Fantasy Worldbuilding Babbles

I’m in a semi-random, babbling sort of mood this morning. Figured I’d spam something else out while I was thinking about it.

While I generally would consider myself a “horror writer” – whatever that means – I’ve prodded more than once at other genres. Somewhere in the depths of my hard drive, one will find romance, Westerns, literary fiction, nonfiction and even plain ol’ swords and sorcery fantasy. It’s the last that has my attention at the moment, primarily because I had some folks discussing playing D&D the other day, which led to a conversation regarding who’d be the DM, which led to several of them wanting me to do it for assorted reasons.

“Well,” says I, “I can. But if I did that, it’d be my own setting.” Never was much a fan of the Forgotten Realms, and nobody else seems to have an appreciation for Ravenloft or Birthright (plus, so far as I know, neither has been brought up to 4th Edition specs, and I don’t think Birthright ever even got to 3rd.) This perked interest, and they wanted to know what sort of setting it was. When I explained some of it, they seemed distressed. “But… there’s no elves! There’s no dwarves! Magic isn’t something people just learn?”

From my viewpoint, there are elves and dwarves. So far as magic is concerned, in my setting, you either earn it by gaining the personal attention of one of the gods (and as we all know, “The downside to occasionally having the undivided attention of a celestial being is occasionally having the undivided attention of a celestial being.” Thank you, In Nomine, for the paraphrase) or by stealing or being gifted a chunk of one of the demigods’ soul. I prefer having a setting where magic is harder to come by than just reading a dusty old book, personally.

But back to the dwarves and elves. (And other fantastical races/creatures.) I accept that most people think fantasy needs such thing. Otherwise, it’s not really fantasy, now is it? But when I was making Milefront (back in the dim, dark days of 1992 or thereabouts), I didn’t just want another setting with tall, willowy guys with pointy ears who lived in the forest and fought for nature, and puppies and stuff(!), nor a bunch of gruff, diminutive Scotsmen who liked mining and blowing things up. I went more for an archetype. Thinking about it, I decided the niches that those races needed to fill could be tweaked, quite a bit, thus satisfying me.

So, for elves, what came to mind was “Immortal. Forest-dwelling. Strong magic users. Older than humans or other, more populous races. Reclusive.” Instead of little blonde pretty boys with bows or strange gypsy-like women with untold powers of enchantment, I made mine the children of the God of Blood and the Goddess of the Sun. From daddy, they got immortality – after a fashion – and a primogeniture (Ashan being the first of the Gods, so far as anyone knows). From being born of two divine entities, they got a pile of strange abilities that the other races would term “magic.” Then daddy and mommy had a falling out, and the Talaq got to take the brunt of it in the form of Jentessa’s curse, making sunlight decidedly unpleasant for them. “No problem,” they say, and promptly take up residence in the depths of A’arushythe, a dense forest where the sun can’t penetrate the tree cover.

Now, to keep their magic tricks working, and keep their immortality, daddy put certain restrictions on them. Namely, that they should honor him by consuming the nature of life itself. That being blood, of course. Yes. I started with elves, and ended up with vampires. But, hey, they covered the bases. I was happy with them.

Then I moved on to the dwarves. “What,” says I, “makes dwarves tick?” So another list was made. This time it was “Tough. Prefer the underground and have a knack for it. No-nonsense, pragmatic attitude.” Thus the Nuital were born. Going against type, the Nuital tend to be tall and broad; no little midgets for me. According to the backstory, when mankind first arrived in Milefront and scattered across it, several tribes were forced into servitude by the Talaq, and put to work mining. Over generations, they got very good at it, almost becoming one with the stone and the earth, attuned to the darkness under the mountains; in time, however, they grew tired of their subservience, and found a means to rebel. By contacting spirits called the Quali, the Nuital threw off the yoke, and claimed their own kingdoms in the mountains; by making pacts with Jentessa (among others) they made sure their homeland was inhospitable to the Talaq, and kept them out. Of course, Nuital now are still indebted to those entities, forming splintered tribes that serve the interests of one or more Quali or gods, which can lead to some interesting conflicts. But they own the mountain range that divides the northern and southern continents of Milefront, as well as controlling most of the trade in minerals and gems, as they make up the majority of the people who can tolerate going deep enough to find and mine them (their natural talents and the boons of the gods serving them in ways others can’t understand.)

So there, my dwarves suddenly became shamanistic giants with trade agreements. But they’re still underground lords, more accustomed to dealing with being buried under tons of rock than a wide open sky, and relatively straightforward (living in mines, being enslaved for generations, and serving the interests of immortal masters means they have little time for doubletalk or “fun,” though it doesn’t necessarily prevent a drink or two being consumed.)

There was more – the last time I checked the .doc for Milefront, there were 18 deities, 12 races, four world maps (because Milefront isn’t the only world in the setting) and notes for several others, and something like a hundred pages each on spellcraft and “normal” crafting as it exists in that world. Every once in a while, I’ll open it up and poke at it some more… not because I am likely to ever do anything with it, but just because it amuses me. It’s where my first major writing projects began, and I’ll probably still be poking it when I die. But I just felt like sharing a couple examples as the lead-in to the big question of the day:

Does a fantasy setting have to have elves and dwarves and dragons (mine has dragons, too, for the record. Or at least something called dragons; really more like magic mechs, but…) to really be high fantasy? And if so, do they have to follow the established stereotypes that Tolkien granted us and that still dominate the genre today, or is giving them a bit of a tweak allowable in the interest of fun? Am I crazy for boiling them down to archetypes, and does anyone think those archetypes are even viable, or what matters about those types of characters? Your opinions, comments, questions and flames are welcome as always; drop them in the magic box at the bottom, and away we go!

Also, because I love this, and I was talking about D&D, and I needed something funny today, you should watch this.

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