • When they finally make it through the portal to the villains lair, it all looks as if they have travelled right into hell. And inside the lair they find a gargantuan monster that is being build from the bodies of thousands of humans.
  • In the third game, all the Free People have unite to find an ancient artifact that may be the only way to stop the demons. And of course to do so the hero has to assault the main base of the demons and confront the god that controls it all.
  • At one point, you need to get the Krogans on your side, butt they agree to help only under the condition that you cure a terrible disease that has been spread over their world as punishment for their endless invasions and conquests of other planets. Basically, they want you to life an ancient curse laid on their ancestors.
  • To do so, you have to access a science station on their planet where one of your allies will produce a cure and use the station to spread it over the entire planet. Said cure can only be made from the blood of a single Krogan woman, who also happens to coincidentally be one of the very few high priestesses of the ancient religion.
  • However, you can’t reach the station, as it is build behind an old abandoned temple, which is currently inhabited by one of the immortal demons. So what you do is to start the ancient machines that the Krogans used to summon the great titanic creature they revered as a destroyer and mother of the most terrible monsters on the planet. You really perform an ancient ritual to summon one of the old pagan gods, who arrives to destroy the demon!
  • On another planet, you discover that the most advanced species with the best technology and magic powers have actually been altered by an even more powerful but now extinct race of creatures. They also have another one of the artifical intelligences hidden inside their great cathedral, who is like a messenger from their old gods, who has been teching them all the secrets of their technology.
  • In addition to the demon army that wants to destroy the world and take everyone back to their realm, there is also another antagonist who believes he has the power to make the demons his slaves and through them become the ruler of the galaxy.

It may be a sci-fi setting, but the main story and many of the side stories really are fantasy stories through and through.

I think I am done with Weird Fantasy

I discovered Lovecraft only a few years ago but found that there is a real charm to his works. And the more I read, the more I realized that it’s really not a lot like the “Cthulhu Mythos” I’ve been hearing about for several years before. All the many horrific gods and the alien races with their billion year old wars barely make any appearance in his stories. Calling it the “Cthulhu Mythos” is particularly puzzling as he appears in only one story, which I admittedly found rather lacking, and so much more talk is about Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and Dagon. There are some hints here and there that strange creatures have been to Earth in the distant past, but there isn’t anything about ancient histories of cosmic wars. Turns out Lovecraft never called it Cthulhu Mythos and all the other stuff was written by other people. And I have to say I find Lovecrafts own stories to be much higher quality because they don’t explain things and leave things vague. All the systemization, cataloging, and historic recording was the work of people who wanted to expand, but in my oppinion didn’t actually get what Lovecraft had been done. Still, most of Lovecrafts own writing is quite good and I still regard those stories very highly.

Some time later I came into contact with various videogames that had some kinship with the style I appreciated in Lovecrafts stories. The Japanese Silent Hill series, and the Ukrainian Stalker and Metro games. All these works have themes of desolation and decay, with protagonists who have to deal with events and environment which they don’t understand but have to deal with alone. And one thing that is really compelling about all of them is not what they explain about the events and environment, but what they leave highly vague and ultimately unexplained. The stories themselves have some interesting ideas, but it’s really everything around the characters and the plot that’s really selling it. In the sphere of games the common term is Lore, but it’s really the same thing as worldbuilding. Perhaps even a better term as the worldbuilding is really the creative process of making the world, while the Lore is the information that actually gets presented to the audience in the finished work. They don’t care so much how it’s done, just what the final result is.

Both the Stalker and Metro games are based on Russian science fiction novels and few people would think of Silent Hill as Fantasy. It’s simply Horror. (And the most terrifyingly, pants-shitting horror I’ve ever seen anywhere.) But they still intrigued me greatly as inspirational sources for the worldbuilding on my own Ancient Lands setting. Having really gotten into fantasy both with Dungeons & Dragons, rereading The Lord of the Rings, and playing the Warcraft games, my encounters with fantasy were highly dominated by works that explain absolutely everything down to the smallest level. The more minimalistic approach of both Lovecraft and Horror games, which also have a lot of Lore but it’s much more uncertain and speculative, seemed both more entertaining and intriguing. I later encountered other Japanese fiction like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied (the manga, the anime sucks), which also went a similar route and did very well, at least for me.

