Welcome to the first part of a brief gazetteer of the Empire of Venom and Silk.
Before we get too deep into our tour, I wanted to take a moment to discuss naming conventions. The word “shun” in the native language basically means “land.” When it’s used as a suffix, (such as in “Zira-Shun”) it means that the land is associated with the named city (in this case, the city of Zira). When it’s used as a prefix, the word is “shuna” and what comes after is a description of the territory, rather than a proper name. For example, “Shuna-Darshado” means “land of the of pale people.”
I’m fascinated by language. You can tell a lot about a culture by what words its people use. I’m no more a linguist than I am a cartographer, but I like to add little touches like this where I can when world-building.
With that out of the way, let’s kick off our tour by visiting…
The Webbed Lands (Zira-Shun)
Zira-Shun is the heart of the occupation. The spiders rule from the top of a feudal system that they did not create, but merely took over. Amongst the citizenry and lower nobility, life is harder than it once was, but they still live to serve those of the upper classes as they did before the invasion. Some citizens prove themselves loyal spider-thralls and earn perks by informing on “traitors” and serving as the invaders’ eyes and ears on the street.
Zira: The capital of Zira-Shun is home to the Ziran royalty, who have (mostly) sworn loyalty to their occupiers. Spider soldiers patrol the streets to ensure the city remains under control.
Ahbiz: Once a small, rich city known for its alchemists and practitioners of ancient, forbidden arcane arts, Ahbiz is now the spiders’ citadel. The only humans who enter the city are captives. The only ones who leave are spider-riding thralls adorned in silk robes and weird armor.
Croplands: Zira’s lands are the breadbasket of the region. Human slaves work the fields and orchards beneath the watchful eyes of both guard spiders and their human taskmasters.
The Fallen Realm (Namzi-Shun)
When the spiders erupted from Ahbiz, they headed west to Namzi and its lands. The Namzi army did its best to stop the invaders, but was able only to slow them long enough for the other citizens to flee the area. The spiders devastated the Namzi lands and slew or captured everyone they found. It was because of this brutality that, when the spiders turned their attention to Zira, the Ziran nobility surrendered rather than endanger their province.
Namzi: The city has been given over to the monstrous creatures that live nearby and the animalistic giant spiders known as “stalkers.” It’s been abandoned by all but a few die-hard survivalists, a strange cult of spider-worshipers, and the occasional band of treasure-hunting scavengers.
The Mines: The hills south of Namzi are rich in ore, which the spiders’ slaves dig out until they die. Ore from this large mine complex is hauled on the backs of enormous spiders to Zira, where it’s forged into tools and weapons of spidery design.
Charnel Fields: During the invasion, the plains and hills between Namzi and Ahbiz were soaked in the blood of the fallen. Today, the battlefield is known to be haunted by ghosts, ghouls, and other undead creatures.
The Pale Forest (Shuna-Darshado)
While a handful of people have always lived in the vast, wooded wilderness south of the mountains, the region was only truly settled about a century ago. A large colony of pale-skinned people from across the sea came ashore on the western coast, then quickly moved inland. The natives aren’t sure what to make of these newcomers with their strange appearance, strange gods, and even stranger customs.
The pale ones are known to be expert hunters and trappers. For the most part, they keep to themselves, though small groups of them occasionally travel northward and join civilization.
When the spiders first invaded, they ignored the forest, and streams of refugees fled southward. Even now, it seems the region is too far away (as the route is either over mountains or around them) with too little reward to justify a full invasion. There are occasional spider raids, but nothing the pale people can’t avoid or withstand.
I’m no cartographer, but I enjoy playing with their tools, much like my toddler enjoys playing with my hammer and screwdrivers. Only difference is that when I drop Photoshop on my foot, it doesn’t hurt quite so much.
So yes, my skills are lacking, but I’ve nevertheless managed to create a prototype map of the region that’s been invaded and occupied by giant spiders. The labels are all mine (and I’ll go into what they represent later this week), but the basic land mass was randomly generated using this online Polygon Map Generation tool. The tool’s a blast to play with, and creates relatively realistic land masses, so I’d definitely recommend using it at least as a starting point for your own world-building projects.
Next: A brief tour of the Empire of Venom and Silk
Naming things — especially naming storyworlds — is typically pretty easy for me. In fact, it’s usually one of the first things I do when coming up with a new world, game, or other such project.
