- January 27th, 2010
"Fascinating trade...used to have endless fun doing the little bits in fjords." -- Slartibartfast, on the subject of planet building, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
ON WORLD BUILDING: TWO APPROACHES
There are two directions to approach world building from. Call one the Wikipedia approach. The other direction is to start with a story and look for somewhere to place it. I call it the engineer's approach.
THE WIKIPEDIA APPROACH
When I read about world building, or chat with people about world building, the design considerations tend to be more about the distant backdrop. What's the geography like? Climate? Calendar? Local flora and fauna need to be identified, especially wild vs. cultivated or tamed. What do the people wear and eat, and how do they talk? Names, naming conventions, social and political structures, education and health matters...stuff that goes into a travel writer's articles, or a Wikipedia entry.
In fact, Wikipedia is useful for this discussion. Look at the entry for Europe. It gives a summary of several main articles related to history, culture, geography, and so on. One section is "political geography," and it lists countries in Europe. Look at the first; as of this writing, this is Albania.
Albania's entry isn't short. It has summaries of other main articles, too: history, government, etc. It has sections that are not their own main articles: climate, flora and fauna, sport, etc. One section with other main articles is "administrative divisions," which clarifies the counties, districts, and municipalities. A chart tells me how many towns and cities are in each. The first county is Berat.
Berat has a brief entry of its own. It specifies the districts (one is called Berat) and the capitol of the county (a city called Berat). I followed the Berat district to the Berat municipality, and finish in the town. This entry tells me the name, history, geography, attractions, and sights.
Between these various articles, I could work up a decent grasp of the town of Berat. Google Maps could give me an idea of the terrain, distance to nearby places, etc. Would I know enough to write a story in a fantasy world rendition of Berat? Say, the mythical old town of Ta'Reb? Maybe.
So, one way to go about world building is simply to start with any old location in Wikipedia, strip out all the details and leave only the headings, and to fill in (chart-style) answers to every section. What do they eat? What languages are present? Flora and fauna? You'd certainly be unlikely to come away with gaps in the big picture. (And, if you're stuck for ideas, you can always crib from the real world.)
THE ENGINEER'S APPROACH
Engineers get hired for all kinds of jobs. Built a part, design a machine, draft a chip, write a program...endless kinds of jobs. No matter how complicated the field or challenging the deadline, the engineers I know tell me that the hardest part of all is getting the client to tell them what they need. Clients never seem to know this in detail, and often fail to have even vague guesses.
Authors are both engineer and client when it comes to world building. We're going to design our world for the story, per the client's request and specifications. And we're going to specify what we need the world to do, so the engineer can deliver. I won't suggest which of these roles has the harder job, but I will say this: the client needs to be done first.
Certainly, the engineer can offer options and ideas. Fantasy worlds come with a bunch of basic configurations for authors to choose from. "I've got a basic European dark ages town. You can have a feudal lord, a militia, and a church. The peasants work the land. They farm or they fish or whatever. Market days come, or there's a market day within traveling distance. You can have woods, hills, rivers, lakes, coasts. Need a swamp? Caves? Mountains? And, sure, there's specialty trades available, and we can run you a line on witches, warlocks, conjurers, and the like."
This kind of setting might be handy, depending on what kind of ideas the client has already. What I've been reading lately ("How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer) suggests that a choice with so many variables to consider is best made by a gut check. If I pick up this BEDAT (Basic European Dark Ages Town) and think about my life-spawning idol, do I feel comfortable or uncomfortable with it? How do I feel about the BEDAT as the home of my silver mine?
Say it works for me, the client. "I'll take a BEDAT," I say. The engineer says, "How do you want me to configure it?" I fumble around and say, "Um, just the basic way, you know." The engineer gives me a sad shake of the head and says, "Doesn't work that way."
Say it doesn't work for me. "The BEDAT doesn't work at all," I say. The engineer says, "How doesn't it work?" I fumble around and say, "Well, it's just all wrong, you know?" The engineer can only sigh.