So when I heard of fantasy roleplaying games created with the express intend to evoke the bizarre and unknowable it had my curiosity. James Raggi is the posterboy for this movement with his Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, but there are plenty of others whose creative output is just as important. Raggi made the choice to call his game Weird Fantasty Roleplaying, which all things considered seems quite accurate. I haven’t read any of the Bas-Lag books, which are probably the most popular work by which the “New Weird” is identified, but from all I’ve heard about it there seems to be a clear kinship.

And over the last two or three years, I’ve learned a huge amount of things about creating fantasy that is based on and revolves around the inexplainable and extremely lethal. I came, I saw, and I learned. But I also find it to get really tiresome and also going overboard. The Weird Fantasy roleplaying material seems too deeply focused or even obsessed with the grotesque and being outright repulsive. Mutilated corpses and baby-eating penis monsters get from being horrific to being just obnoxious very quickly. I can’t speak for the literature, but in the area of roleplaying games, the Weird seems to be taken as almost synonymous with being both random and repulsive. And that’s just not doing it for me.

When I am looking at a great mystery, I am seeing a small piece of something bigger. Potentially much bigger; who could tell where it ends? In a good mystery I learn what happened here and now, but how it is connected to all the hidden forces and powers I might never know. That’s just what Lovecraft did. But in the Weird Fantasy there often isn’t anything to know. Weird shit just happens and because the characters of the story will never know, the writer doesn’t make any effort to give some reason or purpose for it. And I think the story as a whole suffers greatly from it. In a total vacuum of information, the characters have no meaningful agency. Investigation is pointless if there isn’t anything to learn. Surviving in a situation you can’t begin to understand might be interesting and exciting at first, but ultimately it really is just pure luck and the writers whim that keeps the characters alive. They don’t really have a hand in their fate. And while that’s bad in literature, it’s just outright terrible in a roleplaying game.

I also found myself trying to make all my monsters horrifying, until I realized that I didn’t really have any idea why I would think that might be necessary or even desirable. Reading Hellboy this week, where fey spirits of Britain and Russia play a major role, I remembered that I went looking into this whole Weird Fantasy business to learn about how to make monster threatening and dangerous, and most importantly ambigous. And there just isn’t anything ambigous about a 30 meter tentacle penis with huge teeth. What I am really after with the Ancient Lands is a world in which spirits are real, potentially dangerous, but also worshipped as protectors and bringers of prosperity. What I am after is “awe”. Not terrified panic. In good fairy tales the protagonist has to get face to face with the spirits and atrempt to have a human interaction with something that deep inside is utterly inhuman. That is the fear I am after. The fear of overplaying your luck and slipping up right in front of a being of unbelievable power and primordial and unrestrained emotion. Something that is like a person, but ultimately not a person at all. Which is something none of the beings in Weird Fantasy have. They just attack as soon as they see you and turn you into screaming goo as soon as they touch you.

My time with Weird Fantasy certainly was not a wasted one. There are actually some really good ideas to how approach and structure things. But these are fine tools, which I believe are much more often misused as sledgehammers. I rather go with Hellboy.

Criminal Organizations in the Ancient Lands

When I started collecting lists of all the stuff from other great fantasy settings which I would like to include in my Ancient Lands world, I also made a short list of cool criminal organizations. There are some pretty cool and interesting ones out there, like the Shadow Thieves and Zhentarim, the Dark Brotherhood, Black Sun and Czerka Corporation, the Shadow Broker, and a whole lot of others. But a very important part of good worldbuilding is to keep the whole setting coherent in its premise. And now that I started to really give some thought on the criminal organizations I had floating around as broad outlines, I noticed that most of them really don’t fit this kind of setting.

The Ancient Lands are a world that is primarily wilderness, inhabited by tribal people in small villages with only a few larger cities, which are still relatively small compared to those of other fantasy worlds. Having a Gnome Mafia in such a setting doesn’t really make much sense in such a setting once you start looking a bit closer. Each clan has its own small territory and is effectively controlled by a single extended family that rules without any interference from outside forces. There usually is not even a king and certainly not any state that tells them what they can and can’t do. As long as the minor families don’t revolt, the clan leaders can do whatever they want. At the same time the clans are small enough that the leaders are personally aware of anyone who is stirring up trouble and when someone commits crimes against other people of the clan, the chief can simple have them exiled or executed and that’s the end of it. The chiefs personal croonies might be abusive bullies, but that only makes the chief a tyrant who still is officially in charge.

