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

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?

The Hard Sell

I hate shopping malls. I really do. Call me the anti-girl, and you’d be right. Whenever I set foot in one of these unholy places, I do what any sensible person would do: run for the cover the shop I’m there to visit.

Now, no matter where one parks, the distance between the mall entrance and one’s goal can be described as Route X. Sadly, as I was in no mood to deal with the twisting labyrinth of the shopping mall’s parking lot, with its variable speed limits, oddly placed stop signs, and the new sheriff’s department outpost, I opted to park quickly, and take my chances with a long Route X. Entering by an anchor store, my course took me past the stinking pit of the bath goods store, any number of mid-mall kiosks situated like hurdles, their attendants trying to lure me into a sale with, “hey, you look familiar!” and finally the burnt-espresso horror of our local international coffee giant waystation. All of this to get to the Game Stop, the one beacon of semi-geekdom in a vast sea of plastic popular culture.

But even that shroud of safety was to evaporate: Monday night, 10pm, was the release of the latest title in the Call of Duty line, and I, the lowly gamer grrrl, had forgotten. Silly me, first person shooters trump all other titles. And you know me, always late to the game, I was looking for the recently released Dragon Age: Origins. So last week, I tell you. The store was cramped, the little boys shoving and slavering like a pack of rowdy hyenas. I could not, for the life of me, get the attention of any of the clerks. Too busy answering questions and trying to control the crowd, each would make eye contact, start to speak to me, even, before having to deal with the next brewing crisis. I left, dejected, into the stark weird sterility of my Route X.

The kiosk-keepers were hungry that night. No shopping bag in hand, coming back the same way I had entered, they scented blood, thought easy prey. I passed by the one who had called out to me, “hey, you look familiar!” He stepped up to me, complimented my hat. Floppy leather patchwork, that hat has been my traveling companion for some years now. Disarmed, flattered, I listened.

Fool! He swept me into a conversation, asked my name, shook my hand, and… cringed. It was my nail polish, he said. Chipped black, I could see what he meant—culturally a no-no, but my tattered finger paint was intentional. An affectation, like the floppy hat, the sun dress worn with jeans, and the knee-length fitted jacket. Part of the costume. Part of the image of a gamer-grrrl you could picture at a cigar shop puffing on something hand-rolled in Ybor, sipping coffee, and talking politics. It’s all me, but it isn’t.

“May I show you something,” he said, a statement, leading me by the hand he still grasped. Out came the nail buffer. “This is no ordinary buffer,” he began to work on my thumbnail right away. “I am removing the ridges from your nail, and this part, this is the ordinary part,” he said working it back and forth expertly over my nail. “Now, this is the magic– this is silk!” He flipped the four-sided buffer, and began working that. “You have to promise me you won’t scream when you see this,” he said, with a wink.

When people say something like that to you, do you brace for the worst?

“I promise?” I ventured, leery. The buffer had begun to squeak across my thumb.

“This silk,” he said, “this silk is bringing out your natural oils. This is naturally you. People ask me why this won’t go away, like a French manicure. It is because this isn’t chemicals, this is you.”

“Won’t go away?”

“No, it won’t go away. Two weeks. The nail grows, so this lasts two weeks.”

He pulled the buffer away to reveal– my thumbnail, mirror bright. It shone like silvered glass. I am proud of myself; I did not scream. I almost took off my hat and beat him. My pretty thumbnail, upon which I had worked so hard with toothpick and cotton swab to get just the right amount of chipped distress, was there scintillating in the fluorescent mall lights like a cheap plastic consumable.

The sneers of horror, shock, and disgust warred on my face as he continued his pitch, but I wasn’t listening. Product placed in my hand, I shoved it back, “No thanks.” Route X still loomed.

“I still like your hat, I’ll buy it from you,” he offered. I pulled the crowd closed behind me like a heavy winter coat.

Dragon Age: Origins I found at a Wally-World, and though I hate its corporate corpulence, bless it, and its workers, who understood my quest, every last blessed one, all women, like me, who complained of FPSs.

Four days later, though the game is good, I’ve not stopped twitching. My thumbnail is still shiny, damn him.

