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Thursday 27 October 2022

New worlds in the making

It’s often said that Tolkien is the originator of modern fantasy, and I suppose that’s true if you only consider the dominant strain of fantasy with its vaguely European and vaguely medieval flavour. I can’t knock that, it’s where Legend springs from too, but I have just as much affection for the older variety of fantasy from which sword & sorcery evolved. Barsoom, through the Hyborian Age and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique, Poseidonis and Xiccarph, then Planet Stories and Vance through to Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms.

The keynotes of that genus of fantasy are exoticism, the ancient world, priesthoods and demons, typically (not always) lower or less widespread use of magic yet at the same time an admixture of science, or at least scientifically-coloured fantasy. Most importantly, the universe in such science fantasy tends to be realistic, governed by laws of nature (even if they include magic) that are indifferent to humankind. It’s the opposite pole to Jewelspider, where dream logic and prophecies and a real divine presence are woven into the setting.

As a teenager I loved the fantasy worlds of Robert E Howard, Edward P Bradbury (Moorcock again), Jack Vance and Tanith Lee – so naturally when Empire of the Petal Throne appeared in the mid-‘70s I took to it like a tletlakha to water. I owe a creative debt to Professor Barker and his world of Tekumel only partially repaid with the four issues I edited of The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder.

A lot of studios, game developers and book publishers these days are eyeing the success of things like Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, and Dune. With networks in the streaming wars all chasing the last big thing, a fully-realized original fantasy/SF world is a lottery ticket with a big jackpot on offer. Suddenly worldbuilding is in.

A little while back I was lamenting the difficulty David Velasco and Riq Sol were having raising funds for their game Expeditionary Company. Probably the answer is to forget about launching it as a boardgame/gamebook, just take it to a developer who wants a great concept for a new MMO. Judging by the rapid rise of Vulcanverse online, if they could find a way to include NFTs in the design they'd have to chase the investors off their front lawn. Or they could see if Jeff Bezos has another half billion and doesn't want to throw it away this time. (It would need a far sexier name than "Expeditionary Company", though.)

There aren't that many fantasy world-builders with expertise in both games and storytelling, so I thought I'd try my hand at creating a "hard fantasy" setting. This was Before the Storm, a novel I was writing while doing jury service in the mid-'90s. I’ll quote from the T-shirt version:

An isolated star system out beyond the galactic rim. For a quarter of the year the night sky is utterly dark with only a few smudges of light marking distant galaxies. Then gradually the galactic rim makes its appearance at night: a vast wheel of stars, not of one galaxy but of two in spectacular collision.

The people of this world are descendants of a crashed colony ship but have no record of their heritage. As far as they know they are alone in the universe. The fauna of their world are not the familiar animals of earth. Instead of horses they ride “destriers”, two-legged animals that because of their cold blood must be warmed beside ovens before they can be used in cold weather. Technology is barely beyond the level of the late middle ages - though there are some features that have not paralleled the development pattern of Earth's history, such as primitive gunpowder weapons and even a type of photography.

Some biotechnology survives from the colony ship that brought the original settlers, often in the form of various algae. There is a hydrogen-producing strain that permit balloons for use in reconnaissance and a cobweb-silk producing strain that is used for weaving immensely strong fabrics. Various other scattered fragments of technology are sometimes found, but to the superstitious inhabitants of this world they are thought of as magic.

There are also civilized nonhumans and semi-humans sharing this world with humanity. At the point when the first novel begins they have only been infrequently contacted and are thought of as mythical.

Medra is a tropical island nation that, by virtue of the industrious and warlike nature of its people, has consolidated an overseas empire much larger than the original archipelago. Medran society is more developed than those of the countries it has conquered, but the rigid caste system that has vitalized it in the past has now reached the point of breakdown. A new society is in the process of emerging.

I never finished the thing. One reason is that I got a job at Eidos that left no time for novel-writing. But that’s really just an excuse. The truth is that it was the kind of fantasy I wanted to write but not really what anyone was reading back then. Publishers wanted the Western style of fantasy I mentioned above set in a  version of the Middle Ages with more modern sensibilities -- effectively, "medieval America". 

