Worldbuilding Example, Part V: Development of a Community

Having spent some time looking at high-level issues for the course of this sci-fi setting, I’m now going to shift gears in this post and “zoom in” to create one of the lower-tiered communities I’ve vaguely described before.

This community will be one that, because of its value systems, largely stands alone from the tiered system entirely, as those communities with extreme ideologies, experimental societies or strong adherence to values of self-sufficiency tend to do.

This community starts with a social movement that arose just as body augmentation began to become a regular part of society. While all augmentations—including cybernetics and bio-engineered prostheses—caused a deepening in the already-wide gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the pinnacle of this technologically-based fracturing occurred with high-level genetic manipulation.

Those who could afford to have themselves or their children genegineered, as the neologism went, created individuals who were smarter, more attractive, more physically capable, and less susceptible to disease and injury than “baseline” humans, perpetuating the regime of dominance they already enjoyed through social influence and wealth.

The community we’re concerned with developed as a backlash and form of social resistance to the so-called genobles. This began in traditional punk fashion: the incorporation of alternative political ideologies—anarchist, socialist and otherwise—with other value systems and a look that set them apart from “mainstream” society. The loose community of like-minded individuals challenged the “perfected human” ideal through their own forms of body modification and augmentation. Members of the community sought to outdo one another with extensive and grotesque physical forms that questioned the meaning of humanity and brought attention to their cause. They styled themselves Revoltists, both because of their revolt against mainstream values and because of their practice of adopting revolting physical forms.

As society evolved toward the tier system, so did the Revoltist movement. Anarchist ideology became dominant among members, and a system of meaning crept into the physical forms adopted by adherents. Eventually, the scientists involved with the Revoltist movement created genetic templates for different physiognomies, further standardizing the various “looks” of Revoltists. The technologies of body augmentation had become less expensive and more affordable as the decades passed, further enabling the consolidation of the movement.

During this time, the Revoltists co-opted parts of the Otherkin community (some of whom had used body augmentation to create bodies that matched the creatures they believed they really were; this nevertheless caused a schism in the Otherkin community) and decided that the use of faery mythology provided a symbolism readily-adaptable to their ideologies. Revoltists began to create themselves as elves, goblins, trolls, and all other manner of creature connected with the various faery mythologies of the world, with each different physiology representing certain sub-ideologies, arguments or schools of thought within the collective.

Following the faery paradigm, the Revoltists divided themselves into a Seelie Court and Unseelie Court, with the Seelie Court representing collectivist anarchists and the Unseelie Court representing individualist anarchists. Further subcategories—trouping faeries and solitary faeries, seasonal “courts” and other constructs borrowed from faery mythology—provided further categories for belief systems within the larger whole of Revoltist anarchy.

Eventually, the group began to refer to themselves as the Fae, dropping the Revoltist moniker altogether. As humanity established colonies on other worlds, the Fae participated by establishing their own communities, though the majority of the organization elected to make their home in a massive flotilla of ships, often referred to as the “Faery Fleet.”

The problem with genetic modification is that—without intervention—you pass to your children the traits you’ve chosen for yourself. The latest generation of the Fae have many members who are Fae in appearance only—they do not subscribe to the values and ideologies on which their community was founded, leading many of them to leave the Faery Fleet or other Faery colonies to find a place where they can feel that they belong. Some undergo the genetic modification to return to more human physiologies, but a great many take their look with them, a reminder of where they came from even if it is not a place they can remain. This new diaspora has resulted in a sort of “manufactured racism,” as members of the Fae who attempt to reincorporate into “mainstream” societies still represent the other, physically, socially and ideologically.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part IV: Warfare

To fully understand the politics of a setting, one must also understand warfare. For now, I’m not going to address space-based combat—though I’ll have to eventually. Here are some notes upon the general nature of modern warfare in this setting:

Large-scale battles are a rarity, but they do exist. Because of the privatization of military resources, warfare in the common sense of the term only occurs when there are broad-scale clashes between high-tier associations and/or powerful corporations that have not been resolved by diplomatic measures or arbitration. Most often, large-scale warfare occurs when one or more parties attempts to resist abiding by their contractual agreements and refuses to accept arbitration of differences.

Instead, asymmetric warfare is the order of the day. Mass communication networks and the prevalence of virtual reality interfaces mean that anyone with determination, time and access can learn combat skills individually—anyone can become a trained soldier or killer. Meanwhile, body augmentation allows for individuals to become capable of exceptional physical and mental feats without the dedication necessary for grueling athletic training.

Autonomous manufacturing resources allow the untraceable (or at least not-easily-traceable) production of weapons, armor and militarized devices. The tiered-system of communities makes the regulation of such items difficult at best. Even anti-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction seems almost a lost cause, with humans’ best solace the fact that the diaspora amongst the stars makes extinction of the entire human race through warfare or weaponry extremely unlikely.

This means that small, motivated groups have all the tools they need to become effective fighters on a small scale. This is true of regular citizens with above-board defensive interests, criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and communities built around militaristic principles.

Thus, skirmishes and small-scale actions between highly-trained and well equipped teams are far more common than wholesale warfare.

This style of combat lends itself to operations that would have fallen to “special operations soldiers” in the 20th and 21st centuries. The limited resources (all considered) of smaller teams of operators influence mission types, which are more often focused on strategic, infrastructure, economic or political targets over “take & hold” missions that require large groups of infantry and other personnel to maintain. Quick, surgical strikes and terrorist-style attacks are unfortunately common, as these allow even the smallest of communities to influence sociopolitics without having to secure the support of their higher-tier patrons.

Informatics and informational warfare are of course key. Ubiquitous connectivity incentivizes hacking attacks as much as more traditionally-combative ones—though it is increasingly the case that information warfare has become in inseparable part of tactical operations rather than an independent means of warfare.

As with all asymmetric warfare, identification of combatants and non-combatants is a constant issue. Despite the use of special tactics and technologies, innocent bystanders are common victims of the disputes—ideological, political, economic—between small and self-contained tactical teams composed of individuals armed-to-the-teeth.

Despite heightened awareness of the psychological maladies that stem from participation in combat and new treatment techniques, post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions remain a constant personal and social issue. Psychologists attribute this in part to empathic atrophy caused by the overuse of technological communication over interpersonal, face-to-face encounters, but also by the fact that many who learn their combative skills do so through games and simulations that allow for training in the physical methodologies of combat without preparing participants for the psychic stress of walking the edge between life and death and the taking of human lives.

Even though most military encounters are fought by small groups of people—often between four and thirty to a side—combined arms tactics and strategies remain at the forefront of the most effective warfare techniques. The use of semi-autonomous robots, such as drones, computerized artillery, and adaptive vehicles gives tactical teams opportunities to use combined-arms resources even on small scales with requiring the dedication to a large number of people to control those aspects of the fight. A single operator assigned toward informatics and hacking needs and a second set to supervise and coordinate the operation of drones and other automata is often enough to allow the rest of the team to focus on taking the fight directly to the enemy.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part III: Politics in Broad Strokes 1

Having addressed some of the preliminary issues, and having decided that this setting will deal with political and ideological struggles, it’s time to let the rubber start to hit the road. I prefer to start with the big ideas first and then see how multiple big ideas influence one another to determine the details.

Today, then, we’re going to look at politics in the setting.

I’ve done a fair bit of research on the speculations of political scholars and futurists about what kind of government systems the future will hold. Here’re some brief conclusions from that research that will influence the choices that follow:

(1) Francis Fukuyama’s “End of the World” hypothesis is dead. In fact, I’m of the mind that it was DOA.

(2) A number of writers see an end to nationalism in the globalization of society because technology allows us to form bonds that transcend national boundaries through newfound communicative outlets. These writers see ideologies and interests as the boundaries on which future sociopolitical groups will define themselves.

