50k words, 50k questions

I’ve NaNoWriMo’d it! In the span of three or four months, I've reached about 50,000 of my own words in the Obsidian vault for my worldbuilding project, Paiat. It has been my most rewarding and exciting creative project of the last year, and I’ve had a blast. The world is getting pretty big now, though, and I am hitting the point in this project where I'm asking myself the why??s.

Why make a world at all? Well, that one is easy; I wanted to create a setting for my TTRPG sessions separate from existing worlds where I had total flexibility and creative power. Plus, it's fun. I still reach points of depression where I ask myself why I'm doing this at all, but it's fairly easy to find my way out of that one—the project of worldbuilding is a transfixing game, and it makes me happy.

But then there are more complicated questions, like

: what races should exist in my world? Should I use the classic D&D or Tolkienesque races of human, dwarf, orc, elf, and so on? What is it about those races that makes them fit fantasy so well—is it just because we're used to them? Dwarves are gruff and bearded; orcs are bloodthirsty and tusked—why isn't there an equally prominent race of amorous and gilled water-people or frenetic and horned plainspeople?

When I get overwhelmed with these questions, sometimes I think I should just make my world all humans, or have no humans. If I include humans, then my world has a “normal” from which everything else differs. I don’t know that I want my audience, readers, or RPG players to identify more with humans than other people.

Why not make dwarves, elves, and orcs all one race? Are the classic fantasy “races” actually different species, or are they just different ethnicities of the same people? Are Tolkien’s elves Aryan whites and his orcs racist caricatures of Black and Asian people? (Well, yeah.) The term “race” is ill-defined in this sense, and then I start to think about the construction of the concept on Earth, and how much the powerful and racist have fucked up the real world, and then I try to avoid the term because I’m trying to create a world that everyone can enjoy inhabiting. It makes me hesitant to invent non-humans at all.

I’ve recently been toying with a new idea for the different people in my world, a concept dependent on Paiat’s cosmology. All my world’s humanoid creatures (which I call smallfolk) fall under two categories: yorefolk and godsfolk.

Yorefolk are primordial; that is, they evolved (or were created?) before there were gods. Right now, there are different yorefolk that have different elemental origins: graceful elves came from oceans, spritely fenlin came from swamps, stately orcs came from plants. The different yorefolk have different elemental and magical tendencies, but they are all able to reproduce with one another. Humans fall under this category, if they exist in the world at all. (The “laws” and biology of yorefolk are in their early stages.)

Godsfolk, on the other hand, are created by gods (wild, right?). Now, if yorefolk have been around since before the gods, that probably means yorefolk were around when gods first appeared. In Paiat, I’ve decided that the pantheon is made up of yorefolk who sometime, somehow ascended to godhood. Each god—and things get a bit fuzzy here—has a unique animal avatar, usually related to their domain or power: for instance, Aemegrina, the deity of agriculture, has a cow avatar; Seve, deity of wilderness, has an owl avatar. Most gods also have their own races of smallfolk (godsfolk): Aemegrina’s creation are cowfolk (think D&D’s firbolgs) and Seve’s are owlfolk (think D&D’s owlen). Godsfolk are newer beings, and they are created one way or another through a god’s power—maybe the god blesses yorefolk with godsfolk children, or maybe godsfolk just appear via divine creation. The godsfolk live and reproduce just like any other species, but they cannot reproduce with a different god’s godsfolk (no humanoid cow-owl hybrids, sorry—but then that gets me thinking about Avatar’s animals, turtle-ducks and otter-penguins…)

The dual nature of smallfolk in Paiat seems to be working well for me so far. I always found it weird that in D&D there were half-elves and half-orcs and whatnot—meaning humans, orcs, and elves were all basically the same species and of a common ancestor—but not really any half-aarakocra or half-bullywugs. Why not? And if they did exist, what would the child of a human and a winged and bird-headed humanoid even look like? Would they have a beak or wings, but not both? Or would they have both, but each would be smaller or less defined?

I’m interested by this cosmology in which all gods were once regular people. I’m sure it’s been done before, but I don’t know where to find examples. This was first inspired by a friend of mine, J, who was my GM in a small group of friends. In their world, gods came into being if enough people worshiped them. This idea was introduced to our party through the example of a divinely powerful old armchair that had achieved godhood because someone got enough people to believe in it. I thought that was hilarious and incredibly creative, so it got me thinking about alternative cosmologies, and this is what I’ve landed on, for now at least. If anyone reading this has their own world: what are its different inhabitants? What’s the cosmology like?

The questions of smallfolk, species, race, and cosmology are but a few of the many questions I have stewing. Asking myself these questions in a public space helps me figure them out. I hope to bring you my thoughts on other questions soon!

Discuss...