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Friday, 1 June 2018

A shared world

A couple of earlier posts told the story of how back in the early ‘80s I got together with a bunch of friends to cook up what nearly became an ongoing gamebook saga. Almost ten years later, in May 1992, some of those same people gathered to talk about devising a shared world. Present were:
…and me, of course. We set out that evening - almost exactly 26 years ago, good grief! - to design the framework for a fantasy world so that we could write stories in a shared setting. Here are the minutes of that meeting:

As we progressed it appeared we were heading for a 'realistic' setting in which mythic heroes and high fantasy could still be accommodated as far as possible.

[The first sign of a crack right there, if you ask me. What makes a fantasy setting interesting is the idiosyncratic focus of the creator. That 1% inspiration should come from one person. Others can share the 99% perspiration of turning some broad brushstrokes into a detailed picture. But the way we were doing it, we were headed towards “low fantasy with some high fantasy too”. More dog’s breakfast than gods of creativity! – DM]

We decided the first ten or so stories should be set in and around one city state which has a peculiar geographical location.

1) Religion

Some gods do exist but never obviously intervene in the lives of mere mortals. There are many other gods revered, some in the shape of historical heroes. These are not real in the sense of having power. Some are little-known cult deities worshipped by small sects.

The Empire is a theocracy, having one dominant god. The priests use this single religion as a tool to dominate all others. The God Emperor is both the secular and religious leader. The Empire attempts to proselytize, spreading its monotheistic beliefs to those on its borders before swallowing them up militarily. This is an oppressive religion, based on fear.

[I imagine I wasn’t at all averse to portraying religion as a tool of oppression, but will have been more dubious about the obvious plan to make the Empire “evil” and our city-state “good”. I didn’t come from a D&D background like some of the players, so to me that alignment approach to fantasy stinks of propaganda and I’d have been bound to subvert it in any stories I wrote for the setting. – DM]

2) Technology

There is no gunpowder and it is a pre-industrial early iron age world, which still includes some bronze age technologies.

The means of transport (reptilian? dinosaur? what about something like an ankylosaur, useful in battle because of it club tail, they could also be used as battering rams, crushing mud and wooden buildings like tanks.) is cold blooded and very sluggish unless warm. They can be ridden in a wooden mahout or a basket. It is sometimes necessary to warm them using fires to get them to 'start' in the morning. These beasts are important in battle. Because they move faster in very hot climes, yielding better communications, the Empire has enjoyed an advantage. They are never fast moving and messages are carried by runner. There are no horses.

[The idea of the principal riding beast being cold blooded, and the effect that would have on warfare, definitely came from me. I used it in my own campaign world of Medra. I didn’t see them as heavily armoured and slow – that sounds like it was borrowed from the chlen, the sole beast of burden in Tsolyanu. Not surprising, as most of us had been playing Tekumel for more than fifteen years by this point. – DM]

Ziggurats figure prominently.

[Odd – and possibly another unconscious swipe from Tekumel. Or is it just that the Bible has taught us to expect our evil empires to come with the trappings of Orientalist architecture? –DM]

Important buildings (palaces, temples, the amphitheatre where the demos meet, the trade exchange) are built of stone. Less important buildings are timber, then timber frame and adobe (not wattle-and-daub because those require horse or cow hair). Hovels and slums are simple mud brick affairs.

3) Climate

The Empire is hot, sub-tropical. It is centred just south of the tropics. The weather gets colder as you go further south.

[We reversed the globe, possibly inspired there by The Book of the New Sun or simple contrariness. The hot climate could have been another similarity with Tekumel – midsummer temperatures in Jakalla nudge 50° C – or simply because so much fantasy fiction is windswept, cold and muddy. – DM]

The city state area is warm Mediterranean in climate. The fault line, or volcanic ring of mountains, that currently contains the Empire would produce geographical quirks due to the layers of mist and molten magma lakes.

The barbarous lands could still be temperate, they are barbaric because the beasts of burden barely function there rather than because of extreme cold. But the further reaches could even be subarctic.

4) Geography

The Empire lies in the middle of the continent and is fringed by city states and perhaps some smaller kingdoms. Its southern border is the curved fault line caused by one tectonic plate slowly crashing into another. This has thrown up an arc of young, very high, and uneroded mountains. These old rocks have split and volcanic eruptions have added new peaks and mounds of ash. In addition where the crust is torn the molten magma has come to the surface, creating unusual conditions. Avalanches of snow reaching the lava have given rise to the layer of mists which hangs forever mysterious above the foothills.

Fault lines generally give rise to mountain ranges with one sharp face and the other more gently shelving to the plain. Is the sharp face of precipices facing north, hemming in the Empire?

