Updated with an additional section in the comments
Mention of Easter Island in a previous article has had me thinking about monuments and places of wonder, and what is needed to make them amazing.
It’s a lesson that Australians in general don’t do very well at – hence “tourist attractions” like the “big prawn”, “big banana”, and “big pineapple”, collectively known as ‘Australia’s Big Things‘.
Most campaign creators don’t give enough thought to such monuments when they are setting up their game worlds.
All images used to illustrate this article, unless otherwise noted, were sourced from Wikipedia Commons and are subject to the GNU Free Documentation License and/or the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.
Seven Wonders Of The Ancient World
In the age of the ancient Greeks, various guidebooks began listing “must see” wonders of architecture and design around the Mediterranean Rim, especially the eastern side. These wonders are still known to much of the world even though only one survives into modern times, though most people couldn’t tell you anything more about any of them. They were:
- The Great Pyramid of Giza
- The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (destroyed by an earthquake sometime after 1 BC)
- The Temple of Artemis at Ephasus (destroyed by Arson and plundering)
- The Statue of Zeus at Olympia (disassembled and later destroyed by fire)
- The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (destroyed by earthquakes)
- The Colossus of Rhodes (destroyed by an earthquake in 226 BC)
- The Lighthouse of Alexandria (destroyed by an earthquake in 1303 AD).
(I was always under the impression that the Great Library of Alexandria was also on the list, and I don’t recognize the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus – so maybe I learned a different list, or someone decided two in one place was a bit much?)
The original list has had many successors and imitators over the century, each drawing apon the mystique of the items by means of the association with the original list but also reinforcing the mystique of that original list, which is one reason why it remains embedded in the popular consciousness 2014 years or more after its first compilation. You can read about several of these lists at this Wikipedia Page. The commonly used phrase, “8th wonder of the world” adds to the popular awareness.
All these wonders have a number of broad general characteristics in common: Size, Beauty and/or Grandeur, Value, Cultural Importance or an Air Of Mystery or Historical Importance, and Symbolism.
In an article entitled “Size is not enough”, this is the obvious place to start. Wonders and Monuments are all big. Impossible to miss. They stand out, either naturally or by design, and at a considerable distance. “Unmissable” has a double-meaning when used in reference to them.
Beauty, Grandeur, or both
For one reason or another, these things are always breathtaking or awesome or both. They totally dominate the landscape – but with something more than sheer size. A rock can be big, but it needs to have something more going for it in order to qualify as a natural wonder. A building can be monumental, but if it’s a monumentally ugly slab of stone, it’s probably not going to qualify.
If it doesn’t make your jaw drop, it doesn’t make the list.
I suppose it’s possible for something to be “monumentally, jaw-droppingly ugly” though….
The first two characteristics usually add up to expense. These things don’t come cheap, and that means that whoever constructed them cared about doing so – a LOT. They were vitally important for some reason; they had value to the builders. That normally translates to having value in subsequent eras.
Unfortunately, that also translates into a place with value for looters and thieves. It’s something of a wonder (pun intended) in itself that more of the ancient wonders weren’t destroyed in this fashion.
Because they also have symbolic value in representing whoever cared enough about whatever they represent to have value as a symbolic target to those opposed to those people, and that value usually outstrips (to them) the cultural wealth of retaining them intact. If a city contains a wonder, that city’s enemies will tear it to rubble if the city ever falls to them.
Cultural Importance or Air Of Mystery or Historical Importance
I thought long and hard about this “quality” of wonders, especially in terms of “wonders of the natural world”, but realized that those have cultural importance.
Cultural Importance means that they influence, or have influenced, the general society in some fashion. They might be considered sacred, they might provide a natural defense, they might be the home of one or more Gods. They are mentioned in song and story even if there aren’t songs and stories about them specifically. If they are expensive, and have value and significance, then they also have a greater implication: that the people who built it were prosperous enough to do so. There’s a reason why so many of them have religious connotations; there’s a reason why so many are associated with rulers and the ruling classes. Cultural importance can also mean that the wonder is ironically representative of the city or country in which it is located.
