Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Sense of Place in Fantasy

The deepest and most satisfying fantasy worlds are often rooted in a profound sense of place. While many, many layers of pure imagination may be piled on top, at the bottom is usually a vivid, inner terrain. That mind's eye view is often a real world place dear to that creator.

It's not a particularly original insight—you can't throw a rock at a Tolkien biography without someone yammering on about rural Oxfordshire or talk about M.A.R. Barker without mentioning his time in South Asia—but always one I am interested in exploring. I have walked around the edges of this several times here on this blog.

Recently, in the Google+ pocket universe, our resident Hawaiian, Mike Fernandez, kicked off my thought train when he wrote about a D&D setting that was taking on a divergent evolution:
“this setting...has slowly been drifting away from its medieval/fantasy roots and towards something more inspired my Polynesian culture being that it is what surrounds me...Spent most the weekend sleeping off sickness and reading all those Hawaiiana books my wife and I have collected over the last few years. I get a much more vivid picture from reading those books than I have gotten from reading books with knights and castles. Probably since Hawaiian history literally took place in the places that I grew up in.”
That recognition of a more uniquely personal touchstone for his campaign is what got me thinking the the other day about Robert E. Howard and his sense of place with Texas—and my sharing with him of that. It was interesting to watch Evan riff on it too talking about the eerie swamplands of his Southern Mississippi home and how they have influenced his campaign worlds. There must be something there there. 

The Hill Cantons is an unlikely place to be situtated in this kind of discussion. I have written many times before that it's a fairly radical bottom-up world, so much so that outside of a couple hundred miles there is only grey space (perhaps stretching out to the edge of the WorldTurtle's shell). The layers and layers piled on top have only come out of play at the table and post-facto creation on my part.

Still underneath that is that vivid mental picture—a composite one of two motherland regions of the soul that have left their mark on me. Drawing on that picture helps me immensely when faced with the inevitable wandering off the reservation that comes with sandbox play. It's not just some hokey inner fantasy world, or some hoary leftover from 19th century Volkstum, it has some hella useful practical utility.

I never really feel at a loss because I can “see” that land so clearly. Wander into a village and a town in the area and I am seeing the white-washed tight villages of the Spis region in Slovakia that I lived in for a time. This place...

Here again...

and this...

When the players wander the hills, I see those wooded Carpathian foothills again--or more likely I see another motherland, the rolling white limestone and mountain cedar-clad Texas Hill Country, aka REH's Cimmeria of the heart.


and here...
I can't post enough pictures to keep up with the inner snapshots, but I think you get the jist.

Where's your sense of place? Where do you go back to for that wellspring? 

Or is it someplace completely else, a world of your mind freed wholly from where you have been? A nowhere and no when?


  1. The Yorkshire Dales. And you're so right. My current setting (Mikelmerck) is emerging from just this sense of place.

    I hadn't realised (but of course you are right here too), that for all my "grey space", "don't build it until you have to" mentality, in fact I'm just using what is already there. The gaps are not gaps as such, just places I haven't used yet.

  2. @Rosey
    That's likely one of the reasons I like reading those Mikelmerck posts so much. They do drip with a deep sense of color.

  3. I remember riding through the mist-covered Highlands of Scotland during the month I spent there in my training and thinking that this was Cimmeria--the somber, but still beautiful land of Conan (though I know of course, that Howard never saw it).

    This idea of place is part of the reason I wanted the world of the City to be a distinctly American fantasy. I can draw upon the Appalachians, the Rockies, the desert west, the mound-builder ruins of the south and the urban Northest in my descriptions.

  4. Yep, in fact I almost wrote a post about this very thing. My conception of my world is inseparable from the dry grass and dull heat of central California's hills in summer. With the coast and the mountainous regions as distant, cool places to be sought.

    So I usually see my imagined world as coastal, mostly barren, wilderness. Not a lot of homes or civilization. It's hard for me to imagine a bustling, populated region. I guess I should just say there was a great plague or something.

    Also, the Spanish Missions.

  5. @Trey
    The City does hit some deep, resonant notes for me. I think instantly of all the stately, but slightly sinister Art Deco skyscrapers of downtown Detroit that I knew from the years I spent there, sometimes when you elaborate on details of the City proper.

  6. I grew up in New Zealand, so for me that's probably the closest thing to what you're talking about. Certainly when I imagine a fantasy place, I don't picture the relatively mild, softer, heavily tamed geography of England, where I live now.

    London, on the other hand, is very much my source of inspiration for city life.

  7. Northern California, New Mexico, The Rockies, Northern Spain/The Basque Country (especially the crumbling little towns and the caves), and rural Northern New York (near the St Lawrence) all combine with the nowhere space in my brain, I suppose. I think my education and fieldwork probably play just as large of a role, though.

  8. I find it really weird reading Rients' Wessex notes, because I can't help layering in my childhood home. For me every world is more of a patchwork, though: Cornwall's there, obviously, but I prefer to think about Bangkok, Ayutthaya and the deserts of central Asia. My City is more like Chinatown or Old Delhi than any of the cities I've actually lived in. I'd like to capture a feeling of a city being an enclosing home, even though I've never felt that.