At the same time, we’ve witnessed in the start of the 21st century a decided throwback to nationalist sentiment, largely as a response to mass emigrations of refugees from middle-eastern countries in conflict, but also as a response to a feeling that the East is reaching greater parity in influence with the West, ending centuries-old Euro-/Anglo-centrism. We can point to Trump’s election and the rise of extremist nationalist organizations (some of which ought to be classified as terrorist groups) as well as the growing anti-immigration, cultural-supremacy and nationalist sentiments expressed in Germany and France.

I am curious as to whether these phenomena represent the death throes of historic nationalism or refute the “end of nationalism” theories espoused above.

(3) If nationalism does—at least for the most part—die in our future, what do governmental systems look like?

Some of the writers above see a sort of neo-feudalism in our future, where patron-vassal relationships on various scales replace strict national boundaries.

Other scholars note growing dissatisfaction (justified or not) with the ability of governments to effectively provide the essential services demanded by their citizens. These thinkers see an increase in private organizations providing services formerly the purview of government agencies. There’s plenty of evidence to support this—Space-X and Blackwater come immediately to mind.

While this latter idea appeals to my inner cyberpunk, I have significant doubts about the extent to which corporations and other businesses would insert themselves into direct governance. Why? Because the goal of corporations is to make money; the bureaucracy of governance and the tasks associated with providing for the common good are good ways to sap the bottom line. If recent American politics is any indication, corporations seem to be better served wielding great influence over governance without the attached responsibility.

With those things in mind, here’s what I’ve decided on for this sci-fi setting:

Free Association and Tiered-Relationships: I’m going with the idea that enhanced communication, the interchange of cultural ideas and opportunities to colonize other worlds and/or find secluded places for experimental societies will indeed cause newer communities to form based on ideological constructs over nationalism. Of course, some of these ideological constructs will be based on religion; ethnicity and traditional language and culture and even, sometimes, nationality. But, on the whole, we would expect to see a greater number of smaller ideologically-organized communities rather than a smaller number of larger “nations.”

Economics would dictate that these smaller communities would find an advantage to organizing for the provision of traditional governmental services—infrastructure, defense, etc. Those communities closest to one another (provided that they can get along) will have a common interest in local matters and may have resources enough to direct provide some services to citizens either collectively or individually.

For larger scale needs—long range shipping and post, military defense and security, medical care and the like—the average small scale community cannot provide alone. By collectivizing—at least in terms of bargaining and paying for traditionally-governmental services—small communities may retain their individuality and autonomy while enjoying infrastructure and services benefits formerly only provided by larger-scale government organizations.

Not all services would be bargained for at the same level. A collection of a handful of communities—micro-city-states, if you will—might band into an association for the provision of waste removal services and local utility provision. For larger scale needs, though, they need a larger collective, so their association joins with other similarly-sized associations to form a bigger bargaining bloc—a higher tier of collectivization. This larger association may then negotiate for the provision of more expensive services—long-range communication or healthcare, for instance.

Three or four tiers of associations would be sufficient to provide for the majority of services and governmental functions needed by the average community, meaning that a community (in addition to being an autonomous “local government”) would belong to several tiers of organizations, each higher tier acting as a sort of patron to its lower-member tiers in what we might call a collective feudalism.

Privatized Service Providers

Some corporations have developed specifically to provide various governmental functions by contract with the tiered associations described above. One corporation might specialize in security and law-enforcement services, another in medical services and hospital maintenance, another in data-management and bureaucratic processes (licensing, maintenance of health and safety codes, etc.) and a fourth might maintain s standing army for the defense of its contracted communities.

Of course, the savviest corporate directors and executives will diversify their business interests, with a “mega-” or “hyper-” corporation having a plethora of subsidiaries involved in various fields. By forming subsidiaries to provide governmental services, these larger corporations enjoy a number of benefits. They gain influence over civilian governments while being paid by those same communities for the privilege of the services. This allows the corporations an influential role in many aspects of daily life without requiring a loss to the bottom line for purchasing such influence. Additionally, when a subsidiary provides government services to a community or association, that naturally creates a market for the goods and services of the corporation’s other subsidiary operations.

The New Transparency

The system of collective bargaining with privatized service providers does not provide corporations with a tyranny over civil life. Because they operate by contract, they have a responsibility to their customers to show that they are providing for the consumer’s best interests and performing their functions efficiently and effectively.

In theory, this is simply a formalization of the social contract philosophy espoused by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Some scholars argue that, at least in the abstract, this system provides definite democratic advantages—the governed may sever the relationship with a governmental agency that seems inept or corrupt without the necessity of bloody revolution—renegotiated contracts and legal maneuvers now serve a function that formerly required musket or machinegun.

In practice, however, the system—like perhaps any human system of government—has its share of flaws and disadvantages as well. At their heart, corporations are driven by the profit motive rather than a desire to selflessly better the lives of others. While many corporate directors hope to accomplish both ends simultaneously, there is a natural conflict of interest here that requires strict scrutiny from the governed to keep in check. The less scrupulous see only the need to provide the appearance of a fair and equitable provision of government services, and the governing ideals of some communities and associations reject traditional democratic ideas anyway, allowing for as broad a range of abuses and exploitations as any found in the 21st century.

Subscription Citizenship

While the diversity of ideologies behind the myriad communities in existence across known space makes generalization a typically foolhardy task, it is nevertheless true that the majority of autonomous communities have resorted to subscription memberships for citizenship rather than traditional taxation. Beyond the general idea of “pay to belong,” are an ever-expanding list of variables in how citizenship subscriptions are handled, including: non-monetary contribution requirements, exclusivity of citizenship, the effect of criminal conviction, whether tiers of citizens are available, the method of calculating the cost of a citizenship subscription and the scope of governmental services provided for citizens.

Citizenship in a particular community naturally entails membership in the tiered associations to which the community belongs—allowing both associations and individual communities to deal with non-citizens based upon the legal and economic relationships between the various associations at each tier, much as certain countries once favored some foreign nations over others.

Additionally, a community’s attitude toward and treatment of those without any citizenship varies greatly, with some communities or associations requiring the provision of at least basic support and rights to those without citizenship and others treating them as non-persons.

Those who lack citizenship in any collective or combine—and there are plenty—are known by various names: scavs, scavvers, wastrels, wastelanders, outcasts and more. As one might surmise, most of these epithets originate from the fact that these individuals often live in the wasteland between communities, where they must forage and scavenge for their basic needs. Non-associated communities—those who belong to none of the tiered collectives of mainstream communities, must be self-sufficient or rely upon the benevolence of other communities for their continued survival. Without a powerful defense force, these communities may be forced away from valuable resources or “annexed” by those communities whose ideologies make a place for slaves or other subclasses of citizens.

The largest corporations have citizenships of their own, though not everyone involved in their company (or companies) has (or is even eligible for) corporate citizenship.

If both communities and tiered associations allow, one may change one’s citizenship as easily as redirecting the destination of one’s subscription payments (and the amount, as necessary). The extent to which this is possible varies greatly even within the same associations.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

All of these contractual and negotiated relationships require some mechanism for their enforcement. To that end, several independent judiciary bodies have developed. Professional jurists and scholars of jurisprudence in the employ of these organizations have developed uniform codes of law and a privatized system of courts—based on the old concept of civil arbitration—to provide a framework for the relationships and contracts between communities, their associations, and service providers.

Each contract designates the specific organization whose law and arbiters will be used to resolve disputes and to control contract interpretation for that relationship. There are several such organizations, some specialized in particular types of law—interplanetary shipping, employment, healthcare, etc. The most powerful judiciary organizations are Curia Ultima, the Interplanetary Arbitration Syndicate (IAS) and Secured Transactions and Relationships (STR).

