do a D&D games story worldbuilding

So you wanna do a D&D (part 4)

And we’re back(!), with more talk for newcomers about what’s involved in crafting ‘D&D stories’ (i.e. playing D&D and games like it), and more evidence that I’m really shit at maintaining a regular schedule.

Before we get started, let’s revisit my definition of D&D stories:

action-adventure fantasy stories about larger-than-life characters solving problems by going to dangerous locations and defeating antagonists

The last few posts have drilled down into the first half of that description, looking at how different games alter those parameters. Now it’s time to look at the second half, and it’s here that we leave different game rules behind to investigate something else – game settings.

Why setting matters

Tedious people in creative writing classes often say ‘plot is character’ in self-satisfied voices, and if I was one of them I might respond with ‘setting is story’ before steepling my fingers and peering over my glasses.

let’s all be grateful that I’m not like that

Fantasy worlds (which I’m just gonna call ‘settings’ from now on) provide the vital context needed to both create and interpret fantasy stories. A fantasy story needs to make sense – logical sense, narrative sense, emotional sense, all the senses – within the rules of its setting, and the more defined and specific that setting, the less likely it is that that story would make sense within a different setting. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t work as a World of Warcraft story. A Wizard of Earthsea doesn’t work as a Witcher story. And the first Dungeons & Dragons movie doesn’t work as… well, much of anything.

this movie’s bad y’all but Jeremy Irons is glorious

That said, game settings tend to be a little more flexible than film/novel settings, as the folks playing can choose to make room for new concepts. Within a game, setting is most important as a theatre for establishing and communicating tone, which is emerging through these posts as a pivotal aspect of game stories.

Setting impacts tone in three major ways:

  • Environment: What physical locations and problems does the setting present to the characters? Do characters explore castles and catacombs, or are they delving into fairie grottoes and elemental demiplanes? Is the world verdant and green, or blackened by centuries of magical warfare?
  • Opposition: What antagonists do characters confront? Are they fighting humans (or human-ish people) and wild animals, with the moral quandaries that could imply? Are there dragons and demons and tentacle monsters, the dangers of a magical world? Is it time to smash some robots and zombies without feeling any guilt?
  • Uhh… I guess Fantasticalness?: How strange, magical and fantastic is the world in general? Does it closely resemble our own history, except with elves and magic, or does it drastically diverge into new territory? Are there gods, prophecies, mecha, talking stones, whimsy, 18 different kinds of elf etc., and how do folks feel about this?

By establishing these points, and communicating a tone that everyone (hopefully) accepts and understands, your game’s setting becomes its shared imaginative space, the place within which story happens.

Given that – what setting should you use?

The one in the book

The simplest option, and the one that’s genuinely the best option for the vast majority of games, is to use the setting that comes packaged with the game you’re playing.

if you like playing second fiddle to Ed Greenwood’s self-insert horny wizard then boy do I have a setting for you

If your preferred D&D is actual D&D, the setting roughly sketched in the 5E books is The Forgotten Realms, a big kitchen sink full of all the fantasy stuff you could want, a bunch more stuff you don’t want and can ignore, and characters with names full of apostrophes and excess Z’s. There’s also a horny wizard who’s very important.

If you’re playing a different game, such as one of the many I suggested earlier, most have a chapter or two about their own setting, as well as a bunch of implied detail throughout the book – enough to get everyone in the right imaginative space. However, others have very small setting bits (e.g. Journey Away and Tiny Dungeon), or just frameworks for building your own setting (e.g. Quest and Beyond the Wall) – if you’re playing one of these games, you may need to put in more work.

The advantage of using the offered setting is that it’s easy, and yes, easy is a good thing. Don’t ever feel bad for taking the easy option, especially since what will really shape the game/story is the energy players bring to the setting, not vice versa.

Established settings also give you the change to go deep into established lore – usually by buying more books – and that might be a thing you enjoy. However, this can also be a downside; a big setting can make GMs and players feel like they have to master a world of knowledge and use all of it, which is a) wrong and b) intimidating (even though wrong). Don’t let the setting call the shots!

One from a different book

What if you like the game system/conceits but not the setting, because you find it too big/dull/commercial/full of horny wizards? Junk it and use a different one! The world is waist-deep in fantasy RPG settings just waiting for someone to take them out for a spin. Start here if you like – more than 5000 setting books (in PDF) for various games and systems. Most of these don’t have the lore-filled, supplement-laded settings of major game lines, so they lack that intimidation factor.

If you’re playing 5E D&D then you have an immediate advantage – a great many of these settings are written (or rewritten) with that system in mind, so you don’t need to do any rules work in order to use them in your game. Easy! Which we already established is good! The downside is the homogeneity that comes with fitting everything to the same framework; a lot of these settings feel pretty much the same, with the same tropes and conceits. Of course, that’s more a problem for the future, once you’re experienced and jaded, rather than right now.

this recommendation is still less self-indulgent than Ed Greenwood’s horny wizard

If you’re playing a different system, you still have all the same options but it’s going to be much harder to find a setting book that uses that same system. If you find a setting for a different system, or that doesn’t use a system at all (if you like Lovecraft and pirates and fantasy, I can think of one systemless setting you might really dig, just saying), you’ll need to do a lot of work to convert it to your chosen rules. Although do some Googling before you start – others may have done the work and put their notes online. Gamers like to share.

A third option here, by the way, is to eschew pre-written game settings in favour of established media settings – playing in the world of The Dark Crystal, or She-Ra, or look those are the only two fantasy TV shows I know about, I’m bad at pop culture. Grab the setting bible or Wikipedia profile of your favourite property, give everything game stats (and again, Google first in case someone else did the work already) and off you go! It won’t be an original game world, but originality is drastically overrated in roleplaying, and at least you know you (and hopefully your players) are already invested in this setting.

Create your own world!

But if you don’t want to play in someone else’s world, then go ahead and create your own! This is fun – for some people! It’s not fun for others, and it’s okay to admit it if that’s you! There’s often an attitude of ‘you have to make your own games/settings/adventures to be a real gamer’ in some old and shitty corners of this hobby, and it can get in the fucking bin. Anyone who likes games is a gamer, full stop.

I meant to type Elf King but decided I liked the Elk King better

That said, if you do like world-building, then crack open your favourite set of rules and welcome to the most fun you’ll ever have on your own. You can build the fantasy world of your dreams and then make it concrete (in a way) by translating those dreams into game rules – by writing them down in an objective language that another person (with the same rule set) can understand without ambiguity or confusion. The High Elk King has +12 in Diplomacy, you write, and the reader nods with understanding, knowing exactly what that means, and is also impressed that your world has High Elks.

Building your own setting doesn’t have to mean doing a huge amount of work, or that you don’t have support. There are a lot of RPG world-building tools and resources out there, including books, blogs, videos and communities; there are also many sites, books and files with random tables for creating details, which can prompt your own ideas or help you flesh out the creative space. There’s no minimum – or maximum – amount of detail you need to create for your own game world. The right level is the amount that you find enjoyable to create.

