Fantasy cliches I don’t like

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

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

Refocusing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good plus Good doesn’t always equal Great

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

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

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

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

Originality of Experience

I’ve recently been thinking about the question of originality. When discussing the creation of stories, particularly of beginning writers, frequently the question comes up whether the work feels original or rather derivative. Originality is widely treated as perhaps the most important thing for a new writer. Yet at the same time there are famous lines like “all great stories have already been told”, “all art is derivative”, and “there is nothing new under the sun”. How is one supposed to write a good original story like that?

I think it is important to make a clear distinction between originality of content and originality of meaning. Content is all the many pieces from which a story is assembled. The characters, the setting, the props, and also plots and situations. To come up with a character or plot, or even just a monster or magic spell that is completely original is extremely difficult to the point of perhaps being impossible. When it comes to these elements that make up a story, I believe that all art is indeed derivative.

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that all our storytelling evolved from the telling of accounts of actual events that were embelished for dramatic effect. And it doesn’t take any big leaps to tell stories in which nothing has actually happened in reality. But such stories are not simply made up from nothing. They are constructed from elements that already exist. Any country, state, or nation you can imagine is based on already existing examples in the actual world, and all monsters are evolving embelishments of regular animals. To try to be truly original in these things is not only futile, but also completely unnecessary.

However, a story is not just characters, situations, and environments. What is really interesting about stories is how the characters in them react to and interact with the situations and other characters they encounter. How it affects them, what they want to do about it, and what their opinions on them are. This is where writers have the opportunity to put their own unique stamp on a work and create something fresh and original. You are unique and special. Just like everyone else. While this doesn’t make anyone better, it makes everyone different. And this difference is what allows writers to be original with their stories. When you write your own stories, you can have characters do in a given situation what you think they should do. Feel what you think they should feel. And actions have the consequences you think they should have. Instead of what conventions and traditions say usually happens in such situations. I discussed this in the Fantasy Faction forum and one person called this the Originality of Experience. You have characters that are familiar, in situations that are familiar, surrounded by things that are familiar. There is pretty little that can be done about that. But the reason we’re reading or watching a story is because we want to see how it will all play out this time and hoping that it will provide us with a new experience. That’s really what originality is all about.

Spell-less Magic

Fantasy in recent decades seems to have a big thing for magic systems, and I believe partly becuse of the success of Brandon Sanderson. When I see people talk about magic systems it more often than not seems to revolve around different types of spells and the method of their casting. To the point that it seems to be taken for granted as a basic premise for any kind of magic to appear in fantasy.

This week I was exploring the idea of converting Apocalpyse World to a Sword & Sorcery game. All in all, it’s a system that strikes me as a really good match right out of the box with the one major thing that is missing from it being a set of rules for spellcasting. But it’s not like the game is completely free of magic. One default assumption of the setting of an Apocalypse World game is the existance of a Psychic Maelstrom, which is the source of seemingly supernatural effects and phenomenons, but whose actual nature and trait are deliberately left completely unspecified to organically take shape during play. There is a single ability that allows one of the classes to use magical power in a somewhat direct way, but it is again very vague and open ended and does not really fit the image of casting a spell.

And looking at older fantasy books, this is actually very much like magic used to be portrayed in fiction. The oldest example of a straight up spell slinger I can imagine is Tim the Enchanter, who can summon up fire without flint or tinder. Gandalf, Elric, or Kane, or any of the sorcerers in Conan’s stories don’t say magic words and have stuff shoting from their outstretched hands. Instead their “magic” mostly takes the form of knowing things and being in contact to powerful entities otherwise invisible to the perception of regular people.

The spell in its modern form appears to be primarily a game mechanic. One that was carried over from RPGs to videogames and from there seeped out into the wider field of fantasy in general. While I am a big fan of fantasy games, I’ve always had reservations about the gamification of non-game fiction. Even with games I prefer mechanics to be as invisible as possible and maintain a more organic feel in the in-game fiction. (Which is why I find Apocalypse World quite appealing and always had a problem with D&D magic.)

With the Ancient Lands, I’ve always felt more like making a “game of the book” rather than a “book of the game”, even with the vast majority of my work over the last year being on game stuff with no actual book anywhere near to sight. But these days I feel once again more drawn to writing fiction, with my game development having reached a point where there’s not really much left to do other than playing it. And even with all the worldbuilding advice for writers that adresses magic systems, I find the idea of a spell-less magic to be a lot more interesting.

What’s the point?

I have been dabbling a bit in writing for a few years in addition to working on RPGs and campaigns, and the main problem that kept my stuck with writing something compelling and that’s always been the hardest part about campaigns is to come up with a plot. I am always doing great thinking about worlds and characters, but these aren’t any good if there is nothing interesting happening.

But now I’ve finally come across a great piece of advice. Plot is not really about conflict. Plot really starts with a goal.

