Hello dear readers! Welcome to the first instalment of 5 Settings to Improve your world building. A series that takes a look at some of the greatest settings ever conceived that are not The Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth. In this series, I'm going to take you through a group of settings that I think are ripe with excellent tidbits and interesting themes and showing you how you might incorporate some of these elements into your own world-building. Whether you're into gritty realism, high fantasy or swashbuckling sword and sorcery, there will surely be something in it for you.
Westeros (A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones)
For this first article I'm going to take a look at the world of Westeros. The setting for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones and its predecessor the book series; A song of Ice and Fire. Fair warning; Westeros is a setting that plays on the fears and prejudices of regular people and seeks to exploit that. If this is triggering for you then please bear in mind that I’m not condoning it and if you’d rather draw inspiration from somewhere else please do.
Westeros is the setting for A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy series by the Author George RR Martin. Westeros is a low fantasy analogue of Great Britain and makes use of real world historical artifacts, locations and events to help drive it’s story forward. Places like The Wall, a great wall built to keep Northerners out of the South is reminiscent of Hadrian's Wall, originally erected by the Romans during their conquest of England, or how the Game of Thrones is played out in similar fashion to the War of the Roses, a war fought between house Lancaster in Southern England and House York in Northern England for control of the throne. There’s also the appearance of the French across The Narrow Sea or as we like to call it, The English Channel. Its emphasis on fiefdoms, hierarchy and birthright is also analogous to the times it’s reflecting. By setting up Westeros as a geographic and political mirror of Britain at that time, it helps lend context to the kind of world Westeros might be.
Westeros is at its most interesting when its fantasy elements overlap with it’s real world influences. Examples of this include how Westeros deals with Gods. The use of the Old God’s and the Faith of the Seven represent the pagan practices of pre-christian faith while The One True God’ represents the coming of Christianity.
The One True God is an interesting vehicle for how A Song of Ice and Fire uses miracles to express its version of magic. Priests and disciples of The One True God wield powers that have often been attributed to real world figures from history. These priests can be raised from the Dead, conjure fire from thin air and birth dark spirits. Not unlike how Jesus turned water into wine, or how Joan of Arc led the French to victory against the British by projecting an ayre of divine mandate towards those that followed her. The instances of magical power being used in Westeros and the fear and superstition that accompany their usage are examples of how real world attitudes and beliefs have influenced the setting of Westeros. Westeros’ emphasis on low magic and low fantasy help to reinforce the idea that it is primarily a world built around human culture and human interactions which are driven in part by tradition, dogma and superstition. In this world there are no orcs, goblins or faeries to provide the audience with a mystical and mythical anchor to draw on but rather, George RR Martin has played on the absence of magic and creatures of legend to allow the reactions of the inhabitants of Westeros to experience them in a more fearful and apprehensive way. This adds tension to the world as once these devices have been experienced by the people of Westeros it drives their actions in ways that they would not have thought possible beforehand.
A concurrent theme that is a result of using these fantasy devices in this way is the emphasis on ‘the other’. The other is expressed through a series of avatars. The Wildings who live north of The Wall, the disappearance and reappearance of dragons from Westeros, and the inclusion of giants, The Children of the Forest and the undead are the most obvious examples in this setting. In all of these instances, the way the regular people of Westeros react to these mythical monsters matters because it’s through their reactions that we get a sense of the type of fantasy setting George RR Martin has created; a setting where the fantasy elements are used sparingly to create tension and drama for the humans of the world to be confronted by.
Dragons for example are used in A Song of Ice and Fire as weapons of mass destruction and terror. The reaction to dragons in the time before the main story is indicative of what I am describing when it comes to how the general populace experience the fantasy devices used by George RR Martin.
Dragons though do not just represent unimaginable power, but also a finite resource. There only being three of them in the main story creates tension from a storytelling perspective where once the various factions become aware of their existence and their power vie to either obtain them, or when that becomes essentially an impossible task, destroy them. This is in contrast to a setting like Dragonlance, where dragons are a dime a dozen. My belief is that settings like Dragonlance, whilst cool and great in their own way, robs the player and DM of what makes them special and unique. I think of it the following way where too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing.
Westeros as inspiration
Westeros represents a style of world building that is more grounded in reality than some. It injects elements of fantasy for flavour, but relies primarily on human motivation and interaction to set the tone for the story telling that takes place within its confines.
For purposes of my own world building, I like the idea of the fantasy elements that do exist as being largely unseen by the general populace, and that if they were seen, who would believe them? The reality for the vast amount of the population is that the likelihood of encountering any mythical creature is incredibly low. To me, that sounds like a really good way of making those encounters even more exciting for the players.
Which sounds more exciting?
‘You encounter a goblin’
‘you encounter a creature with dark greenish brown skin, with big yellow eyes that stare at you menacingly. It’s mouth is filled with yellowing fangs and it’s breath smells like rotting meat.’
Both work, but in a setting where the average person has never seen a goblin, the description of a halfling sized creature with bad breath and a wicked grin is going to be far more interesting than the ‘you see a goblin’ description.
This can be extended into how the dominant species views the other species that interact with them. How do humans view dwarves and elves for example? Are humans largely xenophobic towards these other species or do they maintain good relations? I imagine there would be aspects of all of the above. I imagine these various species or cultures benefit from each other, but maintain various prejudices and attitudes that stop the complete integration of the different species intermingling with each other. Something I would do if I was drawing influence in this way would be determining who the dominant species is in the region. From there I'd ask myself if this culture or group trades with other cultures or groups, and whether they are from the same species or are they from a different species. This lays the foundation for determining how the various groups view each other and whether these views vary with groups about what the nuances of these geopolitical relationships look like.
To summarise what I’m saying, I think the thing that makes Westeros an excellent resource for anyone interested in world building, is that Westeros limits the use of high fantasy elements to maximise their impact on the story and executes this really well. The thing I always liked about Westeros was the way it treated Dragons as WMDs rather than ubiquitous, and despite my thoughts on the final two seasons, I really liked how Dragons were used there.
For my own world-building the things i’ve borrowed and am experimenting with are:
Limiting the exposure of mythical creatures to maximise their impact
Focusing the lens of narration to be mostly from the perspective of the common races.
Playing on the ingrained fears and prejudices of the common races to create tension for roleplaying purposes.
Overtime I’ll refine how I do this, but for now I'll be using George RR Martin's work to influence aspects of my world building and hopefully overtime his influence will become less obvious, and more my own, and hopefully this has inspired you to work on your own world building.
Thanks for reading.