It's time to configure the BEDAT, or to come up with some other basic setting notion to configure. To do this, we start with the client. Or, rather, with the client's story idea.
WHERE THE CLIENT BEGINS: THE STORY IDEA
Say I have a story idea. It's a fantasy story, like so:
A silver mine is the domain of a god, and the miners are the god's chosen people. There's a kind of priesthood devoted to the mine and the silver. The god protects the mine and the chosen people from sundry evils, until some heretic manages to wrest control of the priesthood from the faithful. Things go awry, with minor warnings preceding a final punishment: the silver mine is flooded, killing many of the chosen. The heretic escapes justice. Survivors pull together with a mission to set things right, which involves (by the end) hunting down the heretic (now heavily guarded by cult warriors, paid for with tarnished silver) and capturing him, then bringing him (and as much of the holy silver as possible) back to the flooded mine for the god to mete out final justice.
Say I don't have much of an idea yet, but I have a character or two. So:
Mercenaries. They became friends during a siege, and formed a tight band that kept each other alive and did some good along the way. One lost a lover during the siege and hasn't recovered. Another is just this side of being a psychopath, kept in check by the certain knowledge that being part of the band is all that will keep him alive in the long run. A third was meant to be a scholar, was drafted into service, and hasn't yet managed to get away from the military life to enter the monastery or academy. There might be others, a few or many.
Say that I have no characters in mind, and not much of an idea. A kernel, no more. So:
In the wilderness, an idol of some sort has been left unattended by humans since forever. It has vast reserves of power, and it leaks. The leakage animates things, creating new and bizarre lifeforms, not all of them organic or even corporeal. Maybe it gets found. Maybe it goes looking.
Say I'm not in possession of even that much. An image? An urge? So:
Fantasy stories often deal with orphans, coming-of-age events, and so on. I have an urge to write a coming-of-age story of a kid in a large and thriving family. I have the image of a daughter apologizing to her family because Bad Guys are coming. The apology happens over a formal dinner, and the daughter looks like she's just finished a month-long, desperate run in the wilds.
Say that I have nothing at all, but I want to write a fantasy story. So:
I need a world to write about. It needs some magic, it needs somewhere for people to live, and somewhere else for people (or non-people) to come from or go to. It needs...hell, it needs everything.
QUESTIONING THE STORY IDEA: REQUIREMENTS AND EXCLUSIONS
Writers come up with their stories from these sorts of beginnings. There are other sorts: not merely one or a few characters, but specifically the antagonist and protagonist; less a story idea, more than a kernel, but a specific sort of conflict against a more or less specific backdrop; less than everything, but a notion that a fantasy story (or whatever) might be interesting, fun, or cool.
We start with the beginning ideas and ask questions. Like so:
Question #1: What Does the Story Require?
Almost any story beginning, from the silver mines to the dinner apology, has requirements. The wrong setting cannot supply those requirements. We must know from the outset what must be supplied, lest we find ourselves in a BEDAT when we need a RETPOF (Roman Empire Trading Post on the Fringe).
Silver Mine: Seems obvious, but this setting must supply precious metals, mining operations, and sufficient kinds of trade to keep the miners fed, clothed, housed, etc. There's a god, either real or imagined (and in a fantasy, the smart money bets on real), so we need a supernatural backdrop. The people in the local region need some context for the mine's god and the priesthood. The mine floods, so water must be somewhere. There are cult warriors by the end, so a warrior class must be addressed (even if the cult warriors are no more than farmers organized by the heretic into a directed mob, there's a need to address the notion of the fighting soldier as these people know it).
Mercenaries: Armies composed of irregular troops, either in whole or in part, are required. Sieges demand fortified places to besiege, and some kind of siegecraft. The scholar wannabe requires a backdrop of wise ones, either monasteries or academies or somesuch. Some means of handling scholarly needs is required: writing, or record keeping, or memory tricks, or something. Magic wasn't specified, but it's not been ruled out.