Conflict is what follows from the goal not being easily reached and that conflict is what makes up the plot. But the reason why the protagonists are doing anything and how they approach the challenges they encounter result not from the conflict but from the goal.

Instead of trying to come up with a plot by picking a cool and exciting conflict, the process really begins with picking a goal. And then thinking about circumstances that get in the way of the goal, from which you get a conflict. This even holds true when your initial idea starts with a cool villain. The hero does not simply want to oppose the villain just because. He opposes him because he’s an obstacle to reaching his own goal. A villain does not make a conflict. The goal that the villain is blocking creates the conflict and in turn the plot.

The Ancient Builders

Ruins play obviously a great part in the Ancient Lands and someone has to have build them in the first place. While I don’t want to have a generic post-apocalyptic world I decided to keep things simple and focused and have the majority of ruins be from an ancient time and build by fey races instead of being build by past humanoid civilizations. Ruined castles can have signs of past inhabitation by people, but people-build ruins are going to be almost all abandoned villages. Mortals just don’t have the ability to build castles like spirits can, and never did. It’s not that mortals lost knowledge and abilities they had in the past, but simply that spirits are just much more powerful in every way. Fortunately for mortals, most fey castles have long been abandoned and only few of them are currently inhabited. The fey races are not particularly attached to stability and leave lots of stuff behind when they are done with them, but these tend to remain around for a very long time after that and over thousands of years those abandoned castles add up.

Naga

Of all the old builders, the naga are the ones that still have a strong presence on the material world and inhabit and maintain many of their ancient castles, particularly in the southern lands. Around the Inner Sea and the northern lands these are all long abandoned, though. Naga ruins often consists of steep, tower-like ziggurats surrounded by smaller buildings with flat stone roofa that housed vast numbers of elven slaves. They can easily be identified by their lack of stairs, with levels being connected by ramps. They are also generally found near coasts.

Tower Builders

The tower builders were a civilization of shie that built a large number of citadels throughout the northern parts of the Ancient Lands. All their castles have a square base and smooth walls that slighty narrow inwards until reaching a flat top. These towers are build from huge stone blocks that are very accurately fitted together and each have a completely unique shape. Inside, the ceilings are held up by massive supports that start close to the walls and lean sharply inwards to form a kind of trapezoid arch and provide a lot of cover and hiding spaces.

Rock Carvers

Ruins of the Rock Carvers are mostly found in the area of the Inner Sea, particularly the Akai and Tavir Mountains, but also in various places in the steep rocky cliffs on the coast. Rock Carver ruins are often seemingly low and bulky constructions compared to the other styles of castles, but are mostly located underground, which hides their frequently massive proportions. Often the only parts visible above ground are a steep and extremely thick wall and an only slightly higher citadel that guard the main entrance to the rest of the stronghold. Often these have very few windows that are barely more than arrow slits, but castles in well defensible locations high up in the mountains sometimes have large numbers of great balconies and tarraces overlooking the landscape below. Smaller ruins are often completely invisible from the outside and appear only as easy to miss caves that reveal themselves to be spectacular underground castles. While the working of walls and tunnels is always extremely precise and without any irregularities, many ruins include large natural caverns that have remained entirely unworked and kept in their magnificent natural form.

The identity of the Rock Carvers is a complete mystery to everyone but they have often left behind many enchanted stones and gems.

Tree Weavers

The Tree Weavers were another group of shie who created numerous castles and palaces in the Ancient Lands. Their ruins are widely regarded as the most magnificent ones and appear to have been grown from gargantuan petrified trees and living rock rather than build by masons. Except for floors and stairs, which are covered in tiles of polished marble, there are no flat surfaces or straight angles to be found anywhere in these ruins, with all walls slightly bulging outwards and all ceilings being domed. Many ruins consist of tall towers that often have smaller side towers branching off from them in seemingly impossible angles like enormous stone trees. Other buildings have large marble roofs made from a single piece that look like the shells of colossals turtles.

Tree Weaver ruins are often home to a great amount of plant life, much of it being dangerous and even deadly to people getting too close.

Glass Makers

Ruins of the Glass Makers are the most mysterious ones and widely regarded to be by far the oldest. Many even believe that they were build by spirits that have long retreated into the eternal dark of the Underworld. Ruins of this type are made or a very hard dark material that greatly resembles glass an comes in various hues. Surfaces require a great deal of force to damage and tend to merely chip rather than fracturing. Rumor has it that at least in some ruins such damages slowly heal over the course of decades and centuries but they are so infrequently visited that nobody has ever really seen it happening so far.
The architecture of these steuctures, if it can even be called that, tends to be highly bizarre and often seems to serve no discernable purpose. However, they all share in common that they contain large underground sections of which generally much less information is available.

Glass ruins often have areas of high corruption and are sometimes haunted by trapped demons. Sorcerous relics can often be found in them and they are highly sought after by naga and sorcerers.

