World Building: Who Lives Here?

Whenever I get on the topic of world building, inevitably Tolkien comes up.  It makes sense.  Middle-earth is not our world (even if he meant it as a mythic precursor to our world); Tolkien wove it from the stuff of mythology and linguistics.  And usually, when I’m talking world building, I’m talking world building for a tabletop RPG.  Though roleplaying games come in all flavors these days, it used to come in just one: D&D.  And if anything ever nestled down against the breast of Tolkien’s material, laid down parasitic roots, and sucked it dry, it was D&D.

What I’m specifically referring to is the prevalence of the “standard fantasy races:” elves, dwarves, orcs, halflings.  You get the idea.  And you know them.  You know them inside and out.  Because Tolkien gave them their present form, and D&D beat the daylights out of their corpses.  Since then, every major fantasy… thing… has relied on them, from Terry Brooks’ Shannara books to World of Warcraft’s original lineup of playable races (with some additions such as the Tauren)—  they draw mainly from the framework left by Tolkien.  Largely these “races” (and truly, they are races, because in many game systems and in many stories, they can interbreed) are the go-to toys to fill the sandbox.  You expect them: elves are unknowably high culture and at the same time nature oriented, untainted by the sins of base humans; dwarves are solid, traditional, makers of fine things, and their ancestry goes back and back.  Through their use, they have become tired hangers on which to place our ideas of the fantastical like an old coat.

At one point, even these visions of elves and dwarves and orcs and halflings were new.  But they came from somewhere, they were formed over time, and there was a source for their material.  Tolkien’s inspiration for these were born of his study of philology.  By his own admission, his love of language was the foundation for all of Middle-Earth (Shippey, 1983: 19).  This study of words, tracing their origins and cross-pollinations, their formations over time leads directly to tales—  not just histories, but mythologies and hero legends too.  Right to the gates of Faerie.

It’s clear that Tolkien bent and shaped and breathed life into elves and dwarves while holding in the other hand the stuff of older sources, fairytales and legends, by his treatment of the topic in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  In it, he discusses the difficulty in defining these stories, but more importantly, he discusses the act of invention itself.  By his own reasoning, he is the inventor here, though he has traced and borrowed and shared in these older ideas of the otherworldly.  Even before the close of his essay, he ruminates that consistency in fantasy is difficult to attain, because as one moves further away from the pattern of the world as it is, it becomes harder to strap together imagined worlds.

In other words, one of the things that makes a world compelling is the believability of its inhabitants.  Thus, in the context of Middle-Earth, elves and dwarves fit, are carved of the same earth that passes under Frodo’s feet— sprung from older philological sources, their very names and the histories of their languages deeply considered.  They belong, are ancient in their invented landscape even in the youth of their publication: Tolkien selected the plural and adjectival forms based on the formation of older English words (elf/elves/elven and dwarf/dwarves/dwarven) even after his publishers attempted to correct him (elfs/elfin, dwarfs/dwarfish) because these forms cemented the idea of the venerability of the creatures they described and their languages (Shippey, 43-44).  They are familiar in two senses, the linguistic and the folkloric.  That’s why they work.

This is also why when other worlds use these now standard races as plug-in inhabitants, the effect is so often flat.  Instead of rooting these fantastical beings into cultures that make internal sense, instead of building these races of the same soil they inhabit, instead of giving them a language, D&D abstracts their tongues (Common, Elven, Dwarven, Gnomish), and gives short generic and somewhat contradictory descriptions of their culture, ready made to fit any world.  This is why, at least to me, the elves of Shannara feel uncompelling, and the night elves of Kalimdor, though their architecture is consistent, are as hollow as the mesh and skin combination used to represent them on the screen.

This is the exact reason why I am loathe to scatter the worlds I invent with what amount to the empty exoskeletons of someone else’s research and imaginings.  They belong in the worlds built to hold their dreams.  That little archipelago? The people-creatures who live there are too big, too full of their own myths and memories to fill the molds of elves and dwarves.  Their breaths collectively smell of fish and olives when they speak.  All I have of them yet is the breath on which they speak.  Over these next weeks, they will take shape as they tell me things, as their mythologies are mined and modified from half-familiar things.  But I will not do them the disservice of air-dropping orcs and halflings on them.