But some wonders and monuments don’t meet this prescription. They carry with them an air of mystery, instead. Arguably, all wonders start with this when they are first discovered, and the cultural importance results from attempting to penetrate the mystery. Easter Island is one of the finest examples, but the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, and Stonehenge all possessed this mystique in the early and middle 20th century. They excite the imagination, entice speculation and supposition, and inspire myths and legends. Arguably, Tutankhamen is the most famous King ever to have reigned anywhere in the world; I’m sure that 99 out of 100 passersby on any western city would recognize his famous death mask right away, if not more.
Some sites have neither great cultural importance nor any real sense of mystery to them. What they have instead is an amplified historical significance. The Washington Monument comes to mind as an example. Westminster Abbey comes to mind as an example. The Empire State Building comes to mind as an example – it was the world’s tallest building for 42 years, and is iconic even today as a result.
The final attribute of most monuments and wonders is that they are, were, or are held to be, symbolic of some greater value or concept. Spiritualism. Faith. Democracy. Liberty. Justice. The power of nature. The beauty of nature. Love. Power. Exploration.
Just about anything that can be conceived of, no matter how abstract, can be the subject of a monument or wonder’s symbolism.
If I had more to say in this article, I would have added pictures of the Statue Of Liberty, Washington Monument, and Arlington National Cemetery to those chosen – I would argue that they all qualify as “wonders” under these criteria. I might also have chosen the White House.
Why is it so hard?
So why is it that so few campaigns make full use – or any use – of wonders? Why do so few worlds even mention them or provide a list of them? Why is it so hard?
First, they impose a huge burden of creativity on the part of the GM. He or she is just one person; the wonders of our world are the handiwork of thousands of creative people over millennia, plus the natural wonders uncovered by hundreds of explorers.
Their historical importance means that they influence and shape history and culture. You can’t take your campaign background and simply tack them on as symbolic of some highlight; you have to create them at each stage of history and incorporate the reasons why these monuments are deemed important into the narrative, then have to keep track of them throughout the history that follows. It’s additional creative workload at a point in the campaign’s genesis that doesn’t need additional workload, and it’s easy to dismiss them as mere color, and hence something that can be sacrificed in favor of more directly-valuable efforts.
Then, too, it’s never enough to be able to describe a wonder in words alone; they have to be depicted in some way, and that imposes an artistic requirement that not everyone can meet. Either you have to be really good at illustration or painting (including digital art), or you have to be good at image manipulation, or you have to find and adapt someone else’s image – which may not be at all suitable. “It’s like this except, and except, and except, and also…” …it just doesn’t work.
Me, I’m an OK-to-good artist (depending on the wind and phase of the moon and all sorts of other imponderables), and fairly good at image manipulation. I’m not an expert in either. I’ve done some work of which I’m proud (much of it in Assassin’s Amulet or here at Campaign Mastery) and some work which was just barely good enough, and some that I wish could have been done better – and there’s some that I won’t show anyone. But all that puts me nine leagues ahead of many, while leaving me in awe of the breathtaking work produced by others. I know just enough to know how hard it is :)
For example, what if you wanted a Jade Palace? One way you could get what you’re after might be to modify some other image, manipulating it to give it a green color. And if you wanted this to be a magical place, with a strange light show emanating from it? You could do that, too. I spent 10 minutes or so manipulating a small-sized low-resolution Taj Mahal image (shown to the right) to achieve a passable representation of those very results. Compare it with the source image shown earlier in this article. If I were doing it for real, I would have worked harder and used a higher-resolution image. I would also have played around with proportions of different elements to produce something that was less-obviously a derivative image, and maybe added some additional wings to the building.
If the skills to meet these artistic requirements aren’t in your toolbox, you’re in trouble.
Not all ideas are good ones. But, by definition, only great ideas make it to becoming wonders. There’s a fundamental incompatibility that results from this combination; inevitably, some of the wonders you propose shouldn’t be anywhere near the list, never mind on it.
Honest self-criticism is one of the hardest abilities to develop that I can think of. Until you have it down pat, you are going to need some supporters to sit in judgment, and perhaps to throw new suggestions and ideas in your direction.