Which leaves the cities and major towns, but those aren’t actually that big either and there isn’t a lot of them as well. In a city of ten two twenty thousands, you can’t really be building a criminal empire without becoming one of the rulers of the city and spreading out over multiple cities is also not particularly practical. There is also the question of what criminal organizations would do. In a Sword & Sorcery setting the only purpose to smuggle anything would be to avoid taxes, but usually nobody cares what weapons, poisons, and drugs you are selling. And tax evasion isn’t really a terribly villainous crime.

But there are still plenty of people who make money with violence while not being part of the official governments.

Cartel Merchants

In most cities of the Ancient Lands, nobody cares which kind of dangerous goods you can buy at the market or in shops. However, there are some people who care a lot about who may sell which goods or not. If any kind of goods is sufficiently rare, some merchants always try to get a monopoly on them. Be it certain rare drugs, spices, poisons, gems, or other precious materials, usually there’s a small number of rich merchants who control virtually the entire trade with them and they go to very great length to protect their monopolies. These merchants are only losely organized but include those who produce, transport, and sell the goods. Anyone small stores in the cities and towns who are found to sell those goods without getting them from the big merchants who claims the local monopoly on them will quickly be visited by some of his croonies who will make sure it’s not going to happen again.

Smuggling illegal goods by the city guards isn’t really a thing in the Ancient Lands, but secretly circumventing the cartel monopolies can bring just as great profits. However, the price for getting caught is usually much higher as well.

hyboria_hyrkaniansOutlaws

In a tribal society outlaws are not simply people who break the law, but those who have been exiled for whatever reason and cast out whithout the protection of any clan or city. In a world with no courts and no police outside the cities (and even there they are mostly confined to the richest neighbourhoods), the only thing that protects you is the certainty that someone will avenge any crime commited against you. Without a clan to back you up, you’re fate depends entirely on your skill with your weapon. At the same time, nobody can be held responsible for your actions if you commit any crime or cause any damage and you don’t have to worry that anyone else is going to suffer for your offenses. So even people who don’t want to rob or murder you still won’t trust you because there isn’t any reassurance that you will behave. There are really only two possible lives for outlaws, which are becoming a hermit in a place where nobody will find you, or becoming a bandit.

Occasionally warriors down on their luck will try to ambush travelers on the road for a bit of money and food, but outlaw bandits are a whole different class of criminals. These men and women often band together for mutual protection against anyone who might want to rob or enslave them and while many of them have been exiled for some crime commited against their clans, an equally large number were born into these gangs. Even if they have not commited any crimes themselves, nobody believe that these outlaw children could be trusted to be honest and behave either. With almost no other clans or merchants willing to trade with them, bands of outlaws often survive by robbing travelers and caravans on the few roads that cross the vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness of the Ancient Lands. Most of them have their own hidden villages somewhere in the wild, where they keep their loot and their families and slave grow some meager crops and keep a few goats and pigs. Not all outlaw bands are necessarily evil or murderous, but they all know that everyone fears and mistrusts them and don’t take kindly to most strangers. Other outlaws might find a home among them, but all bandits know that they can’t trust anyone, especially each other.

koxinga2Pirates

Pirates are very similar to the outlaw highwaymen that ambush caravans on the roads, but their territory is the sea and the major rivers of the Ancient Lands. Not all pirates are outlaws and many crews are simply warriors of poor clans that are unable to support themselves with whatever resources their homes offer. Coastal and river pirates often make their own small boats which they use to board merchant ships, while sea pirates mostly use ships they have captured from Keyren, Takari, and Mayaka traders. River and coastal pirates defend their territory against competitors as fiercely as highwaymen, but the sea pirates often roam very large stretches of sea for many months and generally avoid fighting with each other. There are several known pirate ports in the islands of Suvanea in the Inner Sea and the outlying islands of Halond to the north, where pirate ships make stops to make repairs, take supplies, and also trade the treasures they captured.

Fences

Both highwaymen and pirates keep a good part of their spoils to bring back home and share with their families, but usually a large amount of the booty consists of things that have relatively little practical value to them. Since they can’t really visit the great markets in the cities and towns without raising questions, they need the help of merchants who don’t have any reservations about trading with thieves and murderers. As the pirates and bandits don’t have a lot of choice where to sell their loot, these goods are often traded well below their actual value, resulting in a huge profit for the merchants. Very often these fences are the same merchants who also control the monopolies on certain goods.

