Saw a tweet from Sam Sykes the other day which has been kicking around in my head ever since. I tried to find it to post, but I can’t seem to track it down, so you’ll just have to put up with a loose paraphrase. Essentially, Sykes, in response to the newest Star Wars movie, Solo, observed that he kinda preferred not knowing exactly what the Kessel Run was or what Han and Chewie got up to. He worries that this “obsessive canonization” cheats the audience out of their own imaginations, which are more evocative and powerful anyway.
The thing that stuck with me here is the simple fact that I love worldbuilding (and I get waaay too obsessive about it), but I also very much understand that worldbuilding does not create story and, in fact, it can potentially take away from story. I think Sykes has a really important point there – leaving spaces in your world building allows the reader to fill in blanks in potentially wonderful and exciting ways. As a writer, you shouldn’t even try to explain everything – you merely need to fill in enough so that the audience can do the rest.
Reading is a collaborative process. That sounds weird – reading is done alone and writing is done alone, so how is this possible? Well, the reader and the writer are still engaged in a kind of collaboration, just one that is separated by space and time. If you read a book of mine, you are getting my end of a story. You, however, as reader fill in many of the gaps in that story. And furthermore, you fill them in typically in a way that makes the story more interesting to you. The more I fill in for you, the less work you have to do (which can be good), but also it makes your imagination do less for you. Imagination is key, though – as a writer, you want your book to set the reader’s mind aflame with possibility and wonder. Too much detail can kill that magic.
Star Wars is a perfect example of this. Much of the magic of the original trilogy was rooted in the fact that it hinted at a much larger world, but didn’t bother to codify that world. You were left to wonder what Kessel was, why Tibanna gas was valuable, what the Old Republic was like, etc., etc.. For every mystery it revealed, it hinted at more mysteries. People sunk themselves into that world because they wanted to explore (and they could explore!).
Think, then, of the let-down that the prequel trilogy was. We saw the old republic and fought the clone wars and they were, well, kinda lame. The Jedi were dull. Even Palpatine was a bit of a bummer. Anakin Skywalker? We didn’t even like the guy. The desire to reveal too much about the world – to canonize even more – was a killer. When you throw in the obsessive canonization contained within the EU, we quickly arrive at one of the major reasons The Last Jedi got such negative reactions from hardcore fans. They felt as though they already knew what could and should happen, and then the movie changed that. They felt as though they were dealing with an already explained world and that TLJ was breaking the rules. And, in a sense, they were right, except that the world they thought they knew was being rewritten, and so all the old stuff doesn’t apply anymore. This, incidentally, is good for the long term health of Star Wars, but it doesn’t seem that way to people who have gotten themselves invested in what is “canon” and what isn’t.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that every detail you nail down in a story is a detail you can’t change later very easily. The more you nail down, the less can change. The less that can change, the more stale the world becomes until, at last, it is rigid and boring and only appeals to those old hardcore fans (who are always the minority, anyway). As a writer, then, it becomes an important challenge to figure out how much to reveal to keep the story evocative and immersive and how much to leave blank so that the audience can build an even better world into their imagination.
Part of the whole point I (and many others) read science fiction and fantasy is that we really love going to new, alien worlds and living there for a while. Exotic landscapes and bizarre technology and magic are part of that, and if you read in these genres, you get pretty good at acclimating yourself to weird new worlds. There are, however, limits to how far we are willing to go. Stuff can get too weird.
Case in point, when you get to the last two books of the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, shit goes seriously sideways. You’ve got aliens now, and Severian is traveling through space/time, and becomes Archon (or Emperor…or something) based on no clear reason and the whole of everything you’ve read previously becomes dreamlike and vague. To be honest, I have trouble even remembering what happens in the end of that book thanks to how bizarre it is.
Even when the storytelling is trying to be concrete, however, there are ways a world can knock you out of the immersion just by how alien they want their world to be. I have a lot of trouble, for instance, getting acclimated into worlds where there is no common units of measurement or time. Bad enough I need to balance a dozen different alien species and understand how psychic symbiotes work, but now I also need to know how long a “krandak” is?
Now, I totally realize that in far-future scifi and secondary world fantasy there is no good reason for people to measure things in miles/kilometers, do things on “Thursday,” and drink tea. Obviously, since these worlds are so far removed from our own, there would be very few common threads. However as authors we also need to remember that this is a story intended to be read and understood by the people of Earth. If you’re going to be writing the book in an Earth-language anyway, you can take a bit more translator’s license and talk about “inches” and “noon.”
There is a balance here to be struck, of course. The author wants to create a new and unique world and they want it to feel weird and alien at first. They still want you to be able to connect and understand what’s going on, though. If they go along and eliminate every single reference to our 24 hour day, we are going to have a lot of issues understanding what day and night are and what they signify (or, at least not without a lot of work on the part of the author). If this is central to the plot and to the concept the book is trying to explore, then this is fine. But if it’s incidental – if it doesn’t really matter – you should probably leave well enough alone and let the people live in a world with grass and trees and call them such. I’d even argue that leaving a few things of common reference makes the rest of the world seem more real and even more exotic, since you have something to compare it to.
