Damocles flatters King Dionysus; “Lord! How fortunate and god-favored you are to be so powerful!”
The king — really a tyrant — says, “Sure. Let’s change places for a day.”
So, Damocles has a right old time feasting and carousing, right up until the moment Dionysus points out the sharp sword hung over his head, suspended by just one fraying thread…
The take home is, WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU WANT TO BE A TYRANT, YOU IDIOT? EVERYBODY WILL TRY TO KILL YOU.
And that’s one of the questions that Professor Waller R. Newell sets out to answer in his Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror (the which I talked his publisher into sending me as a nice follow up to Holland’s book on the Caesars.).
By “tyrant”, he means a ruler with personal power unconstrained by law or custom.
Sandbox is the tricky part; a “sandbox” is a storyworld that lets you tell (or experience — if you are a gamer) all sorts of different kinds of story. Essentially, I’m building my Discworld.
Oh, you say, just make it big with lots of different kinds of settings plus spare blank spots on the map.
Yes, that gives you lots of flexibility (though less than you’d think). However, the stories won’t be — sorry, I can’t think of a better word — branded.
I mean, the asteroid miners over here and the fight against the dark lord over there, don’t need to belong in the same universe and the reader (or player) won’t really feel as if they are revisiting the same place.
So a good sandbox is one that maximises the possible range of branded stories.
Spend time with a 12-year-old tabletop gamer and you quickly realize that — in this light — Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universe is one of the best sandboxes around. You can could dump just about any Space Opera SF story into it, and it would still feel like 40K. To do Firefly, just plug in Orcs, Inquisitors and Space Marines and Imperial Guards. To do Starship Troopers tell a story about the Imperial Guard. To do Star Trek, just follow a Tau captain on their five year mission.
Less so in the Star Wars universe.
Firefly Wars would need a local civil war as backstory, since the cleanup after the prequels feels like it would involve more mass graves. Your Alliance could be the Empire, but the Empire doesn’t really feel as if it would do dark secrets — why bother hiding them? — or have secret super soldier programs– it has Stormtroopers and Sith anyway. Starship Troopers could be about the latter-day Stormtroopers, but the moral ambiguity would be lost. Star Trek…? No, not without taking a ship to a different galaxy and then it would not feel like Star Wars. It would lose its brand.
So the 40K ‘verse is a far better sandbox than the Star Wars one. How can this be? It appears to follow four basic rules…
Aimed at the older children of yesteryear — meaning it’s a fine read for a modern adult — this beautifully illustrated book covers everything from pottery to architecture, arrow loops to siege engines, and armour to aumbries, it drops in lots of quotes from original sources, and — written in a time of servants and country weekends — feels authentic when it explores the manor houses and castles of the time.
It also approaches the culture and economics from the inside, with sections on ships and merchants, and ground plans of typical buildings.
Though it pulls no punches — describing the English as acting like the Hun in 14th-century France — it’s a cosy oak-panelled read for fireside days while the rain batters at your window, but also a jumping off point for recreating medieval domesticity.
They’ve pretty much always done it, either collectively — like the storytellers who built Greek mythology and or theologians who created the medieval vision of Hell — or individually, like the quirky medieval mapmakers and of course Tolkien, and every modern GM who spends more time creating their world than playing in it, and every wannabe Fantasy author who loses themselves in the act of creation.
For a fictional world to live, however, somebody has to tramp its surface.
We need a Homer to dump Odysseus on the Island of the Cyclops, Dante to have Virgil lead him through the Circles of Hell, and “John Mandeville” — whoever he really was — to take us to the Land of Prester John. Meanwhile, Tolkien must stop building and start writing, the GM has to assemble their players, and the modern wannabe Fantasy author has to…
Ah. That’s the thing.
Once upon a time, you could just take your hero from A to B to C, picking up plot tokens or even just getting closer to the goal while having quirky adventures on the way. We now expect a little more from our authors.
How do you get from the cool world you just built — or researched — to an actual story?