As seen on TV! (Using movies and tropes in worldbuilding)

I'm not gonna delve too much into the whys and what the hells, but I started working on a new high fantasy horror campaign setting for upcoming games. Not to boast or anything, but I sometimes pride myself on creating coherent, cohesive, and believable worlds. I try to create worlds that, within the ruleset of their existence make sense, are plausible, and thrive on their uniqueness.

To fulfill the needs of this setting, however, I didn't want to go all out into these aspects. Sure, cohesiveness is super important to me, but in this world, it's just gonna have to take the backseat!

As part of this process, I wanted to give my five readers a glimpse into the creative process of the realms of my new setting.

I'm basing each of my realms on one or more horror movies, or on several tropes used in horror movies. Trust me, I have no intention of going down the copyright-infringement-slash-plagiarizing route! These movies are just ... inspiration, one might say!

Let's see how it works!

Note: I use the term "Realm" because it's what I work on but you can use these tips for worlds, countries, factions, cities, areas, etc.

Got a source? IT'S BREAK TIME!

When creating a realm for this project, I start by picking one or more movies, books, TV show episodes, etc. as a source. Of course, I pick something I know so I don't just talk out of my ass.

Then, I want to summarize it in one or two sentences that denote the most striking or important elements.

Grudgy example:

The Grudge is a movie about a curse occurring when a person's death comes suddenly and violently, caused by rage. It lingers and afflicts those who come in contact with it and curses them to a violent death themselves, repeating the cycle, over and over.

A trope, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a "a common or overused theme or device" so ... y'know, a cliché. Some would argue that tropes are old and overused and should be avoided at all costs, but, I don't know ... I don't agree.

Using them smartly and sparingly, and subverting them whenever possible, makes them super useful tools. TvTropes is a great resource for this, and I look up the page for whatever I'm digging into.

Grudgy example (samples from TvTropes):

    • Curiosity Killed the Cast: Anyone curiously entering the house will end up dead thanks to the curse. Until the curse spreads, which means that anyone unlucky enough to unknowingly interact with a cursed location or individual is in for a bad time.
    • Disproportionate Retribution: The curse targeting innocent unrelated people, also turning said victims into puppets of the curse to let history repeat itself.
    • Horror Hates a Rulebreaker: A fairly harsh example; the moment anyone enters the haunted apartment, the ghosts begin stalking them relentlessly, killing them and making them new tortured spirits to claim yet more victims.
    • Inferred Holocaust: Since the curse now spreads like The Virus, there's the Paranoia Fuel of never knowing whether you are interacting with a normal human being or puppet of the curse and likely falling victim to the curse at the hands of an infected individual or group of people. Who's to say Kayako's vengeful spirit will not become an Apocalypse Maiden and condemn all human beings to a terrifying And I Must Scream Fate Worse than Death?
    • Neverending Terror: This is one of the scariest parts of the eponymous grudge curse. Once the curse has you, there is no getting away from it. Also, it will come for you anywhere. It doesn't care how locked up you are or how many other people are nearby.
    • The Virus: Anyone who falls victim to the curse and returns from the dead as thralls for the curse.

Gotta go from this big TO THAT FUCKING HUMONGOUS!

You now have a bunch of very specific concepts that you think you can use. But some of them are really REALLY specific. You'll need to expand them to the scale you want to reach. If you want to create a city, sure one building could be haunted. 

But for aa whole realm, you'll need to put a lot more thought into it. Even if you don't want to massively scale it, there are other things you need to consider. A movie follows the story of a handful of individuals who are faced with a challenging and abnormal situation (for them).

If you're gonna use the same tropes for worldbuilding, you'll need to think about persistency. How does these tropes and concepts exist in the long run? Affecting a whole many lot of people? How do those concepts and challenges affect a society, its culture, people, geography even?

Grudgy example:

We've got the idea of a curse that creates killer vengeful spirits when someone dies in a violent manner. We know that once the curse starts, it spreads like a virus. How do we scale this to the level of a whole country or society? Here are a few questions I'd ask:
    • Is there a limit of active curses? Would it be one? Five?
    • How does one get rid of the curse, or stop it temporarily?
    • How fast does the curse kill off people?
    • Can it go very far from its starting point?
    • Assuming that this curse exists, and there is no question that it exists, who knows about it? Everyone? Authorities? Is it more of a folks tale?
    • Is anyone trying to use this curse to their advantage? To control it?

For my realm, here's how I would scale the concepts and ideas:
    • Historically, there has always been 8 curses active at the same time.
    • That was until a few dozens of years ago: someone managed to stop 3 of the evil spirits for good, and none have reappeared.
    • This has been going on for several centuries, so everyone is more or less aware of it.
    • The common folk tend to be very wary of others, and because of this, very few densely populated areas exist.
    • No one agrees on how to handle this:
      • A group of cultist reveres these spirits as gods and try to bring them back and hunt the heroes who have once vanquished them
      • The authorities have a personal connection to the original curse and they would rather see the country razed than see their treason exposed
      • Some form of sect believe that the spirits should be appeased with kindness
Of course, these are just examples! I could go in a totally different direction if, let's say, f I decided that only one such spirit exists and it's viewed as a god by the entirety of its realm, people freely sacrificing themselves to appease its anger!

There are many ways a society can shape itself around its problems: fighting it, blaming it on religion, creating a whole new mythos around it, turning against one another, ... If you're going to use this kind of techniques, it's probably a good idea to vary those teams so that each of your realms (or whatever) feel unique in the limits of their worlds.

