Monday, February 6, 2012

World Building: Part 1 (the Meta-backstory)

This is going to be a totally different post from the types of posts that I've done in the past - it doesn't relate to transhumanism, politics, or science fiction in any sense of those words. Rather, this is purely a gaming post.

I'm a GM, and a rather prolific one at that. My biggest issue as a GM is that I'm good at making worlds. Not so good at following through with them. World building is something that I enjoy doing; it gives me peace of mind and it lets my imagination come to the fore. When I game, I'm usually a science fiction GM, but in the past, I've been known to blend genres (something I love doing) to create totally new settings. It may surprise some readers to learn that while I've attacked fantasy in the past, I do build fantasy settings. One of the reasons for this is because I want to fix what I see as the flaws in that genre.

My first exposure to fantasy was not a good one; it was 2 ed. AD&D and the DM for that game, while a nice guy, was an unabashed racist (making that accusation to his face would either piss him off or he'd agree with you. I'm not sure which). The world consisted of two major powers as far as I could remember - a Germanic empire and the Roman empire. Considering he thought Adolf Hitler was a decent guy (if you could "overlook the Holocaust thing"), this isn't surprising.

That game helped shape fantasy for me. The other game that helped shape fantasy was Warhammer. Not 40k, but the fantasy counterpart. This, along with Tolkein, helped to cement the idea that fantasy was a White boy's only setting; with strong European overtones and species based on creatures from European mythology (either Germanic or Greco-Roman. To a lesser degree Celtic). Even Slavic mythology and Finnish mythology seems rather exotic by comparison. Humans were the default species, White was the default color for the "civilized races."

I still have trouble shaking this notion of fantasy, even though I know that's not exclusively the case anymore in modern media. Celtic fantasy, and fantasy more true to Greco-Roman Ideals, has become popular. Urban fantasy is the new "in-genre" for fantasy, and China Mieville is leading the way in the "WTF" genre of fantasy. Even games are no longer restricted to standard European White-boy's club fantasy, although in a lot of games, that's the default setting (Grayhawk springs to mind instantly). You have Legend of the Five Rings, which, while Rokugan is a theme park version of Chijapanorea, is a break from the typical Grayhawk setting. And then there's Rifts; good luck if you try to figure out what that is. Worth noting about theme park versions is that they can be very offensive in games; appropriating another person's culture, and then doing it wrong, can be a quick way to piss a lot of people off. That's why Lot5R is "generic Asia" in the same way that Grayhawk is "generic Europe", while leaning "Japan" in the same way Grayhawk leans "English/Germanic". 

However, Rokugan is an old setting. It's been out since the 1990s at least - back when it was a card game. When it came out, it was something new. Now, it's not. Now, "generic Asia" tends to be every bit as boring as "generic Europe," with the added fact that "generic Asia" and "Japan" have become almost inseparable in the minds of gamers everywhere.

There are dozens of other cultures from around the world that one could draw from when it came to creating a fantasy setting. My favorite fantasy setting by a long shot is the Dark Sun setting, which was first published for 2 ed. AD&D. Dark Sun was something totally out of the norm - magic was a bad thing (awesome in my book; I'm so tired of seeing magic as a positive force), psionics were used (while in 2 ed. psionics were hideously broken, the concept was very novel), and the setting was like something out of the stone age. The way they changed the typical species around, and that they got rid of a few species that I didn't like at all, made it all the better.

Sadly, Dark Sun didn't have a 3.X edition. Because I started running when 3.5 came out, and I'd just learned about Dark Sun, I wanted to do a game similar. I wanted to take the standard fantasy genre and flip it on it's head, and do something unusual. I'm a big believer that originality is in the synthesis, so I pull from a wide range of sources, ranging from real world history to games. The end result of this was the setting that I coined Al-Maghreb.