The Unfortunates

Really, the only unfortunate parties here are my data. I mistreated them so. You, see, my hard drive failed. Honestly, it was to be expected. I can’t complain. It served me long and well, since 2002. A 40 gig drive, it was little and fierce, uncomplaining as it held safe all my files, photos to save games. It valiantly called forth the information to render exotic locations for me to explore, from the foyadas of Vvardenfell to the lively desolace of the Capitol Wasteland; from the bustling streets of Tarant to the red rock desert of Durotar. All of these places were just a mouse-click away, thanks to the efforts of my late little C drive, Gamgee. May he rest in peace.

Where does that leave me? With my tales and verse all backed up, I’ve lost only images, music, and my progress in pixelated universes. It’s strange how relieving that word “only” is. Game worlds can be retrod. Pictures, well, new ones can be taken. Music hurts more, but much of it can be re-ripped from my CDs kept safe and pristine. My words, though– those are priceless to me, no matter how bad, rough, or crude. Blocky text and poor grammar can be reworked, but the spark of a particular phrase, once extinguished, is gone forever. In my writing folder are the clumsy typings of a little girl, kept not as a precious memory, but as rich ugly ore from which I still draw, smelting, refining, forging something new. To know that my work, my “real” work, is safe… that gives me a little room to be flippant.

The internet, my old friend, presents a slightly different problem. Without a box from which to access it, I’m stealing net time from gracious friends. For now, I’m in limbo… little as it matters this weekend. I won’t need to be internetting from Necronomicon. You can, however, expect delighted ramblings upon my return.

Falling in Love

With Fallout 3, specifically. Having been a fan of the original Fallout, I had designed (but never implemented) a Vault 13 jumpsuit costume for the Post-Apocalyptic themed Graduation Palm Court Party some years ago. I’m kind of hardcore for someone whose computer always seemed to suffer from severe (often explosive) malfunction before she could ever complete the game.

I have to say, in the week and a half since Fallout 3’s release, I’ve been lapping it up. I had been reservedly excited about the game. I mean, I am always leery of sequels. To anything, really (yes I am dreading the Dark Crystal sequel like a pap smear). Usually, they suck. And not just a little bit— they often drag out the corpse of their beloved predecessor, defecate upon it, take a leak on it for good measure, and then coat it in gasoline, light it up, and dance drunkenly upon it. With Interplay’s closing, and Bethesda’s purchasing of the rights, I feared it would be too much like Oblivion to really be a Fallout game, especially using the same engine and utilizing a first person perspective. I mean, the isometric view presented in Fallout became for me synonymous with the RPG genre. So what’s a gal to do?

Well, I could always claim poverty, and stick my head in the sand like I did for the abomination known as D&D 4th ed. In that particular case, it was a wise decision. This time, trusting Bethesda, I stuck my pinky toe in. And now I am as addicted to the game as my character is to Jet.

A lot of the humor of the original Fallout was stripped away, and this incarnation is gritter than a butt-scoot on the beach. Dialogue and stories are the things that suck me into a game, and even if the gameplay is difficult, so long as there are enough delicious twists, I’m a happy gamer. Needless to say, I was surprised and delighted by the use of profanity in the game– I side firmly with the late George Carlin on this one. Just enough to seem realistic. Just enough for it to feel “right.” The dialogue glows, though, and not from mutational dose radiation exposure. With a number of quests and characters, it adjusts in minor ways. Harden Simms speaks differently of his dad if his father dies (he fell off the walkway and splatted in my game), and Three Dog’s quest reward and dialogue adjusts if you find yourself a step ahead of his information. I also think I’m in love with Moira.

Because I’m a little bespectacled academic at heart, I do have concerns and reservations about the songs selected for GNR. “Butcher Pete” is entertaining in the context of the game, but what is being sung about is specifically the murder and mutilation of women. It feels really wrong blowing off a female raider’s arm by hitting her frag grenade with that playing in the background and knowing that there are in fact people out there who actually hold women in such low regard. It literally and viscerally reminds of a coffee shop owner I had known who murdered his wife before killing himself. It was chilling to walk by the closed storefront of the shop after that had happened, and with that in mind, combining the contexts of the song independently, the song within the game, and then the game independent of the song, add up to some grim food for thought. On the other hand, it has to be one of the catchiest recordings in the game. On the upside, the inclusion of Billie Holiday’s recording of “Crazy, He Calls Me” sent me squealing through the house delightedly crowing, “Come listen to what they included! Come listen!” grabbing boyfriend and roommate by the arm much to their mystification.