Varying the responses and the themes help you shape distinct societies and borrow from existing examples while constructing a strong foundation that is in itself unique.

It's about damn time!

With a general idea of what your society's foundation is, you now gotta grow it. You may decide that the general situation changed only very recently and people have not yet figured out how to handle it. Or that it's been like that since time immemorial. Regardless, there are always a bunch of questions you want to try to answer! Here are a few:
  • What's the current situation?
  • What event lead to it?
  • Who is responsible for it?
  • How are people reacting?
If you're building your whole society around this event and that it's something that's part of not-so-recent history, you'll need to figure out a timeline to set the most important events down. If your society started facing this challenge a hundred years ago, it's definitely not the same thing as if things started to change thousands of years ago. Even an imprecise timeline will seriously help you figure this out.

Grudgy example (few key events):
    • 1000 years ago: A greedy family set its sights on the highest throne in the budding realm, willing to do anything to achieve their lofty goals, they started researching ways to get rid of the current rulers.
    • 990 years ago: The greedy family, having a child become a ward of the family set its plan in motion: in the dead of the night, the boy, who has been accepted as a loving, caring son years prior, killed both adoptive parents.
    • 989 years go: The mournful adoptive mother became as a spirit and cursed the castle, killing everyone in its wake. The capital was moved for the first time.
    • Every five year thereafter: A new spirit rose, in different places in the country, leaving few stones untouched by the curse, until 8 spirits roamed the lands.
    • 600 years ago: A young woman was fleeing from brigands and sought refuge in a city decimated by the spirit. The cursed being saved her from her attackers and left her be for reasons unknown. She would later found the Followers of Sethra.
    • 550 years ago: Somehow, one of the spirits was defeated by a member of the royal family.
    • 545 years ago: Another spirit rose, five years to the date, after the previous disappeared, forcing many to consider the hopelessness of their situation.
    • 200 years ago: A group of adventurers sought to destroy these spirits or lay them to rest. They managed to stop three of them which have surprisingly not returned in the years after.
    • 180 years ago: The heroes who have stopped the curse before disappeared from the land.
    • 100 years ago: A new king sits on the throne, and while he is often asked to deal with the threat or find those who have stopped the curse before, he never fully acts out.
    • 80 years ago: After years of violence, some have surmised that love may be the only way to appease the spirits, and have let go of their fears. They live quiet, peaceful life and accept death at any time.
You should now have a better sense of the societies you're looking to build and the important factions' history. Pieces like these are crucial: once you have them, you can let them fall and start building your geopolitical landscape, your geography, and your cultures.

Because you know who the people are, you can start spreading them across the land: perhaps those who strive for peace live deep in a forest known for their calming aura; and those who have cults could hold live in the most fortified city, or be travelers, or have shrines in every settlements.

Although I won't go over this right now, truth be told, this is a pretty good time to start thinking about a map, no matter how basic it would be.

What if I threw some "What ifs" at you?

By now, you should probably be ways away from the original material you selected. Sure, it takes a whole lot of extrapolation work, and a certain amount of back and forth. But by now, your realm should feel like it's uniquely yours. If you don't feel like it's "yours enough" just yet, it may be time to throw some "What ifs" at the problem.

In the timeline, I used this technique, but to put it bluntly: it's time to mess up your work. Start thinking of situations, events, or people that would change the status quo in the realm you're creating. This could be the rise of a new hero (or a party if so you swing), an earthquake, a plague, a god descending on the world, the creation of a new technology, the apparition of a new race, ... you name it (as long as you're willing to deal with it!)

Once you figure out an event, start considering how society and people would react to it, how it would reshape their vision of the world and how they would change the path they're on. Would they try to return to how things were before? Or try to move forward? Realize that their status quo was actually really messed up to begin with or will they just keep on moving on with their life. Will everyone react the same, come together on an agreement, or will wars be waged over this change?

Grudgy example:
    • What would happen if one of those seemingly evil spirits would save an innocent person?
    • How would people react if suddenly someone managed to banish these cursed entities? How would the other entities react?
    • What would happen if a group of people tried to reach out these spirits and appease them rather than combat them?

That's not the whole world ... is it?

Unless you decide that the whole world is dealing with the same problems, or that you want to base the entirety of your world on a single inspiration, you'll eventually want to consider how the rest of the rest of the world interacts with your newly-created area.

Sure, "not intervening" might appear to be the simplest option but in my experience it rarely is the best one. Even the most recluse of areas will eventually become known, or have an impact on other regions or geopolitcal entities.

Frontiers are basically made-up, and it's likely that they are not 100% clear between your new country and its neighbor. Here are a few things you might want to consider when thinking about how this area fits into the rest of the world:
  • What makes this area so specials that its problems stay there?
  • Do its people travel outside of the area? How are they perceived by others?
  • How do they perceive travelers or other nations?
  • Do they have resources that would make other nations interested in taking over the land? Would that affect the particularities of your area?
  • Is any faction in your realm trying to split from the rest of it?
  • Do they have any form of trades with others? What kind of things does your realm export? What do they need?
This article has dragged long enough so I'm not gonna explain how this would apply to the grudgy example, but maybe you can figure it out on your own!

Guess it's your turn to try it out! What would be the weirdest movie you'd try to base a realm on? Let me know in the comments or whatever!


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