Al-Maghreb is a setting influenced by three sources that's rarely drawn upon for game worlds: the first is Arabic sources and Arabic mythology. Even though I'm an atheist, I am absolutely fascinated with the history in that part of the world; the "Big Two" and their older brother come from that region. The Middle East is home to more than a half a dozen cultures, and was one of the three major sources of civilization as we recognize it (the other two being India and China). Agriculture, writing, animal husbandry, cities - these things appeared for the first time in this part of the world. There's a certain degree of romance that surrounds this region, and even though I'm hardly a romantic, I'm given to it. One day in my life I'd like to at least go there and see it. I doubt I'll ever get the chance, but I can dream. It's a region of religious conflict, of deep history, and home to a very beautiful language I love to listen to (don't tell me Arabic isn't beautiful. Arabic is gorgeous, but like all Semitic languages, it's fiendishly difficult to learn).

Readers who have knowledge of history/Arabic, however, will know that "Al-Maghreb" is a real place, and it was not in the Middle East. In fact, maghreb is the Arabic word for "west," and refers to a place that today is made up of Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, and Libya. For the geographically impaired, those places are in North Africa. Historically, Africa is a place that's been screwed in every way possible. From Territorial Imperialism, to Cultural Imperialism. to Religious Imperialism, to Military Imperialism - Western Imperialism hasn't just left scars. It's carved that continent into shreds, destroyed entire cultures, and buried a very storied, a very colorful history, under a much dark history of exploitation and abuse. My next source of real world inspiration, then came from Africa, but I did so very, very carefully, with the history of abuse and exploitation in mind, because appropriation wasn't something that I wanted to do. In particular, I wasn't drawing influence from Western Africa so much as I was Eastern Africa and the horn of Africa; Ethiopia is here, and Ethiopia (Abyssinia in classic tongue) is the oldest existing free country in Africa outside of Egypt. In fact, I think Ethiopia is the only country that's never been colonized in Africa outside of Liberia (Egypt was at one time; it's been both British and French possessions). Those who know about Ethiopian history know that it's one of the few places in Africa where one can find a decent sized population of Jewish people, and is one of the oldest Christian kingdoms on the planet. The Ethiopian Monarchy traces it's history back to the 2nd century B.C., and after World War II, when most African Nations were given their freedoms, they adopted the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Ethiopia was also one of the 4 African nations in the failed League of Nations and a charter nation in the United Nations.

So again, I'm dealing with a part of the world that has a very, very deep history. Most Americans probably don't know it, but that's because they've been exposed to theme park versions their entire life, if that. Most Americans imagine Africa as this dark place with jungles, giraffes, and places where you can go to set a story about two White people to dodge accusations of racism because you feature a few Africans. One of my coworkers was surprised the other day when I informed her that there were penguins in South Africa (and Namibia). Modern culture seems to perpetuate Africa as being nothing but jungles, deserts, and savannas, and that's not the case. So I kept all of this in mind when I was drawing influence from Africa for my setting.

I want to avoid well known icons, so I threw out Egypt. While I have nothing against the country (some of its cultural practices are a different issue, but I've got the same problem with a lot of Eastern African nations in that regard), Egypt and the pyramids are iconic symbols of the "west", and part of the reason why Egypt gets lumped in with the Middle East when clearly it's an African country, and Ancient Egypt is a clearly African culture (another example of western media screwing Africa out of it's heritage). So I didn't want to go anywhere near it. I thought about Nubia/the Sudan, since I was drawing influence from Ethiopia, but ultimately decided against it; while Nubia was an extremely thriving and prosperous culture at one point in history, and they built their own pyramids and even instilled their own dynasty at one point in Egypt, including Nubia would be almost like including Egypt, and I'd still get all the reasons why I was avoiding Egypt with the added benefit that very few people would even recognize it as Nubian, and just assume it was Egyptian instead.

The last inspiration I drew from was a very, very strange place. I already had Middle Eastern influence, North African influence, and East African influence. The last two places I picked from were actually the Victorian period, Renaissance Italy and Ancient Greece. The latter makes a degree of sense when you realize I was drawing from the Middle East - while European, Greece also had colonies in Asian Minor and around the Black Sea, and a lot of the cities in that region have Greek and Arabic names (Antioch is Greek, for instance). Helping matters is the fact that Alexander the Great had actually conquered that region. I didn't draw from Alexander's empire, though; I went back a ways and picked influence from the earlier Greek era of city-states. While city-states were not unique to Greece (the Maya had them, too), they were very clearly defined in Ancient Greece and any fantasy setting making use of city-states would harken immediately to Ancient Greece, so there was very little I could do other than step back and go with it.