But this “spider world,” man. Finding a name was freaking killing me. I needed something that said “spiders” and “fantasy” in the same breath, but with a touch of darkness and without being too obvious — or too vague. My ideas were okay. Your ideas from Facebook and Twitter were fantastic, so I took my inspiration from them and came up with…
Empire of Venom & Silk
…which makes me sigh contentedly. It’s got spiders and fantasy and darkness, but is broad and poetic enough to fire the imagination. When I showed the name to to one of my writer friends, she said “I want to write stories in that world!” which is the best seal of approval I could ask for.
Sometimes finding just the right name is hard. But it’s always worth it.
Over the weekend, I had the privilege of attending Conclave of Gamers, a local convention dedicated to tabletop gaming. It was a smaller, friendly con with lots of open gaming, and a few highlights for yours truly.
I ran my Ghost Punchers roleplaying game twice, and had a blast both times. Judging from their laughter and panicky dice-rolls, I’d say my players had a great time too. And why not? It’s not every day you get to explore a haunted summer camp, fight possessed firewood, and punch ghostly campers.
I also had the opportunity to help out my friends from Distractovision, who were taking video of the con for their new gaming-oriented YouTube channel. Okay, I mostly “helped out” by introducing them to a couple people and pointing out stuff worth looking at (“That giant Indiana Jones diorama! You should – oh? You already got it? Good.”), but it was kind of them to let me think I was helping.
Lastly, I got to check off an item on my gamer bucket list: I finally played The Queen’s Gambit. When Star Wars Episode I came out, there were several board games that came with it. The Queen’s Gambit is famously the best of the lot, featuring awesome components, tactical gameplay, and a surprisingly deep amount of strategy. It’s been out of print for years, and commands a huge price on the secondary market, so when I saw a dude setting it up at the con with a sign saying he was looking for players, I had to jump at the chance. I’m glad I did.
This was my first year attending Conclave of Gamers, but if I have anything to say about it, it won’t be my last.
At last, we have arrived at our final entry discussing premise, storyworlds, and the unnamed land overrun with giant freaking spiders! (If you haven’t read the first parts, you can find them here and here. Go on. We’ll wait.)
The final, and possibly most important element of a storyworld’s premise, is conflict. Conflict is what drives stories, and therefore storyworlds. A good conflict needs to be three things:
- Accessible: Can the audience easily grok what the conflict is about?
- Engaging: Are the stakes high enough that the audience cares about them?
- Broad: Specifically, is the scope of the conflict big enough to support countless different stories?
Let’s test our eight-legged storyworld against these criteria and see how it looks.
- Accessible: The conflict is humans versus giant aliens spiders who want to enslave and eat them. Yeah, I think that’s a pretty clear-cut conflict right there. No one’s going to ask, “But who are the good guys in this scenario?”
- Engaging: Again, we’re talking about the survival and freedom of everyone in the storyworld. The stakes can’t get much higher than that. (Now, individual stories can and should focus on smaller, more personal stakes, but this is looking at the big picture.)
- Broad: This is actually a little challenging. If the core conflict is humans versus spiders, and the only way that conflict is expressed is through violence on the battlefield… Well, eventually all your stories are going to start sounding the same.
Let’s take a minute and look at the different stories we can get out of the conflict:
- Facing spiders on the battlefield (duh!)
- Smuggling supplies into and out of spider-controlled territory
- Rescuing people captured by spiders
- Sabotaging the spiders’ plans
- Stealing the spiders’ things
- Assassinating specific spiders
That seems like a pretty good start. Now let’s expand our list to other conflicts that are related to the spider invasion, but aren’t directly against the spiders themselves:
- Dealing with traitorous nobles who have sided with the spiders
- Fighting or negotiating with human raiders
- Navigating human politics as we try to put aside old grievances in order to survive
- Battling the non-spider monsters that have always been here, but are no longer kept in check
- Facing the unknown while trying to
lootreclaim the lost resources of conquered lands…
…And these are just off the top of my head. I think the conflict is broad enough.
Well, we’ve got a tone, a setting, interesting characters, and enough conflict to fuel hundreds of stories. All we need now is a name.
