Friday, March 27, 2020

Setting Creation: Patchworks & Found Objects

To an extent, almost all world-building relies on borrowing, it's just a question of the size of the blocks being borrowed. Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age can show its inspirations pretty nakedly in places like Vendhya or Asgard, but even Tolkien's less derived-appearing subcreation has pretty clear analogs like an Atlantis myth. It's not surprising really; real world sources are built on foundations of history; completely imaginary cultures are not only harder to come up with, but also less detailed and less well thought out. The real question is how are these borrowings used?

Mystara (The Known World) is what I would call a patchwork. Its sources are almost always pretty obvious (and the writer's tell you what they are just in case you missed it), and they are stitched together with not much thought to realism. Patchworks have the advantage of being easy to get a handle on for GM or player, but run the risk of hampering the ability to create a vivid, new world. It's also easy for things to run to stereotypes and unintentional comedy, perhaps.

The other form of the borrowing in settings is the one I called the found object. Here the borrowed blocks are smaller, or less overtly recognizable, and they are used in a more transformed fashion. Howard's Hyborian Age actually straddles the border between patchwork and found object. Some of this, admittedly, may be the remove between our pop culture adventure fiction and that of Howard's day. It may be his sources were more obvious in the 1930s. But in any case Asgard as a "Viking culture" and Stygia as "evil Egypt" are pretty big patches. Nemedia gets a little harder to recognize. It's mostly "rival Medieval nation" but its elements of Holy Roman Empire aren't too difficult to see, and it also has details like a band of Northern mercenaries like the Byzantine Varangian guard. Then there are a few lands that are more obscure: Khoraja, for example, has a (Near) East meets West thing going on that might remind on of Howard's historical actioners in the Outremer, but also likely Trebizond.

Tolkien did this sort of thing, too. The Arnor/Gondor divide just changes the cardinal directions of the Roman/Byzantium split, in a way that mirrors the Israel/Judah divide. The Dunlending/Numenorean conflict has echoes of the Anglo-Saxons versus the Celts in the British Isles. These things are there without the borrowing being complete or obvious.

Is there a downside to the found object approach? Well, if the borrowings are too obscured you don't get any advantage of easy recognizability, which might be a problem if you are making a product to sell or trying to communicate things quickly to players. But you still get most of the advantages of patchwork for ease of your own work on the setting.


Anne said...

I think you make a good point about how borrowing from history provides detail. I also think it provides a certain sense of resonance. It helps things feel real because in some sense they are real, or at least because they remind us of real things.

I was thinking about the Centauri-Narn conflict on Babylon 5 and the Cardassian-Bajoran conflict on ST:TNG and DS9. They both contain elements of the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of various newly independent post-Soviet republics.

But they also borrow different pieces and remix them in different ways. The Centauri feel very much like pre-revolutionary, tsarist Russia, while the Narn, with their desert climate, their post-independence swagger, and their religious revival, remind me of 1980s Iran.

The Cardassian government seems to be all Stasi and KGB, with very little going on EXCEPT totalitarian surveillance and control. They have almost no discernible culture outside of their militarism. Meanwhile the Bajorans are like a hybrid of the position of Israel in the 60s and 70s and Palestinian refugees in the 80s and 90s. Plus their religious symbolism looks very Christian.

I guess I'm saying that by layering on details and building blocks from different real-world groups who were in similar structural positions at different times, maybe even in different eras, both shows managed to get a lot of resonance with real-world issues, without having any group be a direct analog of any one historical reference.

Trey said...

Good examples, Anne. Yeah, I don't think you can really do a detailed or interesting fictional culture without borrowing. It would like be describing a novel animal and not analogizing it to existing animals.