On Sunday, Tim discussed world building from a far more broad perspective than I did in my article DMing 101 – World Building. By and large we have looked at these things from the perspective of creating new worlds, fantastical, fictional, completely fabricated, when in fact we have our own rather stunningly rich history filled with incredibly weird and wonderful characters, places of incredible natural beauty, and complexities beyond comprehension. Many of the worlds we create heavily draw from the real world for inspiration for that exact reason.
I’m not a fan of reality, that’s why I play in fantasy worlds and devise new marvels, wonders and weave such rich tales as I am able, it’s escapism, a break from a world that annoys me, but sometimes you really have to sit back and acknowledge that there are parts worth looking into. If you – like me – simply cannot bear reality as it stands there are ways of making it more enjoyable with only a few little tweaks.
The most simple of alternative histories is to look back at particular events or important figures and ask “What would have happened if…”. The most famous example being steampunk, a variation on the modern world that follows a history in which steam technology advanced to almost magical capabilities. The game World War 0 (a.k.a Iron Storm) presents us with a simple question “What if World War 1 never ended” and projects history through decades of endless warfare, the politics, the battle-lines, the technology, and the power players. The Civilization series pitches historical leaders of every great nation in the world against each other to become dominators of culture, science, faith, or military might, despite the fact that these people lived centuries apart.
What-If’s are simple writing devices for anyone of a creative bent, but mixing and matching chunks of reality or sending history along different paths can create worlds that are at once deeply familiar and yet brilliantly unique. Here’s a generator for you to try coming up with your own unique versions of history, some of which may feature elements of fantasy, but I’m coming to that next.
History + Fantasy
This one’s more a matter of scale. How much fiction do you add before you no longer have a twisted version of history and you have instead created a completely different and quite unreal world.
Horror takes the right angle, vampires especially. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – which presented us with a modern world that is revealed to have a history interlaced with the nocturnal monsters that we have known nothing about – compared to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – which took said history and tied it into very real events. Buffy seems the more fantastical, especially as the series develops and creates a far more elaborate story that we live obliviously above, and also tying in this fictional role of the Slayer serves to deepen the mythology. Lincoln presents us with the exact same fantasy, and yet it plunges the mythological monsters into the American civil war and the real people and politics.
One might argue that history is the most real thing of all. It is time that has happened, events that cannot be changed, but it can be reinterpreted in countless ways. Seen from the perspective of victor or vanquished, every grey area filled with conspiracy, or re-envisioned as a glorious lie to cover an unbelievable truth. To write a story or design a world from that perspective can be a tricky but entertaining balancing act. How much do you re-invent history before it’s no longer recognisable? Or do you need to change more to make it fun enough for you?
It may very well be the geekiest thing of all to study something for the sake of it, or possibly to increase the level of reality you bring to your works of fiction. Take the time to learn a little more about the weird and terrifying cultures and politics and characters of history you’ll learn that as boring as the real world can be it can far out-do whatever our imaginations can conjure – most of our imaginations any way.
It doesn’t take a lot of research to take some inspiration from history, it can take a little digging through the news to find the really crazy stuff, or if you prefer you can take the mundane and change it just enough to make it something truly special, and uniquely yours.