Isfalinis: Beginnings

If you’ve ever wondered how a fantasy author came up with their story setting, here is some background on my own world-building experience. In this series of articles, I’ll discuss the major concepts of Isfalinis and how they were born. I’ll explain how I grappled with finding that balance between the overly familiar and the totally incomprehensible as I sought to interweave peoples and places, magic and history all into a cohesive whole.

How does one build a world? I imagine there are countless methodologies. For Isfalinis, I drew heavily upon our own history. My philosophy was to make Isfalinis as realistic and as much like our own world as possible except for a few key areas where I made conscious decisions to deviate. For example, there are four sentient species instead of just one. There is magic in Isfalinis, but it follows strict rules essentially incorporating it into the world’s natural laws.

This series of articles will be on how Isfalinis came to be in the practical sense. If you’re interested in the cosmology of Isfalinis, a free 20-page copy of its Creation and Lost Age is available to anyone who signs up for my newsletter. You can do so here.

The story of Isfalinis began in early 1999. The initial plan was not for it to be a story world, but rather a gaming one. That influence lasted less than a year but did leave a lasting mark. I was active duty military at the time, stationed at Fort Hood, TX. One of my good friends was stationed in Japan while a third friend was working on his law degree at Harvard. We all shared the same interests in history, wargaming, and fantasy which led us to collaborate on designing a gaming world. The initial vision was for a roleplaying game, though we dabbled briefly with the idea of miniature wargaming, before letting the project die out altogether as practical matters of life came to the fore. Yet from that failed beginning, the sparks of Isfalinis came to life. I should add that my two compatriots also stuck with their dream. One designed the “Adventurer Conqueror King” games of Autarch and both of them are collaborating together on its latest expansion, “Secrets of the Nethercity.”

But back when the initial plans were alive, we first set about trying to decide what kind of world we wanted. We bandied about several ideas, two of which I remember fairly specifically.

The first was to use Earth itself in a theoretical primordial past. The world revolved around a different axis which placed Antarctica (the setting) in the middle of the southern hemisphere instead of at the pole. We set this idea aside for several reasons, not least being the fact that Antarctica’s topography, once you clear the ice away, is fairly bland.

We then considered setting our story in a world inspired by Scandinavia. Scandinavia has a rich and fascinating history and mythology. The Norse, Swedes, and Danes were incredible explorers, conquerors, and traders while the Lapps and the Finns possessed a mystique all their own. We made more headway on this idea, generating several concepts that survive in Isfalinis, before scrapping it. Modern perceptions of medieval Scandinavia are heavily tainted by imagery of barbaric brutes with massive battleaxes raping and pillaging monasteries (for a similar conversation, see my musings on the development of the character, Yrpel, in “Tears from Iron” here). Viking raids were a significant aspect of Scandinavian culture and had a dramatic influence on the course of European history, but this was only one aspect of their overall society. We were afraid our audience would focus exclusively on the raiding motif and miss all the other rich aspects we were trying to convey.

It was around this time that we decided to step away from Earth entirely and craft our own world. It would eventually be called Isfalinis, though that name was still many years in the future. For its background, we decided to follow the popular motif of a pseudo-Eden wracked by a cataclysm that ushered in the contemporary setting. Some might argue that this style is overdone, and it certainly is a matter of taste. In my own experience, I’ve observed that there is a fine line. If things are too familiar in a fantasy setting, you risk boring cliché. If things are too strange, then the audience may struggle to relate. This risks driving many away. I feel that the strongest stories (and worlds) are those with a blend of the strange and the familiar. The unknown tantalizes with curiosity and mystery while the familiar provides comfort, stability, and a common frame of reference.

Our collective efforts focused on the cosmology (creation story) and its earliest history. In this early stage we settled on four sentient races. They were initially humans, elves, dwarves, and giant eagles. Of these groups, only one and a half survived, but I’ll discuss more on that later. We also developed ten deities classified as something between gods and angels (the Etyni) who were opposed by a great enemy (though unnamed at this point, this foe would eventually become Cydion).

Though this was to be a world for a game, the only game concept we really developed was that each character would be based on ten attributes personified by the ten Etyni. We used the classic elemental approach of earth, fire, water, and air and then had mental and physical personifications for each. For example, earth represented both physical endurance and mental endurance (willpower). Fire, however, was an anomaly. It was associated with Cydion and contributed no character attributes. This left us with six pairings plus four additional individual traits not related to the elements.

We also began rough sketches of kingdoms and a handful of sample hero characters from the pre-cataclysm period. References to some of these early concepts are visible in “Tears from Iron” through the quotes. Chapters 16 and 27, for example, open with quotes by Parys First-Born whose basic form was developed by one of my compatriots. Queen Cathryn who opens Chapters 26 and 37 ruled Tuenosia, one of the first realms I developed.

As this initial brainstorming was being done, I sat down to write a rough eleven-page sketch of the Great War that brought on the Cataclysm. The history I drafted then is still largely correct today. By then it was late in the summer of 1999 and our world-building was about eight months old. We realized that market forces combined with our current circumstances made progress on this gaming project impractical. We set the ambition aside. Our world ended up on the scrap heap along with our pseudo-Antarctica and pseudo-Scandinavian ideas.

Yet I had already fallen in love with this world that we had brought to life. At that point, it only had a few names and a few places, but I could envision the rich tapestry of its cosmogony, cosmology, characters, peoples, and history. I had been dabbling with short stories at the time and, emboldened by my success writing the Great War history, I felt like writing was a craft I could develop. It would be a couple more years before I began my first novel, but I had found the world where my stories would reside.

In future installments of this series of articles, we’ll explore how I took the rough world we had sketched and shaped it into the comprehensive Isfalinis that provides the setting for “Tears from Iron.” We will look at the development of the sentient races, the Etyni, sorcery, and Isfalinis’ geography and history.