Monday, November 19, 2007

NaNo Blogging: The Brave New World

So, I've switched gears from my previous epic novel. One of stunning complexity and intricacies that I had no hope of ever finishing. Instead, I'm working on a story that's smaller, simpler, leaner and more streamlined in the hopes of clocking in with a finished book before the month is over – I've won NaNo last year and, on sheer volume of words along, I've done so again this year. But what I've never done is to write “Finis” at the end of that manuscript. But with this story that I've taken to calling By Flickering Candlelight I think I have as decent a chance as I ever will. Because it's a story that's come to me, front to back, back to front, as one complete narrative structure. I know how it starts, how it ends, and everything in between even if I'm not exactly sure just yet about all the details in between. But I have seen, I have dreamed, this story unfold and I'm taken with it. Driven by the sheer need to get this tale out of my head and into the world where it can be shared with others. Now, you might well wonder just what this story is that has so stoked the furnaces of my creativity. And I'm about to tell you. But first you have to understand the world it's set in. A place I call the Ulyes.

I pronounce that like “Yools”, by the way. You know, like Ulysses?

Now, this story originates as background lore. As a bit of psuedo-mythological history for a roleplaying campaign I was planning (Yes, I am that big of a geek. You seem surprised.) but which has never seen the light of day. Or the fluorescent light of a basement filled with half-empty cans and half-eaten pizzas. Instead, it was buried in my notes. Kept hidden in plain sight just out of reach, waiting for me to rediscover it. Kind of fitting if you ask me. But the world I was building up was one not of high fantasy but of mystery and mythology. A place where magic existed but was dark. Dangerous. A powerful force in the lives of the people of the land. My inspiration was not the pastoral view of a Europe, a feudalism, that never was but, instead, that of ancient Greece. I've always been captivated by the old legends, the old stories, that came from the cradle of western thought. From the melting pot of ideas and philosophies that was the precursor to our own society. A place, a time, where history was raw. And anything might have seemed possible as humanity began the long, slow climb out of the muck towards civilization.

In short, I wanted a low-magic campaign. One where there wouldn't be wizards in every town, passing out magical goodies like they were some kind of magical assembly line. Instead, what magic did exist would be rare. Important. Memorable. That thread of the impossible woven throughout the real that creates the fantastic. It was going to be a land still in the bronze ages. Lacking much of what's taken for granted even within the fantasy genre. But also a place where the brave, those willing to take the reigns of destiny into their own hands, would be able to mold events. Shaping the course of things to come. It would be an unsettled world where many things were up for grabs. A place where players could feel like they were taking part in the stories that would one day become legends.

To that end, I created the Ulyes. Which is like saying the Bahamas or the Balkans. In this case it's a peninsula or, rather, a peninsula surrounded by islands. Separated from neighboring regions to the north and protected from the barbarian hordes without by a quirk of geography. Isolated, unspoiled, it juts into a large body of water removed from the influence – if not the contact – of other great civilizations. Which leaves it unspoiled. Free to develop in its own way. A hotbed of cultures and learning that's given rise to the Ulyeans. An advanced, bronze age people who inhabit the lands. One who, like the Greeks who inspired them, are split into numerous factions. City states in conflict with each other. Nations that don't agree even on the most basic of principles – a place with towns, and with the associated governments, as diverse as Athens and Sparta. Yet still a race, one people, unified by a shared history and tradition. Just many different ways of going about it.

The greatest divide is between the north and the south. The two are separated by a chain of mountains that have given rise to two separate climates. The north is mainly a plain. Fertile land for development that's given rise to large scale cultivation and domestication. To farming and everything that implies amid the rolling lands covered with growing things. The south where Ulyean culture originated is, instead, covered in hills. It's more rocky and ill-suited for grazing and organized agriculture. Rather than farm the land, the people of the south farm the seas from the many coves and inlets. And while there is trade between the two through the few passes through the mountains that keep them apart, the two areas have vastly different concerns. To put it another way, the poets speak of the north as the place of milk and the south as the place of wine. The north has cows. The south has goats. Different diets, different literary styles, different fashions, and even different fabrics because of the difference between the two lands.