These organizations deal only in what we might call “civil” law—providing for money damages and the redistribution of property to compensate for contractual breaches or tort offenses—criminal punishment is not addressed by the arbitration organizations and is usually a matter of international diplomacy.

On the other hand, the arbitration organizations do have their own military forces and the ability to hire mercenary outfits to enforce their judgments. While small-scale skirmishes sometimes result when a losing party resists enforcement of a judgment, large-scale confrontations are rare as they are likely to bring the contracted militaries of the mega-corporations and community associations to bear for the sake of preserving this entire system, which operates based on consent.

The arbitration organizations are funded in several ways. First, those organizations wishing to use them must premiums—not unlike insurance payments—based on that organizations estimated use of the system. Second, the arbitration organizations are themselves the recipients of fines levied for bad behavior (as opposed to damages awarded to the other party as compensation for wrongdoing).

 

A Worldbuilding Example – Part II: Sci-Fi Technology

We’ve got a lot of high-level decisions to make before we get into the gritty details. Since this’ll be a sci-fi setting, deciding on the availability and prevalence of various technologies—particularly those staples of the genre—seems a good next step. What follows are the decisions I’ve made for the setting.

Consciousness Transfer/Mind Uploading: This is a popular topic lately, both in speculative science and fiction. Ray Kurzweil and his like assure us that we will soon be able to digitally transfer our minds into mechanical bodies and live forever. The ability to do this is an important facet of Altered Carbon and the Eclipse Phase RPG. I, however, don’t believe that this will ever be possible. Most important, we’ll never actually know if it works—I cannot with surety know that another person is actually conscious. Yes, this is somewhat solipsistic, but we simply don’t have an objective test to prove consciousness, just a set of tools that leads us to assume consciousness. This leads to some problems when a “transfer” of consciousness could result in a resemblance of transferred consciousness but with the actual result of killing the actual possessor of the consciousness.

The Kurzweil argument, while having a strangely spiritual component, is a materialist one. As I’ve discussed on the theological side of the blog, I don’t find materialist science to be very convincing when it comes to existential questions.

Add to this that we don’t really understand the origin or nature of consciousness (see the “hard problem” of qualia, for instance) and I have substantial doubts about the possibility of mind uploading.

Possible or not (and, in all candor, we don’t know whether it is or not and maybe advances in science will find some way to answer the question definitively), there is no denying that mind-transference makes for interesting stories. If digital immortality is included in your world, you have the potential to create some truly mythopoeic stories.

Nevertheless, I have decided that, in this setting, this technology has either been proved to be unsuccessful or that there is insufficient confidence in the effectiveness of the available technologies for anything to have been widely adopted. This preserves the dramatic power of death and the threat thereof and helps push us toward some grit in the setting.

DNI (Direct Neural Interface): Current science is making great strides in the interface between the brain and technology for multiple purposes—prosthetics, mental control of computers, even devices that—with training—can roughly predict what a person is looking at based on brainwaves.

Whatever the possibility of transferring consciousness from a meat-brain, there’s no question about the possibility of the brain interacting with computerized devices. Thus, this technology will be prevalent and in many forms—electronic “telepathy,” direct mental control of devices and machines, full-immersion virtual reality (almost indistinguishable from “real” reality), memory recording and transference (think Strange Days).

Ubiquitous Computing: We’re already starting to see more and more devices connected to the internet to gain even the slightest of advantages over offline versions. With inventions such as “smart dust” and more effective signals transmission, very few places would be out of the reach of the equivalent of the internet. Combined with “standard” augmentations, most people have the opportunity to be “online” to the extent that they wish to be and to mentally interface with most constructed objects (systems security aside, of course) in their immediate environment.

FTL Travel and Communication: I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I find the possibility of being unable to travel to the vast majority of the universe kind of depressing. While there are a few theoretical methods for beating Einstein’s speed limit (like the Alcubierre Drive), it seems that faster-than-light travel is not in our near future.

I don’t care. Faster-than-light travel is fun and I don’t want to get into the existential horror of relativistic time. I’m going to use the classic “hyperspace/slipspace” conceit—a spacecraft with the proper type of engine can shift into a physical dimension with a different geometry or rules of physics than our own that, with caveats and complications, allows for travel at much greater than speed of light.

Under the rationale for FTL travel, I could potentially see some ability to send data through the same medium for instantaneous communication. However, I want to complicate things somewhat—a delay in the receipt of an important message may have Shakespearean proportions of drama, and I’d like to capture some of that. So here’s what I’m going to say: FTL communication requires an open connection between two places in “normal” space through “hyperspace.” Data can’t simply be converted into data in hyperspace and transmitted, it must be “beamed through” a wormlike tunnel through hyperspace.

This means that ships will need to have the capability to send messages by opening up temporary connections to known communications hubs to send messages. This makes the manufacture and control of those communications hubs strategically valuable, provides for some time-delay for communications, requires spaceships to hold a position to receive reply messages and requires ships communicating through FTL to route through communications hubs. This nuance I think will give us some ready story hooks.

Human Augmentation: The types and qualities of human augmentation will be extensive. The cyberpunk genre has focused on “chrome” and mechanically-based augmentations or bio-engineered alternatives. Certainly there will be some of each, but current research seems to indicate that much human augmentation will be a hybrid of the biological and digital, with researchers working on making biological computer analogues (on a small-scale, of course) and the embedding of artificial substances in biological ones (like enhanced eye lenses or retinal structures).

I’m not sure that any sentient alien species in this setting will necessarily have much real communication and contact with humanity, so augmentation will provide for a broad array of differentiated “subspecies” of the Homo genus.

Human augmentation will also be responsible for a widened socio-economic gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Manufacturing techniques (see below) may be in the process of democratizing augmentation, but the sharp divide in wealth exacerbated by the earliest waves of limited-availability augmentations still has continuing effects.

In addition to having practical benefits, I expect human augmentation to have become an important means of self-expression—tattoos and piercings on the next level, so to speak.

Terraforming: Human colonization will have been heavily supported by the science of terraforming. Planets must have certain inherent characteristics (like being in the habitable zone of a star) to be eligible for such transformation, but the process itself (probably provided by AI) has been mostly successful.

When first set to thinking about this setting, I thought to avoid space opera “one-terrain” worlds—the jungle moon of Endor, the one-massive-desert of Tatooine that people still somehow decided was a good place to make a home, etc. However, when I decided that terraforming would be a distinct technology, I started to think about places with artificially-created and not-entirely-but-close homogenous biomes. This makes sense especially for small “luxury” worlds

Manufacturing: Nanofactories, or “nanofacs” are essentially highly-advanced 3-d printers. With the proper raw materials, a nanofac can construct anything that will fit within it and for which it has the schematics. Contemporary design (as is largely already the case) is computer-based rather than through the construction of physical prototypes.

This creates some subissues for economics and society that I’ll have to work through: How are schematics controlled? What is the current state of intellectual property law and how extensive is schematic piracy? Is the economy based almost solely on the provision of raw materials and services?

AI and Robotics: There is much fear about artificial intelligence in our modern society (and perhaps rightly so). Reference I, Robot or Terminator. However, I’m going to go a different direction from many sci-fiction settings:

The major qualm about “artificial intelligence” is that we can’t really know if the highest-level hardware/software programs are actually sentient or only very good Turing machines. Nevertheless, humans actually managed to achieve what AI they have in a responsible and precautionary manner. Only limited AI with strict programming protocols and protections from “emergent” features are allowed any autonomy or connectivity. Agent/Assistant programs and robots alike are significantly limited in their capacities—usually only able to perform a limited number of tasks with superhuman effectiveness and otherwise possessing capabilities below that of the average human.