Last week, we looked at storyworlds’ premise: that is, their tones, settings, characters, and conflicts. We specifically looked at this these things through the lens of my in-progress storyworld that doesn’t yet have a name, but is does have a whole lot of giant spiders.
Today, I’d like to focus on characters in storyworlds.
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Trump was just a second-rate reality TV star, I wrote that we should focus on character archetypes rather than specific characters, and that those archetypes should ideally be unique to our storyworld.
Huh. Past-me was pretty smart about this stuff. Let’s take his advice, apply it to our spider-filled storyworld, and see what we can come up with for character archetypes.
Road Warriors: Before the arachnid invasion, the roads between cities were kept safe from bandits and other hazards by brave defenders who patrolled the highways on the backs of specially-trained tigers. Most of these warriors were killed during the invasion, but a number still roam the region, helping fight against the invaders’ tyranny where they can.
Priests of the Silent Gods: When the arachnids invaded, many turned to the gods for help. But the gods, who were capricious at the best of times, remained silent even as the invaders destroyed their temples and enslaved their people. Still, there are those clergy who keep the faith and work small miracles to keep their flock as safe as they can.
Citizen Soldiers: There were few professional soldiers in the land before the spiders came. Now that they’re here, there are but two true professions left: soldier or slave. Former peasants have turned their tools into weapons, and use their knowledge of the land to strike quickly, then vanish. Former nobles use their voice of authority to lead in battle. Former merchants turn their skills towards acquiring food, weapons, and other supplies for the resistance. These difference classes of people had little in common, and are still prone to friction and resentment, but now fight side by side.
Traitorous Nobles: The invaders don’t want to destroy the people of the realm, but to enslave them. To this end they have recruited many nobles to serve as puppet rulers. Some nobles are ridden by spiders who cling to their backs and telepathically put thoughts into their heads. Others are more willing accomplices; they offer up their peoples’ lives in exchange for their own safety and well-being. In the eyes of the resistance, these traitors are worse than the spiders themselves, and deserve no mercy.
Spider Riders: The spider army includes humans in it. Whether they are mind-controlled thralls, willing traitors, or something else entirely remains to be seen. These warriors are wrapped in silk robes and strange armor, and don’t seem to speak. They ride spiders into battle and serve as the hands of their fingerless masters.
Raiders: The invasion has all but destroyed law and order in the land. Armed men have taken advantage of the situation to pillage and conquer themselves. These gangs of brigands make travel dangerous even outside the occupied zones. They would make excellent allies to the resistance, but would rather carve out their own brutal fiefdoms in the ruins of this once-great land.
Alchemists: I mentioned previously that magic in the land is largely in the form of potions. Alchemists are the ones in charge of such things, and they are an odd lot. Sticking with the classic sword and sorcery tradition, alchemists are reading from the mad scientist handbook; they typically work alone on projects of questionable ethics, are rich or have rich patrons, and are often mentally unstable. Some work for the resistance, some for the spiders, and some ignore the occupation altogether while perfecting their formulas in hidden laboratories.
The Broken: Those who the spiders don’t kill, they enslave. Some are ridden by mind-controlling spine-spiders, but most are simply forced to work the fields and forges under the watchful eyes of their arachnid overlords. To be fair, many of them weren’t much worse off under the old nobility. But at least their human lords were less likely to snatch up their loved ones seemingly at random. While most of those taken by the spiders simply vanish, some are immediately eaten, and their desiccated corpses are dropped where ever the spider happens to be when it’s done feeding.
Smugglers: A loose network of smugglers ensures that there is steady, if secretive, traffic between the spider-held lands and the embattled free regions. They sneak weapons, luxury goods, and resistance spies into the occupied territories, then sneak escapees (and more spies) out again. Smugglers always have a price. Some have a soft spot for the resistance, but they know that if the spiders are driven out, the smuggling business will dwindle to nothing.
Whew! That was longer than expected. Come back later this week as we examine the last part of the premise: conflict.
As I mentioned earlier this week, a storyworld is defined by its premise, which is comprised of its setting, characters, conflict, and (I realize, after some consideration) tone.
We’ve already explored the tone of my still-unnamed fantasy world of giant spiders, so I’d like to tackle the next chunk of its premise: the setting.