Street Gangs

In the cities and larger towns there are also always some minor criminals who make a living by stealing and robbing people in the streets at night. There is rarely more than a few dozen of them in any place except for the very largest of cities, but often they band together in groups of just a small handful of thieves who each carve out their own territories and drive out any other thieves that might try to compete with them. Too many thieves in any area only make the guards patrol more frequently and keeps rich people off the streets at night, so that’s bad for business. Larger gangs might be able to extort some money from small merchants in the poorer parts of town and in some cities where the guard has no real presence outside the rich neighborhoods they effectively rule the streets themselves. When they get powerful enough it often gets more profitable for them to stop robbing people at night entirely and instead collect a fee from the residents for their service of keeping the streets clear of other gangs or drunk sailors. Such neighborhoods are often actually safer than those which are patrolled by the guards, but only as long as one is paying the local gangs their share. There are rarely more than two or three such large gangs in any major cities, and usually only one in smaller towns. Two gangs in the same town usually don’t last very long.

Worldbuilding and creating non-villain organizations

When creating a larger world for stories that not only focus on the protagonists and antagonists themselves but also deal with the way those protagonists interact with the world around, one very important aspect are usually the major power groups who are involved in the various great conflicts that are shaping the setting. Similar to how it is quite easy to make an interesting villain, it’s usually not very difficult to come up with dozens of factions that have some nefarious goals. There are plenty of examples in fiction from political conspiracies, demonic cults, criminal organizations, societies of sorcerers, megacorporations, legions of hell, the loyal warriors of a charismatic warlord, and so on and on and on. Creating bad guy groups is easy.

However, when it comes to creating the good guys of a new setting, things very quickly get much more difficult. One big reason for that is that heroes and heroic organizations are stepping on each others toes. If the hero starts out as a small guy who doesn’t know about the big threat of the story when it begins, but the organization is well informed and equipped, what do they need the hero for? They should be able to deal with the problem themselves. On the other hand, if the hero himself is really powerful and capable, then what are the members of the organization to do? Cheer while the hero does his hero thing? In either case, the hero and the heroic organization don’t really need each other. The only way to avoid that is to have the protagonist already be a long time member of the heroic organization and be the best guy they have. Someone like Buffy, Hellboy, or the Master Chief. That can work quite well for books and movies, but for a roleplaying game campaign setting you usually want to have a variety of such groups the heroes can encounter during their adventures and have dealings with.

When it comes to looking at precedents from fiction that could be used as templates for a heroic organization, there isn’t a lot to find either. Usually what you get are either Paladins, Rangers, or the Old Men Council. Paladin type organizations are elite groups of warriors who fight evil in the open and destroy it. Jedi, the Knights of the Round Table, Specters, or the Grey Wardens are example of that. Ranger type organizations are also elite warriors and other agents who sneak around in the shadows gathering intelligence and sabotaging the enemies efforts to provide the forces of Good with information and time to organize a defense against that threat. There’s of course the Dunedain from The Lord of the Rings, but also the Harpers from the Forgotten Realms, or Foxhound from Metal Gear Solid. And of course the Old Men Councils, which quite often are actually Old Women Councils in recent decades. Organizations, often quite ancient, consisting of wealthy philantropist or wizards who manipulate things from the behind the scenes to further the good of all humankind. Only the Old Men Council really has any need for outside help as they usually rely on freelance contractors to do all their dirty work, but that usually ends with the protagonist being a puppet in their plans which doesn’t really need to understand their greater plans. There are also Rebells, but they usually have a single goal which makes them too narrow to be interesting in worldbuilding unless the whole setting is about that rebellion. These rganizations can be employers, but rarely make for good allies. And almost always they mainly exist to deal with one very specific villain organization, which limits their possible uses for other storylines. With a single book or movie, or even three or four, that’s not necessarily a problem, but when you want to create a larger universe for multiple storylines, it’s not really a good solution. As much as I like Star Wars, always having the Jedi fighting the Sith gets stale eventually. Both groups need more goals and ideals than to just oppose each other.

My advice to creating organizations to oppose the villain factions is not to attempt to make Good organizations, but simply non-Evil organizations. It’s terribly difficult to create a well though out God faction, and most of the times they do appear, it eventually turns out that they have not been everything they claimed to be after all. Best case scenario is that they are well meaning, but actually misguided and the protagonist only works with them because he really needs their resources. “I’m not doing it for you, but for the people out there who need my help!” Because most writers understand that truly pure goody-two-shoes groups are boring and often annoying.