By contrast my fantasy world was not the slightest bit medieval nor culturally or ethnically European. It bucked the '90s trend, being more of a modern evolution of those weird and wonderful Planet Stories of yore, but now that the selection pressure is for exotically different fantasy worlds (there is no point in creating a world that isn't uniquely and brandably distinct) it might finally be time to dust it off -- with the necessary changes to make it compatible with current trends in massively multiplayer online play, which is where the demand is coming from. So I am currently repackaging it like this:

A Rapa Nui of the cosmos

The idea of an isolated world is a powerful one, throwing all our human endeavours against the daunting backdrop of uncaring immensity. Here’s a way to do that:

This world orbits the star Edis , a solitary system out in intergalactic space. For several months of the year the night sky is empty of stars. Then only the other planets of the system and the moons of our world are to be seen.

As the season of stars approaches, the rim of a galaxy rises above the horizon – higher month by month until mid-summer, when most of the night sky is taken up by the spectacular sight of two galaxies in collision, intertwining vortices of light formed by great reefs of stars being torn into new configurations.

How do people come to be here? For most, it is a mystery no one even considers. This is where humanity has always been, surely? There are cities, farms, villages. Kings and councils of syndics, priests of the gods who explain portents – and deep forests in which dwell alien creatures that never arose on any world of men.

The truth: a one-in-a-trillion quantum fluctuation in the warp drive of a generation starship, so that instead of its intended destination in the Milky Way the ship was flung across gulfs measureless to the imagination. That it arrived anywhere in real space is a miracle. A return journey would have been impossible to plot or undertake even if the ship had not taken damage.

The crew made their decision. With no future possibility of contact with the rest of human space, no hope of ever returning to space, it would be kindest to raise the new generations with no knowledge of humanity’s past. This world Edis IV, known to the settlers as Anshar , would be the new Eden.

That was hundreds of years in the past. To most people, Anshar is the only world there is.

My initial plan for how to develop it was using The Expanse's serialized book model, though more like a TV writers’ room – ie five or six writers each taking main responsibility for a couple of “episodes” (around 20,000 words each) building over 6-10 months into a 12-episode “season arc” thrashed out from the start by the lead writer(s). Those novellas would be the proof of concept stage, and viable as products in their own right, but if funding could be found they should be repurposed into scripts and released as audio dramas. The plan, then, was to prototype in prose and see if that could lead on to videogames, TV shows, or whatever.

The snag is that really you need artists involved from the start. Words can only take you so far but people want a shared experience -- visuals showing the architecture and clothing and also sounds, the noise of wildlife, the rhythms of music in this fantasy culture.

Whether I’ll get to do more with Edis than I did with that Medra novel thirty years ago remains to be seen. The sword of Damocles over every writer’s head is that all creative work is entirely speculative. The seed capital is the writer’s own time and effort, but when it comes to selling it nobody respects sweat equity the way they respect cash. So taking six or nine months out to devise a complete fantasy world and write a novel set in it is like buying a lottery ticket in the knowledge that, if it looks like winning, some producers or publishers will do their best to claim the lion’s share of the payout.

In any case, after my day jobs (freelance design on a videogame and writing the final Vulcanverse book) my first priority is Jewelspider. I was chivvied about that by some gaming buddies I met up with recently. Oliver Johnson was running a new Legend adventure and resorted to using original Dragon Warriors rules because 'Dave still hasn’t written the Jewelspider magic system!' So I have to do that – and then Abraxas, which will be serialized first to Patreon backers and is a science fantasy setting (prehistoric rather than far-future) that will use a new edition of my Tirikelu rules. And after that, maybe, I’ll take another look at this thing.

* * *

This post originally appeared in longer form on my Patreon page, and included a link to the first 20,000 words of the Medra novel. I mention that not to try to get you to sign up to Patreon (though you would be very welcome) but just for full disclosure.

