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Worldbuilding

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sunandshadow

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Back to our circle of story elements:
characters - character dynamic - plot - atmosphere - wordbuilding - then back to characters again.

Having covered the basics of character and character dynamic yesterday, we can now slide around the ring to either plot or worldbuilding. Again, this is a matter of your orientation as a writer - I have a lot more worldbuilding inspirations than plot ones, so I'm going to talk about worldbuilding now. ;)

- Worldbuilding
- - Physics
- - Geography
- - Ecology
- - Culture

The physics type of worldbuilding includes gravity, electricity, weather, magic, gods, and any of the background forces that make your world behave the way it does.

Say you want to have people living on the moon - okay, what are they breathing? What are the consequences to animals and people if the gravity is much lighter than on earth? What about radiation and other hazards of a thin atmosphere? How does all this affect the weather?

If you want to have magic, where does it come from? How does it work? How can people use it, and what are the side effects of doing so?

If you want to have gods, how do they think? (Hint, probably NOT like people.) What powers do they have? What do they want from people? Why?

I'm not going to go on about this at great length because there's already a good book on the subject: World-Building, by Stephen L. Gillett

Anyone who has a high school education should know enough about the names of geographical features and food webs and ecological niches, etc., to put together a passable imaginary world. Just keep in mind that your geography should look like it could be a logical product of your physics, and that your plants and animals have to be functionally adapted to both of these (i.e. no giant bugs on normal gravity planets).


Now we get to the really interesting and complicated part: people! No man is an island, alone unto himself. Everyone is born into a society that teaches its members a system of ethics and a model of how the world works, which information these members use to decide how to live their lives. And each society is a product of the actions of previous generations, who were in turn products of earlier versions of society, and so on, back to the dawn of intelligent life. When you create a single character and their assumptions, beliefs, and personal philosophy, you to some extent also need to create the whole of this history.

The exception is if you are doing a near-present Earth setting, because your player will already be fairly familiar with these. But games in the story-dependant genres (RPG, action RPG, adventure, FPS, and interactive fiction) are usually set in cultures other than that of modern reality. So it follows that you will need to sketch this new culture out for your players as part of your story.

If you are not interested in sociology and don't want to tackle culture building, whch requires an understanding of about three different university-level fields of study, let me offer you a few easy ways out: 1) Research an existing historical culture and base your game culture on it. 2) Research an existing fictional culture and base yours on it, but don't forget to change the names of everything so you're not violating copyright law. 3) Invent just a magic system/different planet and work out how this change would affect an existing culture. 4) Invent just a race with a variation on human biology and workout how this would affect an existing culture.

If, however, you want to tackle this difficult but fascinating field of design, let's go with: 5) Invent your own culture from scratch.

Building Culture and Sociobiology

To design a culture you need to decide the stage of cultural evolution your society is at, the kin group patterns your society is organized around, the type of economy your society uses, the society's average moral philosophy, and the stage of technological evolution your society is at, for starters.

According to Elman R. Service's book _Origins of the State and Civilization_, all civilizations that arise spontaneously and free from the influences of previous civilizations go through the following phases: hunting and gathering, incipient agriculture, formative, regional florescent, initial empire, dark ages, cyclical conquests. Now admittedly this is not a very strong generalization because he had a sample size of only 6 spontaneously occurring civilizations throughout the Earth's history. (These being Mesopotamia, Egypt, N. China, N. Peru, and Meso-America.) But we might as well assume that this generalization is solid so we have something to work with.

So what do those phase names mean?

Pre-culture

Supposedly the first hominids were similar to modern-day bonobos (a type of chimpanzee). They lived in nomadic bands on the plains of Africa and fed themselves by scavenging and browsing. The exogamous gender was the female one, with female children generally switching to a neighboring tribe at puberty, while males stayed in the tribes of their mothers. They communicated simple concepts via a few grunts and motions. The only ties they acknowledged were mother-child and friend-friend relationships, and the only ways they controlled each others' behavior were by physical force, intimidation, and favor exchange.

There was a balance of power between the dominant male (who usually had one or two sidekicks and was often supported by his mother), his rival (and his sidekick(s)), and a network of the dominant females of the tribe, organized into little cliques of tree or four friends. There probably weren't monogamous marriages or any understanding of how fatherhood worked at this time, but there were certainly 'couples' of men and women who preferred each other and shared food, and just generally were friends. Oh, and they already had war - bands of a few males and possibly some females with no children would occasionally go purposely into a neighbor's territory and, if they caught one of the other tribe's members alone, would beat and/or rape him/her, sometimes to death. All in all, much like high school. o.O

Hunting and Gathering (Stone Age)

Then something changed in our brains and we began developing language, and through language we cooperated to develop tool-use, food-storing technology, clothing, and cooperative hunting. Persuasion, rules, and taboos were invented, and we tamed fire and learned to cook. These tribes were still nomadic within a territory, moving around so as not to exhaust the plants and game in any one area, and to take advantage of seasonal changes (like living in a cave in winter, hunting big game on the plains in summer, and harvesting the forest's bounty in autumn).