That said, don’t make deep knowledge of your world a requirement for enjoyable play, because your players will never want to go as deep into your creation as you do. Let exploring lore be an optional treat for those who enjoy it, rather than a barrier for entry that prevents players from collaborating on story creation.

…or don’t!

…look, I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to share a secret with you.

**leans in close**

Setting doesn’t matter.

I mean, it can – if you want it to. But if you don’t care too much about it, and your players don’t care too much about it, and you all just want to get into this whole D&D-or-whatever thing right now, then setting is mostly just background colour and a bunch of irrelevant details.

Instead, you can create a shared imaginative space in the moment – one that’s directly relevant to the game you play.

Here’s what you do before/during your first session:

  1. Come up with a village/town, 2-3 locations and 2-3 characters in it, then name them in ways that seem evocative and interesting to you.
  2. Come up with an ongoing problem and link it to a location or character. Do the same with a smaller, more local problem.
  3. Whenever your players ask a question like ‘how many moons are there?’, ‘where do dwarves come from?’ or ‘is there a socialist worker’s union in town?’, ask them to answer that question for you.
  4. If your players want you to answer the question, fine. Connect it to one of your established elements, then leave some fuzziness or ambiguity so that the players want to learn more.
  5. Jot these details down as you go so that you don’t accidentally contradict yourself. (Deliberately contradicting yourself is fine.)
  6. Now just keep doing this, session to session.


Is this a shallow setting? I’d argue that it’s as deep as it needs to be, and there’s always the opportunity to focus and go deeper. More importantly, this is a setting that’s based in what you and your players found interesting during play, and that leverages everyone’s ideas, which means the buy-in from players will be stronger because they find those ideas more meaningful than something they skimmed in a book.

I mean, this is just lovely

(Another quick tip – download the free World Profile worksheet for the Quest RPG. It’s a wonderfully short and simple document that prompts just the right amount of setting detail, and it works for any game.)

This approach doesn’t work for everyone, obviously. Some GMs (that’s you, you’re a Game Master now, fuck yeah) need to pin down more detail before they can feel confident communicating a setting. And some players don’t want to help shape the world, because their enjoyment comes from the feeling that they’re exploring something outside themselves. That’s fine and fair – we all like different things. But if your group enjoys the shared part of ‘shared creative space’, this quick-and-dirty approach can yield amazing and fun results.

…good lord, that’s a lot of words. I should stop now.

Come back in two weeks (ish) when we start digging into how to write a D&D story with all these tools – in which the first piece of wisdom is that you shouldn’t try to write a D&D story.

I’ll explain later. Promise.

games worldbuilding

World-building is a hell of a drug

I get distracted easily.

Don’t even try to pretend it’s not true.

So when I want to focus on writing, one of the first things I need to do is pare away my distractions. I’m not much of a TV guy, but I either stop watching or limit myself to watching in lull periods, like the two episodes of Young Justice I allow myself on Saturday mornings. Video games are my crack, so I make sure not to have any hanging over my head that can suck me in for hours on end; right now, all I have in the PS4 is Bloodborne, and I can only play that for maybe 30 minutes before becoming so stressed and upset that I can’t continue. Social engagements and beer… well, those are important to me, but as a project gets more and more pressing, those things gradually drop down the priority list.

And then there are roleplaying games.


I started a new RPG campaign this month, one I plan to run every two weeks, because I am a goddamn idiot.

Shadows of New Jerusalem is an urban fantasy campaign that I’m hoping to run for the rest of 2017. (Maybe into 2018, if my players are keen.) This is a concept I’ve actually talked about before on the blog, way back in… jesus shit, back in 2013. (although it’s morphed a lot since then.)

My original plan for the game was an ‘anthology’ game using the Chronicles of Darkness setting, but I gave up on that after some of 2016’s games didn’t pan out so well. I felt that I wanted a game with very strong player buy-in and minimal upfront reading/effort – which suggested a much more collaborative approach was needed.

So I got a group together, pitched a basic concept (urban fantasy, Fate system) and we went around coming up with ideas about what we did and didn’t want to see in the game, as per the whiteboard below. After some more back and forth, we had a rough sketch of a game about a family of dodgy artefact merchants, scavenging for mystic items and doing deals with otherworldly forces, along with some initial plot hooks and NPC names.

There’s plenty of conceptual and tonal fodder there, and it didn’t take me long to put together some ideas that would be enough to launch a game and run with, developing them as we play.

But then the high kicks in.

Hey, maybe I should define what non-mortal magic can and can’t do. Or pin down some location interconnections. Oh man, I should definitely stat out half-a-dozen NPCs and creatures for each faction so that I have someone/thing to hand whenever the need arises! How about I create specific Photoshop filters and processes, then make like 50 individual pieces of character and setting art!

And obviously I need to write aaaaalllllll that stuff down so that it makes sense to someone who isn’t me!

This urge to fill in all the gaps ahead of the game, to nail down every possible option so that I have what I need at all times… it’s a powerful urge, and it’s utterly wrong-headed. Especially in a game where a lot of that detail is either a) unimportant, or b) supposed to be created collaboratively with my players.

Making stuff is great – if it gets used.

Making stuff for its own sake? That’s just another distraction.

It’s the same for me and writing. I know there are authors who do tonnes of worldbuilding ahead of time, and use their rock-solid grasp on their setting as the framework for choosing and shaping their stories, and I respect that. But I don’t understand it.

For me, story is something that comes together through decisions and in-the-moment choices, rather than through planning. If a story needs a distinct world, I’ll do a little rough work at the start, but not a lot – you’ve pretty much seen the entirety of my notes and planning for both Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist books here on the blog over the last couple of years. The bare minimum I need to know what things look and sound like in chapter 1, and then make it up as I go along.

When I get sidelined by worldbuilding, I’m not actually telling/making stories. I have a bad habit of forgetting that when it comes to games, but I’m trying to keep it under control. I’m just grateful that when it comes to writing – arguably the space where things need to be more coherent and polished at the start, I know – I’m mostly able to ignore that urge and just charge headlong at things like a loon.


The Obituarist III continues apace – slowly than I would like, yes, but I’m on it.

And if you’re interested in seeing whether the Shadow family will outwit the Butcher Bishop and the schemes of Valentine, you can follow our New Jerusalem game over on Obsidian Portal. 

It’ll be cool. I promise.

ghost raven maps worldbuilding

Month of maps – Raven’s Blood

What I wanted to do today was mostly drink bourbon in bed with the covers over my head and maybe keep doing that for the next three years.

But no, we must soldier on; there are new battles to fight and more work to be done. And I don’t have any bourbon in the house anyway.

Instead, let’s talk about maps some more.

I promised I’d spend the month creating and then discussing maps for some of the projects I’ve been working on. So here, in all its glory, is my map of Crosswater, the city that is the setting of Raven’s Blood:

Crosswater map

This is obviously a bit bare-bones, but it shows the core information about Crosswater’s geography – that it’s a town built around two rivers (the Dawn and the Dusk) that come together to let out into a harbour.

So what discussion points does this suggest?