Shippey, T. A. The Road to Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983

Effing Love Poems: A Matter of Faith

I don’t believe
in love at first sight.
I don’t believe in
love at all, or the rituals
of romance:
flowers, dinner, or candies wrapped
in foil and lace.
I believe,
in your hand on the small
of my back
the heat of your
breath on
my clavicle
as your head inclines
against my chest.
It is enough.
Ask me again tomorrow
and then
maybe I’ll tell you
I believe in the crooked
line of your teeth
the blue of your eyes.
It’s enough to 
believe in for now.
I don’t yet
but I can
believe in the
gap across the distance,
in the space between us.
I can believe in
two minds, unmeeting,
calling out over
the chasm.
I can believe in moments

Effing Love Poems

I like to pretend I don’t write love poems.  I like to pretend my poetry isn’t informed by the lives of those around me.  I like to pretend that poetry isn’t a thing of plasma and marrow and bile, that I don’t need it, because there isn’t any money in it.  Sure.  We pretend things all the time, like we’re happy with our jobs, or that tomorrow will be better.

I like to pretend I don’t write love poems.  But I will tell you a secret: there is a folder nestled deep among my other poems where I put all the love poems I write.  It’s called “Effing Love Poems.”  Not “Fucking Love Poems.”  “Effing Love Poems.”  Because I can’t even be serious with myself when I pretend to disdain love poems.

I like to pretend I don’t write love poems.  But I write love poems.  May I share my love poems with you?

World Building

There are places that don’t yet exist where stories happen.  And because stories by name and trade are most definitely my business, mapping these worlds becomes something in between the vital and the sacred.  

There are many ways to begin this kind of process.  Most often, I start with a single short story, which shines a flashlight on one part of the geography, unfolds one aspect of culture.  I have an anchor then.  A thought to return to in strange lands.
But when I’m creating a world for others to explore, through a game?  There has to be more detail from the start.  People go poking their noses into all kinds of things.  You can’t just rope off an area with caution tape and tell your players “you can’t go here yet, I’m not done making it.”  Well, you can.  Many video games stop you from going past the borders of the map, simply as a constraint to game size and detail.  It’s worse when something internal to an area is closed off for no believably explainable reason.  Blizzard did exactly that in World of Warcraft with Hyjal, which players couldn’t access except to exploit terrain or character spawning glitches.  It left the world feeling unsatisfying and incomplete.  There was a sense of glee in trying to explore places you “weren’t supposed to get to,” like the Ironforge Airport, which you could only see flying over one of the set “flight paths” for paid air transport, simply because the players were told through the rules of travel in the world, “you’re not supposed to be here.”  Since that time, with the revamping of the game, Blizzard has addressed many of World of Warcraft’s unfinished bits, but I’ve not come back to enjoy them.
Blizzard has always provided me with an example of “what not to do” in world building.  Not that everything they’ve done is wrong; there is much that they’ve done right in visually constructing localized landscapes that were at the same time alien, believable, and beautiful.  However, the lore and history that fills their world, Azeroth, feels as slap-dash and nonsensical as their “zone” placement and transitions.  Geography by variety, and history by committee.  Azeroth’s past reads like a history book from a century ago, listing great deeds by important people (and in this case imaginary gods and creatures), with very little space for the mundane.  It strikes me that the mundane in a history is what allows a player the space for their own narrative.
So when I begin building a world, I start with a map and let the geography tell me something about the people, like this:
It’s a bit of an archipelago.  I like archipelagos because I like sea travel.  So these people are going to be highly dependent on the sea.  They don’t have a lot of land, so that makes large scale farming an interesting proposition depending on the terrain of these islands, but it does not rule out livestock.
Then I fill in the names.  Sometimes they all come out similar, like in this case, which suggests to me the people of this area are all of one culture and speak the same language.  Either that, or the map maker  doesn’t care what the native populations call their lands, and the map maker’s culture thrives on travel and exploration– a future or present imperial power.  Here, I think the islanders share related languages and cultural notions.  I think that, despite their separate identities from each of their islands, they are more amenable to one another than to those from the mainland, who would then be viewed as outsiders.  A bit on the clannish side.  “Stay out of our fights and triumphs, you wouldn’t understand.”
From here, I have a framework.  From here, it’s beginning to remind me a bit of Greece.  I may use ancient Greece, Japan, Scotland, and Indonesia as examples, as ways of thinking about how those who live amid so many islands have related to one another in the past.  I still have to decide how close to this imagined world’s equator this dappling of islands lays, and I still have to review climate, current, wind, and plate tectonic information before the shape of these lands are finalized.  There is not going to be perfect precision here.  Just enough to make sense.  Just enough to not be a generic fantasy world map with little thought to why a desert is a desert.
It also has the feel of something only half-explored.  The mainland there?  It bleeds out into white space.  It’s unknown.  There are no road blocks saying “you can’t go here,” but there is an emptiness to be discovered.  If I started a game in this world right now, and my players wanted to go off in that direction, I would be creating the ground under their feet at this point, without a finish to the lands in that direction.  Less than desirable.  I have also to flesh out the remainder of this world, the placement of continents, the most likely points for cities.
But I have a start.  One that makes sense.  An imagined place that feels like a real place, waiting for people to fill it and tell their stories.
Which brings me to my real purpose: I want to run a game again.  I want to fill this world.  So I will be telling stories to help populate these maps.  I will be choosing a game system to govern the expected realities of its denizens.  The question is, do you want to come along for the ride?

