- They presumably have to defend themselves still, so maybe they build huge walls, miles high, around their cities. Or maybe they live in towns made on stilts in the middle of inaccessible lakes. Or maybe they make huge armies of protective golems who physically sacrifice themselves in order to foil attacks. Or...
- They are still people, so sometimes they will want or need to hurt or kill each other. How do they achieve this? Maybe they are expert poisoners and come up with thousands of variants, renowned across the world. Maybe they create loopholes in the rules and there are guilds of lawyer-assassins who are paid vast sums to come up with new ones. Maybe they contrive ways to commit violence against each other in absolute secrecy. Maybe they hire outsiders, not bound by the rules, to do their dirty work for them. Maybe...
- 'Nonviolent' might exclude the killing of any living thing. So what do these people live on? Where do they get their protein? Perhaps they raise giant mushrooms. Perhaps they eat their own dead in elaborate rituals. Perhaps they are like the Masai and keep cattle (or, let's get creative, and make it giant beetles/iguanas/alpacas/swans) whose blood they drink.
Wednesday, 25 August 2021
Asking "What Then?", or, What Makes a Good Setting Good?
Let's subvert Tolstoy: all bad settings are all alike, but all good settings are good in their own way.
What makes for a bad fantasy setting? In my view, a lot of it can be put down to coming up with decent ideas, but failing to follow through on them by asking the critical question (or series of questions): "What then?"
For example: "In Kingdom X, the people are nonviolent pacifists." A concept you can work with, but which on its own is boring. But ask, "What then?" and things become interesting. In Kingdom X, the people are nonviolent pacifists, so what then? Well:
What you'll notice is that all of these ideas then lead on to further "What then?" questions. The nonviolent pacifists eat their own dead. So what then? Well, what do you do if you're in need of protein? Find somebody who is dying and wait patiently by their bedside. Maybe if somebody is dying everybody in the local villages comes rushing to argue over the body. Maybe peoples' corpses are subject to elaborate legal dispute, resolved by nonviolent contests or rituals. Maybe people leave different body parts to different people in their wills. Maybe there is a black market in body parts. Maybe outsiders, who are not bound by the rules, hunt and kill members of this society in secret to sell their flesh. And so on.
The classic example, for me, of the failure to really follow through on decent ideas is Planescape. All of the Planescape Outer Planes are based on interesting concepts. Bytopia has one layer on top of the other one, facing it, like an upside down mirror! The Beastlands is inhabited only by intelligent animals! Carceri is an infinite prison! Acheron is an infinite battlefield! Arcadia is the land of cloying, restrictive benevolence! And so on. But none of the designers ever really then stopped to think: "Ok, so - what then?" Er, well, it's just like D&D always is, but isn't the background idea neat?
At the opposite end of the sphere is Jack Vance, the master at coming up with initially bland-sounding ideas and then burrowing so deep inside them that they become unique and powerful. (The Face is probably the classic example of this, in which he takes the concept of 'desert planet' and transforms into something altogether wonderful.) Frank Herbert's Dune (while we are on the subject of desert planets), is another such example: you have to use a particular substance in order to perform interstellar travel. "Ok, what then?" Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy: people colonise Mars. What then? And one must not forget, of course, The Left Hand of Darkness. There's a planet of ambisexuals - what then?
If you want to come up with an interesting setting or an interesting concept to use in a setting, you can do a lot worse than flicking through the Monster Manual and applying this technique. "There are gargantuan birds, called rocs, in this setting. What then?" "There are lycanthropes in this setting. What then?" "This world has deadly puddings. What then?" The results write themselves. (It can also be done by flicking through the spells. "In this setting, people can go invisible/create fire/create illusions/charm each other with magic. What then?")
Posted by noisms at 19:59