Broadly speaking, the setting of this storyworld is like what you’ve been seeing in the blog images. While it’s not exactly Conan, it’s a world where Conan would feel at home.
To make a general rule of it, a storyworld’s setting includes the obvious (time and place, like Mrs. Jorgenson drilled in my head in seventh grade English), but also includes genre, scope, and at least one unique feature.
Yes, it’s a “fantasy” world, but “fantasy” is such a terribly broad term, it’s merely a good place to start defining the genre. Doubling down on the whole “kind of like Conan” thing, I’m going to say we’re in the “swords and sorcery” genre, home of Conan, Elric, the city of Lankhmar, and the weird tales of Clark Ashton Smith. As part of this genre, magic exists, but it’s rare, dangerous, and corrupting.
Time and Place
As a fantasy setting, we’re not concerned about the literal when and where of our unnamed spider world so much as its real-world equivalent. In this case, the time is “bronze age” – a broad era of low-tech civilization—and the place is… well… This is the part where I’d pull out the map, if I had one. There will be a map, maybe as soon as next week, but for now, let’s just say the “place” is a land of vaguely Mediterranean climate and varied geography.
This is not a geographically huge storyworld. It doesn’t encompass a whole planet or even a whole continent. Oh, there are continents, and it’s on a planet, but the scope of the world is relatively small, like the size of ancient Greece. Big enough for any spider-fighting stories you want to tell, but not overwhelming. It’s focused.
You mean aside from the giant spider invasion?
Okay, this is the vaguest of all setting elements, but I think it’s important to consider. What separates your near-future dystopian setting from the one next door? How is your steampunk horror setting different from mine?
Note that in a “real world” setting like modern-day New York City or London in the 1600s, it’s perfectly legitimate to have few or no unique features. In that case, the differentiation comes from character, conflict, and tone.
In a fantasy setting, one of the unique features should be its magic. For instance, I think that the people of our web-covered land specialize in creating potions from alien secretions found underground. The potions create all kinds of weird magical effect but tend to drive their users mad.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things to consider when developing a setting. (If you’d like a sweet checklist, check this list.) Rather, this is merely an overview of the key elements of setting. This is the view from a mile up. Don’t worry, we’ll be getting down into the details of the spider world soon enough.
That’s setting and tone. Stop by next week when we tackle character and conflict… and maybe pick a name for this storyworld.
Last week I had the opportunity to playtest Doomed Colony two nights in row. I was pretty giddy at this turn of events because it let me note any issues from the first test, then immediately adjust the game to address them for the second.
The first test was version 2.0 (described here) and it went pretty well. The new mix of cards and counters felt about right (we didn’t have the plague of rockets blowing up like in the previous playtest), and the rule change that kept all revealed colonists face-up made the memory component a little less painful.
Of course, in the process of trying to make the game faster and more dynamic, I actually introduced some problems. By adding “then play another card” to a bunch of cards, I did open the game up for more fun, action-packed turns, but also depleted players’ hands, since they were only drawing one card a turn. (Yes, there are cards that let you draw multiple cards, but apparently not enough to counter the effect.)
And the game was faster (down to 60 minutes from 90), but still felt slow.
For the next night’s test, I adjusted a few more things:
- To address the empty hand problem, I changed the game so that players draw up to their max hand size of five cards, rather than simply drawing one card a turn.
- To speed the game up significantly, I cut the deck in half, from 110 cards to 55. As you may recall, the game has a number of (in this case, five) “Countdown” cards shuffled into its bottom half. When the fourth Countdown card is drawn, the game ends. Between the reduced deck size and the increased card draw, I expected to hit those Countdown cards well before the hour was up.
- To increase the incentive for getting your colonists off the colony, I expanded the bonus: you now get +1 point for each non-Alien colonist of your color on your rocket at the end of the game.
The second game did go faster than the first, ending at around 45 minutes. The changes were all positive, but we’re still leaving more colonists on the colony at the end of the game than I like. (Moving them from Zone 1 all the way to the rockets takes a lot of turns and/or card plays.) To that end, I’ll be adding the following rule to the next iteration:
- Pushing: When you advance a colonist from one zone to the next, if there is no room for it in the second zone, you must displace a colonist in the second zone, advancing it to the next location.
