Stories from prompts, stories from places
Lore for Paiat usually comes out of a need to create content for my players. I have always struggled with decision paralysis, writer's and artist's block, fear of the blank page, etc, but worldbuilding has been very exciting and rewarding because I have had less of an issue with that. It's still a challenge, but I often have more ease creating because I have a deadline and an audience in the form of my tabletop RPG players.
Stories from prompts
When my friends said they wanted to play a game in a spooky swamp, I created a big marshy forest with strange disappearances and disorienting time magic. To populate the swamp, a story quickly and easily sprang forth, involving a witch and her lover, a sorcerer harnessing the swamp's magic, outsider missionaries, indigenous frogfolk, and a blood cult, each group connected in different ways to the others.
When I later needed to create a wild setting with megaflora for a different group, I dreamed a valley filled with strange life and magical happenings, and to explain its existence I created a history. Hundreds of years prior to the events of the game, a lush valley once held many societies who fought against a draconic army; eventually, the now-extinct dragons razed the valley to the ground, leaving nothing but burning wreckage. Their dragonfire, however, created nutrient- and magic-rich soil from which new life emerged centuries later. This story was the seed for Paiat, which has a history that revolves largely around the Draconic Wars.
In short, it has always been easy to come up with ideas when I need to make a world specifically for my player characters. I am consistently surprised at the ease with which these stories come, and the way they make me ask questions about the entire world, not just the dinky town my tabletop game is starting in. In all of these cases, I have been given the seed of a story, and the details of the place and its inhabitants flow easily from there.
Stories from places
But when I decided to make another campaign on short notice, with no initial prompt from my players, I found inspiration in a story I had previously written without any outside prompts.
Early in my worldbuilding, I created two nations, Nirie and Casic, and I had decided that I wanted them to share a border, but I also knew that I wanted them to be rather disparate in history and culture. So I stuck a big ol' mountain range, the Mountains of Lorg, in between them. But the countries needed to connect somehow, so I stuck a trail between them, the path of least resistance across the tall jagged mountains, and very quickly a story grew to explain its existence. This path, the Shepherd's Way, was according to legend first traversed by a Nirien shepherd, Ekbo. Troubled by the Nirien droughts every summer, Ekbo saw that the few rainclouds always came over the mountains from some place beyond, and out of need for change decided to pack up their flock and cross the mountains. A grueling trek and difficult weather resulted in a few near-death experiences and an encounter with a demigod, the Faery of the Clouds. Ekbo and their flock eventually found their way down the mountain and into the rolling mountain hills of Casic, where Casicen shepherds led flocks of their own. The two nations first met on this day, and thus began a tradition of shepherds and traders crossing back and forth during different seasons. To this day, an inn by the name of Ekbo's Rest stands at the midpoint of Shepherd's Way, a welcoming respite for travelers, supposedly in the same spot where Ekbo was visited by the Faery.
For another story, I had decided that during the Draconic Wars, the flat, arid country of Olmarus (loosely inspired by Spain) was home to an ancient dragon named Caex Charir. He brought much destruction to the land, and lived in the mountains in the north of the country. I started to ask myself questions about why he lived there, and how; I took the trope of a dragon's volcano lair and hoard and ran with them. I designed a vast lair tucked away in a canyon with space for his lair and rooms where his followers lived and made him offerings; I even designed puzzles. Then I asked myself: what happened to Caex Charir? What about the relics in his lair? I decided that he was defeated in his lair by the heroes of the Draconic Wars; his body remains there, deep underground. Some of the relics from that era made it out and live now in the museum of the University of Olmarus, but amidst the destruction and loss of historical documents, the location of his ruined lair was lost. This formed a connection between the ruins and the University, whose Archaeology deparment is now searching for the lost site, which in turn formed a relationship with the University and the greater countryside of Olmarus. Then I made some of the graduate students in the University's history department so obsessed with draconic history that they worship dragons, and now a Ph.D. student named Chad is the kingpin of a sect of the Children of Aeu, an underground draconic cult trying to bring back the draconic overlords of Paiat.
I really enjoy writing inspired by place. It feels magical, like I'm creating an entire history simply based on the geography of a place. And yet it feels like the story that forms is the only story it could have been.
When I sit down to write for Paiat, I'm often unsure where to start. It's easy to revisit old things, but I often want to work on new places and people; there are many places in my world that I don't know anything about. I'm going to try to ask myself more about the geography of places. I hope that method continues to be as fruitful as it has been.