When you try to think of truly Good organizations from world history that didn’t do anything shady and cruel, you usually only end up with pacifist groups like the Red Cross or other charities. And unfortunately for fiction writers, especially fantasy and sci-fi, pacifist charities usually don’t pick up arms in battle against evil. Great as they might be, they are not really helping here as examples for Good organizations in adventure fiction.

So I say: Don’t try. What you need is not organizations that do hero work (which they always would do much better then the heroes), but organizations whose goals are serving their own interest, while following ideals that oppose the methods of real villains. Make groups that don’t want to fight Evil everywher all the time, but groups whose goals frequently line up with those of heroic protagonists. We’ve all seen evil Megacorporations a thousand times, who exploit the poor and destroy the environment for profit and sell all kinds of horrible inventions to the highest bidder. But big businesses don’t all have to be Umbrella or Wayland-Yutani. Take for example a big corporation that is heavily investing in colonizing different worlds because they want to get a foothold in alien markets. Their goal is still profit, but their strategy is to build stable local economies and create goodwill with the regional alien governments and companies. They would have a genuine interest to hire mercenaries or cooperate with groups that are already trying to fight pirates, slavers, and hordes of alien locust. They want the region to be safe and their employees to be happy. Not just out of charity, but because that’s also part of their business. Or a group that sponsors expeditions to ancient ruins for the search for old technology or magic. Not to protect the world from the possible dangers if they fall into the wrong hands, but to study them and improve their own creations. They might be quite willing to cooperate with the heroes in finding a certain dangerous artifact, if in turn they get to salvage all the other stuff they might find in that place.

Just like there are no organizations in the real world that want to do Evil, there are relatively few that exist simply to do Good, on the great global stage. (Of course there are plenty of charities, but how often do you see any of those mentioned in history books other than the Red Cross?) They all have much more complex goals and causes they are pursuing. So instead ask yourself, what kinds of groups would benefit from cooperating with heroes in this fictional universe. I think this always gets much more interesting results. It won’t work for any nonsensical Hollywood/America saves the world plot where the hero blows up Nazi aliens, but you might notice that those are usually one-shot movies anyway, because the premise is so weak that there isn’t really any worldbuilding for the greater world beyond the hero at all.

Bringing prehistoric fantasy worlds to life

Work on my Ancient Lands setting is coming along nicely and not only do I have all the components parts ready, but also got names for almost all of them. Unless you tried building a fictional world and create a compendium of all the main groups, places, and creatures, you won’t believe how terribly difficult that last part is. Making names is easy, making names that are not total garbage and sound completely made up is unbelievably hard work. And it doesn’t get easier when you get to make some 200 of them that are supposed to come from half a dozen different language families.

Now that I know where all the places are, who lives there, what their relationships with each other are, and what kinds of environments and creatures make up the world outside the settlements, the next step is both much more complex, but I think also easier. A fantasy world is not a map with names on it, but it is all about the people who live in that world and how they interact with each other. How do they behave, what do they believe, what to they want, what do they fear, what do they opposose, who has power, of what kind is that power, how do they live, how do they fight? Take the first half hour of Star Wars for example: You don’t know who any of these people are, what those places are you see, and what everything is about. But it’s still a very evocative setting, just from seeing the people interact with the world around them and each other. (Star Wars is also what I consider to be one of the greatest examples of the effective use of archetypes: The moment you see Darth Vader you know exactly what kind of character he is, and the imperial uniforms make it perfectly clear what type of Empire this is. Nobody has to say it, it’s clear because you’ve seen people like these countless times before, and you’re meant to recognize them.) In Fantasy, it is very common to do things the standard way, which means the popular image of the European middle ages. Connor Gormley wrote some interesting thoughts on why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at Black Gate a while ago. But the Ancient Lands is specifically meant to not evoke images of a medieval world, but instead aims to feel prehistoric. The reason I think it’s also easier than chosing the elements that you want to put into your world is that from this point on you’re actually staring to thing of people and events and the possibilities now are based on the things you already have in place and don’t come purely from a vacuum.