This can cause a cascade effect. If I advance a colonist from Zone 1 to Zone 2, but Zone 2 is full, I push a different colonist from Zone 2 to Zone 3; if Zone 3 is full, it pushes a colonist into Zone 4, etc.
(Hmm. Seeing it written out like that, it looks much more complicated than it really is. I’ll probably need a diagram and a few examples in the rulebook.)
Anyway. Despite my natural inclination to despise my own work, I think this game is coming together nicely. I’m looking forward to getting another playtest in and seeing how this change affects the flow of the game.
Last week, I asked for suggestions for the name of the new fantasy world occupied by giant spiders I’m working on. I was overwhelmed by both the volume and quality of ideas (though “New Jersey” won’t make the cut; sorry, Colby), and will need a few days to mull them over and finally name this thing.
In the meantime, I’ve been pondering the world from a philosophical standpoint. As I’ve previously said at great length, the core building block of a storyworld is its premise, which is defined by its
- and conflict.
While poking at the edges of this unnamed and web-covered storyworld project, it occurs to me that a storyworld has one more key element:
A Tale of Two Tones
You can have two storyworlds with the same premise, but two different tones, and end up with two very different storyworlds.
For example, consider:
- James Bond vs. Jason Bourne
- Jason Bourne vs. Austin Powers
- Poltergeist vs. Evil Dead
- Battlestar Galactica (1978) vs. Battlestar Galactica (2004)
So what sort of tone should our unnamed spider-infested storyworld have?
When the premise cites “low fantasy” and “desperate fight for survival,” I think we’re looking at a tone that can best be described as “grim.” I’d like to add some horror to it as well, touching on the “zombie apocalypse” part of the initial inspiration, as well as the general creepiness of giant spiders.
Hmm… Now I’m afraid it’ll be too dark. I don’t want to go overboard into grimdark parody, or make it so relentlessly bleak that it’s not fun.
Oh, I know! It needs hope!
Let’s try this:
The tone of the storyworld is “horrific and grim, with flashes of hope.”
The Value of Tone
The point of defining a storyworld’s tone is that it serves as a guide for that world’s content. When you ask yourself, “Does this element belong in this world?” consider the tone. If the element fits in the storyworld, but doesn’t match its tone, consider changing or omitting it. Or if it’s sooooo awesome you can’t give it up, consider tweaking the tone to match, and adjust the other elements to fit.
For example, let’s say I want to have an order of fire priests in this spidery world. In a standard fantasy setting, they probably worship a fire god and have a bunch of cool fire powers to throw around. But in a “horrific, grim, yet hopeful” setting, they’re more likely a remnant of an overrun temple who know about heat, light, and chemistry, but don’t have magic to do more than light a candle, and even that requires a blood ritual.
Okay, now that we’ve discussed both what tone is and what the tone for the world will be, we can move on to the other premise elements: characters, setting, and conflict.
Earlier this week, I mentioned a new world-building project featuring a low-fantasy setting in which people fight to survive against an invading army of giant spiders. As I noted, it’s a simple idea with a lot of intriguing bits just below the surface, but before I get too deep into it, I have one major hurdle:
What to call it?
My working title is “SpiderWorld” and that’s beyond terrible. That’s not an option; it’s just the name of a folder on my computer’s hard drive.
The problem is, I want the title to convey “spiders” and “fantasy” and (ideally) “grim desperate fight for survival,” without being too heavy-handed about it. I’ve been kicking a few ideas around:
“Empire of the Giant Spiders” works, but is a bit on the nose. Too on the nose, in fact. Why is it even on this list?
“Web Lands” was a contender for a while. Might still be. I like the way it rolls of the tongue and sounds sort of like “badlands.” But I’m not a fan of how generic it is, and how it sounds sort of like “Deadlands,” which is a totally different thing.
“Realm of the Spider Lords” is a bit long and florid, but definitely hits the “fantasy” note. A bit pulpy, but I’m okay with pulpy.
“Web of Despair” points to spiders and grim desperation. Not so much the fantasy, but that might be okay.
“Web of Chains” as above, but really leans into the grim.
“Spider Siege” has a ring to it.
“Web World” does too. (And by “ring” I apparently mean alliteration.)
I’m coming around to a couple of these, but none of them are Obviously The One True Name. If you want to cast a vote for one of these names, or suggest one of your own, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me comment here on the blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter.