Monday, April 18, 2011

The real world in world building

One of my favourite diversions is playing Warhammer 40k. Collecting, painting the models presents a great way to exercise another passion, painting; playing them through the tactical scenarios presents the challenge of adapting to the opposing player, his army list and the vagaries of the dice when rolling to shoot, for close combat, et cetera.

One of the few things that aggravate me about the state of the game is how a large majority of players shifted into one mode of army lists, mechanisation. I’m not against mechanisation, just the reasoning behind their arguments. The thought that this style of army is the sole possibility of winning...... irks me. Then I thought how this applied to other things, invariably turning to the fantasy genre.

Tolkein was likely one of the greatest influence in fantasy stereotypes, yet it was carried forward through a myriad of other authors and products. Role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, one of the genre’s larger perpetuators, has reinforced these stereotypes to the point of iconic and invariable. Examples: Think of an elf and instantly, Legolas from Lord of the Rings or some other woodland garb wearing bowman of incredible martial prowess comes to mind. Dwarves evoke short, grouchy, bearded axe wielding warriors who live in vast mountain realms. Why do Elves and Dwarves always hate each other too?

One author that I have really come to appreciate is Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series. His concept of insect-traits dominating city-state relations and how they act is absolute genius. It is executed in a way that is both blatant to the reader (Wasp-kinden are, well waspish, Ant-kinden fight other Ant-kinden city states), but also inherent to the way the character's react, within the macro-level construct he's created.

Bringing this to the Realms, I couldn’t quite accept the stereotypes, partly because of the samurai slant this world takes. That alone is neither an excuse nor a significant change. Change just for the sake of change is pretty useless and provides no value. It also gets readers disjointed about their preconceived notions on races and how they should act. With this in mind, I need a reason for any differences, consequences that bring races and their interactions to this point. No need for changes on the physiological level, mostly because they wouldn’t work. At the macro lever, things needed a cause.

Enter the Pantheonic Tragedy.

When the dust settled from that conflict of gods, the Elves were the principle race left standing, left in charge because they were the brightest, most organized; not unlike the U.S.A. as the sole super-power after the fall of the U.S.S.R. I’m a firm believer that real life is stranger than fiction, so why not apply real life realities to the Realms? A firm basis for race relations in this context, something readers can relate to. Looking to international media for how others view the United States provided a round-about way of world building that could apply to micro-level scenes and interactions.

With the Elves as the quasi-U.S.A., I found the Druids taking a quasi-United Nations role. For the Dwarves, I decided an Eastern European worldview, the Orcs fell upon an ancient Chinese perspective; the list goes on. At the end of the day, I was surprised how well this macro-approach helped define some of the more crucial scenes where the races interact and more importantly, how they approached each other, as well as the Ochra threat.

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