Idol: Wilderness is required, with sufficient distance from anyone that the idol is isolated for a long stretch of time. Weird life forms in the local region suggest that some normal species exist elsewhere. Somewhere else exists with people, though no particular kind of place or people is preferred over any other so far.
Apology: Formal dinners come in many varieties, but there's now the need for an informal dinner in contrast. Some idea as to how often formal dinners are held, and why, would be needed. The family is large and it thrives. Thrives at what? And what would not-thriving look like? Bad Guys are required, but no particular kind of Bad Guys. And a social system that governs the daughter in relation to the family is needed, either for families as a whole or this family in particular.
Unspecified: Magic is stated as a requirement. Two locations are required. Two distinct populations are required, not necessarily human populations.
Question #2: What Does the Story Exclude?
The first level of answer to this is the painfully obvious level. I submit that listing these is valuable, if only because it will prevent silly errors. This painfully obvious level looks like this:
Silver Mine: This precludes a world without metal. If this is the sole source of metal anywhere, it is still a source -- and that means the world is not without metal. Also, the world is not populated entirely by atheists: even if no other gods have ever been imagined, these miners have a god. Even if their god doesn't exist, they believe in their god. Their god protects them from sundry evils, so this world is not a garden of eden.
Mercenaries: Fortified locations are the result of an arms race. This means foes, people in conflict over time. War, and some means of waging it, is required. Which precludes a world eternally at peace. (Or does it? What if there are only peaceful people, always friends with each other, and still there are mercenaries? Maybe it's a game of war that's resulted in siege-worthy fortifications.) Dedicated scholars preclude a wholly uneducated population, and they probably rule out a population that is evenly and equally educated.
Idol: The world is not totally dead. At least where the idol is, there is life. People are listed as a requirement, so (again) a dead world is not permitted.
Apology: The family might exist in isolation -- the only family in a hamlet, thriving in seclusion -- but they cannot be alone in the world, because Bad Guys exist. The daughter left them to bring the Bad Guys along, so a place of complete and unbreakable isolation is precluded. (Or is it? Maybe the daughter is telling a monstrous lie.)
Unspecified: Very little is precluded here, but a mundane world is one item checked off. The same is true of a totally isolated location, and a single homogeneous population is ruled out.
The second level of answer to this has already been demonstrated twice: "Or Is It?" These are the merely possible things that are ruled out. Areas of doubt and uncertainty are not intrinsically bad at this point. Decisions will be made eventually on the vital points, but here we can have conflicting ideas and ambiguity.
The third level is from the author's preference. My silver mine story does not preclude, say, talking dragons. It doesn't preclude talking animals at all, in fact. (Yes, the list of things that are not precluded is nigh infinite.) But, if it's an impulse that figures strongly in my thinking, it should be listed. Maybe I just wrote a story with talking critters, or just read a bunch of stories with talking dragons, and I'm soured on the idea. Or, switching gears a little, maybe the cliche of priests is that they are sedentary old men in robes, and I want to preclude them. (Maybe the priests are the miners, and the lay people are not permitted into the mines, or to touch the mining equipment.)
COPING WITH ANSWERS: GUT CHECKS, ANALYSIS, AND BRAINSTORMS
Coping with the answers to these two questions requires some gut checks, analysis, and brainstorms.
Take a look at the BEDAT (or RETPOF, or whatever generic setting you like) and place it between the two poles presented by the two questions so far. How well does it fit? This is a gut check again. Given what you've come up with so far, do you feel good or bad about the BEDAT?
Silver Mine: Bad. I just can't uncouple a European town in the Dark Ages from Christianity. Even in a fantasy world, the presence of a formal religion and culture seems inescapable. Even allowing for rampant paganism, my silver mine inhabited by a god, my priestly miners and their heretic, just don't mesh well with the BEDAT in my head.
Mercenaries: Okay. There's no end of warfare and the like I can imagine running around the countryside. Plenty of walls and weapons. Scholars aren't altogether impossible for a BEDAT's world.
