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Creating a World and Keeping It
I have been distracted from my primary Hub projects by a different project entirely, but one which my wife decided was important for me to pursue. In a long tradition of nerd hobbyists, I love fantasy role-playing games. I started with the old Dungeons and Dragons, but did not remain there. I confess, I have no plans to attempt to keep up with the editions of that game, however, but have long been the Storyteller, or Game Master, or any other term that may be used to describe the chief narrator, of a home-brew world using resources from D&D, history, novels, and modern politics. My wife decided it was time for me to stop carrying the home-brew world in my head and write it down. We have a new player coming in, and it seems rather unfair to throw him into a world that I have developed and tinkered with over ten years without any explanatory material, when he has not had ten years to work through it with me and come to understand it,
So, I sat down to get to work on it. My wife did not know what she was asking. First, there is the volume problem. This is, after all, an entire world. It has a history, it has political structures and social organizations, it has its own gods and its own dynamics, apart from the monsters, imagined races, and details that go with any fantasy role-playing world. (You have to have elves, for example, of one kind or another, also halflings and dwarves: it is the Tolkien inheritance.) Because I tend to focus on the difficulties and tensions in the real world, even the simplified world I created is marked by difficulties and tensions, questions of status and knowledge, perils of law and chaos. When I was young, it was enough to go out and kill kobolds, orcs, giants, and other monsters, but as I grew older my taste in what should happen and my concept of what should happen in a game changed. I don't know that it grew more sophisticated, but it became more complex in the parts played by the societies in which the characters were declared to exist. The societies themselves came to play a role in determining what would happen, what options were available to characters within the game, and what penalties and rewards would be applied to the actions characters took. Heroes were given context, and relationships outside their traveling troupe of marauders that mattered.
So, I have this mass of disorganized information, some of relevance to every player in the game, some specifically designed to speak to players of distinct classes and/or races, and some that frankly didn't work when I tried it and needs to be thrown out. Next on the to-do list, then, was to devise a means of organizing the information and presenting it effectively. Not only did I want to present it effectively, I wanted to present it in a manner that I could find enjoyable during the long process of getting it written down. If I did not enjoy the writing of it, and the reading and re-reading of it as I edited, it would not get done. It would end on my desk with poems that failed, books I have almost read but either bored me or disappointed me long before I was done, and my son's practice handwriting. And there it would rot.
As of now, I am using the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook and Advanced Player's Guide as the foundation of my game mechanics. In order to discover an organization of information, therefore, I went to Pathfinder and had a look at how campaign settings in that system have been organized before me. What had other people done? Could I do it? How would I adjust these means to fit my needs and desires? That took about a week and resulted in an outline.
I have an outline. Great, I know what I am going to say and the order in which I will say it. But I still wasn't ready to write. I needed a voice. Someone was providing this information. I did not want to go with the third person, instructional voice of most campaign settings. That would not be a fun way to write, and it would result in another abandoned project instead of a completed one. I decided that I would invent a character, a person with faults and virtues, and this character would provide the setting information, writing from within the culture instead of from outside of it. For mechanical issues, I would use sidebars in the third person, but the vital information would come from a diplomat, an educated man who loves his nation but is aware of issues within his society and in relationship to other nations that commoners are not.
This narrator exists on a border of knowledge and ignorance that is fun to write. He has his prejudices, and so some of the information in the first book of the campaign setting, which is written to allow play in a single nation among many possible nations, to some degree includes as facts what are prejudices he holds about his neighbors and his times. I plan for other equally biased narrators to introduce the other kingdoms in later efforts. In the final series, with all parts in interaction with another, my world's societies will be presented in relation to one another, with commentary upon each other that I intend to indicate alternative views of what each believes about themselves. Each guide will introduce a specific part of the world in a way that fits that nation, that collection of peoples, hopefully in a way that makes it easier for players to embrace the culture they are placed within and play it well.