Pretty and Useful Ain’t the Same Thing

If you’re looking at this map and thinking it looks like something I slapped together in MS Word in like twenty minutes, well, you’re perceptive. There’s no way this is going into the front pages of the book once it is snapped by Random Penguin and they print it to universal acclaim, or even if I end up publishing it myself and paying someone fifty bucks to do the map in Dundjinni or something.

But so what? This is a working document, not a finished product. Maps are tools, first and foremost, and this map does the job of presenting the relationship between places that I need it to do. If anything this is still more developed than it needs to be (note the sumptuous use of colour, after all); I could get just as much use out of a diagram, a mind map or some scribble in a notebook.

If you’re sitting down to create a map for your project, don’t feel paralysed by any feeling that it requires visual polish. That comes at the end, when other people look at your stuff. When you make stuff to use, just do what works for you – anything more will distract you and is likely to need revising once you’re finished anyway.

Filling in Details as We Go

What are the names of the three untitled districts? Don’t know. What are the areas around the city? Don’t know. Are there additional districts and locations? How many ships are anchored at Dockside? Is there a wall to the north of the Commons? Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know (but probably). Bottom-up design is all about doing what’s required and no more, and this map shows everything that the narrative has demanded so far. Once I finish the book I’ll come in and fill in some of these blanks, because I’ll want to present a finished map, but there’s no need for that right now.

This map is also not to scale, because scale is also not something I really need yet. I know it takes about an hour to walk at night from the Arrowsmith manor to Kember’s house, because Kember does that, and that gives me some idea of Crosswater’s size. That idea will probably morph at the end; I think the town is a bit wider that this map implies. I’ll work that out once I get there.

If you’re more inclined to a top-down approach, this probably sounds like a terrible approach, in which case you should do what works for you. But if you prefer to work through the core of the story first and then fill in the rest, a map like this – bare-bones but with the important bits in the right place – can help you develop the flow of that story, rather than dictating it.

Fantasy Languages Need Not Apply

As you can see, Crosswater is lacking in polysyllabic and apostrophe-laden fantasy words, or even just words that aren’t in English. Part of this is a personal aesthetic; I tend to like portmanteaus, compound terms and colloquialisms much more than stuff in made-up languages. I can’t keep those words in my head when reading and can’t develop them in a logical sense when I write; better to work with word-components that actually engage me.

The other reason is thematic. Crosswater and the Westron Lands are meant to evoke Elizabethan London and England to some extent, although not exclusively. Using English words for place names helps with that, as so many locations of the period follow that model – and those that don’t are often derived from Roman or Celtic terms that were originally compound terms. (Manchester was basically called ‘breast-like hill’, at least according to Wikipedia.)

Not all of these words are set in stone. ‘Courtpark’ isn’t going to last, because it sounds like something you find in a basketball game. My original plan was ‘Kingspark’ but that didn’t click either; it doesn’t pull apart cleanly into ‘King’s Park’ rather than ‘King Spark’. And ‘Dockside’ is a bit bland; I need to bring something in to spice that up. Time to pull out my reference books – the Vulgar Tongue, the amazing Macquarie Thesaurus and Liza Picard’s Elizabeth’s London – and see what grabs my eye.

Bird’s Eye versus Boots on the Ground

This map is a useful tool in a lot of ways, especially as it helps me work out where all the various locations fit alongside each other.

But the map is not the territory, as they say, and this map – any map – doesn’t tell you or me what it’s like to live in Crosswater. It doesn’t say what the rivers smell like, how the food tastes, why the border between Greywharf and Wright’s Parish is erupting in violence; it doesn’t tell a story. Well, it doesn’t tell the story I want; maps can tell stories, but they are stories of grand scope and change, less stories about fist-fights with bronze cyborgs on collapsed bridges.

Evoking a location is something that happens in the text itself, rather than the map at the start. (Or at least it does if I do my job right.) That’s where the colour and shape comes out, where sights and sounds and smells enter play. But having said that, the birds-eye map still helps, because it shows you where that detail might be found. If I want to describe the feel of Dockside, I can see from the map that I need to reflect the presence of the harbour – the smell of the sea, the churn of the Dusk as it emerges into a nest of wharves, the warning bells as Warrant ferrymen take prisoners out to the jail of the Rock. Without a map to remind me, I might lose track of that – and that’s why my bodgy Word diagram is such a valuable tool.

In closing, Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous may have been awful trash, but it gave us some cool CGI visuals for Elizabethan London – so if you’re wondering what Crosswater looks like a bit lower to the rooftops, take the image below and add approximately 30% more masked superheroics and villainy. And some parkour. And maybe a giant snake. That’s pretty close.

maps worldbuilding

A month of maps

I kind of hate maps.

This is another one of those things that make me a terrible nerd, like saying I’ve never watched any of the Star Trek TV shows or simply don’t care that much that Ben Affleck’s playing Batman in the next DC movie. Maps are one of those cornerstones of fantasy fiction, worlds sketched out in the opening pages of a book before a story starts, and I think most readers see them as a call to adventure, a sign that discoveries are ahead. But for me it’s always been the opposite; they make me less interested in a story, not more interested.

The late, great and sorely missed Diana Wynne Jones pretty much summed up my issue with maps in her wonderful The Tough Guide to Fantasyland:

Examine the Map. It will show most of a continent (and sometimes part of another) with a large number of BAYS, OFFSHORE ISLANDS, an INLAND SEA or so and a sprinkle of TOWNS. There will be scribbly snakes that are probably RIVERS, and names made of CAPITAL LETTERS in curved lines that are not quite upside down. By bending your neck sideways you will be able to see that they say things like “Ca’ea Purt’wydyn” and “Om Ce’falos.” These may be names of COUNTRIES, but since most of the Map is bare it is hard to tell.

These empty inland parts will be sporadically peppered with little molehills, invitingly labeled “Megamort Hills,” “Death Mountains, ”Hurt Range” and such, with a whole line of molehills near the top called “Great Northern Barrier.” Above this will be various warnings of danger. The rest of the Map’s space will be sparingly devoted to little tiny feathers called “Wretched Wood” and “Forest of Doom,” except for one space that appears to be growing minute hairs. This will be tersely labeled “Marshes.”

This is mostly it.

No, wait. If you are lucky, the Map will carry an arrow or compass-heading somewhere in the bit labeled “Outer Ocean” and this will show you which way up to hold it. But you will look in vain for INNS, reststops, or VILLAGES, or even ROADS. No – wait another minute – on closer examination, you will find the empty interior crossed by a few bird tracks. If you peer at these you will see they are (somewhere) labeled “Old Trade Road – Disused” and “Imperial Way – Mostly Long Gone.” Some of these routes appear to lead (or have lead) to small edifices enticingly titled “Ruin,” “Tower of Sorcery,” or “Dark Citadel,” but there is no scale of miles and no way of telling how long you might take on the way to see these places.

In short, the Map is useless, but you are advised to keep consulting it, because it is the only one you will get. And, be warned. If you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.

That last line in particular is what gets me – because what’s the point of putting something on the map if the story doesn’t examine that location? I look at a detailed map in a novel and all the suspense just drains out of the book for me, replaced by a dull expectation of ticking off checklist items. I get exhausted just thinking about the book ahead and its cavalcade of locations, landmarks and polysyllabic place names that I’ll no doubt have to encounter to get to the end.