Idol: Hrm. I could be okay with it. I could make myself okay with it. But, honestly, my gut says it doesn't work. I don't have an articulated reason why not.
Apology: Good. While I could get behind a solo family in the wilds, my notion of a thriving family works best with a village or (for preference) a town. I might scroll it forward from the Dark Ages, but my impulse is to go with it.
Unspecified: Good. I'd be more inclined to place it in the darkest pit of the Dark Ages, maybe, but that's because so much is left unspecified so far that a vague setting feels better to me.
ANALYSIS and BRAINSTORMS second...
Continue to look at the BEDAT, regardless of whether the gut check has approved or not. Given what's required and precluded, what about the BEDAT needs to change, and what can stay?
Silver Mine: Dominant religion needs to go. The god of the mine is not wicked, nor even in opposition to a dominant religion. Hm...suppose the dominant religion were not intolerantly monotheistic? A polytheistic BEDAT? PEDAT? I'm suddenly okay with it.
Mercenaries: So far, I'm not seeing anything in a BEDAT that doesn't work for me.
Idol: Okay, my impression of the Dark Ages doesn't allow for exploration into the wilderness. And this idol is certainly at a great distance from the basic European town. So, I'd need to find a way to include explorers. Missionaries? Refugees from some calamity, carrying their BEDAT origins with them? Oh, I like that: people from some settled region, having abandoned their comfort zone in a basic European town, carry their culture with them into the idol's territory.
Idol, continued: The BEDAT exists for the characters as an ideal to which they'd aspire. They would, given the chance, simply rebuild what they'd had before they left (with whatever simple accommodation that would preclude whatever forced them to leave in the first place). I have a new requirement: some force in the BEDAT makes people leave. I have a new preclusion: the BEDAT cannot prevent people from leaving (some or all people; whether it tries to stop them or not).
Idol, continued: The new location must be accessible by some route to the BEDAT. Over land or water? Land, initially. By caravan, the people come into a place with sufficient appeal to be a possible new settlement. The new location needs a source of food, water, construction materials, etc. They feel good about it, which means it also must be lacking in obvious, in-the-moment threats that they can't cope with. It's a pre-BEDAT location.
Apology: Bad Guys are coming. They're following the daughter, so she's guilty somehow? Or she stumbled on them, so she's a welcome herald bringing a warning? Either way, there are Bad Guys, which means the BEDAT can't be a bastion of defense in comparison. Either the BEDAT won't bother slowing the Bad Guys, or the Bad Guys will probably overcome the BEDAT. (Hm. I've been assuming that the Bad Guys are coming for the family, not for the whole of the town. I think I'll stick with that, so the Bad Guys are able to sneak by any defenses, or any guardians won't naturally stop the Bad Guys.)
Apology, continued: Daughter is guilty in some way. This means the social order must back family cohesion, obedience and loyalty to the heads of the family, and by extension to the community. Ah, a wrinkle, there: not to the community. Families, especially the big and thriving ones, tend to be self-interested. It's the families further down the socioeconomic scale that cling to the community. The Bad Guys are...a rival family? No, I like a culture clash of another order: people on the lower end of the scale. It's an uprising of lower classes against this family, because of something the daughter has done.
Apology, continued: The setting needs to have clearly defined social and economic classes. Since there's probably magic, I'll include religion and mysticism here. For a fun subversion of the norm: the wealthy and thriving families have peculiar "folk ways" that they hew to, while the lower classes are part of an older and organized religion.
Unspecified: Blech. What's to say, here? A BEDAT is no different from a RETPOF for this much to work from. But we're starting from a BEDAT, so this much I can say: if there's magic, it's either part of the dominant religion or it's not. The notion of a dominant and intolerant religion doesn't allow for much outsider magic, and it's a common enough element for rogue magicians to skulk about the shadows outside the religion's domain. What if there's magic as practiced by the dominant religion, and a cult within the religion that practices some species of heretical magic? It's a start.
RINSE AND REPEAT...
