Archive for April, 2019

In this installment of my Worldbuilding series (if you are joining me late, you can start viewing the others here), I am going to address something that I love to do with WB-ing that is both random and designed: History.

Okay, I can hear the groaning out there, since history tends to be one of the least favorite subjects in school. I’m a nerd there, once again, as I just LOVE history and appreciate it more and more the older I get. But this is easy history, because you, as the writer, get to make it up.

One of the problems I first encountered with some awful stories—including ones I had written—is that the world is designed around the characters that I loved creating. While it makes sense, as you wouldn’t want to go placing a Feudal-Era Japanese Samurai in the middle of Depression-Era New York City, it sometimes gets out of hand in that the world is NOT providing enough conflict that really sharpens the characters.

Flat world* settings are tailored to the character, mostly to showcase the character’s abilities rather than revealing their weaknesses so that the character has something to surmount. Some of this is a very deliberate way of overpowering their character and turning them into uninteresting Mary Sues, because the author can’t bear to do any harm to their character. All writers are at least a little guilty of this as some point in their career, if not in every first draft.

So how do we get over this?

By introducing a little randomness, of course.

In the real world, we have almost no influence over our world (aside from decorating our homes, or helping out in our communities, etc.). We can’t wave our hands and have the entire political system go from being one of two-party power-mongerers preaching that they will be the ones to save you and instead victimizing everyone for the sake of votes into one that is truly run by the people, for the people. BUT… the latter is not nearly as interesting as the former for a source of conflict.

Which brings me to a rule I try to follow: When in doubt, make the world more brutal.

Most importantly, you want your world to feel “lived-in”.

Unless you are deliberately writing a story where the world only exists when your character is there, and doesn’t persist when he is not, then the world needs to be a “lived-in” place.

I’m going to use another video game as an illustration here. Many video games up until the 1990’s had a static, persistent world. When you showed up at the merchant’s, they happened to be open and they happened to be exactly where you needed them to be, ready to buy and sell to you no matter what time of day or night. The world revolved around you, the main character. Enter Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. For the first time in my memory, if you showed up at a certain time, the shops would be closed. The occupants wouldn’t just lock up, either, but follow their own routine of taking a walk, or going to the tavern, or slipping off discreetly with someone they shouldn’t have been sneaking off with. They had their own lives that went on whether you were hunting down that Belt of Speechcraft or not, and wouldn’t sell to you unless you came back the next day, during business hours. Bethesda’s title Morrowind (ES III) does this with its world-building, if not the characters (who were persistently in their same spot) but by the incredibly rich history unraveled by the presence of literally hundreds of books, stories from the characters themselves. Your character as a possible “Nerevarine”, would be a re-incarnation of the Ashlander’s hero, Indoril Nerevar, foretold to return and set things straight according to prophecy. In order to give that prophecy weight, it had to exist in a well-developed world, and boy did they ever get that right in Morrowind.

Anyway, back to that “randomness” – to keep the world I am creating from becoming too “me”, I use tables to randomize events. While there have been others of my own creation, one of my all-time favorite go-tos is AD&D’s Oriental Adventures book from back in the 80’s.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – Ninjas and Samurai, Oh My!

Inside, you’ll find a table of “Yearly Events”. The writers intended for this to be more of a way to drive a current campaign. However, I have adapted it in order to randomly get 10 or so historical events that helped to shape the culture or cultures I am creating. Selecting events that happened in the past is a way of introducing more conflict, but more importantly, giving the world you are creating a “lived-in” feel. The events as presented are vague enough to be tailored to virtually any world, not just the setting in the book, and also just enough world-building to give you a taste of what might have happened in your world’s past without filling in too many blanks while you’re writing to make the development of the story stale or too pre-structured. And they can be significant enough to stand in for pivotal historical events.

Generally, what I do is roll the dice about 10 times, and then pick at least one of the events to be that ‘pivotal’ moment in history, just as we in the Western world have Christ’s birth delineating us as AD and BC**. If I start with one event, I will roll a d20 for how far away from that pivotal year my characters are, and a d20 to reach backward from that moment. Then I scatter the events with some more random die rolls (it changes all the time, so it wouldn’t do any good to post my method here, unless you are REALLY interested).