The inclusion of Renaissance Italy was for mostly the same reason as Ancient Greece - the existence of well-defined city-states. However, Renaissance Italy had something else; Renaissance Italy had Leonardo da Vinci. In fantasy terms, this mean Renaissance Italy had gearpunk, and it's distant cousin, steampunk, comes from the Victorian period. Of all the different types of fantasy, I love steampunk. Steampunk has a particular feel to it; a "do it yourself" feel, with plenty of gears, chains, brass, coils, springs, boilers, and other mechanical things that harken back to a day before electronics. "Simpler" technology, one might argue; one based on physics that one could experience, as opposed to electrons and quantum computing and the like. But it has the benefit of still being technology; of still being forward facing and optimistic. Gearpunk is all that without the steam, so if you were to plot them on a timeline, Gearpunk would come before Steampunk.

So, when I stepped back and took a look at what I had created, I ended up with this:

  • A world that was going to shaped a bit like Northwestern Africa. I was going to have a desert of both sand and rock, to model after the Sahara ("Sahara desert" is like saying the El Pueblo; Sahara means "desert" in Arabic, so you're saying the "Desert desert"). with the occasional oasis and very old mountains. Civilization was likely going to be on the coast, and there would likely be a couple of different biomes visible; desert, Sahel, savanna/flat land, mountains, and possibly jungles a little further to the south although I wanted to avoid those. There would also be a very large ocean to the west (modeling after the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The influence was heavy Arabic, so I would likely be using Arabic place names. However, I had drawn on various cultures in Africa, including Ethiopia, so there was likely going to be more than one entity there. In real life, Maghreb bordered the Ashanti Empire; here, I was going to draw some inspiration from Ethiopia and likely use it to help frame a part of the "Empire" I was constructing that was facing East, and into the desert.
  • Still keeping with the African influences, there would be local tribes who followed various African animistic religions as a their primary religion. As in real life, this would likely be a source of conflict, because with Arabic came it's religion - Islam. In modern Africa, especially Western Africa although Eastern Africa and Central Africa are not immune, the three-way split between Christianity, local religions, and Islam has resulted in a great deal of horrific violence and bloodshed. In a sense, I felt like I'd be cheating ancient and contemporary history if I overlooked that. So I was working with three primary religions; one that was going to be modeled after Islam (likely with it's own split; see Sunni and Shi'a), one that was going to be modeled after Christianity, and the others that was going to be a collection of diverse local animistic beliefs. Having more than on culture and more than one religion helps give the setting a deep cosmopolitan feel. Because I was drawing from Ethiopia and using Ethiopia to help frame the Eastern part of this empire, I could already see where there were going to be problems in the empire, so I kept this in the back of my mind as I continued.
  • I drew on Renaissance Italy and Ancient Greece for city-state influences, so it was likely my large empire in the Maghreb was not going to be unified in any particular sense. I would need at least several city-states, each with their own diverse culture, who didn't always get along with one another or play well, in order to achieve this feel. I reasoned I would have one large city-state that was the most advanced kid on the block, with all the toys, the location, and the city-state that the other city-states looked up to (either in awe or envy), so I would start with them first. 
  • Steampunk. Somewhere in here I had to plonk down some serious steampunk tech. This included everything from steampowered trains, to guns, to steam-powered cars, large industries with plenty of moving parts that didn't appear to do anything other than look cool, airships, and steam-powered war bots and walkers a la Warmachines. Because I was drawing in Arabic influence, these would have strong geometric patterns on them, and the war machines would be abstract and vaguely humanoid, due to the prohibition on recreating the human figure present in some types of Islam. Reading through Dark Sun introduced me to the concept of a sand-skimmer (imagine a boat that sails over sand), which I realized that I had to have simply because of how cool it was, and my mind quickly invented steam-powered sand-skimmers, among other things. I had no intention of restricting any technology, so guns were a feature in the setting, as were cannons and the like. One could only imagine how weird (or badass depending upon your views) the city-states looked when they went to war with one another - especially considering the inclusion of alchemy (see below).
  • Magic. Obviously using steampunk requires magic as a secondary power, but I wanted to bring it more to the fore. Introducing magic into the setting would bring yet another source of conflict if I didn't do this right, so I took a step back and decided to run with two separate sources. The first was al-kimia, and the second being heavily influence from the Alin in Rise of Legends. Al-kimia is the Arabic word for "alchemy," which was a scientific study. Making it a scientific study of matter meant that it wouldn't be in as much conflict with the Islamic-stand in that I would create later, although I could certain foresee certain hardline clerics having an issue with it. In Rise of Legends, the Alin are one of the three playable races - they're modeled after pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia. They're the "magic faction," and I took from them and from standard D&D the idea of elemental magic. I would make this elemental magic a form of alchemy, and it'd be achieved through crystals that were found in the large desert. These crystals contained energy that was necessary for the manipulation of various types of matter; each school of alchemy training individuals in using one of the several different types of my own variation of the classical elements - earth, fire, wind, water and my own fifth school, glass, which was manipulating the crystals that contained the magic themselves. Alchemy would be treated as a science just like the steampunk technology was; mages were alchemical engineers, crafting magic spells while using the crystals. Because magic only came from these crystals, I had a means to control just how much magic and how powerful it was inside of the setting.
So at the end of the day, I had a setting that was influenced by several sources, without having taken much from any of them (save possibly the strong Arabic influence; if anything, that was what was bending the setting). A one point in the distant past was a very large empire; it had been born in the west with the rise of a particular religion. It spread east, until eventually it reached the mountains that lead into the vast desert. Here it stopped, and here it fragmented. It could give the outward appearance of being united but it was really just a collection of city-states at varying levels of technological advancement, who didn't always get along with one another, with a couple of the city-states to the east that didn't really favor the city-states to the west and had a much older history, independent of the city-states in the west. My Islam analog would come from the western part of the empire and the city-states to the west. My Christianity analog would come from the eastern part of the empire, and those handful of old city-states that had been consumed by the empire before it'd fragmented into city-states states. I would have the animist collective, which I had yet to define any further than "animist", preexisting in the region. Thus I have an East-West conflict, but one that totally flips the traditional way of looking at east-west conflicts on their heads, and a three-way conflict when you factor in the animist religions. Now, this conflict would only be the result of particularly hardline rulers in city-states, or those looking for an excuse to go to war to show off.