“True AI” as humans think of it are built in self-contained units without any wireless or general connectivity to the world at large. Data is input either by hand or through portable storage devices rather than through the kinds of free data-exchanges used by most technological devices.

AI is used only for research—for the creation and analysis of large-scale simulations to improve scientific and technological understanding. Much of the work of AI research is “catching up” to an understanding of the data output by an AI to make something useful from the machine’s own conclusions.

Rather than approach things from the robot’s side, as Aasimov and others have done, I want to look more at how humans react to living in proximity to artificially created entities that probably aren’t really sentient but about which one cannot truly tell. Some recent sci-fi work has already started to explore this topic (Robot and Frank; Her).

Spaceships: Spacecraft capable of FTL travel will be too large and heavy to exit the gravity of most planets upon landing, so smaller “landers” and “lifters” are used to transport people and goods from a planet to a true starship.

I have identified a need to do some research into what current scientist think that ship-to-ship warfare between starships would look like. While I like the idea of age-of-sail-in-space type combats, I have a distinct feeling that actual starship battles would be far more like a big game of Battleship—trying to find the enemy at extreme range before he finds you.

Artificial Gravity: I have to admit being pretty torn about this one. There are really two things we’re talking about when we talk about artificial gravity. The first is essentially “anti-gravity,” the ability to provide lift significant-enough to allow hovering without the heat and energy of some sort of thruster. There are enough alternatives with actual scientific plausibility (ground effect vehicles and the like) to provide this without resorting to the scientifically implausible, and I appreciate that.

The rub comes about with “true” artificial gravity—the ability to simulate gravity in a spaceship and thus avoid the inconvenience and strangeness of weightlessness in space. While there are ways (rotating structures, for instance) to simulate gravity, current science predicts that—because gravity is a part of the shape of the cosmos and not particle-based force—artificial gravitic fields are essentially impossible.

I remain undecided whether to use artificial gravity anyway or resort to more real-world solutions.

Power Sources: I’m going to use antimatter as a source for large-scale power, fusion for smaller applications and very advanced batteries for most portable power solutions.

A Worldbuilding Example – Part I: Introduction and Influences

As I’m procrastinating from some of my other projects, I thought it might be fun to go through the worldbuilding process instead of only writing about doing so. This will be the first post in a series to do just that.

Initial disclaimer and caveats

There are many different ways to go about the process of worldbuilding, approaches and philosophies of creative work, foci and areas of interest in fleshing out a world, etc. I make no claim to be doing things the “right” or “best” way. I’m going to do this in the way that I’ve discovered works for me. I hope it helps you, even if how it helps is in causing you to do things a different way. Failing that, I hope it entertains.

A Starting Place: Purpose

We have a few high-level choices to make before we really get into it. The first is what we’re building a setting for. As I’ve mentioned many times, Avar Narn is the world I’ve been building for a long time and the main setting for much of my writing. Here, I’m going to try to do something different. To a great extent, I foresee that there will be some similar themes and ideas in both settings simply based upon the things that interest me. However, I’m going to try to keep this from being a rehash of the exact same ideas.

Those sidebar comments…aside…I’ve decided that I want to build this setting for a combination of creating a space to write in, a setting to use for roleplaying games should I so choose, and also simply for the enjoyment of the process. You might note that this hits on the main three reasons for worldbuildng I’ve discussed in other posts. The attempt to equally address these concerns I hope will make this series more helpful for others seeking to glean ideas from it.

Knowing my purpose, I’m going to now pick a loose genre. The emphasis is on “loose” here because I really like mixing genre conceits, as is already somewhat and will become more evident in my Avar Narn writings. As Avar Narn is loosely fantasy, this setting will be loosely sci-fi.

A Guide: Genre

A sci-fi setting for writing, gaming and art for its own sake. So far so good. There’re a lot of subgenres in sci-fi that are important to audiences, so I’m going to make some additional choices here to help allay what could become future obstacles.

I like my stories to be closer to the personal, the “realistic” (whatever that is) and the gritty. I’m not a scientist and, while I like theoretical physics and the like, I do not want to have to do any more math than is absolutely necessary. Consequential decisions: I will lean toward “hard” sci-fi but not slavishly so. I’ll try to avoid anything that blatantly violates the laws of the universe as we understand them, but I won’t avoid occasional handwavium if it serves the setting as a whole.

I’ve also decided that I’m going to use the shortcut here—so that the majority of my creative focus remains on Avar Narn—of using a future version of our world (and worlds beyond) rather than creating a sci-fi universe whole-cloth.

A Mission Statement: Theme

The setting needs a good core theme or set of themes to tie it together, much like an organization’s mission statement or the thesis of a scholarly work. We could just create bits of the world and see what themes float to the surface, but I find it far more efficient to decide what you want your world to do and then fill in the details to align with that.

Fortunately, I have a few themes to address with the setting:

  1. If humans have the technology to recreate themselves, what does that look like? How far will humans go and what are the reasons they’ll have for doing so.
  2. How does ideology (philosophic, religious, political, moral) drive history and individuals? What about vice versa? What makes us choose (or leave) an ideology? Do we choose our ideologies for emotional reasons, or practical ones, or something more complex? How strongly are we committed to ideology—what ideologies will we kill and die for, and why?
  3. Control—over culture, technology, relationships, even self. Do we really have it at all? If so, how do we take (or relinquish) control? What is the morality of control?
  4. The macro versus the micro—should humans prioritize large-scale constructs (governments, societies, institutions) or individuals? What do different prioritizations look like?

Four is plenty of high level themes, I think. This will give us a lot to play with but still have enough coherence for the setting to avoid the “kitchen sink” approach.

Assembling Building Blocks: Influences

And now I plan a heist. I’ve already spent a lot of time casing my targets, so it’s just a matter of infiltrating, stealing what I want, and getting back out. Here are some of the sources I’ll steal ideas from:

Novels

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) – billed as “hardboiled cyberpunk”, this fast-paced sci-fi noir story hits a lot of my sweet spots and (as far as I know) inspired the Eclipse Phase game mentioned below. As we’ll parse out later, I have some serious conflict about the idea of digital-brain transfers, but there’s much in this novel that inspires.

Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) – Both of these novels have influenced me—both as writer and a theological thinker, believe it or not—so I can’t imagine but that I’ll draw some inspiration from them, though I think my own preferences and approach vary significantly from Stephenson.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – I’m a big fan of almost all of Phillip K. Dick’s work (strange as some of it is), but this one seems to fit some of the themes and ideas I’m interested in for this setting well.

Old Man’s War (John Scalzi), Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card), Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – I love military sci-fi and, based on the themes above, there’s a significant role for military conflict to play in this setting.

World War Z (Max Brooks) – no, I don’t intend to have zombies. What I want to draw from this book is how it starts from a fictitious situation (here, zombies) and builds rational and believable sociopolitical events and histories on top. Please, for the love of God, ignore the movie.

Embedded (Dan Abnett) – I like Abnett’s writing for the Warhammer 40K universe, and this military sci-fi novel does a lot really well and has a feel and setting with a lot I’d like to use.

Non-Fiction Books

Future of the Mind, Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible (Michio Kaku) — Kaku has for some time been a popularizer of scientific ideas, particularly through his TV appearances. These books contain speculations from the well-researched to the wild and almost certainly unfounded—perfect for sci-fi.

Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems & the Economic World (Kevin Kelly) – a Wired magazine editor’s part celebration, part warning about future technologies.

Movies and TV

Alien Series – I love the industrial look of spaceships in these films, where (if I’m to think about it perhaps overmuch) the ship reminds us of the horrors of a soulless industrial society that places profits above people just as we’re faced with an alien threat.

Blade Runner and Minority Report – As I said, I’m a big fan of PKD and while the films often miss some of his more poignant inquiries, they perhaps make up for that in inspirational visuals.