[Oliver’s A-level in Geography will have come into play here. –DM]

In the centre of the fault line of mountains is an area where the two tectonic plates have not yet met, of much lower land. Our city state is a gap city, geographically sited to command the vital pass between the mountains.

The home city state is a trading centre acting as a conduit through the mountains from the southern lands of the barbarians and the lands of the city states to the empire.

We know of three other city states, one inside the empire, one more military minded than ours, and another port city on the nearest coast.

5) Social organization

Most cultures have slaves.

The Empire

See religion and elsewhere. The Empire would appear too powerful to be stopped by our city state but perhaps there are other potential problems on its many borders, diverting its resources.

The home city state

It is a fledgling democracy. All descendants of the original inhabitants of the city have the vote on every issue. They jealously guard their privilege as the founders of the city state. Prominent among the demos are (i) a few Patricians, heads of what were the noble families which probably still own many of the orchards and grain fields outside the city, and (ii) the Demagogues or rabble rousers. Oratory is an important skill and the styles used would be different for the two types.

[I like the potential for political tension, an idea that I suspect came from Jamie or Mark. It’s not clear whether the Demagogues – wrong word, I know – are descended from the original inhabitants, and therefore get a vote, or are agitating from the outside. No doubt that would have got worked out in the stories. –DM]

There are mercenaries for hire here and a distinct mercenary group.

As a wealthy trade centre the city state, with its advanced culture and great minds, has been a magnet for traders, craftsmen and others who have come to live there. Many of these are very rich, but are disenfranchised as only the offspring of the original inhabitants have the vote. These people who feel discriminated against under the current system might be suborned by the agents of the Empire.

How large is the population of this city state?

6) Sorcery

We agreed the incidence of magic should be fairly low so that the intrigues, military campaigns and human interaction don't become meaningless. Of course great magics might be explained away by the people.

Theomagy: Magic practiced by priests, usually in groups within temples. Particularly strong in the Empire. This magic typically takes some time to plan and execute but can be very powerful.

Philosopher mages: A few great minds casting their spells alone or teaching philosophy and sorcery together in their schools. They use the basic elements of magic. The search for a 'missing' element has become a part of their tradition. They are flexible in their approach and can use magic extemporaneously.

The barbarian races practice shamanic magic.

One of the philosopher mages thinks he is about to develop telepathy (Dave's idea).

[That notion was attributed to me but I have no idea why I thought it might prove interesting. Perhaps I meant the kind of telepathy that allows long-range communication, which certainly features as a very rare and somewhat unreliable resource in Medra. – DM]

Given the importance of the weather on the ubiquitous beasts of burden the importance of weather magic or perhaps weather prophesy would be significant.

7) The inhabitants

The inhabitants of the city states are either olive or coppery skinned.

The barbarians are white with red or light hair. The dominant race in the Empire are black. By making black people the most dominant culture we are reversing the norm.

[The people of both Tekumel and Medra are dark-skinned, so that was obviously comme il faut for our fantasy thinking at the time, and fair enough too. Those pale, red-haired barbarians were a bit of a cliché though! – DM]

There is an intelligent race of firedrakes living on the fault line in and near volcanoes. They soar on thermals above magma lakes. They are cold blooded and need heat to fly/glide and to think clearly. Away from the heat they become torpid and slow-witted. When hot they are capable of psionics. Humans don't think the firedrakes are intelligent.

[I remember Mark particularly liked this idea and was going to write a story about a human coming to realize that the firedrakes, normally encountered in their torpid state and therefore considered just animals, actually had a sophisticated civilization within the rim of the volcano. –DM]

8) History

The expanding Empire has prospered through a divide and rule foreign policy, better use of the warbeast/beast of burden, and unified religion and thought. The Empire has reached its natural borders and there is a head of pressure building up. Its expansionist economies need more subjects and slaves.

The northernmost city state, which lay inside the mountains, has been recently gobbled up by the Empire. "Look what happened to the northernmost city state,” warn the (correct) prophets of doom.

Our home city state has been recently, or is about to be, approached by the more military-minded state nearby to look to its defence and join an alliance.

The Empire is attempting to subvert the minds of the diverse people of our city state in preparation for taking it over. It will also be working to keep the city state diplomatically isolated.
* * *

As you will have realized, we never did anything else with our shared world. That was the only time we got together to discuss it. Sometimes an idea just fizzles out, and the only way you can see that is by spending a little time developing it. In this case I think there were just too many of us to create a coherent universe. Collaboration works fine in pairs (note that only a year or two after this meeting, Mark and I had devised Virtual Reality and Jamie and I came up with Fabled Lands) but with six people in the room – it’s not an ego thing, it’s just that you all want to go off in different directions and nothing gels. Or is it that groupthink distracts you from exploring those different directions? One or t'other.

