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…come entire worlds

26/09/2011

In my last post I talked about how I got started on the road to geekdom. It was only part of the story, however. The rest I’m saving for when I become famous and need to pad out an autobiography. In this post I’m going to talk about one of my other geek loves: world building.

It’s not very well-known that this blog was originally about designing your own campaign worlds for roleplaying games. Well, that’s not strictly true. I had created another blog, but I couldn’t get into a proper groove so it ended up being abandoned, and eventually cannibalised when this one came into being. To be more specific, it was about creating worlds using the rules found in Fantasy Craft.

But enough about that (for now). No doubt some of you are still confused about this whole world building thing, and why someone could ever consider it one of their geek loves. As you might have realised by now, I like putting things together. Be it a Lego kit, a squad of Space Marines, or a World War II airplane, it’s all fun to me. World building is the same basic idea, just on a grander scale and more conceptual in scope. There are a lot of things that can go into a ‘world’, and finding the right combination can sometimes be difficult. Too much or too little of one aspect and things just won’t feel right and throw other things out of balance.

I’ve always had a liking for well-built settings, and not just in roleplaying games. Movies like Star Wars and Bladerunner piqued my interest not just because of their fantastical nature (and Harrison Ford), but because it felt like there was something going on in the background. Little things that made the movies feel more alive. In Star Wars we have Han Solo casually mention the Kessel Run. In all likelihood, not even George Lucas himself knew what the Kessel Run was when he wrote that line, it was just something that sounded kewl and was a way for Solo to boast about his prowess as a pilot. There’s a quote from Bladerunner that is an even better example:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off
the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the
Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Time to die.”

For a movie that is entirely set in a futuristic Los Angeles cloaked in perpetual night, this is like a bolt out of the blue. Attack ships? C-beams? Tannhauser Gate? The movie doesn’t explain any of this. We know there are off world colonies and some flying cars, but that’s about it. It is not explained because it just is. People living in that city would likely know about these things and be familiar with them. Much like how we talk about email and websites, two things that would confuse anyone who lived and died before the 1950’s. What I want in a setting is verisimilitude – within reason. A setting must adhere to its own internal logic to sit right in my head. I don’t mind King Arther fighting dragons and witches, but have him ride to battle against Klingons and you’ve lost me.

Though I don't mind the idea of Klingon Shakespeare

When it comes to making my own settings, I normally start with an idea. A brief concept for the setting. Starting with that concept, I then think about features of the setting; the races present, geography, major historical events. Some of these will lead to other undecided features, building the initial concept out into a more complex web. Drawing on things I’ve read in books, both fiction and not, documentaries I’ve seen, and tidbits discovered on the internet, I start building the basic structure of the world. Filling in the rough details and making the big decisions.

Once the bones are in place, I move on to the finer details. How the races interact with each other, if at all. Religions. Who the ‘bad guys’ are. On top of this I put together a much more detailed history for the world, filling in as many blanks as possible, as well as altering earlier decisions to make them fit better into the evolving setting. These steps can take a while, and usually take place mostly in my head. I cram as much stuff in there I can make fit, shake it all about, and see what links up.

It’s around this point I need to make sure I start writing things down, otherwise I risk different worlds getting mixed up with each other. Easy as that sounds, it doesn’t often get done. Having a notebook on my person as often as possible certainly helps, especially if it’s big enough that I can keep all the related notes together.

Mine isn't signed by Hitler, however.

Ultimately, most of these settings don’t appear anywhere other than in my head or a notebook, but that is something I’m hoping to change soon. Maybe that world building blog will see the light of day after all.

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