Deep in the Black Riage, tucked away as if by accident, like a cheap ring fallen from a finger into the depths of a pocket, rests Hidden Naresh. With around 1,000 inhabitants, Hidden Naresh is a toadstool of a city, growing away in the dark, sucking the nutrients from the world around it, poisoning the air and the minds of its inhabitants with every passing moment of its existence.
Here the light is low, and the morale moreso. Yet in order to pass through the mountains, at least on this route, one must also pass through the morass that is Hidden Naresh.
This is how Hidden Naresh eats you alive: Enter from the West, that land of the Steadfast, where most is clean and kind and light, where there is some set of rule and law that can be grasped by even the simplest of minds. Leave behind the light, the law, the living.
Enter the world of the dark, the destroyed, the dead.
For the past few months, this is the kind of writing that’s coming out of my keyboard. I’m helping game designer Monte Cook with his upcoming tabletop roleplaying game, Numenera, and right now we’re working pretty hard at building a beautiful, dangerous, discoverable and weird world.
(By the way, if you haven’t heard of Numenera or the Ninth World yet, and don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, not to worry — you can check it out here and get the rundown on the project).
Of course, my creative brain loves working on a project like this just for its own pleasure. Making up worlds and people, coming up with scary monsters and weird scenarios, combining futuristic materials and technology with biology and geology — these are all things that make my writer’s brain go squee.
But there’s something else that I’m really proud of about this project, about this world that we’re building, something that will probably go unnoticed by a large percentage of players (and that’s as it should be). This is our desire to get things “right.”
In this case, “right” has two meanings for me:
1. The first right is that things in the world are scientifically correct and accurate. This is everything to what the earth might really be like a billion years from now (and why it might be like that) to making sure that if we have a picture of someone with armor, then that armor is functional for the activity of the person wearing it.
2. The second right is a less tangible right, a “do the right thing” type of right. This is a real-world kind of right, a social footprint kind of right, where things like gender and race are depicted with careful attention and honesty. The goal isn’t to make a point about topics like gender or race in and of themselves. The goal is, in fact, almost the opposite: to make a fair and thoughtful treatment of these topics such an inherent part of the game that they combine with all of the other fair and thoughtful elements to create a better world and better gameplay.
It’s funny how often those two things go together, right? If you give a female the proper protective armor, you’re killing two wrongs with one outfit, as it were. Not only will she be accurately able to defend herself in the game world, she’ll also become a symbol of something larger in the real world: the idea that women are not in games merely as eye candy, but as well-rounded, complex, ass-kicking characters (Of course, choice is paramount. If someone wants to play a character who kicks ass and takes names in nothing more than a pair of pneumatic high heels and a strip of metallic body-melding tape, that’s absolutely his or her prerogative. Alternatively, if someone wants to play a character who’s perpetually in need of rescue, the door is open to that too.).
So, how does one go about creating elements that are both right (correct and accurate) and right (socially responsible)? Here are some of the things we’re working on behind the scenes.
Human depiction: Humas of the Ninth World are not, in all likelihood, our direct descendants. While that would be possible (if, for example the humans of our current time traveled into space, continued to reproduce there (or elsewhere) for a billion years and then returned to the planet), it’s not very probable. So where did the humans of the Ninth World come from? That’s up for in-game speculation and research.
What we do know is that the humans of OUR future are likely to move toward a genetic melding — one prediction about the future of the human species is that most people will be multi-ethnic, carrying a blend of features from their various genetic lines. Some scientists postulate that we’ll see less genetic variation as recessive genes find less of a foothold. That would mean less natural redheads and blondes, fewer people with naturally blue eyes, and a larger percentage of the population with darker skin, darker eyes and darker hair.
Most of the humans we’re creating for the Ninth World fall into that genetic blending. While you’ll see a lot of dyed hair, unusual markings and fake eye colors, the majority of Ninth World humans will be multi-ethnic in their genetic background. Why? Because it’s theoretically possible. Because it creates an interesting world. Because it creates a culture where people are divided by things other than race.
Humans, also, as we know, come in many shapes and sizes. In Numenera, you’ll find people with “perfect bodies” (yes, they exist now; they’ll exist a billion years in the future), but they are few and far between. Most people are “normal” — and by normal, I mean short and tall, small and large, healthy and diseased, differently abled, and with differing levels of strength, agility, health and speed.
Gender depiction: In the Ninth World, gender is not irrelevant (gender is never irrelevant), but it is variable and malleable. Some characters are clearly male or female, others are gender-neutral, some are elastic in their gender orientation. It just makes sense to depict gender as we know it to be in the real world. Thus, sometimes gender IS an issue, just as it is in modern society. People will react to males and females (or those in between or beyond the gender scope) with varying levels of intelligence, respect and open-mindedness.
Additionally, you won’t find chainmail bikinis on either gender (unless, of course, a player makes the choice to dress their character that way for a reason or because some odd situation calls for it) because it just isn’t practical.
What I’m discovering is that small changes can make such a huge difference in situations like this. Take the awesome art at the top of this post by Kieran Yanner. Here, he depicts the three classes in Numenera — glaive, jack and nano. The characters have various body types and their own personalities with dyed hair, unusual weapons and armor that works for their situation and class. In the original image, the female jack had boots with thin high heels, a common depiction in fantasy and game art. We asked Kieran to give the heels some width instead (essentially making them wedged heels), so that our jack could sneak and run more easily. Now, there are some who would argue that’s not enough — why does the female character have high heels at all? And my argument would be: because it’s her choice. With her all-red outfit and her shiny, cool weapons, she seems like a woman who does just as much damage with her presence as with her skills. And that’s awesome.
Other characters of both genders will have flat heels or no heels (after all, we know that historically men wore heeled shoes — the heels allowed them to stand in the stirrups in order to shoot arrows and guns from horseback with more ease), show more or less skin, wear robes and dresses and scale armor and outfits with no given names, play their gender up or down. Again, it’s all about variety and choice.
Sex, of course, is another matter all to itself. The sexuality of Ninth World humans is as varied as you might expect. Same-sex couples are a seamless part of the world, as are those with a wide range of sexual interests. Yet, not all sexuality is portrayed in a positive light, because again, that wouldn’t be true to the human sexuality as we know it. Sometimes sex is used for nefarious purposes, and you can expect some of that in the game as well.
Other things: There are other small things, too, unnoticeable things that make me happy to be working on this project. One of those is that our core team of artists, editors and graphic designers is a diverse group. In gaming, a field that’s still headed by a mostly white, mostly male core group, I appreciate the fact that we are breaking that mold. Talent, dedication, skill and creativity always comes first, but we have worked to dig deep into the wide range of talent that is available in the roleplaying industry and choose people who understand Numenera’s vision and goals.
There is much more to love — and much more to come — as Numenera takes shape and comes alive. This is one of the most rewarding projects I’ve had the opportunity to work on, and with one of the most talented, forward-thinking teams. Building a world is paramount to playing god. The goal is to create a world that is so beautiful, complicated, dangerous and fun that most players don’t even realize that it’s also “right.”
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.