Funnily enough, if the rights to do Tekumel novels had dropped into our laps, that’s what we’d all have spent the 1990s writing. Tekumel works because it’s the vision of one mind: Professor M A R Barker’s, which has then inspired others to expand upon it. Or look at how many authors can do interesting work in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos universe, or in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe (a spin-off of the former, come to think of it). Or the biggest beast of all shared worlds ever, Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe.

What do you think about shared worlds? Any favourites? Or do you find that having multiple authors working in the same universe just creates a hopeless collision of styles? The earliest shared world I'm aware of is Charles Dickens's Mugby Junction, which is well worth a look:


  1. For Fantasy, my fave is Robert Lynn Asprin's Thieves' World. For modern/superhuman, George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards.

  2. I suppose 007 is also a shared world (shared IP, anyway) although none of the subsequent writers are a patch on Fleming.

  3. In that case Jonathan Maberry's Joe Ledger counts as a "shared world" because there was an anthology of stories featuring him by different authors. From my perspective, a "shared world" is different than a "shared character." The 007 stuff would only count as a shared world if we had stories/books focusing on 006, 008, M, Q, etc. Otherwise it's just a "shared character."

    1. Presumably they all feature Moneypenny, M, Major Boothroyd, etc. I'm not sure, though, as I haven't even read all of Fleming's 007 books, and have barely dipped into the rest. At any rate, none of these are really created by the group. Presumably Asprin and Martin devised their worlds and then just invited other writers to set stories in them. Of course, those stories then become part of the creation, but it seems like the bulk of the work was in place already.

    2. I can't really speak to how the various worlds were set up, but in Thieves' World and Wild Cards, the various authors told stories from the viewpoints of the characters they created. Those characters sometimes "guest-starred" in other authors' stories. Also, various anthologies frequently revolved around important events and the various characters' actions/reactions to those events.

      To apply that to your 007 idea, you'd have a story with 007 getting a mission from M, getting equipment from Q and doing hi mission. But you'd have stories about M dealing with diplomatic fallout back home, Q trying to hack information for use by Bond and 006, 008 and 012 dealing with their own missions and each deals with a separate aspect of preventing SPECTRE from damming the Thames with dirty diapers or what-have-you.

  4. I think what I want to say is - isn't the whole of literature, all human storytelling, one vast shared universe ? 'Shared World' just means you are using the name somebody else devised for Character X; none of the fundamental tropes or actors of Our Stories could ever be legitimately 'copyrighted' - just the particular name one author is using for them, or perhaps the costume they are being dressed in ?

    PS have to disagree that Stan Lee's Marvel is the "biggest" of all shared worlds ever - the biggest, though far from the best, is surely the Bible ?

  5. Is the Bible bigger than the Marvel Universe? They're both pretty extensive mythologies, though at a guess Hindu myth might have them both beat for scale.

    That does remind me that I nearly pointed out that every culture is a shared world, just that it happens to be one we live inside. Certainly the idea that all of human storytelling is one vast shared canon is at the heart of Mirabilis. (I have no truck with the notion of cultural appropriation, you see.)

    1. You might be right about that Dave, I don't own a crucifix but I do have a Captain America t-shirt ; )

      And I agree with you about the nonsense of "cultural appropriation" - it's apartheid with a patronising smile, isn't it ?

  6. Agree, the least of the Fleming 007 works were streets ahead of any of the of the others I've read.

    They may well not have stood the test of the time as I've not read them for 30 odd years, but I remember enjoying the original Dragonlance books, before the universe was expanded allowing a multitude of other authors to contribute. I still have them in my collection actually, so may give them another whirl.

    1. I've never read any of the Dragonlance books, but if they count as a shared world then I guess the Star Wars book series does too. Not sure if what's canonical in the SW books also counts as movie canon, though.

    2. I'm probably being a bit anal about this, but I wouldn't count Dragonlance, Star Wars or Star Trek as "shared worlds." Maybe shared settings, but that'd be about it.

      Probably my ideas for a shared world reflect a concept of a "sandbox RPG." In an sandbox, the PCs don't form a permanent party. They're all individuals generally going their own things. The Rogue is robbing houses. The Mage is trying to find and banish a demon. The Fighter is part of the mercenary company. The PCs might cross paths (the Mage might hire the Fighter's company to help with the demon or the Thief might attempt to steal the mercenary company's payroll) but only when it makes sense within their own storylines to do so.