Tuesday 25 October 2022

Little devils

Many Legend games I’ve played in use the Five Magi as the main antagonists. It’s not surprising, given that’s their role in the Blood Sword books, but I never intended them to bulk so large in the wider world of Legend. 

The Dragon Warriors world is a facet of the Medieval Imaginary, after all, and the enemy in everyone’s mind is the Devil himself, always waiting to show you the way to hell if you stray off the straight and narrow. That threat is hammered home every Sabbath and most churches have hair-raisingly vivid paintings of heaven and hell to ensure that you get the message even if you doze off during sermons.

This month I have a Halloween adventure on my Patreon page, and so I unashamedly invite you to go over there, drop a coin in the slot, and help yourself to that and a whole cartload of other goodies.

Thursday 20 October 2022

Heart of Ice - the ultimate edition

The deluxe edition of Heart of Ice is coming, and as these samples show it really is deluxe. You can get on board the crowdfunding now with just one week to go. Seeing as the colour hardback edition of The Walls of Spyte nowadays gets advertised for sale at $1500 up, it's an investment as well as a treasure.

Sunday 16 October 2022

History is merely gossip

Oscar Wilde was born 169 years ago, just under a mile from where, a few decades later, my grandfather arrived in this world. They might well have been baptized in the same church. You’ll have to excuse the biographical intrusion; I feel a strong bond with Oscar, seeing as we also went to the same college, though I haven’t as yet followed him to prison.

Frank Benson tells a fine story about Oscar in his undergraduate days:

‘The big, loosely built Irishman, the lazy, lumbering, long-haired, somewhat sallow faced individual with a greeny-brown coat and yellow tie, once defeated single-handed a party of rugger hearties who proposed to make hay of his rooms.

‘To the astonishment of the beholders, number one returned into their midst propelled by a hefty boot-thrust down the stairs. The next received a punch in the wind that doubled him up on to the top of his companion below. A third form was lifted bodily from the floor and hurled on to the heads of the spectators. Then came Wilde triumphant, carrying the biggest of the gang like a baby in his arms.’

('Rugger hearties' are what we might nowadays call jocks.) It shouldn’t have astonished the beholders that much, in fact, as Oscar had a boxing Blue. Another of his college friends told this story:

‘Oscar had some really beautiful framed drawings on his walls, given him by his friend Frank Miles, of mostly nude subjects; and looking round with an eye to mischief I spotted some penny stamps on the writing table with which I thought it would be a delicate attention to clothe the pretty ladies. This I did, and the party shortly after arrived. First one looked up, giggled and blushed, and then another, till the whole party was convulsed, but all Oscar said to me was ‘It’s really too bad of you,’ but he had to laugh at my inane joke like all the rest. As he never seemed to have devoted any more of his time to work than the rest of us, it came as a bit of a surprise that he took the Newdigate scholarship.’

My favourite Oscar anecdote, though, is this. Although talking in Reading Gaol was strictly forbidden, one of Oscar’s warders would exchange a remark with him now and then. The warder in question had a great respect for Oscar as a literary man, and he did not intend to miss such a chance of improving himself. He could only get in a few words at a time. Oscar later told the story to William Rothenstein (who incidentally drew the accompanying sketch):

`Excuse me, sir,’ asked the warder, ‘but Charles Dickens, sir, would he be considered a great writer now, sir?’

To which I replied: `Oh yes; a great writer, indeed. You see he is no longer alive.’

‘Yes, I understand, sir. Being dead he would be a great writer, sir.’

Another time he asked about John Strange Winter. `Would you tell me what you think of him, sir?’

`A charming person,’ says I, `but a lady you know, not a man. Not a great stylist, perhaps, but a good, simple storyteller.’

`Thank you, sir, I did not know he was a lady, sir.’

And a third time: `Excuse me, sir, but Marie Corelli, would she be considered a great writer, sir?’

This was more than I could bear, and putting my hand on his shoulder I said: ‘Now don’t think I have anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be here instead of me.’

Tuesday 11 October 2022

If entertainment got a factory reset

I posed this question on (ugh) Facebook recently, but then I thought, "Fabled Lands readers are smart; they'll have something interesting to say about this."

