“Years before the rise of the Ku’ototh and the fall of N’Yoktu, when I was still a mere acolyte, spending my days cataloguing clay prayer tablets at the Polten Monastery, I met a most remarkable woman. Of course, everyone has heard of her now. The Scourge of Tranth. The Hammer of Fate. Bride of Hell. Great Lord of the Steppes. She is called Evil One in Ubasis. She is the Bringer of Justice in Wassu. And she is worshiped as a goddess by the blue people of the Eratok Mountains.
“I am sure there are many names, honors, and curses heaped upon her that I have never heard and never will. I am sure as many are deserved as not. A bloody handed barbarian from a savage race of foreign devils. A bold adventurer with a mind as sharp as Tolinsh glass blades. A staunch defender of justice. A violence prone fool. She was all of these things and more. When I met her, she had yet to make her mark on the world; yet to earn these colorful titles.
“When she saved my life, she was known only as Baal, an obvious foreigner, with her sickly pale skin, wild curly hair, and towering size.
“That first sight of her I will never forget as long as I live. No matter what I heard about her in all the years and decades to come, I would never be surprised; never shocked by a word of it. That moment left an impression.”
-From The Monastery
I’ve been slowly developing a setting for nearly 30 years, occasionally writing stories within it, occasionally trying to define it. A little over a decade ago, I finally gave it a name, Conquest of the Sphere. Recently, I’ve decided to get a bit more serious, more purposeful. In part this is because I’ve been trying to take my fiction writing more seriously, and partly because of my desire to get back into the tabletop roleplaying (RPG) hobby. Related to the latter, developing the setting in a more clear and concrete way helps make the world open to use for telling stories through an RPG. I’m planing to create a book for just that, in the future. In relation to the former, it will make my stories more consistent, and of course, spawn lots of new ideas. The more questions you answer about a setting, the more questions you find to explore.
Conquest of the Sphere is a Science Fiction setting that wears the guise of a Fantasy setting. There is no magic. There are no gods. There is no fate, nor any destined messiah. Of course, this does not stop characters living in the world from inventing and believing they are real. Though I have a layman’s understanding of science, at best, I will endeavor to keep the setting based in reality as much as possible. A guiding principle I’ve had throughout putting this setting together is [Arthur C.] Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To the people living in the world, it should appear much the way the world appeared to Iron Age or maybe even Renaissance era people of our own world. It’s a big, mysterious place, filled with terrors and wonders beyond reckoning.
A few general things to know about the setting: The world is very, very old. The Sun is fixed in the sky. Night and day happen when the sun dims to darkness, then brightens into dawn. Species that exist are the result of natural evolution, or selective breeding done by sentient people within the setting. For all intents and purposes, the world is flat with a surface land area similar to that of the Earth, surrounded by vast ocean , itself surrounded by a mountain-wall that reaches past the atmosphere. Elements, chemistry, and physics remain the same. And when they appear not to, it is a matter of Clarke’s Third Law. Like faster than light travel or anti-gravity in other science fiction, it should remain consistent.
Like so many writers before me, a contributing factor to my work is the feeling that “I can do that better.” A lot about Conquest of the Sphere comes from me looking at Fantasy settings and being bothered by one aspect or another. Most traditional fantasy settings, Tolkien and his descendant Dungeons & Dragons for example, feature multiple, fully developed sentient species with somewhat advanced civilizations, living next to each other. Can you imagine Earth in the Middle Ages having a dozen other sentient species, all vying for resources? No way. Like on Earth, the chances are all competitive species would have been driven to extinction long before reaching such levels of development. I could maybe give you one other species holding on. Say Humans migrated to North America and Neanderthals somehow survived in Northern Europe. OK. Maybe. But it’s a stretch. So, with Conquest of the Sphere, I wanted to come up with a reason for multiple advanced species to share a world, but one that didn’t involve magic or divinity. I won’t go into the details of what that reason is, now. But it’s there.
As I read more and more, I found that I also didn’t like the way women warriors were frequently presented. When women protagonists existed at all, they were often relegated to being sorceresses or rogues or what have you. And when they were allowed to be fighters, they tended to be assassin types, or fencers, or archers. So I wanted to write a female fighter who would stand toe to toe with Conan. This is where my recurring character Baal came from. Though originally conceived as a warlord in an apocalyptic future Earth, I quickly re-wrote her to live in the world of Conquest of the Sphere. A massive, muscled warrior, Baal is a wandering terror, very much in the tradition of Conan, who was an obvious and major inspiration. She is self motivated and self defining. Like Conan, a Nietzschean hero. Conquest of the Sphere is not some egalitarian paradise of a setting. There are cultures that absolutely discriminate or subjugate based on gender, religion, or ethnicity. But, like in the real world, that is something to fight and overcome.