Inception – as we come closer and closer to virtual reality—and virtual reality difficult to distinguish from real reality being soon to follow—this film has plenty of ideas in it that makes sense in almost any sci-fi setting (especially when combined with the sort of nasty tortures and interrogations that virtual spaces are used for in Altered Carbon).

Firefly and Serenity – while I want to steer clear of the “Western in Space” idea (despite it working so well for these stories), there’re are many ways in which FTL travel would create some Old-West-like frontiers, and stories one might not think of—like Revenant (in SPAAAACCCEEE!) could also abound. In fact, why are there so few “classic” wilderness survival stories in sci-fi? Plenty of spacefaring hard-sci-fi survival stories, but not so many in the wilderness (unless I just don’t know them).

Battlestar Galactica – I have to say that, despite greatly enjoying this series, there’s a lot from it I wouldn’t use in my own sci-fi stories. Nevertheless, I’m sure there’s something to glean from the dross, I’m sure.

Tabletop Games

Infinity – if you haven’t seen the 28mm skirmish game (and upcoming RPG) Infinity, take a look. I typically have a hard time getting into anime, but despite the anime influence on this setting, it’s fascinating and I love the art style.

Shadowrun – this game was really my introduction to the cyberpunk genre and there’re some cool ideas here. As I mentioned above, though, I don’t intend this setting to be strictly cyberpunk, despite some of the influences mentioned.

Video Games

I take a lot of my writing inspiration from visual experiences, so the art style and consequential “feel” of film and games often helps my creative juices flow. When I think of doing a sci-fi setting, I think of Mass Effect (how could one not), Dead Space and Titanfall.

Futurist Reports

To a great extent, I think calling oneself a futurist or futurologist is a way to indulge in sci-fi imagination while still retaining some scientific credibility. Regardless, there are a number of futurologists whose reports provide ready fodder for thinking about human society and technology in the near future. I’ll be drawing on futurist reports, articles, speculative timelines, etc. for inspiration.

Art

As I said above, I’m very visual in my imagination, so I spend a lot of time creating collections of inspirational art and photos, most often pulling them from DeviantArt.com. For this setting, the two artists there that immediately come to mind are Shimmering-Sword and StTheo. Careful going down the DeviantArt rabbithole—you can lose hours wandering through the works of all of the talented artists there (or sorting through the crap that gets posted alongside them).

Other

TED Talks will also play some role I’m sure, as I tend to enjoy listening to them and they do relate to technology, after all. To some extent, I may find other podcasts or programs with something to contribute.

NEXT TIME: Some high-level choices about the particulars of the setting.

RPGs for Writers, Part I

This topic comes to mind because I’m currently spending a good deal of time writing short stories for the world of Avar Narn and have also just started GMing a roleplaying game in the same setting.

I’ve always had a love for both roleplaying games and for writing, and I’m convicted that my experience in one medium has influenced (if not shaped) the other. If, like me, you’d like to be a professional writer–particularly, but not exclusively, in the fantasy or sci-fi genres, I highly recommend that running roleplaying games becomes part of your curriculum of self-education. The reasons are myriad, videlicet:

Roleplaying Games Have Heavily Influenced the Modern Fantasy Genre

When watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, I amusedly observed a certain dialectic that had formed between Tolkien’s works and Dungeons and Dragons (and also the Warhammer Fantasy setting). D&D most certainly drew heavy inspiration from Tolkien (though a look at Gygax’s Appendix N shows that that’s far from the only source). The idea of pointy-eared elves, stubborn dwarves (or dwarfs, if you prefer) and long overland quests all originated in Middle-Earth but found a new home in D&D and its derivatives. Likewise, Games Workshop’s much-beloved Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy began as an close spin-off of Tolkien, and closely associated with Dungeons and Dragons as well (Citadel miniatures where sculpted and cast for D&D use before they ever had their own setting and style).

In the past few decades, D&D (and again, Warhammer) has become as much a part of mainstream culture as Tolkien has (look to Stranger Things or the fact that D&D got its own movies–however awful they might have been). The tropes of D&D now often stand alone, indebted to but moved beyond the original source material J.R.R. provided.

And so, in a strange reversal, I find several points in Jackson’s films that seem to be inspired far more by the over-the-top “epic” fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons than by the rather low-magic setting of The Lord of the Rings books. A few examples: stone giants attacking one another as the Dwarves and Bilbo  traverse the mountains, Legolas skating down the trunk of an oliphaunt, the boar-riding in the Battle of Five Armies and some of the action-oriented scenes involving Tauriel (who is far more a product of modern gaming than of Tolkien).

What this tells me is that fantasy roleplaying and wargaming have become so ingrained in (at least gamer-) culture that we know look back to the original inspirations (Tolkien, Vance, Lord Dunsany, George McDonald) through the lens of the tropes and ideas of these more-modern creations.

It’s not just the fantasy genre where roleplaying games have had a hand in shaping pop culture. The horror game Vampire: The Masquerade had its own TV series in the 90’s (called Kindred: The Embraced and produced through Aaron Spelling’s production company–find a copy if you can!) and certainly has had a hand in the 21st century vomitorium of vampire novels, TV shows and movies (True Blood, Twilight, etc.).

My point is this: to borrow a quotation from The Music Man, “You have to know the territory!” I’d wager that there are more people who have played D&D than who have read The Name of the Wind or Mistborn: The Final Empire, though both are of a vastly-higher literary quality than any RPG I’ve run or played. There is a certain fantasy mindset that D&D and other games engenders that leaves people with certain expectations (R.A. Salvatore’s sold a lot of books, after all). I’m not encouraging you to emulate the tropes of D&D in your own fantasy works (for the love of God, please don’t!), but you need to know what readers’ expectations and assumptions might be so that you can prey on them (in a completely benign literary sense, of course).

Practice Makes Perfect

In my experience, there are few harsher critics than nerds, and that’s a good thing. Every one of us has our own ideas about what tropes, genres and ideas are cool (or kewl) and which are lame. I love it when nerds find ways to call one another out: “You like Star Trek? How lame! There’s only Firefly.”

Practicing storytelling in front of a tough audience will help you to hone your skills, and RPGs provide a prime opportunity for this. Serious roleplayers (and a discussion of serious versus casual roleplayers merits its own post–but let’s say for now that both are categories are full of respected and valued people) will call you out (or complain behind your back, which is always easy to check on) if your characters are flat or your plot is full of holes. Even those players who prefer to avoid confrontation (in real life–they often play some of the bloody-mindedest characters!) will be happy to help you improve your skills if you ask.

And, as we’ll further discuss below, running a roleplaying game is a very different animal from writing a story on a page. Notice that I called it “storytelling” above–GMing a game is storytelling without the same rigor of grammar, syntax and style of the written text (although it is full of its own set of nuance and stylistic conventions).

I’m a firm believer that style and substance are inseparable in writing (particularly in fiction, when words must evoke a feeling or atmosphere as much as describe events, people and places), but that doesn’t mean that improving the substance by itself–which is possible in some ways at least in the RPG medium–won’t make your writing better as a whole.

Working on the Building Blocks

Outlining a plot for written fiction is a tough task. Making sure you don’t leave any gaps or loose ends, that the narrative flows up and down in drama and tension and that both the logic of events and the characters move in believable ways prove daunting, to say the least.

What can help with that? Having developed characters whose own motivations and personalities suggest the plot and push the story to its conclusion through seemingly-inevitable (but often surprising) actions. Well developed settings that intrude upon the narrative, providing both obstacles and the means to overcome them. Situations that arise organically from the nuance of the setting, creating plot hooks. And, of course, sometimes it comes to a whole lot of creative pondering, brainstorming and working back and forth through the plot as currently written.