First, some context. You're familiar with Ricky Gervais's point about religion. If you're not, it's only 90 seconds.

OK, so here's the Gedankenversuch. Suppose that overnight we all lose our memory of which books and movies are acclaimed and/or popular. Everyone in the world, I mean. Those books and movies and TV shows are all still around, we can look at any of them, but we no longer know which were famous and which had been forgotten by history. 

Fast forward ten years. Are the famous books and movies of this imaginary 2032 the same as now? Completely different? Or is there some overlap? And if the last, which are the IPs that can make a comeback despite mass amnesia?

Of course, in reality you'd be able to see which stories had had endless sequels and remakes. Frankenstein, for example. But let's not nitpick about how this would work. Let's just postulate that somehow we can access all the stories of the past but we don't know which of them we used to think were best.

Sometimes the first to market gets to be the most popular. That's true of D&D, for example. But just as often it's not the case. If all of entertainment were to reset to Year Zero, would The Books of Magic become more popular than Harry Potter? Would Tanith Lee's Tales from the Flat Earth outsell The Sandman? Would Dorothy L Sayers take the crown of Queen of Crime from Agatha Christie? Or would Father Brown be better known than Hercule Poirot? In the field of fantasy, would we still be glued to Lord of the Rings spin-offs or would Jeff Bezos be spending half a billion on Gormenghast or Lord of Light instead? Would SF blockbusters be built around Larry Niven's Known Space instead of Dune and Star Wars? And would our favourite albino swordsman be Elric of Melniboné rather than Geralt of Rivia or all those decadent, pale, white-haired, draconically empowered kings on House of the Dragon?

To sum up: in the evolution of entertainment franchises, how much is in the "fitness" of the concept and how much is down to luck?

Thursday 6 October 2022

The indigo triremes of Atlantis

"Experience swords and tragedy in the vein of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné and Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master."

How did I miss this? I first fell in love with science fantasy through the Kane of Mars books by "Edward Powys Bradbury" (in reality our old mucker Mike Moorcock) which I discovered when I was about nine years old. Immediately my heart was whisked away to an exotic world of red deserts, soaring towers, flashing blades and ancient wonders. (Was Kane an aspect of the Eternal Champion? Of course not. Revisionist/marketing nonsense, that. He was his own man, and all the better for it.)

In Rose Bailey's game Bright & Terrible you wander the ancient world as an exile of lost Atlantis. It reminded me a bit of Abraxas (a lost continent of the world of fifty thousand years ago) where the players can travel to the mainland and interact with Neanderthals and Cro Magnon tribes to whom the inhabitants of Abraxas seem like gods. The difference is that Bright & Terrible is not set in deep imaginary prehistory like Abraxas but instead overlaps with the Bronze Age. All the action takes place in exile in that new world around the Mediterranean where the characters have only memories of the old world they've left behind -- a perfect springboard for stories.

Rose Bailey also wrote Cavaliers of Mars, set on "a planet of flashing swords and choking sands, of winking courtesans and lantern-lit canal cities." If you're as big a fan of science fantasy as I am there's no need to say more -- other than to thank Roger and Mike on Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice for pointing me in the right direction. Now I just have to find somebody else who loves this stuff as much as I do and maybe I can get a game going...

Tuesday 4 October 2022


Maskwitches Of Forgotten Doggerland is exactly the sort of setting I love, just 'cause it's different. Oh, and because it looks a bit desperate and bleak, it's steeped in dreamlike deep myth, and it's about the infinite variety and weirdness of humankind. (Though personally I'd forget all about the 1970s stuff, that Stranger Things/Paper Girls shtick getting a bit threadbare* by now, and just play it all out in the Mesolithic.)

Bonus points because it evokes Jack Vance's story "The Miracle Workers", which you should hunt down and read if you can but if not here's an audio version. I also liked Jon Hodgson's recap on Twitter of some surprising historical facts:

*I know they're set in the '80s. But it's the same thing.