Of course, that’s a very bottom-up way of thinking about it – that approach (which is how I write) doesn’t fill in detail until it’s needed, so if a detail is there then the implication is that it’s needed and thus will appear in the story. The top-down approach (going back to the discussion earlier this year on tops and bottoms oh my) is to start with the map and the world it depicts, designing all the little bits and pieces that go into it, then write your story around some of those bits, secure in the knowledge that if you need to move further afield to follow the narrative, there’ll be something there to ground the story.

As I do more worldbuilding for Raven’s Blood and think about the locations within and outside Crosswater… no, I’m still a bottom-up writer, and I still don’t really want to develop locations and ideas other than the ones I specifically need for my story. But nonetheless I’ve developed a better appreciation for the humble map, less as a finished piece of work and more as a writing tool I can use to develop a sense of place, character and internal logic for both my setting and my story as a whole. And I’ve started seeing a lot of different ways that tool can be applied – because a map can be a kind of Swiss Army knife of storycrafting, and the way you interact with that map as both reader and writer can really reshape the experience of the narrative.

The time has come for me to draw some maps. I have met the enemy and he is me. And Photoshop.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that maps have been on my mind for a while, and I have thoughts and opinions. SO MANY OPINIONS. Too many for one, two or maybe even three blog posts.

So instead I’m declaring September to be the month of maps here on the old blog, a time when I’ll be looking at maps and how we use them in fiction. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘me’ – I’ll be putting up posts (and maps) about Raven’s Blood, The Obituarist, Arcadia (remember that one?) and some of my gaming projects, looking at how each addresses its map differently and uses it for different purposes. Those will be the Sunday night posts; if I manage to do mid-week posts as well (I’ll try, but my spare time is bleeding away already) then I’ll try to present additional map discussions based around stuff from other writers and around the interwebs. And maybe you folks can also pipe up with some of your thoughts about maps, stories and narrative physicality – whatever the hell that phrase that I just made up means.

A month of maps. Let’s get lost.

games story worldbuilding writing

Wiki wiki woo

So one of the things I did on my blogging holiday was write wiki entries.




Specifically, I was writing wiki entries for some of my roleplaying campaigns, and that little sound you can hear is all of my internet credibility squeaking out of my blog as if I was a balloon animal with a slow leak. But no, come back! This is writing-relevant! I doubleplus promise cross my heart!

So anyway, I have an account on Obsidian Portal, a useful gaming site that lets GMs create pages for their campaigns with images, NPC write-ups, session summaries and wikis. I’ve been running a single set of pages there for my D&D campaign since before it started, lo these many years ago, but recently I upped to a paid account so that I could set up a wiki for my Weird West Smallville game and for two campaigns I’ve planning to run once those finish.

Now, indulge me here, folks – go have a look at the pages and wikis for Exile Empire and Tribulation, the two campaigns that I’ve been running for a while. Potter around for a bit, click some links, read some adventure logs and – most importantly – take a brief pass through the wikis. Go on, I’ll wait.

Are we back? Good. Are we in awe about what an amazingly inventive GM and storycrafter I am in my games about fantasy adventurers and psychic cowboys?

…fine, whatever.

Now, pop quiz – what’s the big difference between the two campaign wikis? Anyone? That’s right, Exile Empire‘s is much larger and more detailed than Tribulation‘s – but most of that extra content hasn’t been at all relevant to the story (i.e. the game) that’s based on all that setting information. There’s a tonne of data about districts, factions and characters that have never appeared in the game; meanwhile,  Tribulation‘s wiki has much less material, but all of it is directly relevant to the game.

And why? Because I wrote it after the game had actually started and we’d had all the core plot elements come out in play. Rather than trying to detail all the things that could be relevant, I just had to put in the things that definitely were relevant.

A wiki like Exile Empire‘s is a worldbuilding tool, specifically one aimed at the players of the game; it’s a way of putting everything that could be relevant to creating characters and understanding the world out for their perusal, so that they can explore it, internalise it and come up with ideas of how to use it. It’s a great tool for coming up with the ideas for stories and allowing you to explore those ideas and their connections in a little more depth before picking out those you’ll actually use. You can also see this in the detailed wiki I created for Annihilation, the Marvel Heroic RPG campaign I plan to run when Exile Empire is finished. (Go on, click the link, you know you want to.) Again, lots of information, lots of connections between information – but because the game hasn’t started yet, none of it links up to any story. It’s all potential, all background data for the players to use; all stage, no direction.

The benefit of a wiki like this comes from reading it, whether that’s for players to get character ideas or for me to think ‘okay, let’s come up with a story involving House Tharashk and the Storm Hammers in the Harbour District’ and have that idea drive play for like a year.

The Tribulation wiki, on the other hand, is more of a story development tool. It’s free of any extraneous material and it’s not very handy for developing the world; it’s probably not very interesting reading, even as far as RPG campaign wikis go, because it’s so focused on the essentials. But writing it helped me get a better understanding of how the plot elements I’d already introduced fit together, and in doing so I came up with more ideas of how to progress with those ideas towards the game’s conclusion. So while this wiki maybe isn’t as useful to my players, it’s been very useful to me. I have another game on there, Tales of New Jerusalem, which also has a sketchy wiki, and I’m doing that deliberately so that I don’t overplan or include too much extraneous worldbuilding in the game. Instead I want to focus on short story arcs and connections between multiple characters, and my experience with Tribulation suggests to me that I’ll handle this better if I come back to the wiki after a few plots have already been laid down and explored in play.

The benefit from a wiki like these comes from writing it, from actually sitting down and clearly outlining story elements and their connections; it lets me think ‘there definitely should be connections between the Apache Super-Chief, Delian Sisula and Emmett’ and then develop those connections in the next story arc.

So game nerding aside, what’s the upshot of all this for writing? Two things:

  1. Using a wiki to outline all the possibilities for your story can help you determine which ones you want to explore before you write.
  2. Using a wiki to clarify the connections between plot elements can help you work out where you’re going as you write.

In the early stages of working out the parameters of a story, the kind of exhaustive worldbuilding of a wiki like those for Exile Empire or Annihilation can be really useful – it helps you visualise all the things your story could have in it, then pick out the elements that it actually will have in it, leaving the rest to fade into the background of your mind until they’re needed (if ever). It’s especially valuable for complex worlds that have lots of information in them that readers need to know about; you can see the elements and how to work them into the story.

Writing a wiki in the middle of the story, though, helps you work out what you’ve missed so far and where to take things from here. A lean, sparse wiki like those of Tribulation or New Jerusalem can help visualise the shape of the story so far. Actively spelling out connections between story elements can help you make sense of where you’ve been and where you’re going; it can also show you if those connections need to be explored more in the story, whether going forward or by editing them back into what’s already been written.