I’d like to think I’m getting better at artwork all the time – certainly, when I first started on Campaign Mastery, something like the Orcs & Elves titles would have been beyond me. Not to mention the “change in the weather” that I did for my the image of the Sydney Opera House in my previous article. But I can still deliver a clunker, an idea that just doesn’t work.
At all costs, you have to avoid being cute. Monuments and Wonders have to exude Gravitas – weight, seriousness, and dignity. Cute becomes Kitsch all too easily.
What to represent
But perhaps the hardest part of the entire process is the task of deciding what the wonders should be, what they should represent. What’s worthy? What’s not?
I touched on all this to some extent in an article from October 2009, Legendary Achievements: Coloring Your Campaign with Anecdote and Legend, in the section Legendary natural wonders to bring the geography to life,, but this is a whole new order of problem. Cute and Trivial worked just fine for the folksy local legends that I suggest there, but few objects and locations will qualify as a wonder of the world, and because they are exceptional, they have to be treated in an exceptional manner.
Solving The Problems
Okay, so having sorted why it’s so hard, why should you bother – and, if I can convince you that you should, how can you go about it?
Why Do It?
Depth. Having wonders in your world gives it a sense of having existed before the PCs arrived, of being a real place. According to the DVD extras, Weta workshop put a lot of effort into constructing little bits of the Numenorian culture – statues and architecture and the like – that they could then demolish and leave lying around in various places, for this very reason.
Verisimilitude. The real world has them; your campaign world should have them. If they are absent, no-one might notice; but if they are present, they will notice that.
Filler. Wonders give the characters a chance to play tourist, soaking up the campaign world and its background and concepts in the process. This takes some of the burden of adventure creation away from the GM on a day-by-day basis; so the effort can be viewed as an investment in the future.
Landmarks ground a campaign. The landmarks give a framework around which the players can assemble the bits of campaign background knowledge that come their way. All too often, there seems to be a divorce between the background and the current-day reality of campaigns. By salting the background with the remnants and artifacts of the past, you can have action occur at those locations, giving a connection between the modern-day game world and the background.
Reference. Wonders form landmarks in the players’ minds as well as on the map. This gives them a key which can be used to relate other aspects of the campaign. “Lilton” might be the small community where something happens that will be of interest to the characters, but it’s just a spot on the map unless they’ve already adventured in the region. If they can be told that it’s midway between the legendary Salt Mines of Tarah and the Waterfall of Niglesh, largest in the known world, suddenly it is a lot more than that (and a lot more interesting).
Individuality. My choices as Wonders will not be the same as your choices, which will not be the same choices as the GM who lives on the far side of town. Those choices help make your campaign distinctive. But even more valuably, if they are connected to the campaign background and its core concepts, they give the players a ‘hook’ from which to hang the uniqueness of the campaign. It’s amazing how much more accessible those unique elements become when you can point to a Wonder Of The World and describe how, at this particular place, that difference manifested in an unusual or significant outcome.
Integration.By virtue of these connections between campaign concept, campaign background, and contemporary campaign reality, Wonders can integrate the many facets of the campaign world into a unified whole. They become the ‘nails’ that hold the rest of the metaphoric structure together. Without them, the connections can seem superficial or even non-existent.
Moreover, they can help the GM integrate his own thinking and planning. If you exemplify a house rule with a World Wonder where it made a difference, you facilitate and help solidify your own thinking about how that house rule will manifest within the game reality. Sometimes you can discover unintended connections between, and implications of, those house rules, before they become a problem. One of the easiest ways to collapse a campaign is to have a house rule and a campaign background that doesn’t reflect the existence of that rule and its impact on the game reality. Wonders and Monuments can help avoid this problem.
Inspiration. I’m big on having explanations for everything, as long-time readers of this site will know. I go many, many, extra miles to maintain the internal coherence of my campaigns. Wonders give me the opportunity to be a little more playful, to build in something whose explanation I don’t know. I can stick a giant statue in the ground without knowing where it came from, just for the fun of it.
Mysteries and Lifesavers. Sometimes things fall in a heap of confusion. The PCs have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and done so in such a way that there seems to be no escape; the campaign looks like it’s about to collapse as a result. When everything that is already known tells you that the PCs have no hope, you have three choices:
- Learn to live with the PCs failure. More importantly, find a way for the campaign to live with the PCs failure. Or:
- A completely unsatisfying dues-ex-machina that solves the problem for them. Or:
- Enlarging the campaign to include things that were not already known, and that offer a potential way out for the PCs – if they discover it, and how to exploit it to score a surprise come-back at the 11th hour. And so far as the players have to know, you always intended it to happen that way.
Wonders with some inexplicable quality give you a hook to hang such solutions from. If they are established within the campaign already, they won’t even seem like Dues-ex-machinas; instead, they will be established plot elements whose significance is only now being revealed. And you will look like a genius.
Wonder. Wonders give you the chance to add some “Gosh-wow-cool” to your campaign. There is a reason they are called “wonders”, after all!
In Combination, those reasons are quite enough to justify the effort of including wonders – if a way can be offered to make them practical.
What to represent
The place to start is always to decide what you want the wonders in your campaign to be.
- I start with Natural Wonders – Tallest Mountain, Greatest River, Biggest Waterfall, Biggest Bay, and other scenes of natural beauty. Virtually every game world will have these. Note that there may be taller mountains, bigger rivers, etc – these are simply the biggest in the known world.
- Next come the ruins and works of Lost Empires and Kingdoms, especially the most recent.
- Historical Icons I – I examine the campaign background for key events that would have been commemorated in some way, the bigger the better. I maintain a list as I work forwards through the background, looking for 1) events that can take place at the monument; and 2) for any impact that the presence of the monument might have on future events. If I want a certain event to be forgotten, and it would almost certainly have been commemorated, I can destroy or hide the monument (the latter is preferable, as its rediscovery gives me a way to reveal what was forgotten when it becomes significant).
- Historical Icons II – where were past capitals? Where were the obvious invasion routes, and how did past kingdoms/empires guard them? What happened to the defensive works – and how were they overcome, if they were?
- Mythical History/Prehistory – The sort of thing that Stonehenge was once thought to represent (and still does in the popular consciousness). What else can be left over from a mythic interpretation of prehistory?
- Gods & Supernatural Beings – in any world where these have an objective reality, expect even more effort to represent them in art, statuary, song – and monuments – than there was in our world, where their existence is subjective. These need bear no relation to the current theology within the campaign. I once thought up a game world in which someone had smashed every statue in existence of a particular Deity – without explanation. I never finished work on it.
- Cultural Greatness – Regimes at the height of their powers tend to celebrate their cultural greatness with expressions of that greatness that become wonders of the world either then or subsequently. And the contemporary regime is either declining, or is at the height of the power (so far). There is also an element of rivalry involved – ‘the ancients did that, and we’re better than they were, so we’re going to do this.’ And throw in the occasional splash of decadence and self-indulgence, while you’re at it.
- Campaign Uniqueness – What is there that is going to be different or unique about this campaign? Can I think of a way to exemplify or celebrate that difference with a Wonder Of The Known World?
- Magic – in any world where magic works, there should be monuments built in celebration of it. And monuments that are impossible without it. I let my imagination run wild for a while, then apply strict self-censorship. And get a second opinion on anything I’m unsure of.
- The Mysterious and Fantastic – Having warmed up with the preceding section, I’m ready to really get creative. Is there anything I can dream up that will add to the Mystique, Mystery, or Magic of the game world? Why not a house in which the interior rooms are all on the outside and a small garden is on the inside? A fairy palace? A gingerbread house? A cave in which up is down? A castle whose towers run down, into the ground, to protect from underground attack? A gypsy wagon (with occupants) trapped in Amber? I then apply strict self-censorship. And get a second opinion.
- Non-human races & Cultures – How would each non-human race’s mindset play into the concept of Wonders? Is there anything that would exemplify what makes that race unique? What might they create that humans would consider to be Wonders?
Photographic & Illustrative Inspiration
I keep a file full of ‘clip art’ that’s not for public circulation. Anytime I come across an image that I find interesting or inspiring, I save it to that file. When I find the time, I might plug a suitable search term into Google Images and go trolling for future ideas. When I know I’m going to want something specific in the future, I use a subfolder dedicated to the subject. I currently have one folder full of futuristic buildings, and one full of Lovecraftian Horrors, and one full of Digital Demons, and one full of Ice Terrains, and one of Ice Queens, and another of Hell. And I keep one of backgrounds and textures, and another of faces and people with particularly distinctive appearance.
Some of these provide direct inspiration for Wonders. But because I don’t restrict myself to public domain images, I will never display these publicly – they are kept for private use only.
Decide the significance
Context might not be everything, but it’s an awful lot. What is the current culture’s subjective appraisal of the significance of each wonder? Why is it remembered, and what is it considered to be symbolic of? Never mind what the people who created it thought – what do the people in the game world now think of it? And how does that color their impressions of those who created it?
In my unused adventure ideas file, there is the notion of a now-lost pacifist society who repress their aggressive tendencies and perversions through the most graphic artworks imaginable. Everyone made these, in one medium or another, or was branded a public danger and a criminal, and locked away. An archeologist has discovered the remains of this society and is trying to make sense of them, and getting entirely the wrong impression. A temporal accident then brings some of them forward in time, where they seek to impose their “perfection” on a nearby settlement; enter the PCs…
Connect with History
I make sure that every Wonder has some connection with the campaign history. Where this isn’t pivotal, I might set it aside for use as an anecdote relating to the Wonder if and when the PCs visit the scene (I like to have at least one of these for every wonder, better yet two or three – I add to the total in the step after next.)
Connect with Society & Culture
I examine each Wonder and consider what impact it has had, would have, or is having, on the contemporary society of the campaign. If I don’t want that, then the Wonder has to go ‘bang’ at some point in history. If I don’t want it to be happening yet, I have it get lost or stolen, only to be rediscovered at some future time. I once had this happen to an artifact, but had descriptions survive – all from a common source which had a mistranslation of the size. When it released the Evil that it had confined (after being rediscovered by some peasants), the PCs came looking to see if there was any way to re-confine the Evil in the Wonder – only to discover that it wasn’t 300 feet in size, it was 300 tenths of an inch in size, small enough to put in a backpack – which is what someone had done…
I also make sure that there are at least some cultural references to each Wonder in a list of the attributes of that wonder.
I create more events as necessary to fill out the legend of the Wonder and supplement the unused historical references. These may be myth, legend, or rumor, and I make no decisions as to their validity – using a Question Mark to indicate this indecision, so that I can decide what’s true and what’s not when the time comes.
The Non-human Psyche
Are there any noteworthy differences in interpretation of the Wonder from particular non-human races that are present in the campaign world? Can I use these interpretations to justify some past event whose rationale is thin? Can they cause any holy wars? Are there any non-human Meccas?
Where and When
Having decided what impact the Wonder will have, I can nail down where it is located and when it was constructed.
What is the Wonder’s current status – lost, almost forgotten, well-known, destroyed, mythical? Why? When did whatever happened, happen?
The Visceral Reaction
One of the most important aspects of a Wonder is the visceral reaction that it has. If the imagery available is not good enough, and there is no prospect of being able to do better before the image is needed, make sure that the Wonder is lost or destroyed. At the same time, a great visceral response is reason enough to restore/rediscover a lost Wonder.
A Celebration Of Your Campaign
The Wonders of your game world should be a celebration of your campaign and its uniqueness. They should provide eye candy for your players that helps them feel their characters presence within the world and aids them in getting into character. They should inform everyone involved of the ‘magic’ of the world, and inspire. If they do all of these things, you can’t go too far wrong.
An afterword: Wiki Loves Monuments 2013
While gathering the images which adorn this article, I discovered that Wikimedia Commons are currently running a contest to capture, photographically, the cultural heritage of the world, Wiki Love Monuments. This contest is due to finish at the end of the month, but if you have any images that YOU have photographed that would be relevant, and your country is one of those participating this year, consider uploading them. No idea what the prizes are, but the FAQ definitely indicates that there are prizes.
This is a sheer coincidence; not only am I not a participant, my country is not even participating (and the 2012 definitions were way too restrictive for my tastes). But I thought it appropriate to spruik the event since I have used so many Wikipedia Commons images for this article. Fair’s Fair!