Yet they're both still Ulyean. They share a common origin, have similar legends, and, most importantly, share the same religion – really the one force that binds the Ulyeans together more than anything else. The Ulyean religion is a polytheistic one which features many gods. There's no centralized hierarchy and no one set pantheon. Instead, different cities and areas worship differently. Sometimes, even to the point of two places having dramatically altered views of the same god. Those gods tend to be associate with professions. With certain jobs or archetypes – like the god of soldiers, the god of smiths, the god of weavers, and so on – having replaced the so-called Ancients, an earlier pantheon (Just as the Greccian gods came to replace their forebearers, the Titans of myth. If you've guessed by now that the Ulyean gods are heavily based on the Grecco-Roman ones then, congratulations, give yourself a cookie for being so smart.) who were based on philosophical concepts like the God of War or the Goddess of Love.

One, for example, called the Mother (Ulyeans have a bit of a superstition about speaking the name of their gods aloud. Instead, they rely on descriptions of acronyms, similar to the Hebrew Yahweh, while the true identity of their deities is a closely guarded secret of their religions. And, no, I haven't just come up with this as a cheap excuse to avoid having to name these gods. The Mother's secret name is Eleou, but that's not how the average person knows her. I'm probably not giving much away by saying she figures prominently in this story.) in the northern plains she's a god of fertility, of the harvest, of growing and nature and leafy green. While along the coasts of the south she's also known as a fertility goddess. But of human fertility. A goddess of beauty and love and love-making and the driving force behind all procreation. While still others view her as more of a wizened crone. The old woman, who takes everyone into her care the way a mother treats her child, and a font of arcane knowledge – the source of prophesies and mysteries. But, the thing is, to the Ulyeans, these are all the same god.

A cynic might say that as they spread and dispersed the Ulyeans simply appropriated other gods and incorporated them into their own. But they would hold that their gods have different facets. Different faces that can be worshiped in turn. And someone from the north who views the Mother as the reason crops go can visit a temple in the south where she's worshiped as an amorous temptress and still perform the proper rituals required to be considered a dutiful adherent. New cults and versions of the gods are constantly arising, led by all sorts of prophets, visionaries, and opportunists – the main point of religion in those being to separate the faithful from their hard-earned coin, of course. But even still, there's a baseline commonality between the various forms of worship. A basic respect of the fundamental pantheon and its flexible nature. The Ulyeans have built upon their cultural foundations for years now, stretching back to their creation myths and the disasters they believe formed the world. And they've done so, largely, by agreeing to disagree and fiercely fighting to remain independent and disorganized – there's no one king, no one city, that holds sway over the Ulyeans.

Which isn't to say that everything is bright and happy in the Ulyes. There wouldn't be much of a story if there wasn't anything wrong, after all. And the problem the Ulyes have now is that while there isn't one Ulyean city that's come to dominate all the others, there is a non-Ulyean city trying to do that very thing. Its origins are shrouded in rumor and mystery (Well, not really. I mean, I know how it went down. But that doesn't mean that my characters or, more importantly, readers should.) but the story goes that, a few generations ago – call it a hundred years – a tribe of barbarians from beyond the Ulyes northern reaches came to settle in the plains of the north.

Now, the barbarian lands are a large, wide-open wasteland stretching up to the artic circle. Frigid tundras in the interior, racked with yearly storms along their coasts. It's a harsh, inhospitable land where most people have to struggle just to survive and that's why most of the barbarian tribes haven't advanced much past the stone age or into much of a threat to the Ulyes. But that doesn't mean every tribe there is primitive. Or even hostile. Especially along the Ulyean border, you can find tribes who are advanced – not as much as in the Ulyes, of course – and capable. Peoples who trade with the Ulyean cities, who sometimes even come to become laborers and even slaves (Yes, slavery's legal. This is the bronze ages, it's, you know, reprehensible but it was pretty common back then.).