Both approaches have plusses and minuses, and both are just one possible example of using an outlining and interconnectivity tool; wikis are one option but they’re not the only ones. Mind maps, flowcharts, stacks of index cards… there are lots of ways to visualise and connect your story elements. You don’t need to use such things – as always, there’s no One True Way to write effectively – but spilling everything out in front of you and connecting the dots can be a big help in marshalling your ideas, whether they’re ideas about what to do in the first place or about where to go from here.

Give it a try; if nothing else, you might find it fun. Certainly if you’re the kind of person who likes sitting alone in a darkened office, cross-referencing notes on the X-Men’s activities in the Kree Empire and seeing how that affects their trip to the Forgotten Realms.


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Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 2)

Last week I started talking about Guild Wars 2, not because it’s a fun game (it is) but because it’s an interesting object lesson in the use of storytelling techniques. I wrote about 1300 words about that, and I can only assume that I stunned all of you into silence with my brilliance ‘cos no-one offered even a single comment on it. Should I ask someone to rewrite my essay?

Well, prepared to be driven permanently mute as I continue to write even more on the topic of story, character and high-level armour drops!

(Also, this was meant to be finished and posted on Sunday night, but the Comedy Festival is chewing up my time and spitting out minutes and limbs.)

(And they’re not even my limbs. Not sure where they come from. Damned creepy, really.)

Choices matter

Throughout your personal story in GW2 you get called on to choose between two or three courses of action, which dictate what the next chunk of narrative will be. That’s excellent game design because it actively engages the player, making them feel that they’re an active participant in the story – even though some choices are weighted pretty heavily towards one more interesting option. (“Well, you could disguise yourself as a minotaur or do LAH LAH LAH NOT LISTENING HAND ME THE HORNS AND SUPERGLUE.”) In fiction you get that engagement by presenting the main character – the reader’s window into the story – with choices to make. Make your main character an active participant in their own story and the reader will follow suit.

…even when they don’t

On the other hand, choices need to be meaningful, and the ones in GW2 aren’t. Sure, they determine which mission you tackle next, but the end point of that mission lines you up to the pre-determined outcome and next stage the same as the alternative would. The game has a path, and your choices just determine which bits of scenery you set fire to along the way. In a story, choices need to be genuine decision points that shape outcomes and have permanent consequences, or else there’s no point writing about them. And as part of that, some of the most interesting decisions are the bad ones, the ones that don’t work out and push the story further into conflict. Go crazy with those.

Voice defines character

A key element of GW2 is that your character speaks, generally in conversational cut scenes – and the most important part of that is that your character develops a distinct voice. No, not voice acting, but a style and tone all their own, from the patient Sylvari to the belligerent Charr to the egotistical Norn. Each character expresses personality through their words as well as their deeds, and that’s vital for any kind of fiction as well. It’s also something you notice when it falls away, as it does in GW2 as multiple plot directions collapse into one, taking with them your character’s distinct voice – so don’t do that. Maintain character voice, even when the plot takes the character in a new direction.

At this point, I feel I should show you my character. His name is Cadmus and he is a Sylvari Guardian and he is level 80 and he fights with a sword and torch and he made all his own armour and he is very awesome and okay I’ll shut up now PS he is boss.


Fuck lore

I blame Bioware for the trend of emphasising the rich, detailed backstory of their game worlds by littering their games with infodumps and books/scrolls/datapads that you find and reach and squint at instead of actually playing the game. GW2 has plenty of backstory, but rarely stops to tell you about it – it shows you, usually by sending you on missions where history pops up, says hello and stabs you in the face. Short on exposition and long on action/character, GW2’s history leeches into you by osmosis rather than study, and that is a fine lesson to bring to your fiction. Stay focused in the here and now, let your characters discover history organically, and throw out just enough to provide context before moving on.

Genre is a big tent

If you’re looking for purist, traditional fantasy, GW2 is not for you. This is a world featuring giant Vikings, inquisitive plant-people, horned cat-folk undergoing an industrial revolution and a race of freckled gnomish mad scientists with robots and lasers. Add to that pistols, aqualungs, airships, battle armour, dozens of sentient races (most of them bad), anachronisms aplenty and wide swathes of horror and you get a take on fantasy that is anything but traditional. And that’s a good thing. Genre is vast, it contains multitudes, and purity is past its use-by date. Never feel hemmed in by what a genre is ‘supposed’ to contain – put in the things you want to include and the genre will swell to fit.

A consistent tone? What’s that?

Mind you, the problem with a big tent is that you might fill it with boxes, open them all at once and find that they don’t play well together. GW2 tries to present a series, often tragic tone within its main storyline, especially in the third act, but then destabilises that by getting you to enter an 8-bit computer game or fight the terrible Marxist-Leninist mole people in various pun-based locations. It’s hard to have feels when giggles are just a few minutes behind, and hard to maintain a tone of desperate urgency when you can just wander off and ignore the plot for a week while you gather armour bits. Any idea can be serious or silly, calm or critical depending on how you treat it, so long as you pick a tone early on and stick with it. If you’re going to be a purist anywhere in your own work, it should be tone – find your level ASAP and stay there to the end.

Pictures are worth a thousand etcetera

The visual world of GW2 is both rich and very carefully crafted, so that whenever you look around you know where you are. Every location has its own feel, from the sedate human kingdoms to the once-drowned-now-risen wastelands of Orr. Architecture is similarly distinct – you instantly know the cubic, gravity-defying ziggurats of the Asura from the dark satanic mills of the Charr and the re-purposed shipwreck-buildings of Lion’s Arch. Making everything distinct means that everything has instantly-identifiable flavour, embedding players in the world. Writers don’t get to play with visuals (well, most of us don’t), but we have other tools – word choices, prose rhythm, dialect, adjectives and more. Just as you give every character a voice, try to give every location and scene its own voice too; it makes the stories within them all the richer.

Exploration isn’t necessarily story

That said, if all you’re doing is looking at the scenery or exploring the intricacies of how the Shamu-Shamu people make purple whaleskin booties, your story isn’t going anywhere. GW2 encourages exploration with various tools, including the thrill of discovery and the lure of XP and treasure drops, but the story gets put on hold while you check out the landscape. Do you want to put your story on hold while people are actually, you know, reading your story? I thought not. As with lore, position the rich tapestry of your world front and centre by making characters run right through it, showing its colours and complexity for a second and then getting on with things. Story is movement. Always keep moving.

I could probably come up with half-a-dozen more object lessons, but it’s late and this essay is already long enough.

Let’s close by saying this. There was a time where prose was the Only Important Way of telling stories. That time is the distant past. These days there are lots of ways of getting a story into the reader’s head and heart, from games to graphic novels to epic poetry to multi-part interactive fiction experiments on Twitter. I’ve been talking about Guild Wars 2, but I could have drawn similar lessons from pretty much game, any movie, any (mostly) well-crafted piece of storytelling.

Everything you take in can teach you how to tell stories, whether by example or as a don’t-do-this object lesson. Keep your eyes peeled and your mind open, and you can learn from any of them. All of them. And make your stories better in the process.

Also, I’m patrickoduffy.3067 on Jade Quarry server, looking for groups to tackle the lower-level dungeons and maybe a guild to join. Send me a tell. I’ve got your back.

