Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Tag Archives: world building

Geeking Out: From Gamer to Writer

I have mentioned before that I’m a bit of a geek.

Growing up, I spent countless hours playing, administrating, and running MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons). These were the text-based roleplaying games where I would whittle away my hours, interacting with people around the world by playing at being a Druid, a secret magic user, a nefarious rogue, a troubled artist, a religious Warband leader, and a powerful manipulator of the elements who had a huge distrust of authority. I spent countless hours developing skills that have proven exceptionally useful in my writing. I’d like to share some of that experience and those skills with you here today, and put forth my argument that certain types of gaming can be a writer’s greatest gift.

Character Planning. When we begin a roleplaying game, we have to think about the history of our character. Or rather, we do if we hope to create a solid character that will have longevity in the world. This involves figuring out who our parents might be, what are our religious beliefs, which gods or goddess we might like and dislike, what is our skill set, what events in our youth might have shaped our attitude and outlook in life, and what our aspirations are – our super-objectives that drive us through the world.

Druid

How would you describe her in words?

How do we feel about other nationalities/races/religions? What style of clothing do we choose to wear? What is our economic status, and how will we interact or move through the world?

Asking these questions help create the dynamic, interesting characters people will want to interact with and include in their roleplaying world.

And the same questions apply to planning our protagonists and antagonists and indeed our secondary and tertiary characters. The more fleshed-out a character appears to be, the more seamlessly they fit into the world. It creates a subtle impact, and readers pick up on it. The characters will have attitudes, personality, prejudices, and allegiances. This will affect how they move through and interact with the world. It creates for a more immersive storytelling experience.

Writing and Reading Descriptions. When I administered and ran MUDs, my duties included building the descriptions of rooms, objects, and monsters. As a player, my duties included describing my character for others to see and read the world around me. I had to examine how others described themselves, what the rooms and areas we played in looked like, and whether there might useful clues we might devise from the world around us.

On some MUDs, the descriptions are pretty limited. They are stunted, do nothing to further our understanding of the world, and are often times laughable. The same can be said about a good deal of gamers out there. But when you come across the players who have good descriptions and the MUDs where a true atmosphere has been evoked in the way everything has been described… Well, it is thrilling.

Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I can write some killer descriptions. Pages of them, if need be. Unfortunately, this usually causes problems, and I end up spending time paring the descriptions down in order to ensure that they drive the atmosphere forward, rather than bog the reader down and create obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

Personally, I like to rely on descriptions that involve a sensory experience. Our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell all help immerse the reader into the world. Often times, though, less is more – and this becomes crucial with writing strong stories.

Atmosphere can take center stage

Atmosphere can take center stage

There are moments where the atmosphere or locale needs to take center stage, where an anticipated character gets the opportunity to wow the reader with their carefully put-together attire. We just need be careful that it doesn’t add obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

World Building. When I began designing my MUD, The Towers of Jadri, I started from scratch. I had a common look-and-feel in mind, as I wanted to create a unified world for my players to immerse themselves in.

I built dozens of areas – likely 80% or more of the playable zones on the MUD – for the characters to explore and live in. I spent countless of hours writing help files for players to be able to read to further understand the culture, history, and abilities. I’d even pay players in the form of special in-game points to go through all the game’s commands in search of missing help files, or scanning the current help files for things of interest which could be elaborated upon to assist in the understanding of the world.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether the players appreciated the several hundred help files that the MUD had. However, when I stop by other MUDs, I am often dumbfounded by how non-user friendly they seem to be – simply because I am unable to get the answers to the questions I have in order to successfully develop the depth of my character.

Now, the hours I spent fleshing out the world served another useful purpose, as I still have those areas and help files. Since the Towers of Jadri was a MUD set in my world, everything I built – from rooms and objects to monsters and help files – furthered my own understanding of the world, the history, the nations, races, special and magical abilities, etc. This was serious world-building, and as a result I believe that when my stories are read, there is a sense of full immersion into the richness of the world. My beta readers seem to agree.

Okay, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn a little bit, and I apologize. I’m proud of the world I created, and I often find myself a little blown away by the fact that, 15 years later, the game I created has turned into an honest-to-goodness book. It’s allowed for me to create a fully-realized world where the metaphysics and history make sense, where the way people interact with each other is plausible, and where the stories have become quite easy for me to share.

How has your involvement in gaming helped develop your craft and the stories you tell? Have you had any special experiences that have led to your worlds being fully immersive and highly developed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below – it’s pretty nifty hearing how other people came to develop their worlds.

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A Map of the World – The Magic of Maps in Fantasy

When I read fantasy books, there’s nothing I love more than the maps.

Well, maybe the story. But the maps are definitely right up there. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s because my first exposure to fantasy was at the age of 10 when I jumped with full abandon into The Lord of the Rings series, followed by The Hobbit. (I still remember my parents being astounded seeing me walking around with the massive 1100-page ‘complete trilogy’ at the cottage. How does a boy go from reading nothing but Calvin & Hobbes to something of that size?)

Maps complete the world for me. Even though our imaginations are incredibly powerful, there’s something wonderful about having a piece of the author’s vision at our disposal. It’s like a sacred secret. They’re sharing with us how they see the world, and it transcends – and completes – the story.

I’m guilty of flipping back to the map every time the characters travel to a new locale, or talks about a distant territory. I love seeing the topography, the rivers they might have had to cross, whether it’s plains or forests or mountainous terrain. It’s a little bit of magic, and a fantasy wouldn’t be complete without it. Some favorite maps include Tolkien and Robert Jordan.

J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

A map of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

When I was 15 and started world building for my fantasy realm, I started with the maps. Well, to be honest, I started with the titles. Titles have always come first to me, whether I’m writing blog posts, books, short stories, or plays. But the map was a close second.

That summer, I sat at the picnic table that served as our dining room in our tiny little cottage and started to doodle. I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted the world to be at this point, but I knew I needed a map. I knew the map needed nations, and those nations needed cities. And there had to be conflict. And isolated areas complete with secrets of their own. And cool names. You can’t forget that.

I suppose it should come as no surprize that I value maps so much. I’m a professional actor and writer, and one of the fundamentals of storytelling in both art forms is setting. In my opinion, there is no clearer setting than the world as described by a map. I am amazed, however, at how many stories were born out of this seemingly haphazard – or perhaps careless – doodle of a 15-year old mind.

But perhaps that’s exactly how it should be.

There’s a wonderful saying – and, to be honest, I don’t remember who said it, or which nationality it is attributed to (I believe it is the Native Americans, but I may be wrong) – about the nature of story and storytellers. It goes a little something like this:

“The stories exist; this much is true. They exist always, constantly searching for the right storyteller to introduce them to the world. When – and only when – the right storyteller is found will we finally be given the gift of the tale.”

And perhaps the innocent vessel of my 15-year-old self was tapping into a story that chose me as it’s teller, thus giving birth to the map that would shape and define the stories I would inevitably write. I’ve already written one book (the first of a trilogy), and I guarantee you there are at least 30 other tales for me to share.

And in case you’re wondering, an exceptionally talented friend is currently creating a digital version of my hand-drawn map. I hope to share it with you one day soon.

How important are maps to you? Have there been books where the map has added nothing to the stories, and others where the map nearly completes the story for you? Who has succeeded, and who has perhaps failed to deliver? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your thoughts.