I’ve been struggling with this kind of world-building myself for a little while now. On the one hand, I’ve created a scifi setting in which there are no humans (or even descendants thereof). Everything is very weird in a lot of important ways. As a compromise, I’ve decided that this alien culture is going to use hours, minutes, seconds, and the metric system. Should they? Well, no, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be able to describe anything to anybody if I don’t. On the other hand, I’ve got a fantasy setting that is an ancient world (say, ~800-500 BCE) in which there is no sun or moon. There are things that give light up there, yeah, but they aren’t the sun or the moon. This is proving to be wildly difficult to explain in any kind of elegant way, since nobody in the world itself would find this weird and yet everybody reading would find it fantastically alien. My solution (thus far) is to not bother explaining it unless I absolutely have to. But, you know, pretty soon I’ll have to. So, by way of balance, I’m doing my absolute best to make sure a lot of the other things the characters wear, say, and do are recognizable and clear. There’s only so much weirdness the reader can take, after all.
And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.
We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.
By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.
We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.
Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.
This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.
We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.
There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.
Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.
We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.
Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.
We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.
I just re-read Dune over the past few weeks, prepping to teach it in my scifi elective class come spring semester. This is probably my fourth time reading the book and, at this point, it all seems very clear and straightforward. Herbert’s world-building is marvelous as ever and I’m excited to teach it. However, as with any time I read a book with a mind to teach classes on it, I tried to keep in mind just how accessible the work is to a casual reader. If you’ve ever read Herbert’s work, “accessible” is perhaps not the first word that comes to mind. The world of Arrakis is densely layered and context clues to how everything works are relatively rare; there is a glossary and appendices included at the back of the novel for a reason.
So, okay, my students are going to struggle with it a bit. The question becomes “is that a bad thing?”
Part of the purpose of scifi and fantasy is to challenge the reader’s preconceived notions. The author seeks to create a new and alien place for you to inhabit for a while to get you thinking about the real, actual world (even if only subconsciously). Some do this with worlds that are just a touch off of our own (much of the cyberpunk sub-genre, for instance, or near-future hard scifi like The Martian). Some do it with wildly different worlds so far removed from our own, the comparison is more abstract and less direct – works like Herbert’s Dune series or even Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.
Personally, while I don’t dislike the more realistic tales, I really dig a good wild ride in a totally alien universe. The price for entry into these wild settings is high, though. It takes a while to get settled in Iain M. Banks’ Culture setting, for instance, though the pay off when you do is proportionally greater (for me). Novelty, of course, is a special thing in literature of any stripe, and any world as wild and strange (and yet fully realized) as Leckie’s Imperial Radch or anything in a China Mieville novel is something to be treasured and a challenge to be met.
In rattling off these names of books and authors, though, you might have noticed that some of them are easier reads than others. This leads me to my last rumination for the day: where, exactly, should the line be drawn between the alien and the familiar? Let’s be honest: there is a real, actual limit to how strange your world can be before it becomes essentially unreadable. A book no one reads is not the goal of any author, no matter how avant-garde they want to be, so where do you hold back? How weird is too weird?
I haven’t much of an answer to give you, I’m afraid. I don’t know that this is something easily solved by a set of hard and fast rules. I can say, however, that you need something at the heart of your tale to ground the audience in the familiar, otherwise you’ll lose their interest. Paul’s relationship with his parents in Dune is sufficiently understandable to carry you through all the bizarre chat about the Kwisatz Haderach and folding space/time with psychedelic spice. Likewise, no matter how strange the Culture seems, Banks (usually) populates it with main characters who are, in broad strokes, not too different from us in attitude and behavior, even if their cultural background is very strange and their appearance off-kilter. Both of these authors, though, cross the lines in some places. Herbert’s later Dune books are very, very weird to the point where they’re hard to connect to. Banks, likewise, has certain seventh dimensional plotlines circling around the doings of super-intelligent AIs that keeps the reader at a distance. As interesting as those books are, readers tend to love with their hearts, not their minds.
Though my current series of novels isn’t that off the beaten path, I grow restless anyway. One of my earlier novels was a multiple-reality/quantum causality thriller which was, frankly, too weird to work so I toned it down into a stock adventure novel and then it also didn’t work. If I go back to it (and other) ideas I have kicking around that are not the standard fare, I’m going to have to think long and hard about how to balance the strange with the familiar, the bracing with the comfortable, if I plan on selling the idea to anyone. Maybe then I’ll have better luck.
There are but three things in the lands of Nyxos:
The Sea Beneath,
Sky Above, Land Between.
There are but three creatures: Gods, Men, and Beasts.
Those who live are New Men, humans, born of
what was, inheritors of what is now.
For ages long and in time now long lost,
When Gods dwelled in vaulted sky halls. Proudly
they stained the Earth with their bloody wars and
the Sea grew crimson and the Land barren.