Skillfully creating characters, setting and ideas for the beginnings of a story before attempting to sketch out a plot is more efficient (and artistically successful) than starting with a plot and pigeonholing characters and events into it.

As a (good) GM, what are you responsible for: creating memorable characters in an evocative setting and letting the plot develop organically (and often chaotically) out of the intervening actions of the player characters. In other words, creating all of the building blocks for a strong plot and then letting it go, responsively building events and scenes from the characters’ preceding actions.

This is difficult to do at all, much less to do well. But so is writing, and you didn’t decide you wanted to take up writing because you thought it would be easy and relaxing. You decided to take it up because it’s demanding and rewarding and, dammit, you’ll explode if you don’t get some of your ideas out of you and onto paper.

Creative Juices

Because the plot of an RPG develops through the back-and-forth between players and GM, you can only go in with strong building blocks (characters and setting) and a vague idea of plot direction, because no plan will survive contact with the enemy–er, players. The spontaneity demanded of a good GM means that you will have to develop your ability to improvise, synthesize and dramatize quickly and meaningfully. If you become able to do those things well on the fly, just think about your abilities when you’ve got time to sit down and slowly develop and rework a story.

Alongside this, the worldbuilding aspect of roleplaying is, potentially, far more extensive than it is for typical fiction. Tolkien’s example aside, the fiction writer really only has to do enough worldbuilding as will appear “on-screen.” You only need as much culture as will influence the plot and characters, as much geography as suits the story, as much depth as bolsters the fourth wall.

This is not true of a roleplaying game. If your characters wander to the edge of the map (or, more likely, the edge of the scene) and find blank space, they’ve lost all sense of immersion, and the most important aspect of a profound roleplaying experience has been lost–probably never to be recovered. Because of player agency, you need to know what is (or at least, what could and what could not be) on the other side of that hill, what the heretofore unnamed NPC’s life is like if the characters somehow decide he’s more important than you originally intended, what the foreign cultures that the players’ characters may hail from are like. Your worldbuilding has to be far more complete, because the players are not sitting captive in a movie theater exposed only to what appears on the screen–they are holding the camera and may turn it unexpectedly at a whim.

Is deeper worldbuilding always better? No, not necessarily. If you’re writing a standalone story based more on an idea than a setting, it’s probably a waste of time to go into the kind of detail a roleplaying setting demands. But, on the other hand, if the setting itself is part of the fiction you want to weave, why not become adept at doing the thing right?

Go to Amazon and search for books on worldbuilding. If you search well, you’ll find far more books written for roleplaying games with deep discussions of worldbuilding than those for writers. More to the point, you’ll often find the works with “games” in mind deeper and more developed than those with “literature” in mind. This is admittedly changing as Tolkien-esque worldbuilding (along with fantasy map-making and conlanging) becomes more mainstream, though I’d argue that this is another facet of my first point, that roleplaying games have pushed certain aspects of fantasy to the forefront.

A Feel for Narrative

There are plenty of books on “proper” narrative structure. You can find formulae for stories in any kind of genre you can imagine. Plenty of theorists or writers will tell you that there’s only a limited number of dramatic situations (sometimes so few you can count them on fingers and toes) that get recycled from story to story.

Theory is well and good, and I don’t intend to argue with any particular formula or convention here. However, there’s more to plot than the mechanics of dramatic beats and intervening beats, of a rising action and a denouement. The best narrative is like a rollercoaster–it goes up and down, sometimes twists suddenly to the side, gathers momentum or slows, and sometimes, just sometimes, curls back on itself or hangs upside down.

There are even successful stories that in many ways should be described as lacking a plot–Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, for instance.

Of course, roleplaying games without plots really don’t work except for players fastidiously (perhaps narcissistically) concerned with their own characters. The point is really that plot must be felt as much as coldly planned.

Running a roleplaying game (well) requires the development of a keen sense of narrative structure, when to rise, when to fall, when to zig and zag. This relies on a sense of mood and audience as much as “rules” of plot.

Sometimes Rules Help to Control the Fun

By this, I do not mean that a novelist should create roleplaying statistics for all his characters and then have them roll against each other to determine how the plot moves. But, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, a lack of consistency can destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Rules in (good) roleplaying games are designed specifically for consistency–to constrain the possible results and ensure that two similar situations have similar odds of resolving in various possible ways. For a game, this is in part a matter of “fairness,” though the best roleplaying games (I find, and so does John Wick–the game designer and roleplayer, not the Keanu Reeves hitman) are patently unfair in ways that mimic real life (and may or may not be codified within the rules). Regardless of origin, though, the consistency of the rules contributes to the consistency of the world, which contributes to willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes a hypocrit; even fewer people like a hypocritical fiction.

The “mundane” rules necessary to roleplaying games are unnecessary in fiction writing–logic can help a writer determine when a character dies of thirst without the need to roll dice or consult charts. On the other hand, certain aspects of speculative fiction–particularly systems of magic and superscience–can benefit from a codified rulesystem that ensures consistency. This does not mean that the fiction writer needs to create a mathematical resolution system for these aspects of a fantasy story, but the principles of creating a well-realized and consistent magic system for written fiction and a workable magic system for a roleplaying game overlap so significantly that experience handling one will certainly help with the other. Speaking from experience, the complex systems of magic in the Avar Narn setting are deeply nuanced and influenced by my own inspirations from and criticisms of magic as portrayed both in fiction and in RPGs (I’m looking at you, D&D; your magic is stupid and lacks the fantastic).

Jim Butcher, author of the wildly successful Dresden Files, helped translate his fictional magic system into RPG rules through the FATE-powered Dresden Files RPG. Given his frequent references to roleplaying games in the novel, it’s clear he’s a fan, so I can’t help but wonder if his roleplaying experiences shaped the way he thought about magic for his setting.

To rag on D&D (and its derivatives) again in this section, sometimes a roleplaying game can tell you how not to structure your world. From a standpoint of game design, I have a lot of bones to pick with Dungeons & Dragons (level- and class-based systems, character growth based on violence, etc.), but the worst of it is that (probably more through players’ fault than the games’ writers) the rules of D&D are usually scene as the physics of the work, rather than the rules attempting to model the physics of a fictional world. What I mean by this is that, if the rules say that something is possible, or even vaguely imply that things should work in a certain way, or the history of those rules carries with it such an implication, then some players assume that the rule trumps all logic and narrative coherence. Hence jokes of leveling up by pouring boiling water on an ant mound (millions of 1XP kills, right?) and far less funny arguments between player and GM about the results of some seemingly ludicrous action supported by the black-letter reading of the rules. This experience may be an artifact of my own biases and agenda when running a roleplaying game, but D&D does seem to be susceptible to this occurrence more than any other game I’ve ever run.

Still, there’re several lessons here. First, you’ve got to be aware that the rules can cut both ways, whether codified in RPG mechanics or simply narrative restrictions–if something works once, you can’t complain when it working again hampers the story you want to tell. Second, as mentioned before, audience expectations must be managed carefully. If you’ve indicated to them in one scene that your story or game is going to be zany and over-the-top in its fantasy tropes, readers or players will be confused and upset when later you try to make things too gritty.

The Future of Entertainment?

While I’d prefer to avoid making decisions based on the commercial aspects of writing, it is worth considering that there is good work for writers to do in emerging media. Video games are becoming more and more concerned with strong storytelling and literary elements–see The Witcher 3 (in my opinion, the best video game made to date, particularly on the storytelling front).

With the impending boom of virtual reality, I think that we can expect a corresponding boom in second-person storytelling in ways previously unavailable to writers and storytellers–except through roleplaying games. Responsive narrative crafted through alternatives of player agency marks an opportunity to tell multiple stories through the same outlet, to examine issues from multiple perspectives and approaches in literary style, and to leave a more powerful impression on the audience than words alone (possibly–I’m willing to accept the possibility that technology will never surpass the power of raw imagination).