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Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 1)

Look, I make excuse after excuse about why Raven’s Blood is taking longer than expected, and many of those are more-or-less true, but here’s the real reason – I’ve been playing the shit out of Guild Wars 2 for like the last four months.

I have an addictive personality, and MMOs scratch that itch harder than Wolverine with shingles. Which is a terrible metaphor, I know.

Anyway, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on exploring Tyria, fighting elder dragons and experimenting with various ingredient combinations to level up my cooking skills. And something that’s become clear to me is that GW2 is a game based heavily around story, character and exploration, and that it uses some interesting techniques to get those elements across while still delivering lots of action and fights. So, much like I did with Batman: Arkham City last year, I’d like to look at how Guild Wars 2 uses the tools in the storytelling chest to make something that’s more than just whacking digital pinatas for imaginary gold – and how sometimes it uses those tools well and sometimes not.

See, it wasn’t just four months of wasted time; it was research.

Arc after arc, raise after raise

The structure of GW2 is a classic zero-to-hero tale, but one that’s remarkably coherent and well-structured. The core storyline is broken in regular chapters, each of which reaches a natural end point that segues neatly into the next arc, and each of which raises the overall stakes. You start off as just another adventurer, fighting bandits or in a rivalry with mad scientists, and by the end you’re spearheading the battle against the great dragons and their unending army of the undead in order to save the world. And that progression is largely smooth and unbroken; you can always look back and think that it makes sense that you wound up where you are. The pattern of establish a status quo / upend it / fix it / establish a new status quo where the stakes are higher / repeat is the meat and drink of storytelling; it’s always worth considering as your main course.

But keep those doggies moving 

The thing about that arc-to-arc movement is that it doesn’t give you much room to breathe between arcs, or else you lose momentum and don’t make the transition smoothly. Time elapsing in the narrative is fine; time elapsing for the audience is problematic. GW2 does the usual keying of  events to levels and places, and most of the time you gain the requisite experience for the next mission in the process of getting to the location – but not always. A number of times I found myself coming up short and needing to potter around someplace else to gain a level or two, which bled away a lot of the urgency of the storyline.  In your storytelling, don’t give characters unnecessary downtime between arcs – if time has to pass, it’s better to start the next chapter with ‘Six months later’ than to blow a whole chapter describing how nothing important happens for a while.

Character is at the heart of story

It doesn’t matter how rich the backstory and environment of your world is if there’s no-one for us to experience it through. GW2 does a great job of basing everything that happens around your character and their actions. All the plot-important events are instanced, so you don’t see all the other players doing exactly the same mission, and fully-voiced cutscenes bookend each event so that your character is actually interacting with NPCs and shaping the narrative rather than just being given a checklist of objectives. Over the course of 80 levels, I became not just invested in my character’s XP and bitchin’ armour choices but in his personality – a great achievement for an MMO, and the primary thing you want to achieve in your fiction. Do it the same way – build the story around your character and then let personality emerge from action and dialogue.

But your POV might be from the story’s kidney

GW2 positions your character as central, but not as the primary plot-driver; that role is taken up by various characters in the story arcs, with you as their lieutenant/assistant/main legbreaker. Doing so is understandable – you need NPCs to give you missions to drive play – but it still ends up with you being secondary in someone else’s stories. While it’s possible to make this work in a story (such as in the first few of Glen Cook’s Black Company novels), it’s more likely to leave readers feeling that they’re missing out on the story or reading about a less-interesting character. So if you’re going to place your main character outside the absolute centre of your story, make sure that their own story is at least as interesting that what’s going on front and centre.

Situations create narrative

GW2 largely eschews the traditional quest-journal approach of most MMOs in favour of a network of events that are married to locations and situations. Some are static; you enter an area and there are problems that are immediate and obvious (eel-men preying on wrecked ships, unexploded bombs in an orchard, uppity polar bears etc); just by wandering around and interacting with the environment you complete the event. Others are dynamic, suddenly starting up and bringing change into the scene – and some of those are links in a chain of events that change with consequences. If bandits attack a water pipe, you can try to fight them off; if you fail, the pipe is blown up and now you have to help repair it. This gives everything a feeling of import and weight; the world changes with you, even if only for a little while, and other players will be affected by your deeds. This is the kind of feeling you want to impart to events in your fiction. The best stories are not  just handed down from on high; they emerge naturally from reactions to a situation, they shape the actions of characters and are shaped in turn, and the consequences that follow the event meaningfully changes the narrative.

Sometimes that narrative is a bit dull

When a situation calls for a variety of actions – combat, puzzle solving, interaction, chopping down trees or whatever – then it’s engaging on several levels. When it just involves attacking an indeterminate number of monsters using the same two weapons for ten minutes… not so much. GW2’s static and dynamic events are a mix of the inspired (especially when you end up putting on disguises and changing form), the serviceable and the just-hit-enough-things-until-it’s-over, which is as quotidian as it gets for a video game. Over in the writing world, you should probably try to avoid the quotidian, because those are situations that don’t have tension, conflict or emotional resonance, and the narratives and consequences that emerge from them just aren’t interesting. Of course, ‘quotidian’ isn’t the same as ‘ordinary’; lots of normal human interactions are charged with conflict and meaning, and can give rise to powerful stories. But situations that only allow for limited character actions, that don’t matter in the overall storyline, that don’t present more than cosmetic consequences… it doesn’t matter if your story’s set in Melbourne, Metropolis or Moria, that bit of it’s going to be dull. Skip it.

Okay, we’re well over 1000 words at this stage, this post is two days late and I’m only half-finished, so I’m breaking this in half. Come back next weekend for part two, which will be at least as exciting and educational as this one.

Plus I’ll add some screenshots of my character. He looks boss.

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East and west – the people of Crosswater

Now, where was I before I went off on a tangent about my hot new collection of flash fiction (oh go on buy one it’s really cheap papa needs a new pair of shoes)?

That’s right, worldbuilding. (Still.)

Two weeks ago I talked about how people are the most important part of worldbuilding, the thing that connects most strongly with readers, and gave a few rough tips on developing cultural elements and ideas. So here’s a post to sketch out the two main cultural groups in Crosswater, the town that is the setting of Raven’s Blood, and how I’ve applied those ideas in this case.

(Wow. I wrote that like I was some kind of expert, rather than someone half-arsedly fumbling through ideas he’s only just had and still can’t fully articulate. Go me.)

The Westrons

The Westrons are native to Crosswater and the lands to the west. They tend to have dark skin (ranging from olive to almond in complexion) and straight hair. Originally a loose collection of towns and city-states, Westron society gathered together over the last few centuries into a cohesive kingdom. Originally Crosswater was the seat of the kingdom, but after the War Against the Host the royal family relocated to another city further inland. Still, Crosswater remains the mercantile hub of the kingdom and a centre of trade, travel and intrigue.