While writing the campaign guide, I realized that I have more than a few problems with fantasy role-playing itself. And my problems are not mechanical, they go to the heart of the structure of these games. I have problems with the concept of race deployed in the games, for in fantasy-roleplaying race is a key idea, affecting the capacities of each character created and, in many of the instruction manuals, defining relationships between characters and within society. These races are not social constructs, as ours are. They are not artificial and arbitrary. There are elves and elves are fundamentally different in essence and ability from, let's say, dwarves or humans. Living, as I do, in a world within which race is a problematic, often evil, artifice, it is hard to let race have that sort of determinative power, even in a game.
Then there is the problem of language. Languages in fantasy-roleplaying are often racially defined, so that all elves over an entire planet speak "elvish". All humans speak "common". The list continues, with each race having its assigned tongue, separate from all others. How ridiculous! That is just not the way language works...ever. At least this problem was easy to resolve. I jettisoned racial languages, defining them as cradle languages which are spoken in the nursery and, perhaps, at home, but which are not the languages of communities and nations. Instead, nations have their own "common" shared by all peoples of that nation, whatever their race might be, just as we on earth have in our separate nations and ethnic divisions languages, not a single metalanguage.
I have had the most fun in this project working out the religion of my world. I am not a religious person. Faith is not something that I am capable of, at least not faith in any deity or force acting upon humans, fulfilling its purpose through us, and mindful of our mischances. I think about it, and it fails--I can't make the leap. However, the world I have created is a deeply religious one in which faith is not a leap, but a type of knowledge of reality. For the gods of this world are not abstracted concepts, but real forces and figures. To deny a god in this world would be akin to denying quantum physics in our present. I cannot explain to you how or why quantum physics works. I do not have the requisite knowledge for that. However, the world functions according to its principles, whether I understand them or not, and these principles form a body of knowledge that is both explanatory and predictive. Knowledge of the gods works the same way in the world I have created. There are no atheists there, nor even agnostics, only believers and madmen.
Gods tell stories. The myth is the key communicative tool between gods and mortals. So my world is full of stories, of myths that define both the gods and what is known of them, the relationship of gods and mortals, the natural world in which both gods and mortals take part, and the fundamental structure of creation and reality. Sometimes the gods tell stories, or mortals tell stories of the gods, merely to entertain their listeners. Sometimes mortals misunderstand the stories they are told, or believe stories that are not myths, i.e. stories that do not contain within themselves a key to real relationships or being. It was through the creation of the world's mythology that I was able to conquer the race problem to some extent, although it is still the concept with which I am least comfortable. In this world, the races are separate creations, each the possession and project of a single god, or small group of gods, not in opposition to other gods' creations, but as supplements to them in the creation of a vital, dynamic world. They are all necessary, all beloved, and all enmeshed in divine relationships, while their relationships with one another vary with local contexts of history and necessity.
The world is pagan. There are many gods, and belief in one is not a denial of the reality and power of the others, but may be merely situational, based on a present need, or seasonal, reflecting a particular festival or rite important to the community and its relationship to the many deities of the pantheon. As pagans, characters do not choose a single god and ignore all others, for that would be inviting trouble. For example, should a character choose the goddess of magic as their personal patron they would be very silly and very self-destructive if they took this to mean they need not, or should not, honor the goddess of agriculture. Magic is not going to get them bread or beer; the goddess of agriculture will. Choosing a god is like choosing a saint, in a way. Catholics do not deny the Trinity nor the other saints when they make a particular saint their patron; they merely focus their attention towards that saint while remaining fully aware of the others and the superiority in power and in reverence owed to the three.
As I take a break from writing this afternoon, and look over what I have completed so far, I am divided in my reaction. I think it is shaping up nicely. It presents what I had to say and remains fun to write and read. That is a victory. However, I also, viewing what remains to be done, miss the days when killing orcs sufficed for me, and the rest of this was incidental at most.