Revision time… again!

I’ve been working on the Ancient Lands setting for a bit over four years now, and it seems a pretty regular ocurance that I feel like I went completely wrong somewhere and have to start all over. I think this is about the fifth time that I am sitting down to try to define the core concept of the world and pick the basic elements that are going to go into it. Though it’s not all in vain, as I am not completely starting all over again. It’s more like disassembling the whole thing and trying to put the pieces together in slightly different way, making some modifications at some parts while a few get discarded and perhaps replaced by something new. Or to use the poetic analogy I’ve heard somewhere, it’s like the waves on the beach, going back and forth, but each time getting a bit higher up the sand. Two steps forward, one step back. And I think I’ve come really pretty far by now. That I announced completion a few weeks ago does not have to concern us here now…

I think I primarily made two main errors, which resulted in the setting turning out as something somewhat different than I wanted it to. I think I also had a bit of a change of taste, as I’ve been reading a lot Sword & Sorcery and pulp over the last half year or so. I put the blame at Beyond the Black Gate and From the Sorcerer’s Skull, as well Planet Algol with all their pulpy goodness. Made me remember what my own work is missing and now I have to do it again to put it all back in.

The one mistake that I’ve made was with creating the concepts for my city states. They are city states and good ones, but they are more along the lines of Byzanthium, Carthage, and Babylon. And like Rome these are much more known as the capitals of big empires rather than the small Greek city states of the Trojan War I’ve really been thinking of when I had the idea. As a result, civilization got waaay too big. Much bigger than it really fits the concept of the Ancient Lands. In the stories they are called “kingdoms” and “cities”, but what I really need for the Ancient Lands are glorified fortified towns. The Golden Hall of King Theoden of Rohan is really the archetype for the kind of “palace” that is common in the Ancient Lands. This means I am probably going to scrap all the cities I have so far and start them all over again. Which given the amount of work I’ve put into them so far isn’t really much of a loss.

The other mistake was the backstory for the Vandren, a human tribe of horsemen inspired by the Scythians or Kozaks. What I’ve been working with almost from the very start was that the elves of the Ancient Lands encountered the Vandren when their explorers reached the Great Plains on the far side of the great forests and through them got access to exotic goods from the distant Western Lands. Pretty much all the recent history then build upon the elves and the Vandren making alliances, the Vandren migrating to settle in the Ancient Lands as their vasalls, and so on. But now I realized that this results in one very big problem. As it stands now, the great forests stop somewhere on the left side of the map where you see the edge of the Great Plains with a big arrow that says “To the Western Lands”. And that just doesn’t work for the kind of prehistoric setting I want to do. One of the very first concepts for the Ancient Lands was that of a Forest World, but what I ended up with is a world of plains and steppes with a few big forest which you can ride around. Now the forests are just big, but not stretching beyond the horizon into the unknown, beyond the borders of what mortal eyes have ever seen. I deliberately did not make a full continent or even a world map for the Ancient Land and had the sea only on one side with the other side being land all the way to the edge of the paper. But showing the far side of the giant forests and adding a (figurative) arrow that tells you what lies beyond completely defeated the purpose. I still love the Vandren and someone gave me a great idea how to salvage them. Instead of coming from the plains, the continent is now once again all forests and mountains, and the Vandren will be some kind of hill people. And instead of bringing spices and silks, they now simply trade in salt. Salt is the universal spice and more importantly food preservative. Everyone needs it in bulk quantities and really can’t do without it (or have a really terrible winter) and though I am mostly familiar with salt mines in coastal plains, there are actually many much older deposits in mountains like the Himalyas. So hill people could conceivably become major salt traders. Perhaps making them ride on horses doesn’t make as much sense in a forest and mountain world, but maybe I make them ride on oversized yaks. Or hadrosaurs. (Yes, in a fantasy setting riding hardrosaurs can make much more sense than horses.)

I already have a new vision for the setting in my mind. Not quite sure what I am doing with the naga and lizardmen yet, and I am not completely sure if there is a place for the dark elves without things getting too crowded. But I want to give a much bigger role to the kaas, which is inspired by the Lords of War trailers for World of Warcraft. (Only played Warcraft III, but they look cool.)

I’ll think some more about it before discarding what I’ve written so far, but I am actually feeling a lot more excited about the setting than I’ve been for quite some time.

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.

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