The idea of a “prehistoric time” is a bit blurry. Originall the term refered to the periods of human civilization and culture from which we have no historic records. Only archeological finds and reports from later times, but no documents in which those people wrote down what happened during their own time. The “historic period”, as least as far as Europe, the Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia are concerned, is generally divided into Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modernity (which really just mean old age, middle age, and current age), while the “prehistoric period” is split up into the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Antiquity is generally considered to start with the rise of the classical Greek civilization around the 5th century BC. (Which is convenient, as Antiquity also ends around 500 AD and the Middle Ages last to about 1500 AD, making it easy to remember.) It was a reasonably good idea to classify past human civilizations, but by now we know how to read Egyptian, Akadian, and Hittite and those people wrote quite a lot, so that we now have a lot of historic documents from the Bronze Age. So technically, it’s not really “prehistoric” anymore. But really, the main concern here is fantasy fiction, so when I use the term prehistoric, I mean the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. But even those terms are not perfect, as different parts of the world developed different technologies at different times or skipped some entirely. Southern Africa went straight from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, and it would be completely justified to say that people in Central America went straight from the stone Age to Modernity, skipping four of the six perioids completely.

And when I say “Stone Age”, I particularly mean the Late Stone Age, or Neolithic. Neolithic people didn’t have metal technology, but they were a far shot from being cave men. The Neolithic begins with the development and rise of agriculture, when people stopped wandering around hunting for food, but settled down in farming communities. And those could get quite sophisticated, with the Inca and Aztecs being great examples of how much you can do without metal technology. Conveniently for us, the move towards agriculture took place about 8,000 BC, which means from the start of human civilization to now it has been roughly 10,000 years. Always a good guideline for considering how much time passes between different periods in your fictional world.

Continue reading “Bringing prehistoric fantasy worlds to life”

We are not using the Z-Word!

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the concept of Evil in my Ancient Lands setting. It got me thinking about how a story or series of stories can be given its own distinctive character by deciding what words and concepts don’t exist in their worlds. Even longer back, I also remember reading an article about a writer saying he doesn’t use the word “damn” in his story because in that world there is no damnation that could await people. And it does not make sense in a Legend of Zelda game when a character says “Gee, it sure is boring around here”, because “Gee” is Jesus. Selectively not using word is probably something that readers are very unlikely to actively notice unless they are specifically looking out for it. But I think a great number of readers will at least sense it unconscously. So I’ve been thinking some more on other words I don’t want to use in my writing.

"Why not?" "Because it's ridiculous!"
“Why not?”
“Because it’s ridiculous!”

Zombie: The original Z-word. In the world I am using there are the corpses of the dead which get animated by magic and wander around attacking the living. But these are not created by some kind of plague or being altered by a wizard, but are possessed by evil hostile spirits. They can be mostly intact or nothing more than skeletons or anything in between. While not terribly smart or displaying any real motivations, they still think. They are still very much like zombies, but they are also quite different from the common movie-zombie. Also, a zombie is something the readers know and are familiar with, and within the world of the story the walking dead are so rare that almost no character will ever have encountered them. If I call them zombies, the readers will think the protagonist thinks of them as zombies and therefore assume these are not really anything to worry about for an experienced hero. If the protagonist is surprised and does not quite know what he’s dealing with, then the reader should feel the same and that just won’t happen if they are described as zombies.

Hell, hellish: Something can not look hellish, like Hell, or like from hell if there is no place called Hell and the people in the stories have no concept of such a place.

Ghost: Still not entirely certain about this, but I think I want to avoid using the word ghost. Those are those white glowing souls of the dead with unfinished business they have to complete before they can depart. In a world that is highly animistic, the default world for an incorporeal being would be “spirit”. In case the spirit is actually a dead person, I prefer the words Shade or Wraith. Like the zombies, it keeps readers a bit uncertain what exactly it is.

Soul: Like Evil, the word soul comes with a lot of preconcieved bagage. If the life energy of a person is not immortal and going to remain what it is in some form of afterlife, the term soul seems misleading to me.

Sin: Another word that really works only in a christian context. The best analogue in an animistic world would be taboo.

Wizard: I never use the term wizard. It always reminds me too much of scholars with libraries of arcane tomes and magic wands. Since that’s not in any way similar to what these people are in my stories, I always call them sorcerers or witches or something like that.

Fire!: This is admitedly pendantery. But arrows and catapults are not fired.

(And yes, I know. I need to find some other names for Ghost Paint and Soul Stones.)