Dusty bone fell upon the mountains black,
and fields howled empty.
She of the Earth wept bitter tears for
those children lost to the petty duels
among brother and sister, Gods and Men.
“This cannot stand, this warring state above!
Go forth, my Sons, seek aid for us in deep
places, where no god nor man hath tread.”
And so her son, the Lord of Secrets, found
a deep well, beneath Sea and Land alike.
Whispers into dark places set free
the wild forces of madness and chaos.
Gods and Men turned their arms to the new foes,
But She of Earth had loosed a fire too mighty.
The Gods burned.
The Citadel, beacon bright and high,
could not stand before the raging blaze.
The chaos would consume the world entire.
Mountains flowed like wax, the sea seethed,
The stars fell.
The Citadel was left as madness howled,
and the last God spoke a curse to avenge
his end and the ends of all of his kind.
“Let my tower burn for half of all time,
Let my gate stand empty the rest,
and so let the world know what it
once had and now has lost forever.”
With his spear, he clove through the Citadel,
and the Chaos was dismayed.
The treasures of the gods fell down to Earth,
into the well of fire Secrets had tapped.
Sealing the world, saving it, even as
it died away.
In time the Age of Men arose amid
the ruins of the Gods and Elder races.
The Tower still burns above every day,
The Gate glows empty each and every night,
And the peace of death descends upon all.
Save in dreams, where bloody battles old,
are fought in sleep by wretched mortals frail,
to caution Men of how they may yet fail.
And so we come to discuss the Dryth.
The Solons, and all that they have done and will do, no doubt dominate the minds of every being in the Union. Beings of almost mythical power and unlimited wealth, each independent and unique, each equally as likely to be savior or destroyer.
But today is not the time to discuss the Solons. No doubt you have heard ballads enough of their exploits. No, today we discuss the Aigythi, the Dedicated – the armies of the Solons. Who among us has not borne witness to an Aigyth on patrol? Who has not been confronted by one, armor-clad, face obscured by that eyeless helm, and not quavered at their invisible gaze? But what are they? How can they have come to sacrifice so much of themselves to the service of their Solon?
The answer, like most good answers, is a complicated one. It asks that we look at the very roots of Dryth culture and mythology as well as the technical and practical limitations of the Solons themselves (blasphemy, I know, I know – and yet, if I am to educate, I must occasionally blaspheme). Though the Aigythi are a relatively new phenomenon, they are an offshoot of a much older tradition.
The Dryth homeworld, Odryss, is an inhospitable place. Its arid, radiation soaked surface was slow to give rise to complex life. When we Thraad were inventing mathematics and taming beasts in our First Age, life on Odryss existed only beneath the surface, in the deep caverns of the subterranean oceans. The Dryth, it is thought, are descendants of hardy creatures that journeyed from the warm, dark embrace of the deep oceans to brave the harshness of the deserts. The Dryth evolved slowly, but also steadily. No cataclysms or great plagues hampered their process, no extinction level events diverted their evolutionary path. When we Thraad has risen and fallen twice already, the Dryth grew unimpeded.
For aeons, the Dryth were small in number, as their habitat could not sustain a large population. They were a nomadic species divided into small tribes and constantly warring for sparse resources. By necessity the species was hardy, innovative, and independent. Their oral tradition is rife with tales of individual heroism and courage – clever warriors and powerful shamans, doing battle with the gods and nature for the protection of their people. The Dryth cultural obsession with independence and self-reliance stems from these deep-seeded moments, from a time when their ascendance was very much not guaranteed.
This, then, explains the rise of the Solons well enough: individualistic god-heroes, leaders and self-reliant pioneers, dragging their people along in their wakes. But what of the Aigythi? How does a culture that values independence and individualism so highly support such vast armies of people who are, in essence, enslaved to their Solon’s will?
There is a peculiar paradox among the Dryth. For as much as they style themselves as free and self-sustaining people, their admiration for the Solons – the ideal representations of their cultural desires – leads them to mimicry and imitation. This, ironically, leads them to conformity. In their haste to be “as unique as” their Solon masters, they wind up being but pale representations of them. The culture of the Dryth Houses is dominated by this paradox.
The Aigythi are the prime example of this paradox. Individual Dryth, free to make their own decisions, who willingly give up their minds and bodies to serve the Solon. When the Aigythi puts on the helm, his or her mind is open for the Solon to read. The Solon may draw upon the experiences and knowledge of any Aigythi as if it were their own. The Solon may command and even control any Aigyth body as though it were but another appendage. Naturally, of course, the Solon’s mind is not infinite and cannot control all Aigythi at once, but that is of little import. A talented Solon can lead an army of Aigythi with a level of cooperation and synergy other non-collective species cannot dream of, all while retaining a level of initiative and innovation among its members any collective species would envy. The perfect army led by the perfect warlord.
