This is the fifth post in my worldbuilding series. If you’ve missed the earlier parts, you can find them here. If you’re already up to speed, then let’s get started!
One of my favorite things about fantasy worlds is the opportunity to dip into their fictional pasts and understand how they came to be. The deeper the lore, the more fascinated I can become. I’m the guy who stops to read the books of in-world history when I’m playing World of Warcraft; I’m the guy who scours footnotes and companion volumes to understand how these worlds formed, how plate tectonics and political revolutions alike shaped it. This week, we’re going to shine a light of the largest events of our world’s past, and begin to set the stage.
When we think about the histories of our fictional worlds, there are two common pit-falls of which we must be aware. They can be neatly categorized as the problems of Too-Damn-Much and Not-Nearly-Enough.
In Too-Damn-Much backstories, the present can lose its sense of primacy. This, for some, is a problem with Tolkien: so many epic and remarkable things have already happened by the time we get to the Third Age that it feels as though the greatest ages have already passed. This is entirely purposeful, and actually one of my favorite things about Tolkien’s unparalleled worldbuilding. The days of Númenor are gone, Lúthien has departed from the world, and the scale of great deeds is smaller than it has been; this is the age of Samwise Gamgee, and the wonders are passing from the world. That, precisely, is one of the points of the narrative. Regardless, some fantasy worlds have a problem with the weight of their history: no hero is as great as the heroes of yore, no magic more powerful than the magic of the ancients, no valor or wonder or deed as great as those which have already come and gone. That needn’t necessarily be a problem, as we saw with Tolkien, but it had better be deliberate, or you’re going to sap some of the import and drama from the events of your story. It can also be a lazy band-aid for broken plots — the hero needs a magic sword that comes from… an ancient, forgotten temple? Yup, that’ll work. It’s a common complaint about video game fantasy worlds: there are so many ruined catacombs and eternal fortresses that there is no space for the current generation to live (Oblivion, I’m looking at you).
The Not-Nearly-Enough backstories suffer, as you might expect, from the opposite problem. In these tales, we can feel as though the current world burst into existence ex nihilo, and will remain in this same state indefinitely. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no backstory at all — a common example of this problem can be found in post-apocalyptic fantasies, in which the only historical event which counts is the apocalypse itself, and everything since is banal or entirely absent. To its credit, Not-Nearly-Enough worldbuilding doesn’t load the reader down with unnecessary details; the problem is that when the reader can too clearly draw the lines between historical cause and narrative event, the artifice of the story is revealed. Again, that can be purposeful — one of the interesting things that David Eddings asserts in his Belgariad and Mallorean books is that the world is essentially static for profound theological and metaphysical reasons which tie into the final beats of the plot.
So, while the sweet spot can be found between these two extremes, the extremes themselves can be used if that’s where you story needs you to go. In this instance, however, we’re trying to develop a broad framework that will allow for a number of different stories, and that means that we’re going to try and walk the line between.
Before we jump in, a note on time scales: unless you have very good reasons why your societies are culturally, technologically or politically stagnant, be very careful about temporal inflation. It’s fun to write about the empire which has endured for two thousand years, but think about real-world histories: the only social or political units which have even come close to that number have changed a great deal from beginning to end. We can cheerfully assert that the Roman Empire lasted 1500 years, but we must remember that the Western Empire — including Rome — was no longer a coherent power after the fifth century, and the Eastern Empire became something altogether different over the next thousand years. And Rome, lest we forget, is practically a unique case; normally, change and revolution is much more frequent.
So, where to begin. Let’s look at our map, and find some inspiration:
Ah, there it is: the perfect place for our story to start.
No-one knows who awoke the elves from their dreamless slumber beneath the empty sky, but their legends tell us that thousands awoke at once, all atop the summit of a mountain which rose above fertile plains and deep forests. They lived happily for an unknown time, carving immense garden terraces into the sides of the mountain, shaping the very pinnacle into a beautiful temple, dedicated to the worship of the Five Gods. Men awoke in distant lands, and came to the elves with uncultured speech, but relentless invention; dwarves awoke, and came to the elves with indefatigable passion and good humor; orcs awoke, and came to the elves with dignity and friendship. In the shadow of the First Mountain, the Awoken Races lived harmoniously; the elves lived atop the mountains, the dwarves in the forests, the orcs upon the plains, and the humans on the coasts, and everywhere between, always wandering, trading, learning new things.
Then, something happened. The dwarves say that the Earth itself, contemptuous of elven arrogance, rose up and split asunder. The orcs tell of the fist of the Fire God, crashing down from a clear blue sky to pound the earth and destroy all that had been built. The humans recount a great exodus from the settled lands, of a titanic war between the gods, of mile-high waves that swallowed cities whole, or fires that fell from the sky, of rains of ash, of the death of nine of every ten elves, dwarves, orcs and humans.
The elves do not tell stories. They do not wish to remember their shining past.
The sea claimed the settled lands beneath the shadow of the First Mountain, leaving only the jagged tip above the waves. In an immense diaspora, the survivors fled to every corner of the world. The Gods were splintered into their Faces, and the Awoken Races turned on each other, blaming first the elves but also each other.
Five hundred years have passed. The orcs have remained aloof from the other races, preserving their traditions lest the anger of the Gods revisit them. The dwarves have constructed new homes and halls, and tell their legends over mugs of thick, black beer. The humans continue to build and expand, exploring their world, always inventive. The elves have retreated to their cold peaks, far above the chaos of the lesser races.
All have been reassured that their way of living is the true way.
And in the midst of what humans call the Godswar Sea, the waves lap gently at ancient stone terraces, slowly eroding the carved runes which tell the stories of an earlier age.
So, there we have it. There was a Golden Age of Yore, but it wasn’t lost in the distant past, or filled with trinkets and treasures of unimaginable power. The wounds are still healing, the grievances still fresh.
I promised that there would be some lines on our map this week, so let’s divide up the settled lands. We’ll see a pattern of exodus and settlement from the First Mountain (which reminds me that we need to get to work on our non-human languages). In the wake of the Gods War, the four races are generally segregated, though there are trading posts and caravan routes — almost exclusively run by the restless humans — which connect the settled lands.
The colored areas represent broad domains of control, and may be only nominally populated. The yellow areas are under human control, the brown areas are dwarven, the dark green areas are orcish, and the pale blue areas are elven lands. The areas which remain uncolored are wild lands, as yet untamed. It’s worth noting that the elves, orcs and dwarves all favor lifestyles which involve small, scattered communities; the city is a uniquely human concept at this point. We should also note that none of the cultures are monolithic; these divisions are purely racial, and we’ll look at specific cultures and communities in a future post.
Hm. That’s a good start, and there’s a lot of possibility for conflict. Next week, a word or two on languages, and we’ll continue filling in our map.
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