This is how I Role: A Whole New World
A good fictional world is an incredibly fun thing to get lost in. It powers the realism of a compelling story, it can keep a consumer coming through aesthetic alone, and it’s one of the most important elements of immersion. In games of all sorts, a good, explorable world can be a good game all by itself.
The process of creating a fictional world is called world building. It’s something that most fantasy writers have to do, even when writing modern fantasy: there’s always a different element to those worlds that requires a creative touch. Harry Potter had its “wizarding world”, which included its own societies, places, creatures, money, and even languages, hidden away from the world of non-magical people, and even its representation of our world was altered to accommodate that secret. One of the most famously recognized fictional worlds is the one featured in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It has a deep and complete mythology, languages Tolkien actually created, maps and time lines, genealogies… His world is the subject of academic study and is the backbone of many of his books and many works of fiction by third parties. A complete, detailed, and consistent world can bring such power and immersion to fiction that one’s work can be considered a classic.
My favorite fictional world is the world of Myst. Actually, that’s not an apt description, since the story of Myst is set in multiple worlds, most created by describing them in books. There is an art and a magic behind their creation. Smaller books are written that can be used to travel to these worlds, written specifically to create a magical link between the descriptive book and this linking book. These worlds are created with their own climates, their own wildlife, their own societies. From an aesthetic standpoint, they are all both visually stunning and quite believable. From a world building perspective this world is kind of strange; you don’t have to deal with huge continents, complex economies or a lot of history, but in order to make each world engaging they have to be detailed and interesting, and draw you in to the heart of the world.
Another one of my favorite settings is the one featured in The Legend of Korra, which is set in a world of rapid technological and cultural advancement after almost a century of war and division. After the war ended, the nations of the world decided to form a single United Republic of Nations. The setting is a modernized fantasy, a sort of Asian steampunk. It’s interesting to see how magic can affect technological advancement, for instance how the magical manipulation of water or fire can be used to drive steam powered vehicles, rather than using conventional methods of fuel. What magic replaces technological advancement, and what technological advancement exists only because of magic?
In a world where spirits, a force of nature moving through the world, interacting with it, remembering things and people and sharing their memories, what kinds of technology would spring out? What kind of tests and research would be done on spirits? Philosophers and their sought-after magic stones would exist, but just like the alchemists of the past they would lend themselves to scientific inquiry of the magic that they see everywhere. This type of magician, the Philosophers, rely on confirmed methods and spells because those tend to be the most predictable and reliable. Witches, on the other hand, will call upon old methods, seek out old tomes and treasures and pry open the old, forgotten, dangerous and unpredictable magics within. Their craft is at times uncontrollable, and very much affected by emotions and deeper, unnoticed feelings. Sometimes spirits will form such a strong association with each other, or a single spirit will accrue so much knowledge and power, that they will gain consciousnesses and thoughts of their own. Various churches and temples will be raised in their honor, and people will worship them; Clerics or Priests or the like will beseech these gods for their blessing. Gods usually arise on their own, but often false gods have risen from the collective imagination of the people who worship them. These false gods are unstable, dangerous abominations that cannot be predicted and are very dangerous to worship.
Large cities tend to have Academies of Philosophy, where much testing and magical activity occurs. Sometimes unpredictable magical anomalies happen, weird explosions or terrifying apparitions abound. Some Philosophers make their living calming the spirits of the streets and isolating them from the spirits in the Academy. Reliable communications systems are being developed by sending spirits carrying a message along defined channels from place to place, and Academies tend to be the nexus for these systems. Philosophers compete for funding, as well as for blessings from kings and headmasters, for which they will sabotage or steal others’ projects and results. There is often a heavy rivalry, and Philosophy is dangerous and sometimes deadly.
The world so far features an enormous, circular city which has been there since before recorded history, and even consulting the spirits yields mixed results. The city is only partially inhabited, its people usually live in the two habitable portions of the city. There are six climate regions, illustrated by this diagram:
Each region moves clockwise, affecting the city and its inhabitants in various ways and forcing them to move when the inhospitable areas are too close. The lush green regions are the habitable regions, good for crops, good for people. These are the two areas which people live. The sand colored region is absolutely dry – arid along its borders, but oppressively hot at its center. There are constant blusters of dry, scalding wind that destroy the buildings there, and the erosion from this wind against the buildings creates massive sandstorms, further accelerating the damage.
The Autumn region, the green portion on the righthand side has to deal with ruined, sandblasted buildings and enormous dunes. Much of the sand goes into reconstruction of the buildings, some of them irreparably destroyed in the sandstorms. The Spring region on the lefthand side has to deal with the slow, icy destruction caused by the cold blizzards of the blue portions of the city. Whatever damage exists in the Autumn region’s buildings, every tiny crack, can topple the toughest of walls, as ice sneaks in through the cracks and expands, tearing the cracks further and further open. Those in the Spring region are faced with large piles of rubble and stone, most buildings at least partially destroyed. Both regions work to fix the problems of the destruction following them: the Spring region relies less and less on stone and other eroding materials, using metal as much as it can. The Autumn region does the same, but the people are forced to prevent the rusting of these metals. Good compromises have not been met, and construction teams are only given enough money and materials to get by.
Near the center of the city are the richer regions, where the nobles live. In the center is the city’s Wizard’s Tower, the magically-protected Academy of Philosophy. The outer regions of the city have shabbier buildings and poorer people, and that’s where the majority of the farmland is. The liveliest parts of the city are in between, however; a bustling urban metropolis. There is great commerce there, but it sees much more crime than the rural or royal rings. The tallest buildings are here, but they don’t tend to reach to the sky like those of the royal society; much of the city here reaches down into the earth, and the actual floor of the urban area is dark and deep, with little sun. Here, there are entrances to the cities below ground, filled with hostile creatures and evil people. This is the industrial area of the city, the location of its mines, and the home of almost as much danger and inhospitality as the winter or summer regions. The people from below ground do a lot of dealings here, and it’s very difficult to distinguish their slavery from the city’s voluntary labor. Down there are no winners, except those who are strong and lucky.
This article is over, but I’m not done with the city yet. Next week I’ll write about the people of the city, and their alliances and feuds.