Now, it does happen that Aigythi retire from service, leave the guidance of their master, or even occasionally betray their Solon. Such, though, are rare. A hundred Aigythi might sacrifice their lives to prevent their Solon injury, even when that Solon would never think twice to abandon them should his strategic aims dictate him to do so. It makes one wonder: at what point does loyalty become madness? At what point does the self become consumed by the group or by the master? The Aigythi armies are, I believe, the most potent example of this paradox, and therefore ought to be studied with care.
But enough blaspheming for one day. Come, let us eat.
Firstly, let me give you a souped-up version of something I doodled in a meeting the other day:
I know, I know–I shouldn’t have been doodling. They were talking about bathrooms for about fifteen minutes, though, so I don’t think I missed much.
Anyway, my spiffy Venn Diagram isn’t why I’m here today. The diagram is a lure – a trap, if you will – to draw your attention to something much more awesome.
This September 24th to the 27th in Dover, Vermont is the 2015 ITVFest (Independent Television and Film Festival). It is a film festival dedicated to the independent film maker, the independent television producers, webseries makers, and so on. To quote from their website:
ITVFest (the Independent Television and Film Festival) is the original public festival and network of the world’s best independent television pilots, webseries and short films.
Every September, we bring together over 1,000 filmmakers, actors, writers, directors, producers, financiers, Hollywood executives and general public fans to relax and connect in the Vermont mountains.
Our beautiful Vermont location makes ITVFest the most unique (and useful) destination TV/web festival throughout the world. Hollywood is a relationship based business and professional producers and studios often look to hire people that they already know and trust when creating a new project. Unlike big city festivals where it can be difficult to interact with the right people, ITVFest in Vermont offers a unique opportunity to meet fellow professionals and make these lasting connections that can lead to prosperous careers.
Studios trust that what they see at ITVFest is the best of what is out there in the expansive digital universe. Quality and talent shine at ITVFest, giving the world’s best filmmakers direct front door access to Hollywood’s best studios and networks.
Technologically savvy and forward thinking, ITVFest prides itself on being for and about the creators of quality content – regardless of industry status. Our content creators range from new filmmakers to Emmy winners.
In short, this is a great opportunity for anybody interested in filmmaking or its associated industries. And you know what makes it even cooler?
I’m presenting there this year!
Yup – Yours Truly will be giving a little talk and presentation on world building in science fiction and fantasy stories at 11:00am on
Sunday Saturday, and I could not be more excited! This festival sounds like it will be tons of fun and I’ve heard good things about previous years. If you have half a mind and are anywhere close to Vermont, you really should come check it out!
There is not a single nation in the West despised and mistrusted as much as the troublesome Barony of Veris (though Ihyn comes close). Home to some of the world’s finest sailors, Verisi ships can be found in almost every port in the West (and even a few in the South and East) engaged in their share of legal trade and more than their fair share of smuggling, theft, piracy, and general mischief. Veris itself denies responsibility for a ‘few criminals’ within their borders, though all it requires is a closer look at their society to realize that these criminals aren’t exactly hunted within the borders of their own country, but lauded as heroes of the people. If you like breaking the rules, if you like all the booze and loose women you can handle, if you like to steal for a living rather than earn it, then, my friend, Veris is the country for you.
According to legend, Veris had a political structure very much like Akral’s — the nation from which Veris seceded rather peaceably some fifteen-hundred years ago. In those days, Veris was ruled by its own King and attended by his own set of Lords, and so on. Those days, however, ended with the beginning of the Hannite Wars, four centuries after the nation’s founding. At the height of the war against Kalsaar, King Hymrek V, forever afterwards known as Hymrek the Betrayer, turned against his allies, Akral and Eddon, for a wealth of riches given by the Kalsaari Emperor. Enraged at the change of allegiance, Akral crushed Veris and put its nobility to the sword, assuming harsh authority over the land. This colonization lasted almost a century before Veris, with silent help from the Count of Ihyn, rose up against the Akrallian chavalier and regained control of their homeland.
Unfortunately for the Verisi, the time of the mighty Verisi noble class was long gone — executed decades ago. Those who were now in charge were rebels, criminals, slaves, and pirates, and the government they set up reflects that. When the first Baron ascended the throne in the 45th year of Keeper Issiril, it was immediately clear to all that Veris was a changed place forever.
The modern day structure of Verisi political life is little more than an absolute dictatorship headed by the Baron of Veris and enforced by the Red Hand—the Baron’s personal army. Essentially a thieves’ guild writ large, the Baron and his men have very little concern for the Verisi people, so long as they pay their taxes and obey their orders. Authority on a local level is handled by village elders, local mayors, or whatever other person or persons the locals choose to recognize, but none of it is considered ‘official’ by the Baron or his men, and, should the Red Hand wish it, such local leaders could be executed on a whim. Such an occurrence is rare, and only happens when the village or region is resisting the wishes of the Baron. In general, each area pays its taxes and whatever else the Red Hand chooses to extort from them every year, and in turn the Red Hand leaves them in peace.