Fantastic worldbuilding is so much more easier, fun, and interesting than realistic worldbuilding

I admit that I fell into this trap myself when I started to seriously work on a fantasy world six years ago. So let’s call it a typical beginners mistake. I was young and stupid, just like probably everyone else. I frequently look around in RPG forums for discussions about advice on worldbuilding and I’m always more than happy to share my experiences and discoveries and present various options that I think might be of interest and useful for the people who asked.

But there is this one thing that regularly comes up, almost always by people who are just starting out, that makes me somewhat… let’s say “frustrated”. It’s people trying to make a fantasy world by attempting to model a physically, chemically, biologically, and even astronomically realistic planet. I think the initial consideration is valid. You don’t want to end up people pointing out that your rivers are running upstream or in circles or that you can’t have an ecosystem in which all the animals are carnivores. A basic understanding about geography and ecology is a good thing to have to avoid the most embarassing blunders.

But then there’s always people who start worrying about the size of their world’s sun, it’s radiation output, and it’s distance from the planet. Or how spiders can only get so big because of the way their respiratory system work unless you increase the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere considerably. It’s a typical mistake and I made it as well when I started, but such exercises are ultimately pointless.

The first thing is that it’s still fantasy. If you’re writing really hard science-fiction, then I can understand the desire to show off your real-world science knowledge and make the alien environments physically sound. But why bother worrying about the oxygen circulation in (real world) spiders or the maximum weight supported by bones (real world) mammals and then add 50 meter fire-breathing flying reptiles and ghosts? As soon as you start adding fantastic elements, you already establish that real world physics do not apply to this world.

The other thing that makes such efforts futile is the question how such information would ever become known to players or readers? Is anyone ever going to dissect a giant spider and ask for a description of its whole internal anatomy? Is any character ever going to make an atmospheric analysis or calculate the energy output of the star based on its chemical composition and mass? If a detail can never plausibly come up in the fiction, then it’s useless.

The amount of scientific knowledge you need to make a pretty plausible fantasy world is really very basic stuff: Planets are colder at the poles and warmer at the equator. Climate varies little between summer and winter near the sea and varies greatly further inland. You need to have larger numbers of herbivores than carnivores. Water flows downhil; rivers only meet but don’t split up (except for coastal swampy river deltas). As a simple rule of thumb: As soon as you start adding measurements and make calculations, you went off doing exploring real-world scientific phenomena (which is a good thing),  but it’s irrelevant for your worldbuilding.

I also want to make an appeal to dream big. An Earth-like planet with medieval culture is unlikely to really inspire people and amaze them. When you set out to build a new fantasy world, then you really should consider to build one that is different and something people haven’t seen many times before. Of course there’s some personal stylisitic preference talking here. I’m unashamedly a huge fan of Morrowind, Planescape, and Star Wars and 70s and 80s fantasy art. There seems to be very little fantasy of this kind to be around these days. But it’s fantasy, you’re allowed to be fantastical.

Know what you don’t want

Not much of a big revelation, but it feels like a somewhat important step of my own worldbuilding work.

My favorite design paradigm is “Perfection is not reached when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.” (My second favorite one is “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”) While it has led me to very good results so far and the Ancient Lands are now much tighter and sleeker, I still frequently find my mind wandering off into wrong directions when making up new details. And what I realize now is that many times I end up following the same paths that didn’t lead to anything satisfying before. There are many fantasy ideas that I really like but which are not fitting for this particular setting.

  • Stone Age Fantasy: The Ancient Lands are a world in which civilization is small and short lived, which is mostly wilderness and ruled by spirits. This is a setup that lends itself very much to Stone Age cultures and I frequently find myself thinking of cultures and settlements in a Stone Age context when trying to define them more sharply. But now I realize this is really not what I want. The original concept was of a time where elves and dwarves rule and are at war with dragons and giants. That would be much more like small Bronze Age kingdoms. While it’s tempting to go that route to distinguish the setting, I don’t want to do a Stone Age hunters game. No need to explore this direction any further. What I want is more Morrowind and Kalimdor.
  • Weird Horror: I’ve found myself coming back to pour over Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures and Patrick Stuart stuff many times and most of them are great. And there’s a good number of ideas in them that I think will be of great use to me, but I don’t want my campaigns to be like them. There’s a lot of great images and effects to be found, but the setting doesn’t really have a place for bleak dispair.
  • Classic Demons: I love demons in D&D. They are one of the greatest parts of the whole generic D&D mythology. I am also quite intrigues by the demons from Dragon Age. But my setting doesn’t really have a place for such embodiments of evil. What I a, going for is something much more like Daedra or Quori, with a lot more weird and less obsession with destruction. If I find myself thinking about evil destruction spirits, I should get myself to stop and instead work on something that’s more on the point.

Creativity isn’t something to just turn on and off as needed but more of a bubbling of ideas that for some reason feel right. But good design needs focus and direction. Knowing what you want is great, but knowing what you don’t want, even though it’s a great idea in general, also might help quite a bit.