Updated: Feb 9
One of the great paradoxes of fantasy writing and role playing is this:
All fantasy, on some level, must be believable.
Every time we leave the mundane world that we currently inhabit, that realm of the every day that confines us - each time we create alternate worlds of the imagination to explore, there must be believability embedded deeply in the foundations of the fantastical.
The mind craves coherence, even when we are engaged in escapism and won’t tolerate stories that don’t make sense, (all of human life is based around the stories we tell, so it’s hardly surprising that we take these narratives very seriously indeed)
A trip to the cinema to watch a fantasy, sci fi or super hero movie can be written off as easy escapism, but it’s anything but.
When we immerse ourselves in darkness for two hours, with only a giant screen in front of us where fantasies are played out that speak to our innermost feelings and desires, a narrative that we can’t believe in becomes a painful experience.
Similarly with the process of role play gaming or fantasy world building, a world that is not believable on its own terms can’t function as an environment for players to explore.
How can fantasy NOT be believable?
One of the key misunderstandings about fantasy world building and RPG creation is that fantasy itself requires a suspension of disbelief and therefore does not necessarily have to adhere to any rules.
Surely a world with dragons in can be a world where literally anything happens, right?
No, wrong (or only right if you want the everything to descend into an utter mess, but more on that later).
Every fantasy universe has rules and conditions that the author sets down before the narrative begins, and must refrain from breaking, or risk destroying the world itself in the mind of the reader.
For example, in Middle Earth during the Third Age (the time of the Fellowship of the Ring), magic is rare, whereas in the Second Age there was much more of it about.
The two wizards who are mentioned in the narrative, Gandalf and Saruman have moments where they use magic, but both are relatively sparing when it comes to magical pyrotechnics (in Gandalf’s case because he does not want to alert Sauron to his presence).
This consistency and coherence act as the parameters for the reality that has been established and to break them is to break the world.
In the Arclands universe we set out a series of base assumptions or propositions which cannot be altered or broken:
Magic entered the world about three centuries ago.
Humans and Firg had been around for many centuries but the Jaraki and the Fey reawoke at this time.
Magic is rare and people rarely encounter it, and when they do, they often fear it.
There are five dimensions, but travel between them is difficult and hard to do, so once again rare.
The reason for these rules is the subject of several of our previous blog posts, namely to make magic magical again by limiting the amount of magic and fantastical occurrences (to make Arclands ‘More Gandalf, Less Potter’); this means that when magic things happen, it really means something.
These base assumptions (and no doubt there are others) place constraints on us as writers and force us to work within a framework of ideas that we can’t simply step outside of when it suits.
By creating this degree of coherence and familiarity, a world emerges that players feel comfortable in and happy to navigate, explore and interact with.
The age old adage in marketing ‘if you confuse, you lose’ is true of most other types of communications (and world building, is simply the communication of imaginings in a coherent way to others).
Whether your world is large or small, simple or complex, it must be coherent.
Realism and the unreal
The best fantasy worlds are those that are grounded in a sense of realism, even if they contain fantastical elements. Tolkien's Middle-earth is a world full of magic, dwarves, elves, and dragons, but it is also a world that is rooted in history, culture, and geography.
Middle-earth has a deep, rich history, with its own languages, religions, and politics, and it is a world that feels as though it could exist, even if it is populated by fantastical creatures. Similarly, the Star Wars universe is full of lightsabers, the Force, and strange creatures, but it also has a sense of realism to it, with its own history, culture, and geography.
In both worlds, aspects of the mundane, exist; people eat, sleep, travel, observe calendar events, drink in taverns/bars and are surrounded by others that exist in the everyday. Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins only become interesting because they were immersed in the everyday to begin with.
Can you imagine how boring Star Wars would have been if Luke Skywalker had been a Jedi Master to begin with? We would have been robbed of the pleasure of following his perilous journey of awakening and engaging with the fantasy that we too could step out of the mundane world of the everyday.
In a way, the everyday world that exists around your characters is as important as the dragons they will eventually encounter.
One of the reasons why a world needs to be believable and coherent is because it helps to make the story more immersive. If the audience can't believe in the world, they will have trouble fully engaging with the story and the characters.
This is why it's important to put thought and effort into the details of your world, even if those details never actually make it into the story itself. For example, the creation of Middle-earth was a labour of love for Tolkien, and he put a great deal of time and effort into creating a rich, believable world that would serve as the backdrop for his stories. It did help that he was a medieval language scholar of course, but just because we can't speak the languages of the early Saxons and Celts doesn't mean that we can't take what we know and apply it.
Another reason why a world needs to be believable and coherent is that it helps to make the characters more compelling. If a character is part of a world that doesn't make sense, they will be less interesting and less their stories will have less meaning. For example, the characters in Neil Gaiman's Sandman are fascinating in part because they are part of a world that is both fantastical and grounded in reality. Because the universe that Gaiman sketches out has coherence, the characters are able to navigate it without glaring contradictions cropping up. That means the reader can navigate it, and that's what we're all trying to achieve - a world that the reader 'gets'.