    3. Our Tekumel campaign was sandbox-style, in the sense that I let the players decide their own goals rather than imposing a storyline on them, but that didn't mean that the PCs weren't a party. A shared world is one where the development of the setting is undertaken by several writers. Certainly Star Trek doesn't fit that bill; it's Roddenberry's vision (or used to be, now it's a dog's breakfast). And Star Wars is sort of George Lucas's creation, though that's more of a shared world as he just assembled it from pre-existing tropes. Even Mugby Junction isn't a shared world in this strict sense, though, as Dickens created the setting before throwing it open to other authors.

    4. Maybe if I saw it up close I'd change my mind, but your Tekumel campaign sound more like a group playing together at the beach than a sandbox.

      Assuming you're still following Legends of Tomorrow, that show is part of a sandbox setting. While there are occasional meetings, conflicts and crossovers, generally Team Arrow does its thing, Team Flash does its thing, Team Supergirl has its stuff and Team Time Bandits has its sphere of interests as well.

      Probably an even better sandbox with occasional teaming is Marvel's Cinematic/TV universe, while the various characters will come together in certain situation, for the most part they maintain a certain distance from each other.

      In terms of RPGs, a paper/pencil/dice physical game would like be the worst way to do a sandbox game. No one wants to wait until their turn. I have been involved in some now-defunct but previously long-running sandbox games on

    5. When I use the term sandbox I'm referring to an open-world game in which players are free to explore wherever they like rather than having to follow a linear plot set down by the designers. That's how it's used in games, anyway.

      There must be a term for linked stories in which the main character in one might have a walk-on part in another (Last Exit To Brooklyn, The Sound And The Fury, Tales Of The City, The Dying Earth, etc) but I don't know what it is. Can any Eng Lit graduates help us out here?

    6. James Wallis has pointed out that the literary form is usually known as a novel sequence or roman-fleuve. That doesn't cover short stories, though, or other media, so I'm officially coining "Barchesterian".

    7. Better still, author David Mitchell uses the term metalepsis:

      "Characters from your previous pieces turn up regularly in your other books and short stories. Are these thematically representative, or are you just fond of these guys?"

      "I’m fond of them; it’s fun. And I like the idea of writing an über-novel and all of my books are chapters in it. And linked with that is my theory of Transferrable Reality Concreteness. If you’ve spent time with a character in work A, and you felt that was a very real place, then when they appear in work B, they bring with them the conviction that any world they appear in is real. Shakespeare did this in the history plays, and Falstaff appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor. There’s even a literary word for this: metalepsis. Sprinkle that one into conversation when you can, then make friends and influence people."

    8. I'm not too clever at the clever stuff, Dave, but does Stephen King's Maine/Dark Tower multiverse qualify under this criteria?!

    9. It's all set around Castle Rock, I think, Andy? I guess if the same characters recur in different stories that makes it what David Mitchell calls metalepsis -- though he's not using the term the way anybody else does. I only know that from looking at Wiki, mind you.

    10. If you've not read much of his stuff you wouldn't get the reference, Dave. It was the bit about all books being a chapter of a larger work or world and transferability which struck a chord, virtually all of his books having a reference to another book, story or character, in some shape or form.

    11. Without wanting to bore you with more King, I remember he wrote himself into one of his own Dark Tower novels. Is there a word for that I wonder, other than hubris, possibly?

  7. Okay, Dave, I guess I'll coin the term "park play" to describe what I'm talking about. Unless you know some other terms where the same setting (a fictional town in Virginia) has something like 50+ different PCs of various types (base human, vampire, werewolf, mage, etc) all pursuing their own goals separately, in occasional concert and often in conflict with one another.

    1. Is that an actual tabletop roleplaying campaign, John? If there are 50+ players then I can see why they wouldn't all get together very often. It still needn't necessarily be sandbox (the GM might plan 50 different linear quests) but park play sounds as good a wayOAS any to describe it.

    2. Well, there was never really going to be a time where all 50+ PCs (or even a sizable minority of them) got together, but there were a few times when cross-pollinated parties (werewolves/mages; vampires/changelings, etc) might form for specific situations. As for linear quests, there really wasn't much of that. Certainly things were happening beyond the PCs (NPCs had lives/plans too), but for the most part the PCs were actively pursuing their various goals and that created plot aplenty for the game.

    3. I think the most players we've ever had in one campaign was a dozen, when our Tekumel campaign was at its height. It's not easy running a game for that many players, but the richness of the setting helped. Players tended to stay in character and engage with the game -- sadly not always true these days, when I make sure to sit next to whoever is running the session so I can hear him over the hubbub of inconsequential backchat and endless "savvy" media references. At least I'm not alone in this; Jonathan Hicks was grumbling about the same thing on his blog recently.

  8. Well, the thing about RPoL is it's an online forum with various topic threads. There's no way in hell the campaign I describe could work in a physical location given the players hailed from America all the way to Australia.