Coherent World Building

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.

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