Local commanders of Red Hand garrisons, known as ‘Marshals’ are the closest thing that Veris has to a noble class, and the word ‘noble’ is used here loosely. Unlike most nobility throughout the West, Marshals are not required to perform any sort of service for the people he or she rules. The people under their jurisdiction are permitted to live there in exchange for a sizeable quantity of their crops, goods, and monies—that’s all. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all Marshals simply ignore their people and are blind to their suffering. Some of these rulers are wise, kind, and beloved of their people, providing money to help the poor, protecting them from raiders and thieves, and doing all the things that a good ruler should. These kind of rulers are in the minority, but they form a powerful minority in that their people are more willing to help them out in times of trouble, making conscription that much easier. The politics of Veris only becomes complicated insofar as its marshals are forced to balance mercy with ruthlessness enough to maintain their own power base and seem dangerous enough to discourage revolt or a hostile takeover by a rival marshal.
Thanks to the almost complete lack of any organizing political structure outside of the Baron’s own personal guard, Veris is a very chaotic place. Every individual settlement is almost like a city-state unto itself, clustered together for defense, complete with its own history, unique customs, and mistrustful of outsiders. Bands of robbers, cutthroats, and raiders are common here, not to mention the ‘Volunteer Navy,’ which is little more than a bunch of legalized pirates that are granted Baronial protection in ports. Between all of these ne’er-do-wells and the Red Hand itself, the Verisi people are constantly watching out for attack, and trained militias can be found in almost every town, village, or city.
This concentration of armed people makes Veris a surprisingly effective military power. While not as organized or well-equipped as the armies of Eddon, Akral, or Galaspin, Veris has enormous numbers of trained personnel and a network of fortified settlements and castles that is unparalleled in the West. When Veris is attacked, the Red Hand has the authority to conscript as many of the local militias as possible to stave off the assault. Furthermore, should a war of aggression be underway, the conscripts are regularly supplemented by sellswords and mercenaries of every conceivable size and description. Such rabble flocks to the banner of Veris in droves thanks to its reputation of for treating mercenaries very well (just look at the Volunteer Navy!) and for the near complete and total lack of law and order maintained over the land. Many mercs travel here to attack Akrallian caravans and then stay to loot the countryside, resulting in a win-win situation for the morally challenged.
Though the Baron makes a point of creating very few laws designed to protect his citizens, knowing full well that his power base is near wholly comprised of thieves and murderers, the Baron does, nevertheless, come down harshly on those who go too far. Should a marshal start a murderous rampage that begins to send Verisi citizens fleeing into neighboring Rhond or Eddon, the Baron’ personal detachment of the Red Hand — the Knights of the Blood Gauntlet — ride out to destroy the offender and all of his progeny. Marshals know the price of stepping over the line, and only the brave and foolish few take that step. The Baron is not known for his mercy, particularly when your actions are putting a dent in his purse.
Lands and Points of Interest
Veris is a rough and rugged land, largely uncultivated and inhabited in great concentrations only along the nation’s coastline, which is extensive. Fully half of all the land area in Veris is comprised of a great peninsula that bears the name of the nation that rules it. Fishing villages, seaports, and naval fortresses line the coast from the Rhondian border, along the Syrin, and into the Dagger — a 350-mile inlet that separates Eddon from Veris.
The waters surrounding Veris are especially rocky and perilous, and only the shinn’har themselves know them better than the Verisi fishermen that sail them. These shoals and reefs form an imposing natural barrier that has kept Veris largely immune to Akrallian naval invasion throughout history, but also inhibit all but the boldest of foreign ships from entering Verisi ports, hurting the nation’s ability to trade, but making the area a prime spot for pirates to set up safe havens for themselves.
Inland, virtually the whole of Veris is covered with the thick woodlands of the Ahrn forest. Fur-trapping, hunting, and lumbering are primary occupations of most honest people who live here, as well as a fair number of fruit-tree and vegetable growers that are responsible for much of the nation’s food supply. Roads are infrequent and poorly maintained, as are bridges, but the Verisi forests supply amble hiding places for bandits, robbers, and fugitives to hide and survive for years if need be. It is a saying among the Defenders of the Balance (who are less than welcome in Verisi territory) that if a man has escaped you, sooner or later he’ll be living in a Verisi tree. Also indigenous to the forests are a fair number of monsters including dragonspawn such as gargoyles, firedrakes, and wyverns.
As stated earlier, virtually all settlements in Veris are designed to repel attack. From the smallest village to the biggest port, walls, stockades, towers, magical alarms, guard posts, or moats are all standard civil engineering projects. Rather than a wholly civilized country like Rhond or Eretheria, Veris is a wide wilderness punctuated by pockets of humanity from which the inhabitants never stray far. It is both the ideal place to hide and the ideal place to disappear against your will — be wary.