Go as far as you can with such gut checks, analysis, and brainstorming. As you saw from my continuations above, these jump back as far as the story idea and race ahead as far as the next brainstorm. When I finished coming up with answers, I ran through a gut check and analysis. When I had no more ideas to include, I went on to the next story in the list. Ideally, you won't have a next story in the list; you want to finish your setting on one story. Assuming you've come as far as you can (and stipulating that I've come as far as I can with some of these ideas), we move to the next phase of the process: the consultation.
The engineer and the client sit with a pile of notes. The client has come up with an idea, the engineer has offered a generic starting position, and the client has reacted to the strengths and weaknesses of that position. The engineer now has an idea of how far to tweak the generic setting to meet the needs of the story. Is it enough for the engineer to proceed? Maybe.
The engineer at this point has an unenviable task. Some tailored setting needs to be put forth for the client to use as the stage for a story. Along the way of telling the story, the client may suddenly find a need for, say, giant and venomous hunting cats. Green ones. The client will look all around the setting, not find those damn cats, and cry foul at the engineer. "Where are the giant green cats?" To which the engineer can say, "Your specs didn't mention cats of any kind." Did the engineer fail? Or were the specs inadequate?
The engineer can consider a myriad of possibilities before beginning. The engineer can pose a series of questions to the client: "Do you need hunting cats?" "Is there a preferred color scheme for predators and prey?" "What about giant things and miniature things?" This could be tedious and unhelpful. The client may not have a strong enough idea of what the story will contain to be able to answer these questions, and might fear ruling something out that might prove necessary.
So the problem can be kicked back to the client before the engineer gets started. "Outline your story for me," the engineer might say, "So I've got an idea of what you'll need out of the setting." The client can say, "But how can I outline the story when I don't know what my options are?"
ROUGHING IT IN
Come up with a handful of milestones in the event sequence. A beginning, a moment when everything goes to hell, and how the characters survive. One or two moments of cool. Another quick leap into some deeper, darker, and hotter hell. How the characters suffer and survive. A moment of awesome.
You're not tied to these rough events. The goal is to get a hazy idea as to what kind of story is coming so that the setting can accommodate it.
The priests are digging in the mines, extracting silver. There's a member of the lay clergy (not permitted in the holy mines, ever) who has become ever more important to the mining operation. This pushy clergyman wants access to the mines, and has been rejected time and again. Calamity befalls the mining priests: a mining accident injures some priests, and the clergyman holds up the rescue gear unless he's allowed to come in. The junior priests (not able to consult their superiors, trapped inside) relent. The clergyman goes in with the priests on the rescue mission. Deep in the mines, the clergyman does some amazing stuff -- risks life and limb -- to save the superiors. Some of the superiors recoil at the horror of seeing an outsider in the mines, and a fresh cave in wipes them out. The clergyman is doubly heroic in saving the lives of the remaining junior priests. The surviving group, now beholden to the clergyman and impressed by the events in the dark, accept him as their new superior (an act of grave heresy). They resume mining after a time, but all is not well: accidents become more frequent, production is down, and the silver is impure. The junior priests figure it's punishment from their god, but fail to convince their heretical leader. Finally, when they're meeting in the dark and formally decide not to oust the heretic by force, the mines are flooded. The few survivors emerge, determined to kill the heretic to satisfy their god. The heretic has fled the scene with vast reserves of tarnished silver, traveling with a company of lay clergy and hirelings. He seems to accept that he was responsible for incurring the god's wrath, but he refuses to be held accountable. The company takes refuge in a refinery, where they have defensive advantages. The priests arrive, apparently deranged and covered in black slime. Every injury they sustain merely leaves them cleaner, shinier. They slow as they fight, but they don't fall. They chew through the defenders until morale breaks. The ponderous, implacable priests lay hold of the heretic and bury him alive under a mound of tarnished silver. As the heretic dies, the silver comes clean. In the gleam of their god's restored silver, the mining priests are left barely alive.
This is harder, because this idea never got much further than a handful of characters. Their world has the bare necessities to support their backstory, but they aren't slated (so far) to go anywhere. There's no required plot to serve as a roughing in spot for the forward-moving story. So, I'll flesh out the backstory.
A temple in service to a dark, elder god stood fortified behind mighty stone walls. The surrounding territories suffered under rapacious tithes to the order. Rebellious villagers managed to offer allegiance to nearby feudal lords, if only they would conquer the temple. Via scouts and spies, they received word that one of the lords would mobilize an army. The lord, a pious man in service to his own church, received considerable backing. He called up his troops, then bolstered their number by hiring mercenaries, and he launched an attack to free the lands around the temple. The war was a great success, clearing the evil templars from the lands surrounding the temple. Then came the long siege, when fell magic and time became the army's foe.
Many mercenaries converted to the lord's faith as they faced the temple's sorcery. Some became a tight band with a daring plan to breach the temple's walls and open the way for the army. They organized their team, found a secret entrance into the fortress, and fought their way to the gates. They opened the gate, suffering fearsome losses to their number in the process, and gave the army its chance. The army surged in, killed as many evil templars as they could, looted the temple and consecrated the grounds.
With their task complete, the lord rewarded the mercenaries. The irregulars were released from service, and one stalwart band stayed united. They would take themselves into other dark territories on the fringes of their new faith's domain, and they would look for new contracts and ways to battle the wicked templars.
The caravan has been traveling for some months. Their initial flight from home came on the heels of war. They lost many members of their community along the way, they lost much of what they owned, and still they clung to each other. They managed to pull together traveling supplies and gear along the way, but even that was running out. It was time to settle, and now fate had given them an opportunity: on the side of a river, with fertile soil and near mighty trees, they could build a new home. They had grown proficient at hunting, and they scouted the region. Strange, wild birds attacked them, but they dispatched the flock with practiced ease. It seemed auspicious, and they were near the end of their supplies. They stayed.
The early settlement had recurring troubles with creatures out of the woods away from the river. They lost supplies, but they gained in food as they continued to hunt. Barricades went up, more animals came in. Then the seasons shifted, and the animals grew worse, and it was too late to attempt to move again. It was time to dig in and hold out. When the first inorganics crashed their barricades, when the villagers fought back with fire and water, they realized that their troubles were not merely natural -- if weird -- fauna. Something evil lurked nearby, and they must root it out if they were to survive at all.
Hardy members of the community raided into the woods. They fought, they died, they regrouped. With the knowledge gained (at great cost) from the wilderness, they concocted a plan to invade the darkest heart of the woods. They had come up with broken bits of stone and wood that, pieced together, looked like an evolving sequence of idolized figures. Either its newest incarnation waited for them, or its earliest ancestor. The pattern of discoveries told them where to go hunting.
The hunted. They fell into traps, as they discovered that all of the land on this side of the river was, in some horrible way, animate. They fought through, certain they would die but determined to save their families by destroying the idol. They reached the heart -- a henge, perhaps, or something like it -- where the giant idol stood. It seemed the idol merely gave life without purpose, and they were able to outwit the animated land into attacking them and -- in the process -- demolishing the idol itself.
Against long odds, several of the hunting party survived. They returned to their new settlement with fragments of the idol and the story of what they'd seen. The people would grieve and wait out the season, and they would see if they could reach any accommodation with the land. Or if, in time, it would settle on its own.
The daughter and the family conducted their rituals for prosperity. They did this in association with other families, sometimes to arrange for trades and treaties. The daughter, on her coming of age, determined she would leave home rather than knuckle under to the family's strange ways forever. She would not leave the city, but would enter another district altogether. She did, but she failed to make her way: she did not know anyone, and she could not fit in with them. Their formal religion did not make sense to her. Her efforts to blend failed, and the underclasses determined she was a spy sent by the named families to undermine them further. They captured and punished her, held a secret trial, and would execute her. She escaped, and the underclasses pursued her. They would punish the whole family for violating the terms of long-standing, if unfair, treaties.
The daughter arrived at home on a feast day. She broke in, she caught their attention, and she convinced them of what was coming. The family could not call on favors from anyone: the daughter, in abandoning them, had violated treaties that would bind their fates to others. They had no one to summon, and could only stand firm together. Would the daughter stand with them, and probably die with them? Or would she run again?
The daughter would take time enough to plead with neighbors for help. They would refuse her, but they would unite with others to ensure that only her family suffered from the uprising. It would be a crucible surrounding the daughter's family and holding them to the fire of the underclasses.
The riot struck the house. The place would burn. The family might use its folk ways to stand against the powers of the priests coming for them, but the magic would be a stalemate. When the mundane fighting broke out, the family would acquit themselves admirably -- but be overwhelmed, and caught, and bound. They would be left this way inside the burning house, much like witches left to burn on a stake. In the aftermath, the status quo would resume, and all would remember the lessons learned by the rebellious daughter.
Did I say "blech" already? What am I supposed to do with a vague idea like this one? Dominant religion with magic in a BEDAT, and a heretical cult within that religion practicing forbidden magic. An event sequence for this might need to begin with the founding of the cult.
Gods give rise to a religious following, which unites a people and holds them together through plague, famine, war, and death. Along the way, one leader of the church holds off death for many of the people by using a holy relic to personify their problem. Thus personified, it could be bargained with. Empowered by a holy relic, it was necessarily a part of the faith. The bargain resulted in unholy days, secret observances, and sacrifices. These would be undertaken by the heads of the church and in secret, kept from common knowledge. All this time later, not even legends survive about this occurrence.
Today, the priests who intercede on behalf of the church with the personified evil are treated as a shadow order within the church. Necessary, but not discussed. And within that shadow order, they impose their own rules and justice on members who must, of necessity, engage in evil acts to placate their personified evil. This dark figure has cult followings throughout the BEDAT and in surrounding areas, more or less corrupted form its original form of worship. An inquisition is out of the question, but a secret police from within the shadow order is required to keep the balance and maintain the secret. And, of course, such dark and powerful forces are sometimes useful against enemies.
Relics are required. Histories must be kept. Different holy orders within the fractious church exist, and they must communicate (however uneasily). It's not a theocracy that dominates the towns, but it might as well be. The royal orders are, perhaps, those who administer the government without access to the relics and the magic. And perhaps the royal orders are forever engaged in clandestine negotiations with the dark cult, as the only way to gain magical might for themselves.
Armed with this data, what does the engineer do? Look for vital components within this material to construct a dynamic setting. Components include:
1. Mystery Batteries: In any story, weird things occur that you don't want to explain in detail. Either you don't know them, or you can't supply any point-of-view that knows it, or it doesn't matter, or it's dull. Whatever the reason, you just want to have this mysterious thing in the story work. You need to power it with a mystery battery: ancient relics; folk ways; sacrifices; talismans; etc.
2. Heat Sinks: Another kind of mystery battery, but it works the other way around. You need something to occur that would have certain obvious consequences, only you don't want to cope with them. Either nobody is around to witness it, or it doesn't matter, or -- in the extreme -- you just don't want it to happen. Something in the story that works to absorb the dramatic energy of the consequence without wrecking the story is a heat sink. Terrain features, seasonal shifts, vast distance, barricades, large populations and the like can be used to obscure a consequence or suffer a consequence without needing to dwell on it.
3. Lights and Buzzers: Cool stuff that happens but doesn't do much to the story. These are background props, chunks of scenery that might move around and be pretty, but are not in themselves part of the action.
4. Conflict Switches: There's cool stuff that can become dramatically active -- it can hurt people, destroy things, empower people, etc. Sometimes you want to use them, sometimes you don't. But they're present, so you account for them: spellbooks, potions, weapons, maps, sages, treasure, etc. Then you supply a switch, which you can close (the characters drink the potion) or open (the characters don't have the keys to open the case of potions).