Without all the visual and haptic special effects, roleplaying games already do this. I know gamers who have had experiences in roleplaying games that have changed them as people, so powerful was the narrative created at the table. In that sense, a good roleplaying game has the same potential to effect change as a good novel–albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale.

Conclusion

So, have I convinced you, dear fellow writer, that you ought to consider picking up an RPG rulebook, getting some friends together and playing a game? I hope so.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some different RPG rulesets, systems and settings to think about when selecting which game to play. In the post after that, we’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of using the same setting you intend to write in to run roleplaying games.

RPGs for Writers, Part III

Having offered up some game systems to use if you’re going to take the dive into roleplaying, let’s talk now about the bigger question: should you use your own beloved setting for your game? I answer the question with a categorical “maybe.” Here’re some of my experiences to illustrate the ups and downs.

Can you let go of your baby?

This is the hardest part of using Avar Narn for roleplaying games. I’ve spent years thinking about this world, developing nuance and atmosphere and thinking about the kind of stories that take place here.

No GM’s plan survives contact with the PCs. My players do not always get Avar Narn. Sure, they understand that it’s a gritty fantasy setting where magic is as dangerous as useful, sinister forces wait in the shadows but “regular” people are just as likely to be monsters as some demon-spawn, but that’s not always enough. When you play a roleplaying game, there need to be some rules–not just the mechanics of the game, but an agreement (implicit or explicit) between GM and players about what sorts of things happen in the setting. Avar Narn is very different (perhaps by design) than the high fantasy you’d find in a typical Dungeons and Dragons game. Characters in Avar Narn may have supernatural abilities and great skill, but the setting is not one of over-the-top action or near-invincible heroes.

When your players don’t meet your expectations for how stories go in your setting, when they unintentionally misunderstand or intentionally reject some of the narrative constraints of your setting, you will naturally be disappointed.

There are two ways to handle this, I think. First, you let go of some control of the setting. What happens in your games doesn’t have to become canon in your world and may still reveal to you important things about your setting–or give you new aspects about your world to explore. This is easier said than done; I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished this approach and I’m not sure that–at least at this point in my creative life–I’m able to.

The alternative, and it’s a harsh one, is to train your players to respect the narrative “rules” of the setting. Were I to do this with Avar Narn, my players would lose characters on a regular basis, because recklessness or foolishness (or perhaps even a really bad run of luck) would get them killed. They’d eventually come to understand what I (or if I’m to shirk responsibility, the setting’s rules) expect, but at what cost? If I cast my net far and wide, I could probably find enough players comfortable with this to run a game, but I think that some of my regular players would (understandably) drop out because that kind of game doesn’t meet their expectations of what roleplaying games should be and do.

This issue is tough to navigate and can easily lead to either you or your players (or both) being disappointed. Beware.

Work or play?

Serious fiction does not always have as its goal being fun in an obvious way (bear in mind that this is different from being enjoyable–think of catharsis, the emotional experience of terrible events that can be left behind at their conclusion and the intellectual satisfaction of a story well told even if not felicitous). If your roleplaying game is not fun, you have a problem–few players want only the sort of parenthetical enjoyment previously described.

On your side of things, will using your setting to run a game feel like work? C.S. Lewis was once asked by a young lover of theology whether he (the young man) should go to seminary. Lewis advised that the young man ought to consider whether making his profession in something he loved my deprive him of the joy he found in it. So much for “do a job you love….” But there’s a point here–a roleplaying game may sometimes require creativity on demand, which is not always the best kind of creativity in worldbuilding and writing. If you find yourself forced to enter your setting rather than doing so for the joy of it, you may find yourself hampered in progressing in your writing and the creation of your world.

Doubling Down

I started with the negatives I’ve experienced in running Avar Narn games. Let’s now turn to some positives:

If you’re running an RPG set in the same setting in which you want to write, the work you do goes twice as far. Planning your game will tell you new things about your setting, working on your setting and stories will give you ideas you can use in your game.

Further, the improvisational nature of roleplaying games may help you stumble onto unexpected ideas for the furtherance of setting and stories–your players may stimulate you to unlock untapped creativity for your world.

Constructive Criticism

While by no means a market-study or a scientifically-valid survey, your players’ feedback will help you to revise your setting by identifying what’s working and what’s not. In particular, RPG players tend to be quick to point out internal inconsistency–the death of a fictional setting.

Indulgence

I have to admit that there is a deep joy that comes from diving into your fantasy world rather than viewing it from a remove. I readily defy the idea that fantasy is mostly (or even much) about escapism, but there a happiness endemic to humanity closely attached to creation and experience, to the exploration of something other than what is. (If that sounds like escapism to you, I’d argue that there’s a difference between retreating to a fantasy world to avoid reality and diving into a fantasy world for the joy of experiencing that world regardless of its comparison to reality).

There are few other ways to participate in your world in such an intimate way. Indeed, I’d say that if your inclinations are towards worldbuilding itself rather than storytelling, you’ll get much more enjoyment from running roleplaying games set in your world than you would from writing stories about your world. If you’re like me, do both when you can manage and reap all the benefits you can.

Storytelling Plus

Why do we create fantasy settings? As I mentioned above, there is a deep human need to create, and you may well feel that you have no choice in the matter–you are pregnant with ideas that must be born (to use a Renaissance analogy). Then there’s the natural desire to share things we love with others, to get them to experience the same joy we have from something.

Here’s perhaps where roleplaying can do something no other storytelling medium can–you can immerse your players in your world with second-person fiction, letting them experience your ideas in a way far more intimate than traditional writing.

If you subscribe to Joss Whedon’s statement (about Firefly, if I remember correctly) that “I’d rather create a show that five people have to see than one that fifty-thousand people want to see.” (I’m paraphrasing and the numbers used may be off, but you get the idea). That is to say, if it’s really about the art itself (that we could all bring ourselves to such true virtue!), you may well find more satisfaction in running a game for a few people than writing for the masses.

Conclusion

While I recommend that speculative fiction writers at least try roleplaying games to see how the genre helps them with their craft, I see justifications both for and against using your own narrative setting for those games. If, like me, you have trouble relinquishing artistic control, you may be better of using a different setting for your games. In so doing, whether you use a published setting or a new creation of your own, you’ll learn things that you can readily apply to your spec-fic setting.

If you can let go a little, or especially if you enjoy collaborative creativity, you may well find a deep joy in running games set in your world that enhances the other joys your setting provides.

 

Review: Pawn

Pawn by Aimée Carter

Audible Narration by Lameece Issaq

We find ourselves at some time in the near future, after the fall of the United States led to the rise of the Hart family as the dictators over an America subject to economic collapse and resource shortages. As a result, all citizens take a test on the day that they turn seventeen. The results of the test determines their number—one through six, with sevens being reserved for the Hart family—which thus determine their futures. Fours occupy the middle class, with fives and sixes serving as the administrators of the government and management of production. Threes serve as skilled or semi-skilled labor in maintenance jobs and other services needed to keep the country operating. Twos live in poverty, working those jobs too dangerous or taxing to give to anyone of a higher number. The ones—well, let’s just say that no one wants to be a one. The availability of goods and services is restricted by a citizen’s number, and those who break the law or attempt to buck the system are sent “elsewhere.”

Into this situation comes “extra” (second child) seventeen-year-old Kitty Doe. She has just taken her test and had her result, a three, tattooed and scarified on the back of her neck as with all other citizens. She has orders to travel from Washington, D.C. to Denver, where she will serve in sewer maintenance for her entire life. She struggles to find a way to ignore her fate, hoping to hold out for at least a month so that her boyfriend Benji can take his test and they can figure out a way to stay together (it being expected that Benji will be a six).