The City of Veris: From its perch atop the two-hundred foot tall Betrayer’s Cliffs, the city of Veris commands an incredible view of the surrounding oceans and coastline. Home to 43,000 criminals, pirates, thugs, thieves, and troublemakers, Veris is widely considered among the safest places in the world for an enterprising young outlaw to live, and among the most dangerous places for just about everybody else. The city of Veris is, in actuality, two cities — Veris itself, which rests atop the cliffs, and the Warrens, which is a network of caves and tunnels that snake through the cliffs themselves and acts as Veris’ seaport. Though connected by a number of hoists, wells, passages, and magical lifts, the Warrens and Veris hardly seem like the same place at all.
The Warrens are the poorer of the two, its inhabitants being forced to pay exorbitant takes to keep the wealthy topside well fed and furnished. Down here, people live in ramshackle homes built of as much driftwood as anything else, and are tucked into the hundreds of side tunnels that branch off of Underharbor — the massive ocean inlet that fills the largest cavern in the Warrens. The Underharbor is lined with docks and is constantly echoing with the sound of ships’ bells, sailors songs, and similar noise of the great ocean going vessels that are guided in here by keen-eyed old Verisi navigators to unload their goods, get restocked, and set back out to sea. As the commercial port of the nation’s capital, it is also through here that most foreign visitors get their first encounter with the Verisi, and the significance of this is not lost on the locals. The Warrens is home to some of the most debauched and morally bankrupt individuals in Alandar, and the sheer number of pubs, whorehouses, and black market shops that line the docks and fill the tunnels is a good indication of that fact. The Saldorian Ambassador here has oft commented in his reports to the Arcanostrum that he finds it ‘highly unusual’ when he doesn’t see someone killed in the streets of the Warren at least once a day. The Red Hand is largely absent here, and the various Volunteer Navy vessels docked along the wharves are the closest thing to government ‘officials’ to be found. A number of thieves’ guilds are in constant competition to control the Underharbor and, therefore, be able to skim as much off the top of the incoming commodities as possible. Given the proximity of the Baron and his Knights of the Blood Gauntlet, such turf wars have proven alarmingly fatal and largely unsuccessful in achieving their collective goal, but the various guilds are able to supply a modicum of security for the everyday workers and citizens forced to live here.
Two-hundred feet above the Underharbor and the Warrens that surround it is the city of Veris proper. Enclosed by a fifty-foot wall and built almost entirely out of heavy stone quarried from the very cliffs upon which it sits, Veris is an imposing place. Compared to the Warrens, Veris is civilized and almost clean, but when compared with anywhere else the comparison falls short. Those with the money can afford to maintain their neighborhoods and homes with fair success, but the poorer districts (i.e. those areas closest to the walls) are dirty, decaying, and fetid. Social order is rigidly maintained here, as there are a pair of Red Hand guards on almost every corner, ready to dispense ‘justice’ on anyone who looks at them the wrong way. Though willing to turn a blind eye to the behavior of the Warrens for the most part, the Baron will not tolerate rioting or mob violence in his own backyard. Those dissidents, criminals, and troublemakers who are not killed on the spot and cannot bribe their way out of their punishment are locked in a cage and dangled over the cliffs beneath the Lonely Keep itself. If they are lucky, they are fed occasionally. Most people are simply left to rot.
The Lonely Keep is the Baron’s own residence, and is a citadel as ancient as Veris itself. Built upon a promontory of rock stretching out from the cliffs, the black-walled castle stands forty feet away from the main bulk of Veris along its northwestern edge. Not particularly large, the keep’s highest tower is 100 feet high and all its the flat, round turrets are capped with iron spikes that give the whole thing a sinister look. Worn smooth by centuries of wind and rain, there are very few military commanders who would even consider laying siege to this unapproachable fortress — better to starve them out. Acting as the Baron’s personal home as well as the barracks for the Knights of the Blood Gauntlet, the Keep commands a wide view across the Sea of Syrin and can effectively attack any naval vessel that dares to negotiate the rocky waters in hopes of entering the Underharbor.
Far more important to the city’s defenses than even the Keep, however, is the Great Aqueduct. Carrying fresh water from miles inland, the huge aqueduct enters the city next to its great southern gatehouse and is among the most guarded structures in all of Veris. Patrols of thirty Red Hand soldiers ride its length every few hours, and anyone caught tampering with its waters in the least is immediately put to death. The Aqueduct represents the city’s only supply of fresh drinking water, and even the Warrens use it as the water tumbles down into the lower city’s public wells and basins. As defensible as Veris is, any hostile army that gets control of the aqueduct can capture the city inside of a month for certain.
Culture and People
Veris is a treacherous place, with all the facets and intricacies of human cruelty and greed laid bare for all to witness and suffer from. Given that, one might expect the people to be likewise treacherous, or at least grim. But this is not Ihyn, nor is it even Illin — this is Veris, and the people here are unlike any other. Known for their sense of humor, their hatred of authority, and their adaptable natures, the Verisi have a bad reputation among the rich and respectable of the world, and enjoy almost the opposite from all those who are poor, downtrodden, and without hope. To a Verisi, the key to life is to take what you can and enjoy it while you have it, and if you can make your enemies look foolish at the same time, all the better.
