Reflections on a few of the most intriguing worlds I have encountered.
I enjoy world-building. I have sketches and outlines of half a dozen world ideas archived in my box of mathoms and always seem to have another idea floating about to explore and archive in similar fashion.
I also enjoy reading about worlds others have built. Many are the book, movie, and game I have enjoyed more for the world it portrayed then for the story or gameplay it provided. There are also intriguing worlds that also have intriguing stories.
In this post I want to pay tribute to a few of the most memorable worlds I have encountered.
There are lots of ways to describe a world once you design it. One of my favorite is a booklet included in the first boxed set for the Darksun setting in Dungeons and Dragons. This booklet, entitled “The Wanderer’s Journal” by Troy Denning and Timothy B. Brown, manages to blend an in-world story teller and in-world audience with a clear exposition of the world in a way that no other text I have read pulls off. Many others have tried, but in my opinion none have succeeded as effectively. The black-and-white illustrations by Brom add to the feel very well.
The world that text describes is interesting, but not so much so to deserve notice in this post. It is the presentation that impressed me.
Myst was a successful computer game created by Rand and Robyn Miller. The particular environment of that game, and its sequels, was interesting but in my opinion the real scope of the Millers’ world building was revealed in the novels they authored with David Wingrove.
Myst is, in many ways, a world-builders’ world. The core idea is that by describing a world in a book you can actually transport yourself into that world. The novels suggest these worlds are both created, in the sense that edits change the world, not make a new one; and discovered, in the sense that they are somewhat beyond the author’s control and have independent existence and history from before the author’s first visit.
The individual worlds that the Millers have their fictional book-writers create/discover are of passing interest, but the book-writing world in which those characters live is one of the most intriguing I have ever encountered. It has been almost fifteen years since I last encountered any of the Myst games or books, nor do I have much desire to re-play or re-read them. But the world the books describe and the games play inside of remains crisp in my memory and I am reminded of it often.
Planescape, like Darksun, was a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, this one authored by David “Zeb” Cook. The goal of this world was to allow every mythology ever invented to co-exist in a single unified “multiverse” and to make that multiverse accessible to slightly-more-than-ordinary mortals. Separate infinite domains were created for each pantheon, or sometimes each deity within a pantheon, and they were all tied together in various ways. There were a lot of interesting decisions in this design, but the most interesting, to me, was Sigil, factions, and the Outlands.
Planescape (like all of the “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” product line) broke moral and philosophical attitude along two dimensions. One axis was good (or selflessness) versus evil (or selfishness); the other law (or order) versus chaos (or freedom). Each of the deity’s domain was places somewhere on these two axes, so for example Norse gods were in the good-and-free region while several more recent belief systems were placed in the good-and-orderly side of things, with demons of tyranny and demons of vandalism in the evil spots. In between all of these was the “Outlands”, a realm of wishy-washy beliefs where the supernatural powers of the gods could (inexplicably) not penetrate.
But how can a mortal interact in such a realm? By changing attitudes. All of the various deities were vying for mastery of the minds and hearts of the people. There were border towns, lands on the edge of one domain and nearly into another, about to slip into some heaven or hell if they just got a bit more good or evil or orderly or free. Doing things to evoke gratitude or resentment in the hearts of the people could cause the very structure of the multiverse to shift—not from the action itself, but from the changing attitudes it evoked. Belief was power.
Because of this power of belief, there were factions, “philosophers with clubs” (in both senses of the word “club”) who were vying for various beliefs. Not the simple moral issues the gods pushed for Groups vying for moral issues were called “religions”, and they also had clubs… , but more nuanced ideas like “deities can ascend to something higher” or “entropy is good and should be encouraged” or “thought and action ought to be integrated in one”.
The factions all had bases in the city of Sigil, a smoke-filled metropolis built on the inside of donut with no center (like a car tire without the rim or inner tube) floating above an infinitely tall spire in the center of the infinite Outlands. This city was filled with magical portals to everywhere and was as colorful and multi-ethnic a place as I have ever encountered: angles, demons, and a lot of rats, weeds, and low-life all in one place.
Planescape fascinates me for its variety as well as its blend of the extremely powerful immortals working in infinite spaces and day-to-day folk doing there thing in a way that makes them both seem important and having meaningful interactions. I’ve yet to do more than look at the world: no games I’ve played have explored it and I have not read any of the tales set within it, but the world itself intrigues me.