In this way, I’ve come up with some rather good ones for stories I have written and am in the process of writing.

Hawkblood: Saint Lorico’s Decree. This one came from the entry “Legendary Hero”. At this point, Saint Lorico is a figure a little like Martin Luther and a little like Robinette Broadhead. Yeah, seriously. But not too deeply built, at least not yet. There’s also the possibility of a second one, much older.

Belly of the Beast: The Crossroads. So far, this moment has only been defined in my personal handbook on the stories of Ennid the Havok. (Note: while *I* know the pivotal date and the stretch of time between that and the time in which the story takes place, the characters do not. They don’t have to know. And neither does the reader…yet.)

Umbra: The Visitation of the Fallen Suns (Again, I know, but the characters don’t, not yet.)

 

Have you created any worlds where you threw in a history? Have you resisted the urge to use it as an info dump prologue? Do you know of any published works that DO throw in a history-of-their-world info dump? Please share in the comments below!

 

*as opposed to Flat Earth, which is a very weird movement to discredit science and convince people that the world really is flat and our solar system is heliocentric. I won’t glorify it by linking it here, and a little google-fu will find you more than enough material to make your day.

 **And, yes, I use Anno Domini and Before Christ and object to the rather stupid adoption of Common-Era and Before-Common-Era as a way to just erase Jesus Christ’s name from the calendar without changing anything else surrounding the computation. It’s petty, at best, especially since there’s nothing “Common” about the so-called CE. And the ones who wanted to change it to be based less on a spiritual figure and more on some shoddy cover-up/denial, they might as well change the names of the days of the week and months to erase that too, since the former are based on Norse gods and the latter on Roman gods and a mortal who was worshipped as a god.

This week I wanted to take a step back from the craft of worldbuilding and look at one of my favorite examples of what it can do for any story. I present: The Elder Scrolls.

The game series just celebrated its 25th anniversary and has gone through 6 full-blown, stand-alone games, some games not numbered in that timeline, various mobile device spin-offs and one huge MMO, there has been a LOT of development. If you’ve read my other blog posts, I may have mentioned that Morrowind, by far, is still my favorite, and that game came out in 2002, so only 8 years of development had been completed at that time, but…

According to Todd Howard (director and head producer at Bethesda Softworks), Patrick Stewart said, upon receiving the reference for the game’s character Emperor Uriel Septim VII: “I got the notes… Never in my life doing any role have I gotten such detailed notes and I loved it.”

First, let me clarify “development” here, as anyone who works with computer systems/games/etc. realizes this word really means to build up the game by creating its functionality, its mechanics, etc. In the case of the Elder Scrolls, it wasn’t just development in this sense, but also a real creation of new things, with ways every piece interacts in the world.

In ESIII: Morrowind, they really knocked the ball out of the park with Alchemy. To make the skill interesting, there had to be ingredients. Ingredients come from varied sources, and this is where the worldbuilding got interesting—they created (intentionally or not) a kind of ecology to support the harvestables within the world. A lot of plants and fungi exist around the massive province of Vvardenfell, with parts to pick that have certain beneficial or detracting effects when eaten or put into potions. But there are also creatures, not to kill just because they attack you (as just about everything does in most of these games) but to gather their parts as ingredients as well. ESIV: Oblivion and ESV: Skyrim would continue this practice, and Skyrim introduced Blacksmithing which enabled the player to build and furnish their own houses, further using the harvestable ingredients. But it goes beyond that. Plants weren’t just ever-present. Players had to find them (which was a major quest in Oblivion and in Skyrim) in their native or preferred habitat, or sometimes in pots around the area of the world which each game covers.

And that’s just the biology.

