The ‘Here Be Dragons’ Principle of Setting Design

Well, it’s been a little while since I posted here. I’ve had a number of new projects I can’t talk about just yet, and that’s kept my writing muscles pretty occupied. Plus, if I’m being perfectly honest, I must admit that this blog is a side project for when I’m in the mood, and not a serious soapbox where I plan on revealing Deep and Meaningful Truths. Nevertheless, I have something I think is worth sharing right now, from a topic I think about pretty regularly. As the title above indicates, this is topic is what I like to call “The ‘Here Be Dragons’ Principle of Setting Design.”

I’ve named this idea after the archetypal concept of the medieval map where the empty spaces of uncharted sea or wilderness are marked with that phrase. I don’t know if that ever actually happened, and based on what I’ve studied of medieval history and literature, I’m pretty strongly inclined to doubt it. However, the image is just too perfect for me to pass up for this idea. The wild and empty spaces on the map, the great unknown, and the hidden expanse where there just might be dragons—that’s what I’m advocating every setting should include. It shouldn’t necessarily apply in those exact terms, of course!

The key is that every creation of a world-building process should leave some corners unfinished and unmapped. Even outside of gaming, this is important, as it leaves space for the imagination of the reader, viewer, or other consumer of the relevant media. In gaming, it’s even more crucial, because it leaves space to be flexible in play. I could expound for quite a while in empty theory about how this is useful, but instead, I’m going to provide four examples of how this principle is applied, with varying degrees of success (well, three successful examples and one less-than-successful examples).

The first example comes right out of tabletop RPGs. In the D&D setting Eberron, there was a  devastating conflict now known as “the Last War” much like World War One was “the war to end all wars” in our own world. The Last War was ended when a magical cataclysm called the Mourning wiped out an entire nation and opened eyes that had been previously blinkered by the immediacy of the conflict. The nature and origin of the Mourning itself was left as a mystery in the setting, and to the best of my knowledge, no definitive statement of canon has ever been uttered about it. This means that every GM running a game in the Eberron setting can use the Mourning exactly how he wants it. If he doesn’t want it to come up, it doesn’t need to be an issue—it can have been a one-time freak occurrence. If he wants a second Mourning, that can be possible as well. The same GM can even run multiple campaigns with different explanations for what occurred. This kind of flexibility and freedom is a large part of what makes tabletop RPGs so compelling.

The next successful example is Tolkien’s famous setting of Middle-Earth. Although Tolkien himself spent a huge amount of time cataloguing and categorizing his creation, he also left a great deal of nooks and crannies in which only the most cursory details are known—tantalizing empty spaces and hints of legends untold. From the missing Entwives to the Blue Wizards, the details of Middle-Earth invite the reader into a setting that is all the richer for setting the unknown alongside the more readily apparent. We know just enough about such phenomena to intrigue and excite us, but not enough to grow bored with them as a solved problem.

Last among our Here-be-Dragons successes is Episode IV of Star Wars (there are other successes elsewhere in the Star Wars films, but A New Hope does the best job with this). The movie does a wonderful job of peppering the dialogue with allusions to a much larger galaxy and a great sense of history. Just watching the film without other sources, we don’t know what the Clone Wars were, or how the Empire came to be, but we get the sense that the answers are there, waiting off-screen for us to find them. This is a particularly effective example for a non-gaming form, because the soundtrack and the visuals do a particularly effective (in my opinion) job of evoking the exotic in the setting, reminding the viewer of just how far, far away he has been transported.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Star Wars universe has not always received the same careful attention. I can admit to mixed feelings on much of the Expanded Universe (although I do like a great deal of it). Its cardinal sin, in my opinion, is that it filled in too many of the blank spaces on the map without providing new ones. If you take the time to browse Wookieepedia, the Star Wars wiki (that’s really what it’s called!), you will find that every character, object, alien, or other element of the films has been given an inordinate amount of detail, and almost all mystery has been stripped from the majority of them. Not only are all the blank spaces on the map filled without regret, but you can get the sense that many Expanded Universe writers delighted in “solving” this kind of mystery. It’s certainly true that a richer, more detailed setting can be a worthwhile goal, but it is far better to enlarge the map than to clutter it (although much of the EU did that as well, with varying degrees of success). Rather than struggle to articulate just how cluttered this approach made things, I’ll provide a few links to what I would consider major problem areas:

http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Chaos (with special attention to how this ties to Han Solo’s line “Then I’ll see you in Hell!”)

http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Death

http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Spoon

Of course, these are more wiki issues than inherent issues of the setting itself, but I think the attitude that created an article to explain spoons can be traced to the kind of writing that needed to explain how Han Solo could talk about Hell, rather than accepting the dialogue for what it was.

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About Jordan Goldfarb

I am a freelance writer working in the Role-Playing Game industry. My goal is to bring passion, creativity and intelligence to whatever I do, wherever I do it.
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