The former empire would be technologically advanced; the biggest and most powerful of the city-states would be an industrial powerhouse that made use of both advanced alchemy and steampunk technology, and I'd work down from there. The native tribes would vary from slightly above stone-age technology to modeling themselves after the empire and using some of the empire's technology, with their own twist. The Eastern part of the Empire would be of a similar technological advancement to the western part, but they wouldn't have the means to advance as quickly as the western part did, so I would be looking at very large economic disparities to power conflicts as well. The biggest, most technologically advanced city-states would also be the wealthiest, while others would become progressively poorer, and the disparity between the smaller city-states and the bigger city-states would be extreme, to say the least. This would lead to interesting economic alliance between them. This also meant that there would be plenty of fun and games when it came to try to use one city-states currency in another city-state. I decided that there would be something like a default currency accepted throughout - gold - although some city-states would ban the possession of gold for purchasing items, forcing you to use their currency so that they might get the upper hand in the economic struggle.

Technology and faith would not be odds with one another. Magic would be just another form of technology, taught in schools like any other technology. There were two types of supernatural power sources for players to pick from - alchemy, or a supernatural "materials science", and the faiths - two monotheistic faiths, one that would speak of God having a son while the other that would tolerate no such thing, and the animistic faiths of the local tribes. I wanted to downplay faith magic as much as possible to keep it from being too overpowering; miracles would be more inline with "traditional miracles" - that is, faith healing and such, as opposed to clerics calling upon god and raining fireballs down from the sky. There would be schools of thaumaturgy, where a degree in theology literally meant you could fix broken bones and help in diplomatic relations. Major universities would teach alchemy, and your "field" would be one of the elements. Alchemy would require the user to imagine long calculations and formulas in their minds at a time, which for some unknown reason helped manipulate the energies inside of the crystals. This helped alchemy seem a lot more like an actual science - it's always science where math is involved - and explained why everyone didn't just pick up a crystal and start shooting beams of fire. Rather, there would be guns - flintlock mostly, although caplock was finding it's way into use in the more powerful city-states - and cannons, mounted on the edge of these sandskiffs and on the walls of the largest and most powerful city-states. In fact, the largest of the city-states would have a massive steam-powered cannon that would fire huge rounds, mostly as a deterrent, since such a weapon would be mostly impractical - a way to tell the other city-states "yo. Don't fuck with us, bro".