It is the assumption of most of the world and, indeed, it has been the implication of this description so far that all of Veris is inhabited by criminals and outlaws. This is not technically true, since one cannot be an outlaw if there aren’t any laws in the first place. Every Verisi, from the top on down, knows the system — if they’re stronger than you, they take what they like, and vice versa. The trick is, from a Verisi standpoint, to find ways to avoid the inevitable as long as possible. Towards this end, the Verisi people put almost no stock in personal honor, honesty, or loyalty, preferring instead to live long, carefree lives away from the harsh grip of the Red Hand. Almost all young people in Veris go through a period referred to as ‘the Kicks,’ where the recently grown man or woman goes out into the world for a lifetime of raising hell, having fun, and (as often as not) stealing things. This adventuring life lasts until the person is caught and killed, they leave Veris for good, or, having had their fill of adventure, journey back to their little hometown to settle down and raise a family.
This abandonment of home and hearth is not representative of a disrespect for one’s own family. The Verisi, as much as any other human beings, love their family and care what happens to them. It is, however, a taboo among those you care for to lay down discipline and order. “Life,” they say, “will tell you what to do better than anyone else.” Verisi families are convivial and jovial bunches, with parents being more like friends to their children than authority figures. Children grow up hearing their own parents’ stories of adventure and mischief, and aspire to emulate (or even top!) their ancestors. The Verisi are known for being brutal practical jokers, with some pranks even resulting in real physical harm. However, jokers should be cautious, for among the Verisi the phrase ‘what goes around, comes around’ has real philosophical weight. A man who only plays mild jokes on his neighbors will, in turn, have the same played on him. A violent prankster, however, will end up a victim of one of his own dangerous plots or, worse, he will end up dead at the end of what the Verisi term ‘the Final Joke’ — murder.
For all the trouble that afflicts the average Verisi throughout their lives, they are a people with a remarkable ability to find humor and happiness in even the darkest of events. To a Verisi, there is nothing that is sacred and no joke, no matter how inappropriate, that cannot be told. No people in the world have a larger collection of ribald stories and filthy limericks, and it is a common pastime for adults and children to try to come up with bigger, better, and even more offensive tales. Listeners who get offended at this peculiarly Verisi merriment are in for a rough time, as that only encourages the jokers to get even more extreme and disgusting.
It is not the practice of the Verisi to shelter people from what they see as the harsh realities of real life. Children are well aware of death, sex, and violence from a young age, and learn to cope just as their parents do. In Verisi society, denying the truth for the sake of ‘propriety’ is not only idiotic, but harmful to those who need to hear what you have to say. Verisi, when not lying to further their own aims, are straightforward and blunt with news, and especially so with bad news. There is no attempt to soften the blow of a family member’s death or similar tragedy—the afflicted will deal with it just as they all do or wither away and die, in which case they weren’t worth keeping around, anyway.
Veris is a land of rebels and devil-may-care rabble-rousers who live as best they can in an unfair world. They are not bitter towards the Red Hand or the Baron in particular — they’re just doing what they can get away with, after all — and would actually prefer a cruel ruler who leaves them alone most of the time rather than a just one that is always in their face. Personal freedom and responsibility for the consequences of one’s own actions are important cultural mores, and therefore they tend to despise any kind of central authority that tells them what to do or how to act or (worse yet) provides ways for someone in trouble to find an easy way out. Veris is a land completely devoid of charities, hostile towards the Hannite Church, and has nothing but contempt for the Arcanostrum (though they realize the magi are far too powerful to meddle with). They do, however, enjoy a relationship with the shinn’har that is nothing short of brotherly, and selkies can be found aboard almost every Verisi ship in large groups.
The ocean is of paramount importance to the Verisi people, and the majority of the nation’s indigenous population are sailors or fishermen. Veris’s extensive coastline and ample harbors makes this nation home to more ocean-going vessels than any other nation in the Alliance. Though typically small and lightly armed, Verisi merchant ships and smuggling sloops are found all over the world, and the Verisi have made a name for themselves as the finest sailors short of the shinn’har themselves. Verisi Navigators – Arcanostrum trained sorcerers with their trademark all-seeing crystal eyes and golden chains of sworn service to the Baron – are the undisputed masters of navigation and weather prediction, and if there is anyone in the world who might be able to get a ship through the Needle in one piece, it is an officer born and raised in Veris.
It is often surprises people when they learn just how quickly Veris came to the aid of Rhond and Illin during the Illini Wars. One would not expect a nation of mercenaries and rebels to take up arms and go to war on behalf of their grim and theocratic neighbors, but they did, and in droves. Verisi mercenaries were involved in every front of the war and many such companies swore service to Mudboots Varner himself and were involved in everything from the Charge of Atrisia to the Sack of Tasis to the Battle of Calassa. Indeed, even regiments of the Red Hand were dispatched to assist the Duke of Galaspin in his struggles in the Illini peninsula and acquitted themselves well in the battles there.