I based Westron society on Elizabethan England – originally just because I loved the image of masked heroes in ruffs and surcoats, but I soon realised that that this also gave me a lot of other story options. Technologically, it let me include cannons, pistols, the printing press and other such devices without needing to justify their presence too much, letting me focus on magical anachronisms like golem-armour and grappling-hook guns. Patterning Crosswater after London gave me plays and culture, but also narrow alleys and bunched-together houses perfect for parkour scenes. And it gave me a society founded on business and trade but also with a strong military bent. I could have made all of things up whole cloth, but the shorthand of ‘it’s like Elizabethan England’ lets me get it across quickly so I can spend more words on action and explosions.

The stereotypes of Westrons align with their mercantile society – they care about money and business more than family, they see outsiders as opportunities (or threats) rather than as people, they always look for the profit or power in an interaction and they’re very concerned about status and wealth. Those stereotypes also tie back to the theme of Westron magic, that everything has a price. They’re a people who expect to pay for everything they get, and look at gifts with suspicion. The flip side is also a willingness to suffer losses to get ahead – most of the victories in the War Against the Host came from soldiers sacrificing themselves (or their subordinates) in order to make gains. That readiness to sacrifice can be a nobility in some Westrons and a callous ruthlessness in others.

The Easterlings

Easterlings tend to have pale skin (ranging from light pink to almost white in complexion) and curly hair. Hailing from far-off lands, their society has suffered radical changes in a short time. Like the Westrons, they were originally a collection of independent states, ones more inclined towards sorcerous war than trade. But sorcery proved their undoing, as it brought the Host to the mortal plane, and those 27 evil angels conquered the Eastern states and made them into an empire, corrupting the lands in the process. The Easterlings lived as slaves to their blazing gods for three hundred years, until the Host were cast down in the war against the Westron armies. Twenty years later, the Easterlings in Crosswater (and other Western lands) bereft of roots and separated from the blighted lands their fathers called home.

Easterling society is a shaky mash-up of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt – almost as if the first abruptly morphed into the second, Zeus and the gods becoming manifest and demanding not just worship but utter servitude. It’s not a stable kind of change, but it’s not meant to be; it’s a reflection of the theme of Easterling magic, that change begets change. Pushed through worship into slavery and then out into an uncertain, penniless freedom in a land that doesn’t want them, Easterling society is shell-shocked and on the defensive, ready to change again if the situation allows it. (Greece and Egypt also inform Easterling aesthetics and technology, but not so much as with the Elizabethans/Westrons.)

The stereotypes of Easterlings in Crosswater are generally not pleasant – they’re a poor, untrusted underclass for the most part, sometimes derided as ‘worms’ due to their pale skin. Many Westrons assume that Easterlings still worship the Host and would continue their holy war against the West if given the opportunity. The truth is more complex. Some older Easterlings do venerate the memory of the Host on some level, but it’s a reverence born of fear (and a little Stockholm syndrome) rather than love. Younger Easterlings are generally glad to be free, but chafe against the social and political restrictions the Westrons impose on them. But where can they go? Their lands are gone, so they have to leave in the hot, hostile West – and more and more of them are ready to fight for what they need.

As you can see, the stereotypes are stronger on the Westron side, mostly because they’re more solidly anchored in real-world history and the context it brings with it. I have to do more work to make the Easterlings real, but at the same time they’re so strongly defined by recent events that I don’t have to look back too far to find (i.e. make up) inspiration and context for how characters act.

And when you get these two groups together  – say in a city where Easterling resentment is rising and where there are rumours that the Host have returned – then conflict is inevitable. And conflict is where the story happens.

That’s probably enough about worldbuilding for a while, and indeed Raven’s Blood. Time to focus on writing the book, rather than about the book.

Come back next week! No idea what I’ll be discussing then!

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Culture wars and pieces

So I was in Shanghai last week. And you know what the defining feature of Shanghai is?

If you said history, high population, international business activity or shitloads of skyscrapers – no. Well, yes, but no. Those are traits that could also be applied to New York, Los Angeles or London. The defining feature of Shanghai is this:

It’s full of Chinese people.

What I am trying to get at, in case you think I’ve suddenly turned into Obliquely Racist Guy, is that what really defines a city or country to us – what makes us connect with it in a personal, meaningful way as a real place – is people. History, geography and architecture are important, of course, and fascinating to many of us (I’m always taking pictures of buildings), but it’s people, both as individuals and a broader culture, that truly give a place personality and meaning, that drive the events and experiences that we remember once we go back home.

It’s the same when it comes to worldbuilding – hell, even more so. History requires exposition and architecture requires description, and in prose those are both passive processes, stretches of words where the reader just takes information in. Interaction with characters is active, placing the reader within an immediate POV and letting them experience the protagonist and their world in real time. Well, as real-time as reading gets, anyway.

So when you’re building a world for your story, put the cultures of the setting in the forefront. They don’t have to be super-detailed or staggeringly unique, but if the people of your setting feel distinctive and engaging, your world will too.

How to do that? Here are a few ideas, based partially on how I found myself describing my impression of Shanghai and its inhabitants to folks back home and partially on the usual theorywank I engage in when I’m not wasting my life playing Guild Wars 2.

Stereotypes are your friend

When we talk about a culture we talk in stereotypes – the French like gourmet food, the British like Neighbours, Australians are always drunk and our reality TV shows are all mean-spirited, blah blah blah. According to my experience, Chinese people smoke a lot, haggle on prices and don’t indicate when turning. Are those stereotypes universal truths? Of course not. But they serve as useful broadstrokes for describing a culture; they let you set a baseline for the minor characters of your story. That also lets you define your major characters in how they don’t conform to the stereotype, or at least not to every aspect, and that makes them stand out more when they take the stage.

Obviously I’m not talking about embracing offensive stereotypes. Well, hang on – maybe think about those too. What are the racist slurs and stereotypes that are used within your story? How does culture X demonise culture Y and cast them as The Other in your setting? Stereotypes can be what most people in your culture are like, or what other people perceive them to be – and that tells the reader a lot about the intercultural dynamics of your story. It also gives you another characterisation tool for describing an antagonist – because hey, everyone loves to hate racists. They’re douches.

Steal from the real

Fantasy and SF worldbuilding gives you a chance to be incredibly imaginative and original, but originality can be a lot of work for not that much return. There’s nothing wrong with taking a real-world culture as the basis for your fantasy one – there’s a vast variety of them and they’re all different but still geuninely human. These are all ways we have collectively made sense of the world in the past, so anything mirroring that foundation is going to have a headstart in believability. That doesn’t mean you should just dump Shanghai onto Mars, of course, or have a fantasy culture called the Shinese who live in Shina. But you’re not going to do that; you’re going to take the core concepts and traits and then build something new with them.

And you can also pick and choose what you use, not just from one source but from many. Take a chunk of Chinese society and mix in some English customs, some French cuisine, some American beer, some Japanese pop culture and you can make something that feels entirely fresh and new. Or that feels just like Shanghai, which is an amazing mash-up of a city.

Tie it back to your themes

I’m going to keep harping on this until everyone finally gets sick to death of it – everything in your story should have a purpose. Details that are included just to develop the world don’t feel meaningful if they don’t also develop the narrative; they may provide verisimilitude but they won’t be interesting. The societies of your world are as much a component of the narrative as anything else, and they need to underpin the themes and motifs of your story. Which is actually a useful storytelling shortcut, rather than a cumbersome editorial edict.