  9. Galbaruc is a weird amalgam of places I've been and places I've fantasized about. In some areas, it's got the narrow, winding, steep streets and public squares of Siena (visited). Near the river and the waterways, it takes on traits of London (visited) and Venice (never been). New Orleans (visited) is also a big influence -- the sense of shabby grandeur, cultures layered with and intermingled with others, and a moist, persistent, decay.

  10. The clouded, craggy vistas of the North of England keep intruding into my intended Sergio Leone or Moebius-scapes. Two years after I first noticed it, and they're *still* at it, like some sort of screwy memetic whack-a-mole.

  11. @Chris
    screwy memetic whack-a-mole
    Now there's a good name for a band.

  12. @Chris
    And a brilliant and relevant post I add.

    I spent two weeks in Siena myself once, that's why I have contrada-like neighborhood communes, clam-shaped piazzas and a Palio even in one of my hill towns.

    My mother's family is from Louisiana (a small town in the heart of Acadia on the Bayou Teche) and NOLA was a major part of my childhood experience too, but no real reflection anywhere in my fantasy worlds. Weird, how selective that is.

    I'd like to capture a feeling of a city being an enclosing home, even though I've never felt that.

    That's a great line, and I think I get it at a visceral level. There is one town in the HC, Ostrovo, that is a highly-idealized comfort spot.

    Synthesis can be part of that visualization for sure. I think I have touched on a couple other inspiration points just in the space of these comments (and in previous posts). There will always be some Detroit ( ) and Los Angeles ( ) mixed in with my worlds too come to think of it.

    I wonder how many people introduced to Tolkien through Peter Jackson's movies think more of New Zealand as Middle Earth than rural England. A strange inversion.

    Hope you get on that post then as that is some intriguing imagery right there.

  13. Great post and images. I've been fortunate enough to do a bunch of traveling, mostly in continental Europe, and the chances to crawl around on and photographic castles, ruins, tunnels and towns have been many and inspiring to envisioning RPG worlds.

    That said, hearing Mike Fernandez talk about Hawaii invokes a whole different kind of imagery and serves as a good reminder that exotic adventure and exploration can be a powerful part of an RPG story. Thanks!

  14. Excellent post! I'm lucky enough to have traveled a good deal over the past few decades, and continue to do so whenever possible (going to Iceland in a few hours, matter o' fact -- that one will be useful for a planned Viking-style campaign down the road). Every place I end up, I always take in the place mentally and often reflect it back in my D&D games in some manner. For example, growing up in the Mojave Desert, there are lots of deserts in my world and they are rarely seas of sand dunes but full of all kinds of surprising things, just like back home. Even places I only visit briefly serve as useful springboards for ideas, but places I've lived are always even better (like Hawaii, ironically enough). A visit gives you the feel for the terrain and surface features, enough to be useful. But living somewhere for a few years really makes a deep and lasting impression.

  15. @Telecanter - it's funny, because I get a strong Arabian Nights feel from your writeups.

  16. I'm extremely visually oriented, so I always see the places I talk about. Although I have lived in Detroit for over ten years, it is instead the places I was before about age 9 which fully colour my imagination.
    When I was in 1st grade, my parents pulled me out of school, my dad quit his job, we sold our house, and we got in the car and traveled. We went EVERYWHERE west of the Rocky Mountains. The places which still shout the loudest are the rain forest of N. California and the rocky Oregon coast.
    Even more than these, I am influenced by where I spent birth-8yrs: Boulder, Colorado. If I was to take someone there, they would get almost none of what colours my imagination. It is not only a place from which my inspiration comes, but also the very specific time of 1967-1975. Home is a time-space event.
    The total immersion of that place and time in my experience is where my best places come from. It is nearly always twilight there, or early evening. There are thick pines. It is cool but not chilly. There are distant lights and mountains. It is the place I see when tricked trolls turn to stone at dawn.

  17. @Chris:

    The contrada system was one of the coolest things about the city, and I'm definitely going to employ something similar. While in Siena I was pretty broke, but I picked up a postcard with all the contrade and their symbols.

  18. Far over misty mountains cold,
    lie dungeons deep and carverns old.

  19. There's been some interesting work recently on Mussolini's role in repackaging the Italian Renaissance, and especially his work in reconstructing "untouched" town centers such as San Gimignano, and his bringing back (or flat out inventing) some traditions of Renaissance city life - I expect (though I'm no expert on the topic) that he had some hand in elaborating the pageantry of the contrade as presented at Game-like rivalries and social divisions are a common feature of ultranationalist dictatorships.

    I don't mind that sort of historical layering, myself: it's evidence of continuing living interest in a tradition - only dead things don't change. There's something rather contrada-like going on in Brazil, too, based around football and carnival bands (blocos) - one of the first things you get asked, if you go to live in Rio, is which team you support (which colours you'll wear) and which bloco you belong to (who you'll march with and cheer for at carnival).

  20. @Richard
    Any pointers on where to look for such work?

    All this talk about contradas is firing up my imagination all over again. I had meant to work the patron demi-god, neighborhood mythology/supersitions, ritual, political structure, etc. of each of them at one point in my own town. Now I just might.

  21. The title that leaps most immediately to mind is D. Medina Lasansky's The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle, and Tourism in Fascist Italy (Penn State University Press, 2004). There have been some journal articles too but they might be hard to get without an academic library account - let me know if you'd like me to hunt them out.

  22. For me it's rural Wales, the Rheidol valley. Love it.