5. Exposition Chips: Some elements of the setting must be explained or shown, but are not in themselves cool or rife with conflict options. You might well need to establish certain facts that the reader must know, and the only way to do it is in exposition. Things that must be shared but are not dynamic belong in an exposition chip: a history, a poem, a legend, a map, etc.
Things that are missing should be supplied. This requires a bit of brainstorming. It might require the engineer to engage in a bit of the aforementioned Wikipedia Approach, looking for what's been overlooked so far or what might be included to usefully supply more components.
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT: CONVERGE ON PERFECTION
Repeat, from the top. Again and again, until the setting seems to work *to supply the story with its needs*. I can't stress this enough: the goal is not to provide a resource book for a role playing game. The goal is to supply a setting that works for a story.
When the time for an event sequence comes along, remember that there's no particular reason to cling to the last sequence's details. Keep them if they work, discard them if they don't. The setting doesn't care about false starts and possible stories, and the goal is to produce a setting for a specific story. When the story and the setting grow simultaneously during this process, it can look as if the characters, plot, and setting are converging on a single point. That's pretty much perfect.
UM...IS THAT ALL?
Why do I start with basic settings? What's with the BEDAT, RETPOF, etc?
I have an answer with two parts. First, a computer game programmer told me once how his department came up with map graphics for various terrains: they took satellite photos from public domain sites. Need to put a desert in the game? Earth has deserts, we have satellites that take photos of deserts, and those photos are available. Don't make life harder than it needs to be. Second, according to the Population Reference Bureau (prb.org), a semi-scientific estimate of the total number of human beings ever born is over one hundred billion. I submit that the number of groupings of human beings, the number of settlements and civilizations and lifestyles, is vast enough to supply a fiction writer with an inexhaustible field to choose from. Need to put a setting in your story? Earth has settings, we have specialists who've studied them, and those studies are available. Don't make life harder than it needs to be.
What about being creative?
The process I use results in a setting tailored for the story. To the extent that the story is creative, the setting will be. And, along the way, creativity has been required. "Structured" and "designed" do not mean "uncreative."
What about planning for sequels?
Think about a knitted afghan. It has a pattern on it and it looks nice. It is large enough for one person or two people, and it'll cover them and keep them warm, and the pattern still looks nice. That's the setting, and it fits the one or two stories you knitted it for.
A sequel requires you to redo the setting to suit the new story (which may create contradictions), or you'll wind up stretching the one afghan to cover three or four people. The more it stretches, the more obvious the holes are in the knitting, and the pattern doesn't look so nice. And forget about keeping warm underneath it as it stretches more and more. Seems like a lot of work. Make sure you really want to do it.
EYES ON THE PRIZE: A WORLD FOR THE STORY
Approaching any genre poses certain hurdles for authors. Mysteries require a knowledge of crime, criminal methods, police procedures, and forensics. All of that must be tailored for the time and place of the mystery, and for the characters populating the story. Science fiction requires a grasp of science and technology, even if it will be rendered in a fantastic manner. Horror, erotica, romance, westerns, and so on: some basic ability or knowledge must be picked up and applied that is specific to the genre. Fantasy's major requirement seems to rest on world building. So much would seem to depend on the nature of the world in a fantasy story that only a daring author would proceed without at least a map.
Many of us are not so daring, or we dare but get stymied along the way, so we must devote some time to world building. As hard as it is, we find that it turns out to be somewhat easier to manage than writing the damn story. So we fill notebooks or notepad files with the fruits of our hard labor, we master mapmaking software or try our hand at artistry, and we get caught up in research. Ah, the joys of research! Meanwhile, the story gets not a jot longer, or at least no closer to the end.
I say that the fantasy writer's main task is to know how much of the world is needed, and in what detail. Then to produce exactly that much, then stop and get on with the story. The secret is to recognize that the world in any story -- the police procedures in a mystery, the social mores in a romance, the ecology of werewolves in horror -- is there to serve a function within the story, not to be the story.