Despite this record of service, however, Veris has not gained at all from the magical-industrial boom that has elevated so much of the West in terms of quality of life and material wealth. Veris is the disrespected stepchild of Western Politics, too remote to be a major trading player (despite its fleets), too poor to be a financial player, and too disorganized to throw its political weight around. The old Baron’s solution to this problem has been simple: he has signed charters (in secret) giving Verisi ships and the Volunteer Navy carte blanche to raid Akrallian, Ihynish, and even Saldorian shipping unless those captains of seized vessels can provide documentation of doing business with Veris. This outrageous practice has caused a lot of saber rattling on the part of the Akrallians, but they have done nothing about it yet. This may be because Veris’s practice of nautical blackmail is having the opposite of the desired effect – instead of encouraging ships to trade with Veris, it has shunted more and more traffic between the northern nations of the West to the spirit engine lines. This increase in traffic is leading to plans for more and more spirit engine tracks and more and more rapid trade among Akral, Eretheria, Saldor, and Galaspin. Veris grows more isolated every year, and joins its southern neighbors – Rhond, Illin, and Eddon – in bitterness towards the wealthier neighbors to the north.
T’suul is a fanciful game of skill and chance that exists in Alandar, the setting of The Saga of the Redeemed. It is played either between two or four players (though some variants allow for three people and some with five) and uses a table or board (sometimes with an orthogonal grid printed on it, but this is not essential) and a set of thirty-six square tiles. It is a gambling game popular from the Kalsaari Empire to the West and is said to have originated in Illin, where they take their t’suul playing more seriously than most and it is less a game for gambling money than it is a game of honor and, occasionally, used in lieu of a duel.
The inspiration for t’suul is dominoes, but with more of a poker feel and a certain gritty viciousness that dominoes tends to lack (or, at least around where I live). I wanted it to be something exotic and a little racy while keeping it close to something people could understand.
T’suul has existed in my world here for a long time, but I hadn’t drawn rules up for it. At least not until now, anyway. I find myself, however, writing a scene in which t’suul is being played and the game needs to be at least partially explained. I do not know if this would actually work as a game in the real world (perhaps I’ll get around to play-testing it at some point), but in brief it sort-of works like this:
- The set contains 36 tiles–seven red, seven blue, seven black, seven white, and eight gray. They are distributed to the players in “clutches” of five.
- Gameplay begins with four tiles in “the heart” – one blue, one white, one black, one red – and arranged so that the opposing tiles do not touch. If gambling, the ante for the round is placed atop one of each of the tiles.
- Players take turns placing tiles (again, if gambling, coins are placed atop the tiles). A good t’suul player will slap the tiles down with a certain machismo, called dailiki in Illin. This is a very important part of the game in Illin, but merely considered good form elsewhere.
- Red opposes Blue, White opposes Black, and Gray is inert. If two opposing tiles are placed beside one another, they “duel” and are removed from play into the player’s clutch (collection of tiles) held in a sakkidio, or “wallet.” They also pocket the money.
- A player immediately to the left of a player who initiates a duel may “stack” by placing another tile of the same color atop the one placed by the initiator of the duel. If gambling, they must place a higher bid atop the tile they place. The next player may do the same, assuming they have the same color tile. And so on. If all players fail to stack a duel, whoever has the highest tile wins the duel, the tiles, and all coinage.
- “Burning a Stack” is when, instead of stacking, they player opts to duel the other tile (the unstacked one) and claim it, thus invalidating the stack’s claim. This leaves a lot of money on the table for challenge, but it can be a way to prevent your opponents from claiming it if you are unable to match their bets. This pisses people off and can be a good way to get stabbed.
- Gray tiles cannot be duels, but duels can be fought across them. So, a blue tile adjacent to a gray which has a red placed adjacent to *it* will be claimed as the duel is fought across it.
- A round ends when either one player controls all the tiles or a player “makes the serpent,” which involves completing a chain of all four color tiles without any dueling any of the others. A player who makes the serpent claims all tiles on the board (along with all the money). A serpent cannot be stacked or burned.
Why Do This?
I mean, obviously apart from the reason that it’s lots of fun, this works as a way to help me with world-building which, in turn, helps me with character. Part of the trick of t’suul involves knowing what tiles your opponent has based upon their moves and the tiles they collect in duels. To be a good t’suul player, you need to be observant and also gutsy. It’s part strategy, part luck, and part smoking tooka in a dimly lit Undercity tavern in Illin, watching your back as you slap down a blue and make the serpent while some Ihynish creep is trying to slip a dagger between your ribs. It sets a mood. It creates a system by which behavior is modified and dictated. For me, I want to know more about that.
Now, unfortunately, I’m not really a game designer, so I don’t know if that framework up there would work as a fun game. I think it might. I might need to get myself a set of multicolored tiles, though, to try it out.