If you want to tell a story about freedom and authority, you can create a society that embodies that struggle on a macro level as a thematic mirror for a character’s micro-scale struggle. If Fairyland’s people live in a whimsical culture, that helps you tell a whimsical story – and if that whimsy masks a more dangerous capriciousness, then your characters can help you tell a story that has that dark edge of uncertainty.

Remember, the flipside of ‘everything must have a purpose in the story’ is that everything in the story can be used to help you tell the story. It’s a good thing.

So anyway, those are (some of) the principles I’d apply to my fictional cultures. And I’ll put my money where my mouth is next time by looking at the cultures of Raven’s Blood through that lens.

…actually, no I won’t. Because the next blog post is going to be about something TOTALLY DIFFERENT.

Stay tuned. It’s exciting.


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The magic of Raven’s Blood (part 2)

I don’t know about you, but I spent my Sunday afternoon running through a warehouse shooting zombies with a laser carbine – all as part of the IRL Shooter / Patient Zero project, which turned out to be excellent fun. As a result, though, I’m pretty freakin’ tired, as I’ve squandered all my adrenaline by lugging around a 4kg gun while screaming ‘contacts!’ every few moments. So as a result, I was too weary last night to finish this post, and that’s why it’s a day later than usual.

Now, where were we? Oh yes – talking about magic in the world of Raven’s Blood. Last week I talked about the magic of the Easterling lands; tonight’s it’s the turn of the Westrons.

The magic of the West

As before, there is a core principle behind Westron magic – everything comes with a price. In order to gain magical power or control over the world, or to channel that power through something else, one must make sacrifices and give up something in return. Minor or limited power may only require a small sacrifice, a cost in time or resources – but true power only comes after you give up the thing that matters most to you, perhaps the thing that made you seek power in the first place.

Story function: ‘Will this character succeed?’ really isn’t that engaging a question in fiction, because the answer is generally always yes – and if it’s no, then you usually have fair warning of what kind of downbeat sadface stuff you’re reading. ‘How much will this character sacrifice for victory?’ and ‘Is this character willing to lose in order to win?’ are much more interesting questions, and that’s what I’m hoping to emphasise with the principle of Westron magic.


The esoteric, gross form of Western magic is thaumaturgy – bargaining with the spirits of the higher planes for power. Specifically, thaumaturges use rituals to call and then bargain with the 27 Lords of the Lunar Court, which are governed by the Queen of Night and Regret. These spirits have great power and can lend that power to mortals, but it always comes with a price. That price is always something that matters on a personal level to the thaumaturge, for the Lords are beings of fate and meaning, and it’s fate and meaning that they rework to fulfil the bargain. A thaumaturge might give up the chance of ever knowing true love, or the ability to know joy, or of ever sleeping without nightmares again.

In exchange, the Lords grant power, whether power over the self, over others or over the world. A thaumaturge may become strong enough to kick through a wall or fully recover from a wound within days. She might control flames or winds, cloud the minds of others to become invisible or coax obedient life into stone or wood. The extent of the bargain is up to the whim of the Lords and the nature of the sacrifice. Thaumaturgy is not a common art, and its practitioners are seen as forbidding, dangerous people, but not feared as much as monstrous ichor-sorcerers.

Story function: While sorcery gives me flashy, overt and scary superhumans, thaumaturgy allows for more subtle characters in the style of Captain America, Black Widow, Spider-Man or any of the Bat-family. These are the characters that seem normal until they reveal their secret side, for good or ill. Thematically, the nature of the bargain reflects a core motif of superhero comics, especially Marvel comics – power has an innate tragedy to it. Characters lose what matters to them, and as the story progresses, they have to consider whether the loss was worth the gain.


The mundane, subtle form of Western magic is artifice – building tools and devices and then imbuing them with unusual or supernatural power. Artifice is a complex art that requires great study, but a skilled artificer can craft objects that are almost miraculous. The more powerful the item or its magic, the rarer and more valuable the materials needed to create it. In order to fund their projects and pay for their materials, many artificers sell their services and their creations; the most powerful are also the most wealthy – and the most in need of more wealth.

Story function: More toys, of course – magic swords, golems and crystal balls, but also exo-skeletons, rocket packs and lightning guns. Raven’s Blood is a gleeful mash-up of fantasy and supers, and awesome gadgets are a mainstay of both genres, so I knew I had to have some way of bringing those on board. I don’t have an Iron Man or Tony Stark character in mind yet, but you never know.

Artifice also gives me a more socially palatable alternative for Westrons to look up to. Everyone knows that thaumaturgy exists, and the rituals to call the Lords are simple to learn and perform, but the cost is high, too high for most people to bear. Artifice is a more difficult, more technical form of magic, but all it costs is time, effort and materials, and artificers are respected artisans. Well, until they decide to steal all the orichalcum in the city to create an army of robots…

(As an aside – I reserve the right to change the names of characters, ethnicities, magic systems and pretty much everything else as the book progresses.)

East meets West

It’s easy to see similarities between the two forms of magic, both on a narrative and a conceptual level. That’s deliberate. I like developing a structure and then seeing how it can be filled, so breaking each set of ideas down in the same way – core principle, esoteric form, mundane form – is conceptually satisfying to me and lets me think about ways to apply that approach to different ideas in the future. If I did a sequel and wanted to involve necromancy or dwarven iron-lore (oh yeah, the dwarves, forgot to mention them), then I have a framework to start developing those and drawing out core themes.

I also like drawing parallels between things, which is another reason why the structure is repeated along with some core narrative elements. Why are there 27 Hosts and 27 Lords of the Lunar Court? What’s the connection there? Do people in the setting see the similarity? Those are questions I want readers to ask, and they’re questions I will probably address at some point. Once I work out the answers.

Themes aside, the two forms also interact narratively within the story in various ways. Artifice and alchemy pair up nicely, and it’s possible to learn both skills and draw on both disciplines – the creation of pistols and rifles after the war was just such a project, packing explosive burn-salt into hand-crafted iron tubes and stocks. It also means our heroes can (and do) happily use both smoke bombs and magic swords at the same time. Sorcery and thuamaturgy, on the other hand, are completely incompatible – the use of one forever precludes the other. Is that a physical incompatibility or a supernatural one? That’s a good question, and again the kind of thing I want readers (and characters) to ask.

Okay, that’s enough on the subject of magic. Hopefully it’s got you intrigued as to how I develop those ideas and use them to evoke kick-arse scenes and drive interesting stories; if not, well, we probably both could have found better uses of our time than this blog post.

I for one do have better things to do next weekend – I’ll be flying off to Shanghai for a week, along with my lovely wife! We’ll be hanging out with friends and celebrating a 40th birthday by exploring the Paris of the East (and taking a bullet train to Beijing and back). As a result of this, and because I’m going deliberately internetless for the duration, there’ll be no PODcom update next weekend – and depending how late we get back, maybe not the weekend after. We shall see.

It’s okay to tell me you’ll miss me. You’re among friends here. Just try to soldier on while I’m gone.