Haven’t done one of these in a while.
I’ve griped and grumbled plenty about Lord of the Rings but even as someone who doesn’t enjoy it I recognise all too well that at the time it was highly original. Tolkien set the stereotypes that I have grown bored of and that makes his work special in its own right, his opus has become the very classical depiction of elves, dwarves, dragons, hobbits/halflings and a host of other fantasy staples besides. The problem as I see it now is that I have seen it done and over done and get a little tiresome.
I was raised on the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, so I saw all of these stereotypes torn apart and analysed to death before I saw them presented in their original field. When I came to Dungeons & Dragons and its contemporaries I found myself once again immersed in the classic stereotypes, but saw places where the limits had been pushed and guidelines broken, and the very concepts of what makes a world broken down into simple rules.
I’ve kind of done this before in DMing 101, but in Remaking a Classic I’ll be taking a slightly different approach, looking at how to take fantasy basics and break free of them.
From the creation myths to the basic underpinning rules of your world there are many ways of making a world uniquely yours. Possibly the best place to look is through the variety of worlds offered up in Magic: The Gathering, from the Jekyll and Hyde world of Lorwyn/Shadowmoor, to the living landscapes of Zendikar and the shattered realms of Alara. Most of the worlds are round, most of them have a collection of similar races, and all of them are connected by the flow of mana.
Discworld’s mighty world turtle A’Tuin is a classic example of world design let off the chain. The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot features a fairly normal world that you never actually see, the only world you’re part of is the swarm of floating citadels belonging to the richest adventurers in the world. Coming all the way down to Dishonoured we find a world populated entirely by humans, some of whom are blessed by an enigmatic god with unknowable motivations, and strange magic-like sciences that work in this world alone.
Whatever rules you set for your world you must obey strictly, if you start throwing your basics out of the window to fit your narrative then your world will not be believable enough for others to buy into.
Fantasy almost always assumes magic. Wizards need not be essential but ultimately you have to suspend your disbelief from a rope labelled “probably magic or something” because certain things like White Walkers and their ilk defy all reasonable real-world explanations. There are a few fantasy settings that do away with magic altogether and instead throw classic races into quasi-medieval worlds, but these are few and far between, or perhaps include magic as a long distant memory.
How you treat magic has a vast well of potential diversity. Sourceless or barely explicable power that can only be tapped by certain individuals due to birth, education, or dangerous fascination should at least be based on rules, or have restrictions placed upon it:
In the Mistborn series, magic is based on the metal the caster uses as part of casting, steel and iron producing simple telekinetic effects, gold allows the user to see “what could have been” scenarios had other decisions been made.
Harry Potter amongst other restricts magical effects (somewhat) to a practitioners knowledge, and confines it to a finite number of effects dependant on words, although the world presents dozens of subcategories and possibilities to research more deeply into magical structures and create new spells and effects in the process.
The Malazan Book of The Fallen requires its casters to access pocket dimensions (warrens) that threaten to overpower them and spill unchecked into the world if they do not exercise great caution, in a similar way to Pratchett’s Dungeon Dimensions, whose denizens are drawn to magic like apocalyptic moths to flame.
Whatever concepts that you bring to your magic structure you must be sure to stick to them, but there’s so much space to play with something so nebulous. Consider your sources, the rules, and the methods by which practitioners can access and manipulate the magical forces. Is it something born to you like a sorcerer, studied like a wizard, or bargained for like a warlock? And how does it influence the world in general, is it rare, common, feared as a weapon, or sold as a commodity?
We have some quite thoroughly preconceived ideas: Elves are haughty, imperious, and respectful of nature; Dwarves are stubborn, gold hoarding miners and excellent craftsmen; so on, so forth, we all know the story. So many of those stereotypes have been broken already, elves are the fan favourite, and have been turned into capricious monsters by Pratchett or feral nomads in Dark Sun, dragons have been reinterpreted a thousand times by different cultures, writers and artists, only rarely do you see orcs and goblins get a second look, but it happens.
However in fantasy settings it’s rare to see entirely new races. Where there’s any diversity of races (and not just variations on human) they tend to fall within certain brackets. Dragon Age as a prime example includes elves and dwarves as standard who both fall within their fairly normal pigeon holes, and the Qunari, a race crafted by the Darkspawn, call them half-demons if you will, or even tieflings. It’s a less common race to see in games but they have been done, as are half-celestial races and various iterations.
I’m a fan of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, a book series very deeply embedded in its own jargon but very rewarding in its own right. In reading them you slowly unravel a long history of ancient, forgotten and interlinked races, the slumbering monstrous Jaghut, the undead warrior T’lan Imass, even the elf-like Tiste species have their own spin, variations on the theme of immortality. Each race may have links to some very old fantasy clichés but they all come with some very original concepts.
Going Off The Rails
The world is yours to do with as you will. Forget normality, it’s bland and pointless and frankly you’re better than that, I believe in you. Break the rules, introduce a little chaos into the situation.
- The whole world occupies the length of a crystal in the middle of a snowflake. Yeah… you forgot about that part of the Grinch, didn’t you!
- Vegetables and other foodstuffs make up the population.
- An inside out world with the sky in the middle surrounded by an infinite expanse of earth and stone.
- Magic is a broadly useless thing, it can only produce effects that inconvenience and irritate.
- The world government is entirely dominated by a shadowy agency of squirrels.