A world fit for dice

Posted: June 26, 2012 in Fiction, Gaming, Mantic
Tags: , ,

I’ve been doing a bit of work over the last few years for Mantic Games, part of which was aiding in the creation of their gaming worlds. With something like this, you’re working within a very tight brief, and in some respects this kind of writing is a weird synthesis of the disciplines required for creating fiction and journalism.

Recently, I was asked to pull everything together to create a background section for their upcoming rulebook. Even more recently, they asked me for a blog describing how I got on. You can read it on Mantic’s blog, or if you can’t be bothered to depress your mouse button, it’s presented below. The only real difference is the lack of pretty pictures.

Forging Mantica

How do you make an entirely new fantasy world for a wargame? That’s a question I had to ask myself when Ronnie at Mantic commissioned me to piece together an overarching background history for The Kings of War rulebook.

I’m no stranger to worldbuilding, I do it all the time in my own fiction, but creating something for a wargames system is a bit different to making a world up for your own stories. Game worlds come about in one of two ways – they’re either planned out in detail by a small group, or they evolve from the ideas of many gamers over the course of years. Both continue to develop organically over time, of course, but only some start that way.

Mantica came about by a hothoused version of the latter; organically grown, but at speed. It involved the input of quite a few people, all whose ideas were somewhat different. This is a good thing, as gaming ideas born from the brains of the many are generally more involving than those that spring from the few.

It was my job to pull it all together.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

I’ve been involved with the world of Mantica from near the beginning. In fact, I came up with large parts of it while we were making the Mantic Journal – I came up with a rough outline some time ago that formed the basis of the final version in the book, I drew the map, and I wrote the history for the orcs and dwarfs from scratch, among other things.

With a project like this, you’re always drawing on the ideas of others. For example, much of the undead and elf material had already been written when I came on board. This material provided plenty of detail, while their histories were fortunately vague enough to stand adaption.

Other directives and bits of background material came from the models themselves. They were designed to a brief after all, to fit a certain look and evoke Mantic’s ideas of what an elf or goblin should be. Further concepts came from Alessio Cavatore, the writer of the rules. In most cases he decided on a direction for the armies, and wrote a list to suit. So I knew, in the main, how a race looked, how they fought, and what their traditions of war were. I’ve had conversations with Ronnie and Alessio about the world and how it works, with both of them giving input and ideas to my suggestions and coming up with major elements themselves. The Abyss, for example, a key part of our world, that one was Alessio’s. The rest, particularly the history of the world, was up to me.

Archetypes, not cliché

There’s a big danger when creating fantasy that it doesn’t immediately slide into cliché. Elves, dwarfs, orcs, men and more, all living on one world… Pick up any sub-Tolkien fantasy trilogy and you’ll find variations on the theme. A wargame, especially a fantasy wargame, demands the full menagerie, and there are certain aspects of each creature you can’t mess with. A dwarf is never going to love an orc, otherwise you might as well call them both something else. The trouble is, there are some highly original wargames out there that have all manner of different characters and species, but they’re not particularly popular. I completely understand why – when I play a fantasy wargame, I want to play out battles between haughty elves and wicked monsters, not refight the last stand of the cat people of Mew-mew. That’s not to say that cat people aren’t cool, but they’re perhaps not wise business.

The difficulty for a writer in this situation is not to come up with something that’s completely derivative. You want to employ heroic fantasy archetypes, not rearrange tired cliché. There’s not a great deal of room for manoeuvre, but sometimes having strict boundaries drives creativity.

Firstly, I tried to make Mantica obliquely topical. A lot of the fantasy games and books from the 80s that are still popular today play upon apocalyptic themes, many indirectly inspired by the then-prevalent fear of nuclear war. Fantasy needs a threat, a reason for conflict, it’s a defining part of the genre, so I plumped for something similarly world-ending – environmental ruin. Mantica is a wreck, reckless elven magic in the dim past caused half its gods to go insane, and precipitated a series of terrible wars. There was a magically induced ice age, a great inundation that drowned many kingdoms and all manner of other upheavals. Most of the remaining societies in our “present” are fragmented, and struggling to recapture their ancient glory. There’s plenty of new land revealed by retreating ice, and a lot of ancient enmity – perfect for never-ending war.