Along with language we gained the ability to tell stories, and mythology aka religion was consequently also been invented. Technology at this point included wooden, bone, and stone tools, and baskets and clothing made from animal skins and woven animal or plant fibers, which were wrapped, knotted, or tied with cord through holes pierces by awls, but were not sewn. Anthropological evidence suggests that probably a group of women and their children lived together permanently, and the men went on hunting trips in hierarchial groups for anywhere from a day to two weeks, then brought the game back to the women to trade for sex. A primitive form of marriage was invented (basically a mythological confirmation of the gift-preference-jealousy sexual economy that already existed). Similarly primitive adoption, naming, initiation, chief-making, and blood brotherhod rituals developed to mark various changes in relationships and social status within the tribe.

Art was invented, mostly tattooing, scarification, body piercing, body and object painting, carving, and patterned weaving/knotting/braiding of hair or baskets, often accompanied by hand-drilled beads. Some cultures of this type still existed until recently (nomadic native americans, indians of the amazon, australian aboriginies). The best fictional example I have seen of a culture of this type is Jean M. Auel's _The Clan of the Cave Bear_

Incipient Agriculture

Some tribes, following their religious beliefs, buried dead tribe members them with food (and other objects) for various reasons. Some of this food was grain and tubers, and these were observed to sprout from the grave next spring. Thus agriculture was invented, spontaneously in each of the six civilizations. Generally the first gardens and fields were tended by women, while men continued to hunt and then domesticate and herd animals; this created, for the only time in history, a matriarchial system. Women owned the land they farmed, and the Chief of the tribe was generally the brother or son of the richest woman.

The problem with agriculture was that you couldn't take the plants with you; the solution was to live in a cave or build huts near where the plants grew best, usually a river valley or delta. Animals were domesticated somewhere in here too, and the ability to fire clay into pottery was discovered, needles were invented and soft metal jewelry (gold, silver, and copper) along with beading and cloth dyeing began to be worn as visible signs of wealth. Wells were dug and cisterns and troughs built to facilitate watering crops and flocks.

But giving up nomadism meant reducing your chances to mix your genes with another tribe. The solution to this was recognition of a more complicated kin system (usually splitting of the population into two phratries and totemic sub-groups) and a primitive type of arranged marriage, often involving a bride-price paid in herd animals. Settlement in one area also meant that there were some resources a group just didn't have access to and some that the group could get very easily (specialization), and an organized barter system evolved to even out the distribution of goods.

Examples of this type of society were dark-ages england, african herdsmen, hawaiian islanders, polynesian islanders, easter islanders, and new-guineans. You see a lot of islanders on this list because this is often the highest level of civilization a small island can support.

To read more about phratries and totemic groups you should read: Emile Durkheim's _Elementary Forms of the Religious Life_

Regional Florescent Period (Bronze Age)

Now comes more organized farming (now converted to a male profession), construction of complicated wood, brick, and adobe buildings, the working of soft metals, the birth of bureaucracy and simple writing for record-keeping, and the first monetary systems. The construction of towns fed by the surplus of outlying farms enabled some people to leave the production of food to others while they specialized in being artisans, producing technological objects. And the artisans built workshops and machines to help them in their work: Pottery wheels, spinning wheels, looms, improved furnaces and forges, grain mills, pulley systems, aqueducts and irrigation systems and other plumbing, ploughs, wagons, chariots... the list goes on and on.

New machines and new techniques of production like glass blowing and casting from molds combined to result in the production of enamel and other glass products, more advanced waterproof pottery with glass glazes, bronze tools and weapons, stamped coins, woven fabrics and sewn clothing, tooled leather, furniture such as chairs, tables, beds, and wardrobes, small mirrors and windows, cut gems and complex jewelry... oh, writing evolved, resulting in the first books, handwritten and copied by scribes, or sometimes carved into the wall of a temple or tomb.

Acient Greek civilization is the archetypal example of this type of culture, and also Feudal England, the Pueblo Indians, Celtic civilization before the Roman conquest, and Hebrew civilization as described in the _Bible_. Or you can think of Rohan, Rivendell, and the Shire in _The Lord of the Rings_. Many computer games take place in a setting of this sort, or at least have villages of this sort on the frontier or in backwaters of a kingdom/empire where the castle or capital city is at the next level up.

