Monday, May 9, 2011

Accidental Worldbuilding

Orson Scott Card tells a story about how he accidentally glommed onto the story kernel for his 1983 fantasy novel Hart's Hope from a mistake he once made doodling a map.

The story begins with him explaining how his doodling invariably coalesces into coastlines, mountains, and other accoutrements of an imaginary map—and how a lucky find of a large ream of over-sized onion paper in an old theater slated for demolition fueled these doodles into larger-scale productions.

Over a lonely weekend in 1979 he found himself suddenly drawing out city blocks rather than forests or rivers. The street map was followed by straight thick lines for a city wall, rough squares for towers and, then on to gates which he preceded to name and then give concepts for each. One gate located near hundreds of smaller little squares for houses (that he then assumed to be the poor section of the city due to their size) he names the Piss Gate, another by an area that looks like market's to him the Asses Gate.

So far an interesting story about organic brainstorming, but then he screws up:
“There was one gate that, in the process of drawing, that I had accidentally drawn with no gap between the towers guarding it. Even after slightly redrawing the towers, there was no gap between them. Unless I resorted to Liquid Paper, that entrance to the city was spoiled. Except that I believe that when it comes to storytelling...that mistakes are often the beginning of the best ideas. After all a mistake wasn't planned. It isn't likely to be cliché. All you have to do is think of a reason why the mistake isn't a mistake at all, and you might have something fresh and wonderful...So I thought—what if this gate had been permanently closed off? I drew houses right across off both faces of the gate.”
He goes on to recount how this gate was closed off and wonderfully how much of a central shaping idea this became to the novel that developed out of this lazy day doodle.

Card's story really grabbed me, for it nailed articulately something I never quite put into words about designing adventure sites. For one I always, always start with maps. Often I have some hazy idea, usually a mood or a mental snap-shop of some particular place that I have seen with my own eyes, but sometimes I don't even have that. Sometimes it's just something like, I really need an adventuring locale near this town that the party is headed to (this being the art of just-in-time production) and it needs to be something about about such and such sized.

So it always starts with doodles on graph paper, and with the same shaky hand that can't seem to paint the pants of a mini without splashing onto a belt or boot, I often screw up. The sloping walls of an alien domed city get distorted and become a long oblong. Truth be told, I don't always embrace the creative misfire-- often it just ends up getting filed in the circular metal file in a tight, waded-up ball. But it happens enough that I can identify with his story.

That ugly oblong gets extended and suddenly instead of the rather worn-out old school idea of a domed city squatting on an island in an underground lake, I have a mysterious domed pleasure barge silently, eerily marooned on a sandbar. I love the accidents that surprise me, they feel fresh--and they always infuse more life and energy into the locale when the players visit them because they excite me. The accident becomes a way to shed off the cliches, a break with habit and the game takes on a bit more sheen as a result. 

Does this ring true to any of you? Do your mistakes take on their own shape, bringing some fresh new angles? How much do you embrace—or disdain--accident in the making of your worlds?


  1. I will have to try and do the same. I've found myself stuck for awhile because I don't have all the tools, information, or skills necessary to illustrate/explain my vision, perfectly.

  2. Sometimes in the process of writing things, you will chance upon a series of coincidences that someone, somewhere, will read and pronounce with great certainty that the author intended this very specific thing. For example, I once wrote a sci-fi thriller about a fellow named Seth who survives a continent-destroying plague. Someone later pointed out that Seth was the third son of Adam ... and that after Cain had slew Abel, the oldest progenitor of the human race was obviously the third son. Therefore, I was obviously writing an allegory (there were other reasons in the novel to think so).

    Whenever someone points something like this out, with the question, "Did you intend it," my answer is always:

    "Why yes. Of course I did."

  3. I almost wonder if the creation of these "happy accidents" isn't the real goal of brainstorming exercises. Some of my best stuff comes from trying my hardest to work in every last detail I wrote down during a brainstorm.