Its history is rich as well. There are a massive number of in-game books, and just stopping to read some of them not only confers skill points but also a great deal of history and culture developed for the game. Fiction is represented by stories like A Dance in Fire and Poison Song, both of which span multiple volumes. Non-Fiction includes topics like The Real Barenziah, Buoyant Armigers: The Swords of Vivec, The Oblivion Crisis, written, of course, after Oblivion. There are even books of riddles (Red Book of Riddles, Yellow Book of Riddles) and children’s books were introduced in Elder Scrolls Online (Brave Little Shalk). There’s also one tongue-in-cheek book, ABCs for Barbarians. You can check out an overview of them here. One of my personal favorites is the Lusty Argonian Maid, not for its content but for the way in which it’s been inserted into the world. At the time of Morrowind, it was supposedly written by Crassus Curio, a pretty colorful Imperial aligned with House Hlaalu. It was apparently a coveted classic by the time of Skyrim (reference cave of books), but in ESO is claimed to have been a much older work (implying that Curio took the story as his own, as the events of ESO is 800 years before he lived – not to mention that the people of Tamriel’s minds haven’t gotten any cleaner in the 1000+ years, hehehehe).

Let’s not forget some other cultural aspects – whole pantheons of gods and god-like beings were created to be worshipped, shunned, fought over, like the Nine Divines and the Daedra, the latter of which lend their dark shapes to the already very surreal landscape of Vvardenfell. The characters names illustrate the differences in their cultures, with Argonian names such as “Scales-Like-Gold” or Orc names, Gruf gro-Bargh or Hurna gra-Rohk, denoting male and female respectively. Imperials have befittingly Roman-sounding names (like Crassus Curio mentioned above, or Caius Cosades – the developers must have had a thing about using the initials CC to make the weird old guys in the game…). There’s even astrology with its own system (which has sadly gone by the wayside after Oblivion), from which your character can pick the star under which they are born, be they Steed, or the Tower.

I could go on. Really, I could. But you should experience the games for themselves, since most if not all are still available in one way or the other (GOG.com, or Steam, with tons of mods for them on Nexus). Or read here, if you’re not really a gamer, but still want to get the experience of an expansive world.

Last week, I admitted that I am a full-blown world-building junkie. That post included my influences and some of the more valuable references I like to use (although I am always looking for more, so if you know of any, please let me–and my readers–know!). You can check it out here.

This week, I want to go over what I usually use as my “second step” to building the world: names.

To create names, you need LANGUAGE.

Just as much as building worlds, I love languages. I speak several well, and can read/translate a few more, so the next step was actually building one of my own. What I USED to do was just create a vocabulary, and used Excel spreadsheets to make dictionaries (I may even still have some of those, although that was several computer-hardware-iterations ago). I don’t recall exactly how I got to use the class I use now, but I somehow think it was tied into Karen Traviss’ research on her novels about the Mandalorians (what Boba Fett is supposed to be) and creating a language for the Mandalorians. If not, I apologize, but sending you on the proverbial wild-goose-chase is not what I intended. However I managed to get there, I found Holly Lisle’s Create a Language Clinic to be an awesome resource for going even deeper into language creation. (Disclaimer: if you click on that link and end up purchasing a copy of the clinic for yourself, I will get some compensated. But I recommend it even if you navigate away and find it on your own!).

So why all that fuss, you may ask?

Well, before I start giving anything on my map a name, I like to have the “available” characters (sounds) of the language in place. It keeps it pretty consistent, like a real place, which is essential to lending it any kind of credibility.

You know, unlike this unpronounceable garbage:

Mister Mxyzptlk

So I don’t end up with something like that, I work through some of the basic exercises until I get the sounds, consonant clusters, and eliminate at least one vowel from “availability”. I don’t go in neck-deep unless I just want to build a language. I don’t need–and don’t recommend– Tolkien-esque language creation. (But I recommend The Silmarillion if you want to see what a master at work.) Then I create a bunch of syllables from those words, and using the pool of syllables, start to build words and conventions for the language, kind of like the way “burg” in German denotes a town/city of some sort. Holly’s clinic (see link and disclaimer above) walks you through this. (That’s only the beginning of her book on creating a language. She takes you thoroughly through everything you ever loved (or hated) about English grammar classes in school.)

Does it preclude me from creating poetic names? Not at all – I just “translate” them. One example is that for one novel I have written (first draft, percolating in the background while I am working through the “How to Write a Novel” class), I had a place I called “Hummingbird Ridge” on my pre-language go-around. After I created the language that would include/refer to that region, I gave it a name in the language that the culture interpreted as “bee-bird ridge”. So while I wasn’t sure if I even wanted a hummingbird-type creature in my story to make it a reference, I ended up not only with the name for a creature that was essentially the same, but also a reason for it to have been named that. You can blame that on my muse.

I also like to refer to existing cultures to get a “feel” for their language and its construct, and also its concepts. But that, my friends, is a subject for next week’s blog.

So what references have you encountered? Maybe you threw a dart at a world map to get an idea for how a language would sound, or spun and globe and stopped it with a jab of the index finger? Maybe you just did a random search on Google or Bing or whatever search engine you prefer and ended up in a very weird spot.

Let us know below!

Normally I don’t post on Mondays, but I really wanted to get this one out, for two reasons. The first one is this:

Holly Lisle’s How To Write a Novel class is discounted for one week only (1 APR-8 APR 2019). After that week, the price goes up and doesn’t come down, nor does she offer sales later on. If you buy now, you get a rough cut of the class, but any updates are forever FREE afterward. I’ve used her classes before, am working my way through this one now, and love the way she teaches. It’s practical with real exercises, not that theory/feely/zen stuff pushed by a lot of so-called writers. If you were considering taking a class like this, do it now. Disclaimer: I recommend it because I use it, but if you click the link below and purchase the class I will get some compensation.

How to Write a Novel – by Holly Lisle

 

The second reason is ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE.

Last week, the Elder Scrolls series of games turned 25. Now, I am old enough to remember when Arena came out, even though I didn’t have my computer with me at the time to play it (I was on active duty then, far from home). Of course the cover of Computer Gaming World garnered a LOT of attention for the title. I wonder why…I’m guessing that at least one of my brothers still has his copy.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, Bethesda released a free copy of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Game of the Year Edition. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. While I still have my old copy that I got when it was on the shelves(!!!), some of the younger members of my family who also love the Elder Scrolls (Skyrim) were able to download it.

See? I even have my well-worn, tabbed copy of the strategy guide, which I dug out in order to play it through again.

Also free was Elder Scrolls Online this weekend, so I decided to take the plunge (so to speak) and see what all the fuss was about.

I was underwhelmed.

Now, Morrowind is still my absolute favorite of all of the titles. When it was released, I picked it up thinking, “Hey, this will be fun.” I installed this little gem not expecting anything more than to be entertained with a new RPG.

No words can describe how it blew me away. The first beats of Jeremy Soule’s magnificent somber, soulful theme tugged at me like no other music for a video game had, capturing the essence of the character’s experiences and the otherworldliness of the setting (and still gives me the shivers – it’s far better than Oblivion’s “marching” version and Skyrim’s “war-chant” variation).

Then I got to see the world – floored again. No trees, all mushrooms! I’m something of a novice mycologist (a “fun-gal”, if you will). Virtually all of the creatures are reptilian (and probably another reason the Dunmer so easily turn Argonians into slaves, thinking them of little higher thinking capacity than their kagouti or guar “cousins”). It was true fantasy, a weird, impossible world that no other game, let alone a first-person role-playing-game got close to emulating. The bizarre architecture where the Imperial Forts are the ones that feel very out of place, the crazy, twisting Telvanni towers, the volcanic ashen lands. Swamps, mines with “glass” and “ebony”. You could LEVITATE – that’s right. Levitate. And you had to, in those towers, but if you were good at enchanting you could add it to anything (you could also do it with the tool…) and cross the whole of Vvardenfel from the air. Just watch out for those face-munching cliff racers. Even Bethesda couldn’t recreate that novel weirdness until the Shivering Isles expansion of Oblivion. The caves under the north in Skyrim start to head that way again, the glowing fungi world with the crimson Nirnroot (it’s name escapes me at the moment). We get a real dose – a real tease, actually – with the Dragonborn expansion and a trip to Solstheim, where some of the fallout from trouble at the Red Mountain made its way over to the Nord-occupied island.