Initial Empire (Iron Age)

As the exponential growth of human civilization continued, things continued to get more complicated. The printing press (block printing, not moveable type yet) fostered the creation of private and royal libraries, organized schools which grew into academies and the first universities, and organized religion. Advances in engineering, transportation of building materials, and drafting of peasants for public works projects enabled the construction of walled cities and stone castles. Metal forging advanced further to allow the working of brass and iron. Artisans organized into guilds and instituted formal ranks and hierarchies among their members, and the first factories were built to supply the government and its army. Art and philosophy blossomed. Gunpowder was invented and guns evolved quickly from primitive flintlocks to rifles. Water-clocks were invented, and advances were made in optics and astronomy. Various types of government including a police force and a national standing army evolved to deal with distribution of goods and resources, and to mediate between the increasingly larger numbers of people living in a small area: Feudalism, Monarchy, Oligarchy, Theocracy...

Since these cultures are more varied and have ample historical documentation I won't try to describe them thoroughly, just mention some ones you are already familiar with and can go research further if you like: Athens and Sparta, Carthage, the Egyptian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Incan and Aztec Empires, the Chinese Empire, the Japanese Empire and basically every country in early Renissance Europe.

Dark Ages and Cyclical Conquests

I'm going to skip these because they are optional in a civilization's history and don't include any new technology or social customs. So now we've gotten beyond Service, who wasn't interested in modern civilization, but there are still a few more ages to go.

The Modern Age (Steel Age, Machine Age)

You probably learned about this one in middle or high school - this is the invention of moveable type, steam engines, hot-air balloons, coal-fired blast furnaces, construction of railroads and factories, the beginning of automation, and the displacement of people from the country to the city. More innovations followed quickly: concrete, wrought iron, steel, sheet glass, sky-scrapers, airplanes, automobiles, assembly lines, standardization and interchangable parts, dynamite, automatic guns, electricity, telegraphs, telephones, radar, etc.

The Postmodern Age (Computer Age, Information Age)
This is where we are currently. Hopefully you know about it, since you're living in it and I'm tired of writing. Major innovations: equal rights, global airline network, space travel, lasers, biotechnology and medical technology, credit cards, computers and other computerzed appliances, and the internet.

The Future...?
Theorists speculate that the next age after this one will be an age of customization and virtuality; computers will be able to generate one-of-a-kind objects and entertainments, and the concept of marketing will have to change to cope with this. Technological advances may make money obsolete, whch would completely alter our economy. Anticipated major innovations: nanomachines, genetic engineering, terraforming, regular space travel, virtual reality, cryogenics, true AI...


Some links to help you with your worldbuilding:
Patricia Wrede's Worldbuilding Checklist
Worldbuilding Tools
Contact Alien Creation
World-Create Yahoogroup



Finally, a bit about how to convey all this info to the player during the game:

You have neither the time nor any real necessity to tell the player the whole history of your civilization, of course. The most important things to describe are those which affect the plot events, characters' motivations, and characters' patterns of reaction. It will generally be necessary to describe or imply the culture's prevailing moral beliefs at the time your game occurs. (E.g. do they think theft is a social pastime or a soul-destroying sin? Or is the concept of theft impossible because they don't have the concept of property?). Players frequently enjoy a direct statement of a culture's beliefs, especially if in the form of a 'traditional' chant or poem that you have invented.

An example from Ursula K. LeGuin's _The Left Hand of Darkness_:
Quote:

Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
Together like lovers in kemmer,
Like hands joined together,
Like the end and the way.


This works best when the chant is foreshadowed by an 'ignored assumption' in your characters' comments. Thus instead of relating a boring piece of exposition, you have satisfied the reader's curiosity. An ignored assumption: Character1 says, "The flurbing should be better than ever this year!" Assuming that the reader doesn't already know what flurbing is, he/she will think the following: "Flurbing happens on a yearly basis; the character thinks flurbing is a good thing; that flurbing is getting better may be an effect of the way(s) the culture has been stated to be changing." The one of these that's an ignored assumption is that flurbing is good. It's an ignored assumption because the reader will assume this solely because the character thinks so. When the reader finds out what flurbing actually is, he/she may think it's a terrible idea.

To create ignored assumptions and flesh out your culture in other ways, it may be necessary to invent some vocabulary. Perhaps even a whole language. While it's a neat idea to write a book in 'alien', and the finished object would make an interesting coffee table piece, you'll make more money if you write it in English and put a note in the introduction saying, "Translated from the original 'alien'." However, there are situations where having an alien language characters can speak and write in can really add richness to your world. Certainly 'alien' inscriptions can make a nice addition to your game's art. You may want to create just a few 'alien' or 'futuristic' or 'elvish' or whatever words to help create a rich atmosphere.


If you want to try to create a language (this is a huge project and I don't recommend it for a computer game), read this_Model Languages_ by sunandshadow
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