Speaking of Nietzsche, I must reiterate that the setting is not one of magic and mysticism. This is not “Star Wars.” There is no chosen one. It is a world, like our own, where characters must find their own meaning, make their own choices, and become their own heroes and villains. No divine hand guides.
Originally, my plan was to have absolutely no recognizable species. But I was quickly convinced that if I wanted folks to be able to care about what went on, I would need humans. Or something human enough. Thus, the Una. The Una are my human equivalents in this setting. On the surface, they are very similar to us. Some skin, hair, and eye color variations that we don’t have, but otherwise very similar. For reasons that make sense to me, if I were to cast a movie, the Una would be played by equatorial people (South Asian, African, Central American, and maybe Australian Aborigines and Pacific Islanders). They are one of two dominant species on the world. The other are the Yaro. These are semi-humanoid creatures that look something like a cross between a canine and a capybara. Yaro have three genders, females (leaders, scholars, and scientists), males (lone wanderers, artists, explorers), and neuters (workers, soldiers, caregivers). The two species have shared a long history, often one of great conflict, going back thousands and thousands of years. They have mostly divided up the continents and now exist in a stalemate maintained largely by tradition and taboo. In a few places, the two species have closer contact, but mostly they remain apart, separated by oceans, deserts, and mountains. Each species has its own distinct cultures and ethnicity, though again, due to a long period of time coexisting on the world, they do share some common cultural elements, including myths. Several major religions on both sides link the two species via ‘Ancient Ones,’ a mythical progenitor species said to have created the Una and the Yaro. There is another sentient species that is so rare they are often thought to be myth, called the S’sahsha. Little is known of them, or of where they come from. Baal comes from a people who seem to be related to the Una, and look much like them, but they are not quite the same. They have pale skin and develop heavy muscles without effort. Their own mythology tells of an exodus from another land, possibly another world. There are no Elves, no Dwarfs, and no Orcs. There are no horses, or cats, or ravens. The creatures of this world do not exist in our own. They may fill similar niches, following similar evolutionary paths, and thus have similar forms, but they are not the same.
Stories of Ancient Ones are common among both Yaro and Una. And there is weight to these stories. Walk anywhere and you’ll kick a brick from an ancient temple. Dig anywhere and you’ll find the foundation of a long lost city. Wherever you go, you find pieces of civilizations that came and went a long time ago. Unknown languages, tools made for different hands, parts of statues that depict things no one has ever seen; these are common. An uneducated serf, working a field her whole life is likely to be aware that she is living on a tremendously ancient world. There are even left over megastructures like the Great Roads, that stand in defiance of wind and flood, but are said to predate both the Una and the Yaro.
There is a pretty big secret at the heart of Conquest of the Sphere. But that secret is so integral to everything that I feel like I might not be able to keep it; maybe shouldn’t keep it. It might be so key to everything that in order to properly approach the setting, it must be revealed. Especially if I do in fact turn this setting into a roleplaying game. I won’t reveal it here. Not yet. (It’s NOT Earth in either the past or the future, and the Una are NOT Humans). This is the beginning of a conversation. Maybe I’m being too precious about this; too worried about ‘spoilers’ that readers might not actually give a crap about. I feel like an essay like this can’t help but be too vague, too surface. But I felt the need to begin somewhere.
Creating a setting is a constant balancing act. You’ve got to give it detail, without getting too bogged down in that detail. You’ve got to have a handle on its rules, without letting those rules get in the way of telling a good story. You’ve got to keep track of a lot of stuff, but you’ve also got to just let it go and see where it takes you. You have to give the reader enough of a taste to make them want more, but not so much that they feel overwhelmed. As I’ve said, I’ve been developing Conquest of the Sphere for a very, very long time. Consequently, I am having a devil of a time stepping outside and looking at it from a potential reader’s point of view. That, I think, more than anything else is prompting me to write this article. I’d like to engage with potential readers or gamers and get their thoughts, as outsiders. Please ask questions, if you have any. And comment. Let me know what you think. Obviously, helpful, constructive criticism would be appreciated. Just telling me it’s stupid or uninteresting isn’t really what I’m looking for. If you’ve created worlds of your own, what are some of the pitfalls to look out for, or some of the things you had to pay close attention to?