Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rethinking "The West"

For the long time readers of this blog, you know what the West is and what I mean when I say that.

For me I can't say the same anymore.

The West is my home grown fantasy RPG setting.  It has seen use in D&D (all sorts, but started with Labyrinth Lord), BareBones Fantasy, Arrowflight, Savage Worlds and my own homegrown MSH Fantasy hack called "Monsters, Heroes & Sorcery!"

The West has changed and changed again over the years and I recently realized that some of what I wanted works better as a novel than it does as an RPG setting.

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The oldest map I have of the setting that would be the West is from just before 2000.  It was me bringing a lot of ideas I had had for various campaigns together for the first time.  I called it "the World of Dragonskull" and set about telling exciting tales of adventure and excitement within its lands!

Alas it didn't last, but certain seeds were planted that would sprout in the fertile gardens of the West later.

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A number of campaign maps would spring up, but none of them stuck.  Though each one provided some useful thing that would be part of making the West later.  For now it was all trial and error and map, after map, after map.

Slowly I was building something and names of nations or places began to take hold.  These were becoming the iconic parts of my world.

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I was obsessed with doing an entire globe for a long time there and that may or may not have played a role in my world slowly turning into a mirror-image of our own.  This provided me with endless amounts of self loathing and hatred.

Should I be doing something new?  Something ground breaking?  Vanilla is bad right?  That's what all the forums and "cool kids" on the internet were saying.  All the au-current settings had barbarian halflings and clockwork elves and steampunk dwarves and all sorts of things.

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I tried, I really did, but those things just weren't of any interest to me or my design style.  I attempted to make a world that went West to East, but it wasn't right for me.  It wasn't what I wanted.  The truth was there waiting for me to discover it.

I really like vanilla settings.

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There is something heartwarming and homey about them.  I like knowing that is my France and these guys are my Spain, etc...  It gives me touch stones to work from, accents for NPCs and easy reference points for my players.  These types of settings, right down to the elves, dwarves and dragons of colour allows us to have a common point of understanding.  That is an amazingly valuable thing to have when creating a campaign and asking for player buy-in.

Now don't get me wrong, some of these maps look neat to me now, but it is apparent how little skill I had as a map maker then (or really now to be honest) but they are charming in their own ways and I wouldn't get rid of them for anything!

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The first official map of the West is this one.  It was created by Anthony Green, based on notes I gave him using Europe and fantasy maps of Europe as the base.  It is without a doubt one of my all-time favourite maps of the West, but it looked just too damn much like the Warhammer Fantasy map that I pursued changes.

In this map we can start to see parts of the West that will really take hold.  The mountains that run from the North to the South isolating the West from the rest of the world make their first appearance here.

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This aspect provided some some powerful story hooks for me to use and in the next incarnation of the map I really took that idea to heart and expanded the world.  Not everything worked mind you and ultimately it would get redone so many times I will just show you the one version of this phase that I think worked best.

By this point though the world was taking shape.  I was starting to know who lived where, why they were there and how they got along with everyone else.  Blackfish bay shows up and that provides a nice flavour point about people from the northern parts of the West over those from the southern parts.  These little touches are very very important to me as they help define the world and make it come alive.

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Not happy with the map, I continued to tweak, twist and twiddle and up next was one major change to how the lay-of-the-land would be.

This map is starting to be the most iconic of the West maps.  This is the one the players know best and the one I have the most affection for in the end.  It isn't perfect by a longshot and would get mutated further, but the West as it stood really takes its shape here.

Now I was making headway and the help of my buddy Coyotemax at the Cartographer's Guild was immeasurably valuable.  Though as with all things I wasn't happy.  Something wasn't right and it was bothering me.  I could place my finger on it and it was starting to annoy ever me.

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I got permission to use a landscape from another member of the guild and modified it to be the West, but this time as a isolated island.  I liked parts of this but it destroyed my whole Blackfish Bay, Adaire, Aquilar, Turon aspects of the setting, which left me less than happy.  This map too would have multiple versions and none of them would make me happy.  This map was also the first to open the West to contact with other parts of the world, no longer cut off in isolation but just difficult to get too.  The near-east was begining to take shape and it was shaping up to be a "Crusdaes era Middle-East" type of place.  Of course that gave me fits of self-hatred and frustration.

Trust me, it got my my nerves as well.

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This map didn't last too long, I was back to the other landscape and sure as hell I had placed my near-east on the far south like a North Africa.  This didn't last for long but it did show me that maybe I was thinking of a larger world that was more than just European analogs and that was a good thing.  Still I was married the term "The West" as it really worked well and resonated for the players.

Sidenote I have tried 4 times to run a campaign that deals with the exploration and settlement of the area known as Sothshire.  Hopefully this current one will get the job done, because I am starting to think it is cursed.

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So dropping the Mediterranean
look from the bottom of the map this became the West for a longer time than any other map I had made.  It wasn't setting perfectly for me, but it was close enough that I could live with it.

Other campaigns came up and I moved on from the West after almost 5 years of play, on-and-off, but it never left the back of my mind.  It stayed there nagging away at me like an echo on an unfinished task.

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Eventually I would return my attention to the West and I tried something a bit different and still the same.  I thought, that period where I had the West as an isolated landmass/island was the best idea, but the world around it was still too complicated.  What is it was less exposed to the world, but still had minor, and unpleasant contact with that world?

This map would be a very dramatic departure from where I had been and for the most part I was liking it, but it wasn't perfectly meeting what I wanted from it, so naturally I continued to tinker.

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First up was the vertical orientation.  I tried flipping it and then went from there.  This next map I like a lot in how it looks effects-wise but for the life of me I cannot remember how I got these effects, which is a shame as I am not happy with the rest of the map.

Still it was a learning experience.

It also showed me some interesting takes on placement, and ideas like having Elise not be part of the West but instead an invader from across the narrow waters.  That started to make me rethink a lot of the history and it went from there.

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The next map, the current one, took all of these ideas and combined them into what I am "mostly" happy with, but to be honest I don't think I could ever be completely happy with this map/setting.

It has a lot of the things I want without being too crowded.  It reminds me of the original West map by Anthony (above) without being exactly that.  Overall I could live with this map, but that is just not who I am as a person.

Remember the title of this post?

There are a great many things I like about the West, but I couldn't be less than happy with it in its current state.

The religious situation is very odd and Middle-Ages European, there are no clerics and the world is rather grim.  I suspect I may have been a bit too dark when I created it.

Oddly I have rejected a number of good ideas that didn't fit my dark world but I now realize I am not trying to create a grim setting.  I don't want to do that, that was just George RR Martin being in my mind as I was reading "Game of Thrones" when I first made the West.

So what do I want?  I have no idea.  I really don't.  I love aspects of the West.  I love the Kalinites, the Duchy of Adaire, the Eye of Astara, the Solani Wastes, etc...  but there is something that just isn't sitting right with me and it is driving me insane.

I had hoped that by the time I was done writing this post I would have clarity and insight, but alas they are not presenting themselves.

Perhaps it is time to start fresh, new landscape, cherry pick the stuff I like and move on with the rest.

I just don't know.

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