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[tsat home] [#29] [editorials]
How to Build a Sandbox
by Michael W. Bard
©2003 Michael W. Bard -- all rights reserved

So you want to create a 'shared world' -- a kind of literary 'sandbox' which lots of people will play in, that is to say 'write stories for'. Well, with the new column, and due to the story mix within TSAT, I've started pondering this question, and I'd like to share with you my thoughts and conclusions. Note that the focus here is upon the question of what sorts of universes are others likely to write for, rather than how one goes about ensuring that one's story universe will be internally consistent (the latter being a fairly widely touched on subject). For those who are actually reading of course...

The first step is to examine some existing story universes. This listing is not complete, and the conclusions are my own. Your hoofage may vary, etc.

1. TBP (The Blind Pig): This is one of the longest lasting and most enduring of universes. Just past the turn of the century, a virus was brought back from Mars on the Beagle II space probe -- the Martian Flu Virus, whose spreading quickly became a worldwide epidemic. The majority of 'Flu victims suffered no unusual effects, but a few become various 'morphs', most of them being animal-like. The most common sort of TBP stories involve an avatar of the writer, in a desired body form, some 30-odd years in the future. Also, most characters have a TBP career something like this: The author's dream form is introduced to the setting, has perhaps one or two encounters with major TBP characters, and then fades to obscurity. There are exceptions to this of course, and the intros are only a slim majority of the stories. But if you look at the ones outside this grouping, you'll notice that a small group of authors (perhaps four or five) are responsible for almost all of them. The other interesting observation is the average tech level of the stories. Most have the same tech level as today -- gasoline cars, roughly the same level of computer/internet/AI, etc -- although a few try and deal with possible changes. In fact, in this humble centaur's opinion, if the Martian Flu Virus had been brought to Earth in 1960, almost all of the stories could be set in 1990 without any changes other than the mention of the date. Think about it. There are numerous archives, the two largest being the Transformation Story Archive and Mia's Index of Anthro Stories.

Salient points:

2. LTF (List Transformed): A universe that exploded for a while, and has since lapsed into a deathlike coma. On the 23rd of January, 2001, all members of the TSA mailing list found themselves inexplicably transformed into their preferred form. As one might expect from the premise, every story (as far as I can tell) was about an individual's avatar in the current day. Cubist's Story Archive contains the primary collection of LTF stories.

Salient points:

3. NMF (No More Fakes): This ran for a while and then more or less collapsed under its own weight. The idea is that a costume party occurred where everybody was transformed into their costumes, this occurring in the mid 1990s. There were a number of stories written, the majority involving created characters. A careful time table of events was kept and maintained, and overall consistency was actively enforced from story to story. I believe that there have been a couple of attempts to resurrect this, but the complexity of the timeline has caused negative discussions about its viability (I do consider myself one of the descendants of Chiron, rather than of those that were invited to the Lapiths). There is a central clearinghouse for NMF data, which includes most (if not all) existing stories in the setting.

Salient points:

4. Metamor Keep: The other 'big' shared universe. The stories occur in a fantasy world were a magical event has cursed Metamor Keep so that the castle's inhabitants become either animals (including anthropomorphs), or the opposite sex, or very young children. This universe currently has a small group of writers that continue writing in it. Other writers, many of whom wrote only one story, usually wrote about their avatar within the fantasy setting. Stories can be found at The Metamor Keep Story Archives.

Salient points:

5. WoC (Winds of Change): Another extensive universe that has largely died off -- although it occasionally displays signs of life. The concept is that on one day in the mid 1990s, three universes merge so that each of the inhabitants of the Earth became a morph, i.e. was hybridized with some kind of animal, and some of them gained supernatural powers. The original background had a reduced population due to a plague at the end of the 2nd World War, and a noticeably higher tech level than the real world. Most WoC stories involve an avatar undergoing the transformation into his/her new form and living happily every after, and most stories could be set in our world with little or no changes (other than the occurrence of the world merge of course). There is a reasonably extensive WoC Archive.

Salient points:

Now that we've examined five settings, let's look at the points which show up most often in those settings:

  1. Authors can easily write their personal Avatars into the setting
  2. Because the setting is so similar to contemporary Earth, authors need not research anything

So what does all this mean to you, the would-be creator of a shared world? Well, it all depends on what kind of story universe you want to create. If you'd rather not try for a shared world at all -- if you just want a setting that you can write in yourself -- you can ignore all this.

For everyone else: If you want to create a universe with peculiar rules, an involved timeline, or set in a science fiction or fantasy world, then you should expect only a small group of authors. Most people will not want to write for such a setting.

And if you want the widest possible writership, then your setting needs to have some kind of transformation mechanism that allows interested authors to write themselves into it, becoming the thing they want to be within their current life. Even if you fudge the background a bit, writers will tend to modify the background to fulfill these conditions.

There you go.

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