This one tribe, though, was something special. The wandered out of the barbarian lands, petition one of the larger city-states in the northern plains for some room to call their own, and built their own primitive settlement. A place they called Maluthka. Nothing out of the ordinary just yet. But what was remarkable was that within the space of a generation their town had gone from a small little collection of huts into a fortified town with a swarming military that had crushed that leading city-state (Called Gona. It also lends its name to the northern plains this is taking part in, but I'm trying to keep a lot of the fantasy names and tongue twisting syllables out of this for the sake of clarity.). Over the intervening years they've embarked on campaign after campaign of conquest, destroying everyone who's opposed them. While the Ulyeans of the north have been unable to organize long enough to properly oppose them and have been picked off one by one. By the time my story takes place, they've practically unified the north under their rule – there are a few pockets of resistance that, you know, might become important later on in the arid scrublands and mountainous regions that surround the central plains but the Maluthkans are in effective control of the place - and stand poised to steam over the last defenses and pour into the south. Where, again, old rivalries and distrust have kept the Ulyeans from gathering together to mount a proper response.

All of which would be bad enough but the Maluthkans aren't just conquering territory, they're assimilating culturally as well. An alien culture that's out to replace or, at least, co-opt the Ulyeans'. Like most city-states in the Ulyes, they have their own patron god. A deity they associate with and place above all others. But unlike the Ulyean cults their god is a monotheistic one. And to worship him involves renouncing other gods as false. Something that's anathema to the typical Ulyean view of faith and spirituality. But, at the same time, worship of this god has spread like wildfire throughout the Ulyes. Even in areas the Maluthkans don't directly control. Because it's a religion that preaches equality, that requires owners to free their slaves, and promises the downtrodden rewards not in some distant afterlife but in the temporal present. It's an appealing message and an easy one to accept once you get past the whole bit about destroying the Ulyeans' religion and putting any believers of the false gods to a painful and prolonged death. Yeah, the Maluthkans are what we call the bad guys in this story. And their religion might sound nice but it's really nasty and shares more in common with the faiths of the Philistines and Canaanites than Christianity. There's a reason he's known as the Prince of Winter and it's not because he's all about rainbows and sunshine.

No, the god of the Maluthkans is a harsh god for a harsh people. But it's also a harsh time in the Ulyes. In case the connection with Greece hasn't been firmly established, the climate of the land is a Mediterranean one (Even though, you know, not the Mediterranean.). Mild, temperate, bordering on the tropical, especially in the south by dint of location and longitude and currents, the place is idyllic. Aside from the occasional hurricane, it's a beautiful place of sun and sand and surf and rolling hills covered in green. There are years where it doesn't snow at all. It's like our own Florida. It does snow, it can snow, they've heard of it, but it's really unexpected and rare. Especially in the south where, outside of mountaintops, snowfall is almost unheard of. But that's usually. Lately, the climate in the Ulyes has shifted. The rainy season lasting longer, the storms more fierce than usual. Weeks have gone by where the thick clouds have blotted out the sun. And, in the now of my story, they're going through a cold snap. Summer, the growing season, was brief last year and even worse the year before. It's been a poor harvest. And it promises to be a cold, bitter winter the likes of which the land hasn't seen in some time. Cities, whole societies are on the brink of starvation. Ready to collapse under the strain of fighting against nature.

In such an atmosphere it's easy to see why people are turning to the doomsday cult of the Maluthkans. Why some Ulyean politicians are allying themselves with terrible Maluthka and throwing open their gates and welcoming their armies inside. Things have never looked so bleak for the Ulyes. Winter, it seems, has fallen for their civilization. Assaulted on all sides, they've gone into the inevitable decline from which they'll never recover and are about to pass into the pages of history. And only a few bastions of Ulyean culture in the south have managed to survive but they're in danger of succumbing to an age of darkness and suffering.

That's the backdrop to my story. The context against which it plays itself out against. Because, and I hope I'm not giving too much away here, in the lore of my campaign this story is the legend of the Ulyean Dark Age. The period of time where they lost the tenuous connection with their past and had to rebuild from their memories of their former greatness. But my story isn't about the collapse of their civilization. Instead, it's about the people who take it upon themselves to keep the candle – the symbol of culture and learning and hope itself – from going out. To see that the flame merely flickers and that the light never goes out. It's the story of the ones who fight against all odds, against all expectation, for brighter days to come. Who might not manage to save civilization from toppling but at least lay the groundwork for allowing it to pull itself back up from the ashes. Because while it might be the story of winter falling across the land, it's also the tale of the spring that follows.

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