On the down side, you can’t name your saves. There is nothing more annoying to the person who must compulsively create a million characters than the inability to title a save WITH THE CHARACTER’S NAME. Hells, Bethesda, fix that already, please? It was a pain in Oblivion, it’s a pain here. The usual map holes and occasional crashes seem to be the biggest inhibitors to my enjoyment of the game right now, which doesn’t amount to much. Overall, this game is solid, and with the ability to go good or evil and the myriad dialogue options, I think after this go around, I’m going to have to create a truly evil snake of a character.

With that, I think I should be off to go raid the RobCo factory. Fucking robots. This quest is going to be like extracting a blood-hemorrhaging tooth through the back of the skull. My skull. Because robots don’t have skulls. But the fact that I still want to do this, that’s the mark of a truly excellent game.

A quick update: it seems I was mistaken about the nature to my RobCo visit. It was far less painful than originally anticipated… and mole rats go splook so satisfyingly!

The Party’s Pony I Am Not

I am not quite a turtle. I have had my head under a rock, but then again, when a new edition comes out of your favorite game systems, wouldn’t you go hide in the sand? I would. I always do, a least for a little while. It happened with White Wolf’s World of Darkness 2, and I was slow to adopt, yes, but the system has merit, as does the setting. I always eventually poke my head out, sniff the new binding, peruse the shiny new books, and settle myself in to find a gaming group. I am referring, here now, to the June release of Wizards of the Coast’s new 4th edition of D&D. I can say I don’t like the system; the books are very dry and video-gamy in their descriptions, which doesn’t suit a game which is in large part based one one’s imagination.

But now that I’ve finally made it out to the bookstore a couple of nights in a row and poured over the pages of these new tomes, I slowly realized something else was bothering me about them. It wasn’t the simplified pages reading like lists, no, that observation hit me straight off… mainly because I was reading for system. No, the something of which I speak was the artwork. Passing enough of these pages trying to figure out why they decided to limit skills so strictly by class, I realized I was flipping through page after page of cleavage, accentuated female figures, and female faces that screamed sex.

Anyone familiar with the history of fantasy art as a genre has probably seen Boris Vallejo prints, has likely experienced the visual of the chain mail bikini, and has almost undoubtedly stumbled upon an (all to common) image of a naked lady with a sword. I begin to wonder if she’s the same naked lady in every picture, just a different dye job and a different sword. I wonder if the pay is good, to be a model for naked sword lady pictures.

D&D was no stranger to this stereotype. I remember clearly the images in the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook, text printed in black and blue, with the occasional full-color, full-page picture plate. Rarely were women depicted. When they were, there was the (near) naked sword lady, but more often, her spell-slinging cousin was portrayed… also wearing next to nothing. There was one picture plate in all that which looked quite different. One of the earliest in the book, it depicted the carcass of a small dragon, strung up by its legs, surrounded by a party of adventurers. There were more men than women portrayed in that group, but the thing which made me stare at that picture until it was burned into my soul, the thing about that image which kept me from slamming the book closed and never learning the rules at all, the thing of it was that the women in that picture plate were fully armored, and there was no trace of sexuality about them. They had just helped down that dragon, for goodness sake! Who on earth was going to look “sexy” after that? But here these women were, looking tough, rugged, and above all else, competent, and I wondered to myself why weren’t there more portraits like these?

3rd edition D&D answered that a little. There were suddenly more and more women painted, drawn, and rendered like people who had just gotten back from a long day’s ruin-raiding rather than a night as a Las Vegas show girl– not that there’s anything wrong with being a show girl, but the job description includes being a girl for show. Last time I checked, being a adventurer in a D&D campaign did not include that kind of language in the list of skills and specializations required of female PCs. But here they were, a growing number of fully clothed women portrayed in D&D books. Correspondingly, there were more and more scantily clad men, the kind without the huge rippling muscles, the kind that set this woman’s heart a-flutter. It wasn’t a perfect balance by a long shot, but as nods at inclusion go, it went a long way.

