Worldbuilding And The Art Of Careful Appropriation

So I wrote a book. It’s called Popular Anarchy. I’m going to talk about it now.

The title itself is something I came up with as an angry teenager about twelve years ago. As most small-town teenagers with big dreams and an even bigger ego, I wanted nothing more than to get away from the idiots and the sheeple, man. I don’t know what perceived injustice I was railing against when the title hit me, but I kept it with me for a long time after that, wanting to do something with it. I had a few false starts over the years, but two years ago I finally sat down and started ironing something out.

As you’ll see elsewhere on the site (eventually), I run a homebrew d20 roleplaying game every week for my friends. It started seven years ago and has run ever since (January 2012 at the time of this post), minus a two-year gap in the middle where I burnt myself out on gaming and didn’t want to work on it anymore. It’s Final Fantasy, which makes me the King of All Dorks, but it’s fun, and it’s an original world that I built myself, in the FF tradition.

I was considering running a followup to that game back before it ran for 200+ sessions, and I started creating a world in which to place that game; a high fantasy world with multiple nations and races, a world that skipped the industrial revolution and instead had a magical revolution, a world with an actual reason for airships and passenger trains to exist, a world where I could have swords, sidearms, and sorcery side by side. And other things that begin with the letter s. Long story short, I decided not to run a Final Fantasy game in this world, but I did decide to do something with the idea. I took the Final Fantasy out of the world, removing moogles, tonberries, Ronso, Espers, and blatant references to four warriors of light and other in-jokes like that. In their place, I started worldbuilding.

Someone once said that there are no new ideas in writing. Every good idea has already happened, and now we’re all just writing the same story in different ways. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I did see some hints of that in my worldbuilding. For instance, the first thing I did was take one of the races I wanted to use in the Final Fantasy game, tonberries. I changed them from green to blue.

Completely original! No one will ever crack that code.

But that’s only the start. The next step is to take a look at what makes a tonberry a tonberry. (Slow speed, nightlights, and a penchant for stabbing.) Now I have to modify each of those in such a way that it’s no longer a tonberry and is, instead, something original. Once you get going, it gets easier. Instead of being a primarily physical race, I change them to be magical. From that idea comes a strict class system based around what kind of magic each one uses, a set of Houses that then corresponds to all of their society, and from there I’m sketching out a brief history of what caused the class separation to begin in the first place. In that sketch is the founding of their capital city, which leads into the design of their city, which leads to their need to trade with another race to bring in enough goods to make their country viable for long-term settlement by their people, which leads to a myth about what would happen if they were ever to abandon their home, which leads to…

Not every idea springs fully-formed from someone’s head like a literary Athena. Sometimes it starts as small as a blue tonberry. There’s no shame in that.

Plus, if Blizzard can get away with Zerg vs. Tyranids, I’ve got nothing to worry about.

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