So now I had a setting. I didn't have any names, but I had a very fleshed out and anchored setting with a map, countries, religions, and cultures. Now all I needed was people.

Fantasy doesn't necessarily need any of the fantasy races at all to be fantasy. It can work just fine with humans, but where's the fun in that? Of course the setting needed humans; all fantasy settings need humans, but just for the hell of it, I didn't make humans the civilization of the empire. Humans would make up the tribes that surrounded the empire and the city-states; they were the various African-influenced tribes that had the technology ranging from the stone age up through to borrowing technology from the empire and modifying themselves. They would be exploited and looked down upon by the empire. As such, human skin tones would not be white; rather, they would strongly resemble Eastern Africans and have skin tones that, depending upon the tribe, ran from a tannish-brown to almost a black-blue. Hair would be brown to black, and it would either be kinky or straight depending.

Having decided what to do with humans, I went looking for races that don't see a lot of mileage - almost alien races, you might say, to populate the remainder of the world with.

To keep things familiar, I used dwarves as the primary population of the eastern part of the empire; that is, the Christian-analog part. Christian dwarves are not a stretch, so the complete the translation, I gave them dark skin; African Christian dwarves, modeled after the monarchy of Ethiopia. They would still be recognizable because they would be big on tradition and heritage, and because I was using Ethiopia as an analog, they'd have a long tradition to be proud of.

Finding a race to be the primary population of the western side of the empire proved problematic. At first, I thought to subvert Tolkein's implications and use Orcs as the civilized race, but opted against it. Dwarves were a natural fit for the eastern part of the empire, and I wanted to avoid elves for the western part, who I felt didn't fit at all. Initially, I used giants; however, when 4e came out, I was introduced to a new species - dragonborn. Dragonborn were similar to dwarves, in that they had a culture based on honor and tradition, but different in that they were the children of dragons, as you could probably guess by the names. So I took the dragonborn and made them the dominate race for the western half of the empire, with humans acting as support. To make it an "even odd number", and complete the mandatory five race scenario, I picked up two more races: the thrikreen, who while modeled after the Mongols fit in well with the African-influenced Humans and their various tribal kingdoms, working hand-in-claw as allies, and the six-armed, bird-headed spellweavers, with a small community of at least 100 found in almost every city, who would travel throughout the empire plying their wares as masters of the science of alchemy, possibly even being the inventors of it.

So there I had my five races: Pseudo-Christian African Dwarves to the east, in the ancient city-states modeled after Ethiopia. Pseudo-Islamic African Dragonborn to the west, modeled after the various entities throughout Arabian and the Islamic expansion of north Africa, along with a generous helping of Victorian steampunk technology and Ancient Greek city-stateism. Tribal animistic humans to the south and scattered over the map, with technology anywhere from the stone age to the "modern age", collecting in various communities with at least one good-sized kingdom that was or was not part of the empire. Animistic thrikreen hunters, who lived on the Sahel and savanna, who saw themselves as spiritual kin to most humans in the region, and strange, six-armed bird-headed humanoids who would travel throughout the empire, selling their wears as brilliant alchemical engineers to the city-state willing to pay the most for them.

So there we go. This is the first of several planned posts to delve deeper into this setting of my creation. Feel free to modify anything here, or us anything here, as you see fit - this stuff is all released under the share-and-share alike license, so if you use it, make sure to attribute me first. Future posts will look at the make up of the empire, the different religions, and the specific rule set surrounding them. For now, I'll with just this post - the meta-backstory for the game.

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