A. J. (Tony) Smith has been an avid player of fantasy role-playing games for many years, since he could swing a sword and cast a fireball. He created the world of THE BLACK GUARD over many games and epic plotlines, testing its architecture and characters through interaction with his players, before writing it all down. He tells us why…
Worlds are complicated. Our own is so filled with contradictions, mysteries, conflicts, beauty and general chaos that to summarise it would seem simplistic and possibly naïve.
The same could be said for any well-designed world.
The problem faced by a potential world-builder is that he/she does not have two thousand years of bizarre human behaviour to call upon in order to justify why random bloke does random thing.
If you’ll permit me to be a touch glib for a moment – try explaining the concept of religion to an alien with no such concept. This is the task faced by world-builders: justification, or, at the very least, reasons for things. They don’t necessarily need to be good reasons, or even explainable reasons, they just need to be reasons why random bloke does the aforementioned random thing.
Nations are complex, as are religions, gods and, above all, human motivation. The only real way to test a world is to… well, use it. Some people wheel out their carefully constructed fantasy landscape in short stories or secondary material –my personal favourites being maps (of which I've done hundreds) and drawing of monsters (of which most look Cthulhian in some way). But those of us lucky enough to be committed role-players can also chip away at their made-up worlds and peoples on a weekly basis to an audience of sympathetic-ish players. If the lands of The Long War made no sense, one of my players would have told me years ago. Come to think of it, they did and, as a result, things were subtly and slowly changed. For example, I had a brief and ill-advised dalliance with Halflings, thinking, on some sycophantic level that I was paying tribute to Tolkien. It took a good friend to tell me that they were too comical for the world. On the subject of J.R.R, I happen to agree with him that an invented landscape gets richer when multiple minds and motivations collide to make it live and breath. He wanted other people to add to his world*. As did I.
Artwork, maps etc were initially a means of making the world live for my players, who were travelling along labyrinthine plots and through strange, twisting scenarios. Over time they became something else: a veritable ocean of material from which to mine a book… or several books as it turns out. I had gone through a lengthy process of trying and failing, drawing and rubbing out, expounding and correcting. By the time I actually came to write down the world, I didn’t need to plan much at all. I had characters, I had worlds, I had gods, religions, monsters, good guys and bastards. I acted many of them out to my group of friends/players as they rolled dice and fought overwhelming odds.
The strange obliviousness with which I did this meant that I only realized what I’d been doing for ten years when a friend pointed it out: “Tony, you’ve basically been testing this world for ten years.”
He was right. I make no claim to being the best or most original writer in the field of fantasy fiction, but I am damned proud of the world I’ve created: the frozen wastes of Fjorlan, the complex structure of the Freelands, the arrogant entitlement of the Ro, the Machiavellian scheming of the gods – they interlock in my mind as parts of a world more real than stuff I could come up with in months or even years of note taking. My note taking was plotting roleplaying games and my barometer of success was whether or not my players felt immersed in the world and enjoyed the tides of plot and counter-plot.
When a random bloke does a random thing my players should take note, maybe even be surprised, but what they shouldn't do is laugh at how unrealistic his actions are. Which means It’s internally consistent. Messing around with plots, stories and strange occurrences over the course of ten years has - I hope - made it so.
THE BLACK GUARD by A.J. Smith is published this August. Exclusive early preview coming soon.
*To read a bit more about Tolkein’s world-building see:
An interesting post by Sadie Heilemann: http://voices.yahoo.com/jrr-tolkien-pioneer-speculative-world-building-10333489.html
Or in the words of the man himself: J.R.R. Tolkien, 'On Fairy-Stories' (Harper Collins 2008)
Sneak preview of the lands of Ro