So what to do with 4th edition now? The cover art for the Player’s Handbook is only the tip of the iceberg. There is more cleavage within. The men are thoroughly muscled. The women are petite. There are dwarf boobs. There is a plate mail bra on a female dragon. And through all of this ogle fodder, I kept thinking, “Where are the images of the characters I might like to play?” I could only find one. In the section on player character races, there is one fully armored halfling woman, dark skin, locked in a dual-wielding death dance with some foe standing where the viewer is.

Now, this doesn’t even get into the issue of the term “race” in a fantasy setting, or the fact that this halfling is the only non-white person portrayed– which are all glaring problems with every edition of D&D I’ve encountered. With the release of 4th edition, they’ve told me something with big, bold brush strokes. Wizards of the Coast told me that I don’t matter. That I, as a female gamer, don’t have tastes, don’t bear marketing-to, and in fact, don’t exist. Black, Latino/a, Asian, Native American/First Nations gamers all don’t exist either. We’re all mythical. Like gaymers. And lesbians in general. Is it really so much to ask for a few images that actually look like the people I know, some pictures of competent-looking women, and a Hennet thrown in for good measure (sexiest sorceror ever)?

But I keep returning to this one fact that stealthed up on me like a rogue with a sap: in a whole book about roleplaying in a fantasy universe, there was only one image I could find of a woman after whom I’d like to pattern my own character. At least in that 2nd edition picture plate, there were two women standing there.

Returning from the Gates of Faery, Via the Undermountain Road

Maybe it’s a sign of the times or the popularity of science fiction and fantasy that I can say this without blushing or apology or trying to save face, but I love conventions. They are strange beasts. They are almost a time between times, and a place between places. They are like stepping for a few moments out of reality and into a place where the folk there are a lot more like you… or a lot more like the caricatures you hope never to become. That is, if you’re the type to go to conventions.

For me, this last con was a momentous one. This con represented the first time I ever stepped into the filk room. Filk isn’t a genre of music that can be pinned down easily at all– a form of folk music based around science fiction? Nah. It is more of a community unto itself, and it’s something that until now, I’ve actively avoided. No, it wasn’t because the activity would drag me into new depths of geekery. I’m already a LARPer, a tabletop gamer, a lover of retro video games (especially old RPGs); I’m a not-quite-a-comic-book-junkie-but-getting-there. But above all, my crowning achievement of geekdom was that I was a know-it-allish kid to whom my father attempted to append his own childhood moniker of Professor Goosefarts… only Jr. Luckily for me, it didn’t stick. And you know, it didn’t hurt the geek quotient that I had also been damned good at math.

So you can see, it wasn’t a fear of further geekery that kept my pun-loving self away from the filk room at cons. It was something more complex, and something a lot less pleasant. At my first con, I met a man that I agreed to date. There was something unwholesome about him, that I rather liked because it pissed off a rather controlling boy I used to date. And rather than telling the controlling boy to piss off, I had to find another way to undermine his “authority” in my life. It took me years to see that these notions are the tools of one who is far too used to being other people’s punching bag, that it was a form of passive-aggression, that it was a quiet resistance. There is a litany–and perhaps this is not the place for litanies–of things this man took from me, piece by piece, that I have had to win back for myself, Ishtar at the gates of the underworld.

It was this man that first introduced me to filk. Every time I was invited among the filkers, I was afraid of his shadow in the room. At my home con, it became a game of two cats bristling at the other’s approach. We had to share the LARPs, but the anime room was mine, and the filk room his.

It took over a thousand miles and a convention in New York for me to accept a friend’s invitation to sit and listen to her filking. It wasn’t a test of will to stay the half-hour that I did, lapping up songs with the whole sun shining through my smile, singing along and laughing in familiarity and delight. It was more a feeling of stolen cookies or maybe something far more precious clutched close to the heart. It warmed me on the road up and out and all the way home, finally free of the gates underhill.