Humans are optional. When I began designing the Toonaria universe, I set aside the usual fantasy tropes of dwarves, elves, gnomes, etc. I love those classic creatures, but wanted something completely different. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to include humans. Ultimately, I did include them, though they are not a major species in Toonaria, at least not on the “sky ark” I will be spotlighting for many years to come. Now, different doesn’t mean better, but I’ll address that shortly.
Why did I include humans at all? Well, for one, because they bring to the table instant understanding. I write a lot of blended-genre stories (fantasy blended with science fiction and other genres), which means introducing a non-human character is more complicated than introducing a common one. You have to introduce the species, too, or confusion will result. With a new species, you have to at some point delve into a number of topics (psychology, customs, language, physiology, etc.) That’s fine, of course (fun, even), but such concepts must be dealt with carefully. And when it comes to shorter stories or games, some just want to play what they know.
With humans, you can slap on a name and gender and just jump into the action. Those of you reading this blog who are humans understand what I’m talking about. You don’t have to think, you just know what humans are basically like. The rest can be revealed in time or left to the imagination.
I handled things differently with my Cosmoverse Campaign Setting, which does include both the classic tropes as well as a large number of unique species. In that universe, even the classics I turned on their heads, changing them in a few ways. Largely, however, a dwarf is still a dwarf and an elf and elf. I focused my creative energies more on making those classics feel a bit different and even more on the other species, exotic locales, unusual magic system, etc.
Of course, if you are dealing with numerous worlds as I am, you can easily ignore elves, for example, and focus on worlds without them. The Cosmoverse is an enormous, rich setting, so it’s a non-issue.
For Toonaria, I wanted to focus on both smaller species, and to —ahem—a smaller degree, on much, much larger kaiju species. Both types open up an amazing number of interesting story concepts. Adventuring in Toonaria does not feel like adventuring in any other universe for many reasons. I’ll delve more into Toonarian adventures in the months ahead (See also earlier blog posts!)
The major species I currently have slated for my Epic Destinies Roleplaying Game (drawn from Toonaria) include: Domas, gubblings, jawbas, moobis, orynii, puffs, robotos (a floating shell housing a dying species), traku, shinar and vogs. Never heard of ’em? Don’t worry. That will change before long. I’ve talked about a few of them on this very blog, as well as on my QT Games forums, but we’ll discuss them more later.
The thing is (and don’t hate me for saying it) . . . innovation is overrated. It really is. Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for it, but it has advantages and disadvantages. And of course we don’t need another generic fantasy or science fiction universe (or copycat universe, for that matter.) That leaves us with one of my earliest design goals for both Toonaria and the Cosmoverse, both of which I have been exploring through games, stories and art for well over thirty years: Create something familiar, but not too familiar, something obscure, but not too obscure. Let me explain . . .
Humans are extremely familiar to most of us (heh), and including them is an exception—by that I mean they are handy to include, but at the same time, if you want things interesting, you need to do what I’ve done and shake them up a bit.
As for new species, anyone can throw a bunch of names into a bucket or random generator app, and draw two (cat/whale, elf/dog, blob/horse). Doing so would likely turn up innovative new species, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. And it’s definitely not something I’ve done, though I love to brainstorm. I’ve lovingly crafted each creature, as well as their talents, backstory, personality and more.
Nobody wants stale, but they also don’t want the uber obscure either. The more obscure something is, the harder it is for people to identify with it, and identification is one of the keys to immersion. You can get pretty crazy with your concepts, but obscure/innovation does slow down comprehension, and in some cases, enjoyment (There is an exception to every rule, of course.) It is very difficult for most humans to understand how a cat/whale would think, much less a blob/horse. Me? I have zero interest in reading about a cat/whale or blob/horse, but you get my point.
Anyone can be innovative, but I suggest caution. Bizarre creatures have their place, but don’t expect your average joe to identify well with them without jumping through some serious hoops. And be sure to think them through carefully before moving forward with “unique” designs.
Personally, I prefer to think of “innovative” as referring to something that’s not only new, but also useful and cool. Skip innovation for the sake of innovation and focus more on the experience you are trying to deliver.
With Toonaria, I’ve created a universe populated by a very wide variety of creatures, most of whom are at least vaguely humanoid in appearance, but they are quite different from humans, to say the least. They are unique, but understandable, and struggle with some of the same things we do in the “real” world. They deal with loneliness, pride, fear, and other familiar concepts.
Connecting with the real world helps make your creatures more real, even if they are pink and fuzzy, have magical ears, or “some other third thing”. I’ve gone way off the beaten path with Toonaria (my sky arks, for example, instead of regular worlds), but I have strategically grounded key elements in reality to ensure a sense of familiarity while still stepping not only out of, but away from the box.
Okay, that’s all for this week. I may revisit the “Creating a Universe” series in the future if I both find the time and you show enough interest, but next week this blog will focus on other Toonarian topics. As always, if you would like to know more about a particular aspect of Toonaria, or just want to chat about our upcoming creative projects, I’m all ears! Have an amazing rest of the week, friends!