A Congregation of Words in Silence

There are a few moments just before dawn, when everything is damped down and quiet.  I don’t often see those moments, but a few times a year it creeps up on me, when I’m camped at a burn, after raucous partying, after play fights with friends and long talks into the night, after the thud and thunder of the music has died away.  After the rush is over, and the bonfires have burned low, and everyone who is still awake is dragging themselves to sleep, not quite able to hop the fence into unconsciousness… that’s the hour where a kind of quiet and solitude lives, that sits like a soap bubble in my hair, and I fear to move too much— I might pop it.

This is also where the words live.  Not just any words, but the thick words, the juicy ones that lay next to one another in strips we take for verse.  This is where they rest before dispersing into the day.  This is where they gather.

And like I said, only a few times a year am I there to see them in this state, myself crisped around the edges from long wakeful hours.  You don’t catch the words here.  You don’t capture them.  No.  You sit with them, and maybe sing a few songs with them.  And then, with care and respect, you invite them along with you.  Usually, they’ll agree, even if your singing voice is terrible.

So that’s the hour you can find them, and only in the kind of quiet that follows the truly wild and uproarious.  And you can’t force them; no one forces a poem.  It comes out wrong.  But if you can learn to sit with the words in their own time, they’ll often come to you in yours.

Faithfulness, Thy Name Is Feline

The key was in the exact spot I’d asked Em to leave it, nowhere as obvious as under a mat (it would help if I had a mat), but still accessible if you knew where to look.  Being the one who had chosen the spot, I knew where to look.  I ended up knocking over my bicycle to retrieve it, even after setting down the suitcase and corduroy knapsack.  Once that clatter had been sounded, though, she knew.  Millie.  She began me-yowling at the door before I could even unlock it.

It hadn’t been a week.  Just a few days.  But a few days was too long for my fluff ball.  When the door lurched awkwardly open, she stood there, blinking up at me with her light-scrinched green eyes.  Unlike most days, she didn’t bolt to escape, the little Houdini-cat.  No.  She stood fast as I stepped over her, and then followed me as I set my bags down in the kitchen, trailed after me as I went to fetch the remainder of my luggage outside the door.
When I finally sat on the floor, treats in hand, she was all over me.  She went straight for my face, rubbing her cheek on mine.  I may as well not have been holding treats.  She pawed and petted and purred for a good five minutes before even noticing that it was her favorite chicken liver chunks I held out for her.  She took one, one, and bolted it before turning back around to head butt and nuzzle, as if afraid I’d disappear again.
That night, I flopped down on my bed to be treated to the rarest of all things: Millie curled herself into a fuzzy oval, little spoon to my big, and fell fast asleep.
Loyalty?  Yeah.  Don’t tell me about your dog.  My cat has him beat.