And the story! You could, of course, play it any way you liked, but if you go through the main storyline, it feels like you’re experiencing a novel. Humble beginnings, a child born at a certain time of uncertain parents, to discover, and prove, and manifest as the true hero of the story. (Don’t even get to do that in Oblivion, as Martin is the hero and you’re just a tagalong, and in Skyrim, well, everyone is more annoying–oooh, Dragonborn!– than that Arena superfan from Oblivion).

In short (or long, as the case here), Morrowind is an almost insurmountable masterpiece.

I went into ESO with one major goal – wanting to experience Vvardenfell the way I experienced it all those years ago. Boy, was I disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong–the world of ESO is STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL (no, I am not apologizing for all caps). But it is compressed. Like a Reader’s Digest version of MW’s Vvardenfell. And it’s not just my memory expanding on me, because I did a quick play-through of getting to Caius Cosades just to test against it, in case it was my old age. Getting from Seyda Neen to Balmora was a trek, and a dangerous one at that. At any moment, one of those horrid little kwama foragers could jump out at you, or a cliff racer swoop in ready to eat your face. There was real danger, real tension that the trip you were making might be your last, before it even begun. Unless you decided to hop in a Silt Strider and make the trip more safely. In ESO it was like, “Head on the path north from Seyda Neen and… oh, there’s Balmora. Um… yay.” Same for Vivec City. And, if along the way, an alit or nix hound happened to attack you, well, dozens of heroes would just by you and hack/slash, no more critter. Yay. Not. There was a heavy dose of isolation in Morrowind that made the world so wonderful. I get that the Vvardenfell of MW was the entire game, and this one is part of a much larger world, but compressing an already-extant world into a peanut shell ruined that part for me.

You get to experience it fresh, clean. Not the case with ESO, where everyone is a hero, running around with incongruous names, on mounts that don’t look like they belong in the universe of Elder Scrolls let alone on Vvardenfell (with the exception of the guars, who are awesome looking mounts!). All followed by a bunch of nonsensical pets, which only adds to the off-putting impression. To be “fair”, Bethesda seemed to get away from what made their games awesome with each iteration after MW.

In MW, you get to slowly unravel your part in the world. There’s a cryptic dream warning from someone you only much later learn is Azura. In ESO, you get slammed with the knowledge that a Daedric Prince is using you. In MW, you don’t get to meet Vivec until much later in the game. In ESO, you’re chatting like pals after a few short jaunts here and there to serve him (at least there’s the satisfaction that, in MW, you get to end the god-poseur. Gratifying).

The other thing that really bothered me was the “prettification” of the characters. I LOVE character creation, especially when there are a whole bunch of sliders to really tweak the look and make them unique. Morrowind had none of that – you selected a race, a gender, a hairstyle and a face. Oblivion had the sliders, but everyone looked like bloated ticks, no matter what you tweaked (I heard that there were mods that improved the look but I never used them). Skyrim did it right and did it wrong – lots of sliders, but the man races all looked alike as did the mer races. I couldn’t tell a Bosmer from an Altmer, despite them being unmistakable in the previous titles. At least in Skyrim, every last one of them looked like they had a hard life, which is realistic. In ESO, everyone is a supermodel version of themselves. Sure, there are some scars and bits of other physical detractors you can add but the orc females are like idealized elves with green skin paint and stick-in tusks. It’s laughable. As if someone ugly can’t possibly be heroic.

And before you accuse me of being a hater, first, shut it. This is my opinion, and I am fully aware that ESO is meant to attract the lowest-common-denominator paying players, and builds in the mass appeal with all of the ridiculous things that people who used to flock to WoW and other games like it are expecting. Players that just hack and slash in the world ruin the FEEL that made that world wonderful in the first place. Was it fun? Yes, but not in any way that made Morrowind wonderful, or even Oblivion or Skyrim great games. I think I will stick with single-player games.

Now, I am just waiting for Bethesda to recognize that Morrowind is such a masterpiece that all it really needs is a new-graphics/physics overhaul, with maybe a few tweaks to bring the character/inventory interface up to speed. Oh, wait, Bethesda’s not, but someone else is… TESRenewal.com

Hurry up, guys. This gal’s getting old!