By a strange twist of events, Kitty finds herself inducted into the circle of the Hart family, where she becomes a pawn in the interfamilial strife of the family’s members. As a result, she discovers that little of what government tells the citizenry to ensure their docility is true. She has a choice: fight for the people or go along with her puppetmasters to ensure her own safety—and the safety of those she loves.

Pawn is a young-adult (read: teenager) novel. As you’ve probably surmised, it bears a striking resemblance to The Hunger Games—post-apocalyptic America ruled by a dictatorship, a female protagonist with a feline-sounding name being forced to choose whether to become part of the system or struggle to end it and, of course, questions of romance and love with several potential suitors. I believe that this also coincides with much of the Divergent series, but I know too little about those works to be sure.

I would say that Pawn is slightly more adult in tone than The Hunger Games, as early in the story Kitty seeks to sell her virginity to the highest bidder at a brothel in a plan to make ends meet until she and Benji can find a more-permanent solution to her “three.”

I found Pawn to be an enjoyable read (or listen, as the case may be). Kitty and the members of the Hart family are well-developed, with complex and sometimes conflicting motivations sometimes driving them to do the unexpected. Over time, as Kitty discovers them, we learn the history and secrets of the Harts, seeing just how deep the deception, manipulation, and spite goes. The close proximity of the themes and general thrust of the plot to The Hunger Games series ultimately does not detract from the novel, as plenty of unexpected plot twists and a focus on character interactions gives Pawn a different place within the subgenre of (perhaps Feminist?) Teen Dystopian Drama that both works occupy.

The politics of the nation and the far-reaching consequences of the actions taken by Kitty and the Harts remain largely on the outskirts of the story, almost a MacGuffin to drive the more important familial politics upon which the story turns. By keeping things focused on the personal conflicts, the story manages to largely brush aside its lack of development of a believable setting.

My only other significant criticism is that Kitty’s male “love interests” (it should be mentioned that the romantic subplot of this novel provides an undercurrent rather than a central force) remain less developed than the other characters. Lennox Creed, who plays an essential role within the plot, never really gave me enough to understand him or believe his motivations. Benji proved even worse for me—Carter writes him such that he is uninteresting and of little consequence to the story except as someone who Kitty desperately wants to protect. The fact that Issaq voices him as an oafish dullard doesn’t help.

The characters of Lennox and Benji are forgivable if they are meant to serve as a critique of the writing of female characters by male authors in similar tropes of fiction (i.e., the need to save the girlfriend, who appears to be entirely helpless to take care of herself). I can’t be sure, however, that such a pointed critique was intended and that they are not simply sloppily written.

Pawn remains at least moderately interesting throughout its twists-and-turns, though I will not be spending any time on the rest of the series. For a teen audience, I think that this is a solid book that bridges the gap between the “classic” literature that most of us studied in high-school and the ultimately more interesting works of fiction we read in high school on our own time (instead of what we were supposed to be reading for class) or found in our adulthood.

Review: Under the Amoral Bridge

By Gary A. Ballard

Audible Narration by Joe Hempel

A cyberpunk backdrop of 2020’s Los Angeles sets the stage for Under the Amoral Bridge. This novella follows the exploits and misadventures of one Artemis Bridge, a former hacker-cum-fixer linking seekers with hard-to-find or not-so-legal goods and services, all the while trying to stay above any ethical quandary about his profession by never touching the goods or services directly. When a piece of information that could determine the results of the first election in Los Angeles since corporation Chronosoft purchased the right to govern the city, Bridge knows that he’s unwillingly been inserted into a game of life and death.

Bridge reminds me vaguely of Lenny Nero in the film Strange Days (one of my favorites and one of few arguably mainstream films in the cyberpunk genre). While Nero’s character gives you a man of some conviction struggling to survive an increasingly corrupt world—with a likeable personality to boot—Bridge simply is. He’s not sardonically witty enough to amuse the reader with his cynicism, too self-interested to hold our interest as an exemplum of the “man against the world” theme, and too petty for us to pay him much respect. After meeting him in the world of this novella, I find him an ultimately-forgettable example of the all-too-common lowlife hustler that appears in cyberpunk.

Had Under the Amoral Bridge been written and published in the 80’s, I would probably find it more difficult to be so hard on the story. But, the book first appeared in 2009. Coming so late to a genre so well-explored in print, film, anime, roleplaying games and video games, a modern cyberpunk book needs to bring something new to the table. I’m not saying that no one can write good cyberpunk anymore (Richard K. Morgan wrote Altered Carbon, a masterpiece of both cyberpunk and noir, in 2003), but we’re well past the point of using a plot arc known by wrote with a cardboard façade of corporate control, ubiquitous technology, topped with a healthy dose of paranoia, slapping it all together and throwing it out like it’s something special.

Looking at Amazon, the book enjoys pretty positive reviews, so I ought to defend my general lack of enthusiasm for the work. I discussed the flatness of the protagonist above, but it’s the rigid and predictable nature of the plot that really gave me fits.

Cyberpunk descends in many ways from noir: the gritty feel, the moral ambiguity, the selfish motivations of the bad guys, the protagonist who we cannot expect to succeed. This doesn’t mean that every cyberpunk story must be a mystery, although many are—again Altered Carbon comes to mind, as does Snowcrash. The best writing within a genre uses the conventions of the genre, but not rigidly, and not always expectedly.

Instead, Under the Amoral Bridge follows convention too closely, making everything feel caricatured. As I stated above, the cyberpunk background of the story feels too canned and too well-trod, coming across like an original Star Trek set piece that will topple if pushed too hard. To be fair, there are a few places where convention is toyed with: the role of the “femme fatale” (if this story really has one) is a relatively unattractive woman who only truly steps into the role when masked behind her net avatar—there’s interesting stuff about identity that could have been explored here, but the opportunity is lost. Then there’s Artemis’ bodyguard, affectionately referred to as Aristotle. He’s a large black man with a penchant for philosophizing and as much brains as brawns, both of which seem to be considerable. I can’t help but think of him being played by Ving Rhames as the story plays through my mind. Aristotle is by far my favorite character in the novella (perhaps the only one I actually liked), and his relationship with Artemis has enough nuance to break away from being a half-hearted twist on convention (as most of the other minor tweaks throughout the novella come across).

Ultimately, the story plays by the numbers, remains relatively predictable to the end, and contains plot “twists” that the characters themselves should have been able to see coming. This culminates in shameless exposition by the bad guy at the end to make sure that the reader gets what’s happened—even though it’s already painfully clear to everyone except Bridge himself.

The work leaves a bit to be desired stylistically as well. In particular, I found myself often distracted by the use of the passive voice where just a smidge of effort could have crafted a stronger sentence. That said, the craft of writing proves exceedingly difficult, and a less-skilled wordsmith can be forgiven if she tells a powerful and satisfying story. The author skilled in technique but without solid storytelling skills is not so lucky. I see a potential in Ballard to rise to the occasion, and it is quite possible that his later works prove that he has improved his technique and storytelling, but I have only read this small part of his corpus.

In full disclosure, I found that the narration of this book on Audible lacked as well, and that might have contributed to my rather harsh assessment of it. The narrator mispronounced a few words, and his accents and voices for characters failed to bring them to life, only adding to their cardboard cut-out feel.

Overall, this is not a bad book. But neither is it extraordinary in any way. With a world so full of amazing works of fiction (and more created every day) and lives so bereft of time in which to enjoy them, I have to recommend picking up something else before Under the Amoral Bridge, unless you want to continue in the Bridge Cycle (currently a four book series) in hopes that Ballard constructs something more grandiose upon this rather plain foundation.