Unlike some wargames, I wanted Mantica to have a story that could move forward. I didn’t want a “one minute to midnight” feel that renders the actions of our heroes somewhat hopeless, so I put the great wars in the past. In some ways, Mantica is a post-apocalyptic world. Now is a period of retrenchment, but the threat of dark gods returning hangs over all. There are dangerous ruins everywhere, while deadly artefacts and monsters created in the God Wars can be found across the world. The inhabitants of Mantica might pray for a bright future, but it could all go horribly wrong…

I also tried to move away a little from the standards of each racial stereotype: Our dwarfs are powerful and resurgent, mankind’s glory days are in the past, the elves are crippled by internal tensions. The elves in particular are interesting, as it’s been their arrogance and meddling with magic that have unleashed two of the world’s greatest evils. These aren’t huge divergences from the accepted fantasy norm – they fit the archetype – but cumulatively they make the world our own. Hopefully, this keeps us out of the realm of cliché.

A bit of Tolkien, a bit of Beastmaster

For the tone of Mantica, I drew upon two specific influences. I went back to Tolkien for the grand sweep of history: the rising and falling of nations, the reforming of the world, doomed love, the conflict with the divine… We’re talking The Silmarillion here rather than The Lord of the Rings. But the detail of it, at the day-to-day level, comes purely from Sword and Sorcery. Sword and Sorcery pretty much was the be all and end all of fantasy before Tolkien came along, and it’s a sub genre I love – Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, The Eternal Champion… These stories are about the actions of individuals, good and bad, rather than the relentless push of fate. They’re full of horrible creatures, dark magics, and mad wizards, desperate struggles in dark places against terrible foes. Sword and Sorcery is darker than Heroic Fantasy for sure, but there’s a grain of hope in it, and an ownership of one’s actions. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, for example, is a creation in a state of perpetual degeneration. Other heroes find themselves just pawns of destiny. Mantica needn’t be like that.

What Mantica looks like in the future is very much up to you, as the world is now established, so it’s entering its secondary phase, a time when there’s still tons of stuff to be defined, and great sagas to be written. By choosing this mix of deep history and individual action I’ve tried to put the fate of a world in your hands. Have fun deciding it.

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Comments
  1. Eversor says:

    Great article, thanks! Makes me want to read more about the world – I know little of Mantic’s “fluff” at the moment.

    You mention that worldbuilding for a game is different to worldbuilding for a novel – how? It’s something I’d love to know even more about!

    • guyhaley says:

      Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the slow response – I’m editing a magazine this week, and we’re on deadline.

      Worldbuilding is different for a game to *most* novels, I should have said. When you are writing your own original fiction, you’re free to do what you please. When writing stories for someone else, you have to follow their brief. This is why it’s a little like making a magazine or writing a factual article. A games company will tell you what the world has to include, and this is usually driven by commerical considerations. You also have to take account of what has been written for the world before, the tone the company wants, what they might have in mind for the future and so on. But it all comes from the company and it’s mainly the company’s business model that has the major effect on what you can create in establishing a world. In Mantic’s case, they want a world with a certain collection of fantasy races that can be made into toy soldiers. I should imagine it would have been the same writing for D&D or Warhammer about twenty years ago, only there I would have been taking the stuff a whole bunch of other people had made up for games purposes and trying to make sense of it, rather than trying to create a new world from the ground up to a set of preplanned criteria. As an example, Mantic wanted a number of different Elf races any fantasy reader, RPGer or wargamer would recognise. I couldn’t go “Hey! Steampunk Elves from a parallel universe!” or anything. What I could do is try to make them as original as possible within the confines of the archetype.

      This is different even to the books I write for the Black Library. There, you’re writing stories set in an already well-grounded universe, and in that respect it’s more akin to writing historical fiction. I have to do research in the same manner as I would were I writing a book about, say, the Romans, so expansive are the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes now. (I do research for all my books, but of differing kinds). This makes you somewhat freer yet simultaneously less free than making up something like Mantica.

      In simple terms, I reiterate that the difference is entirely in the brief. All fiction has some kind of brief, I suppose, whether it is externally imposed or self-imposed (in terms of genre, market, etc), but for Mantica that brief was quite tight.

      I hope that answers your question.

  2. Eversor says:

    Deadlines are horrible things – just look at me, it took me nearly a week to reply to your reply :-) Thanks for taking the time!

    Your answer makes things clearer. All the worldbuilding I’ve done has been for my own consumption, with no editors involved. It’s interesting how much thought really goes into these things at the professional level. I remember Dan Abnett blogging something similar, regarding writing stories in a setting you don’t completely “own”, and how it’s very different but not less of an artistic challenge.

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