Frequent visitors to our Web site may have seen our pointer to Donna McDougle’s recent review of DargonZine. The review was printed in an October 8th issue of Dark Matter Chronicles, a publication dedicated to reviewing science fiction, fantasy and horror Web sites (http://www.eggplant-productions.com/darkmatter/). The review was unexpectedly effervescent in its praise, and very flattering. While I’d encourage you to check it out, I’m not bringing it up to promote either DargonZine or Dark Matter Chronicles, but to talk about a topic that the review mentioned.
In the review, one of the things DargonZine was praised for was the orchestration of the project: our ability to keep “so many threads straight and smooth … keeping it from becoming a hopelessly knotted jumbled mess”. As you can imagine, in a shared world with fifteen years of writing behind it, there’s a veritable glacier of Dargon-specific information — characters, dates, places, events — which must be managed and integrated. Over the years, we’ve built up a huge body of information that is highly detailed and must be successfully coordinated, both to present a coherent world to our readers and to serve as a necessary reference for our writers. I thought I’d spend this Editorial telling you a little bit about one aspect of how that has worked.
Some readers might imagine that when we started the shared milieu, a bunch of us sat down and hammered out all the details of Dargon, much as a gamemaster might engineer a world for a fantasy roleplaying game. Surely we would define all the continents, the kingdoms and duchies and their rulers, the topography, the cities, the roads, the rivers, the major characters, and the various races, religions, and cultures. For many people (including some writers), having a rigorously-defined environment is the first step toward developing a story.
Well, DargonZine has never really worked that way at all. In fact, when the project began, the first Dargon stories were printed based solely on a very brief overview. That initial description was shorter than the three-dozen lines you’ve read so far in this Editorial! That document briefly introduced just five elements of the milieu: the city and duchy of Dargon, Dargon Keep, Clifton Dargon, Baranur, and Magnus. When we started, that was all there was to know about the world of Dargon.
One of the drivers for that decision was simply the level of effort and the time that would be required to do a lot of up-front work. As writers, we wanted to get started writing and printing related stories, not spend a lot of time and energy doing the research that would be necessary to architect all the details of a viable medieval society. And back then, we weren’t real sure whether the magazine would continue for very long, either.
Furthermore, we came from a very different philosophical standpoint. The gamemaster’s task — defining things beforehand — is really to create a mental model of the world, exploring and understanding and describing it in depth, so that he can react appropriately when his players take his story in an unexpected direction. In contrast, the writer controls what her characters do, and thus doesn’t need to create a setting with the same breadth of detail. In addition, the writer’s work is defined by and limited to her stories; any detail which doesn’t actually appear in her stories seems like wasted effort, because having never been committed to eternal life in a story, it disappears without having benefited her readers.
There are, of course, gamemasters who create their worlds off the cuff, and writers who prefer to develop a rich background before ever setting fingers to keys. However, in DargonZine, we expressly decided to define as little as possible, and allow future writers to add new elements to the milieu — to create Dargon — as their stories needed, free of arbitrary constraints. This gave DargonZine an open structure that we could explore and extend over time, and it enabled us to publish stories that might never have seen print if we had begun with a more restrictive idea of what Dargon was. Without that flexibility we might never have seen Dafydd’s Fretheod and current Talisman saga, or Max’s Eelial, or the Beinison war.
Each of our writers has contributed their own elements to the milieu. We have benefited from the knowledge and originality of dozens of people over a decade and a half, and that kind of organic growth has both enriched the setting and helped make it more believable. Looking at Dargon today, I think the result is infinitely better than if we’d let just one or two writers define everything at one point in time so many years ago.
As we discussed and wrote stories, we decided that details and ideas that we discussed would not be immutable facts until the readers saw it in a published story. When there was a conflict between an unpublished idea and the real and immediate needs of a good story, we thought the story should always win out. By defining our canon in this way, there really wasn’t much point in making lots of reference materials that weren’t authoritative and might be superceded by any story’s needs.
So for most of our history we allowed writers to create the details of our world as needed, building up a body of knowledge derived from the printed works, and only limiting ourselves by a few philosophical maxims and the stories we’d printed to date.
Of course, there are also some disadvantages to this decentralized approach. Many of these result from the lack of a single authoritative source to define the milieu. The lack of a central document to describe the world of Dargon makes it more difficult and time-consuming for us to bring new readers and writers up to speed. In order to address this concern and make Dargon more accessible, last year we agreed to break our longstanding reluctance to define things and decided to make the first street map of Dargon, which you can see in the map area of our Web site.
Of course, in going back and gathering the information for that map we discovered the second major disadvantage of not defining things up front: the potential for contradictions between stories and inconsistency in our creation. By that time there were dozens of stories with references to streets and markets and districts, and many of those descriptions contradicted one another, or didn’t make sense when you looked at the city as a whole. Through some creative cartography and a little revisionist history we were able to put together a map which works pretty well. But we repeated our first mistake: we decided not to assert anything in our maps about the areas that hadn’t already been named or described.
Just last week we revisited this decision, and for the first time in fifteen years we’re going to abandon our longstanding policy of leaving judicious ambiguousness in our description of the milieu. We’re going to sit down and make another, more complete, authoritative map of Dargon, including lots of new detail that wouldn’t otherwise be considered canon. It’s taken us a long time to get to this point, but hopefully the new map will lend more richness to Dargon, and give new readers and writers a better starting point for understanding the town and the stories that take place in it.
So that’s a little insight into how much of Dargon came about: from intentionally sketchy beginnings, incorporating the original and imaginative contributions of dozens of writers, until now, when we’re finally able to conceive of fully defining and depicting at least one small corner of the world.
It’s been a while between issues, but that’s really not surprising. Submissions tend to slow to a trickle during the summer months, which makes autumn a bit thin on material to print. Of course, Dafydd is back once again, with the first chapter of his two-part Talisman Two, which continues the series of stories he began a year ago in DargonZine 12-1. But leading off this issue is a new story by Stuart Whitby, who has been with us almost two years now.
At this point, we’re still planning on getting one more issue out before the end of the year. It will be distributed in mid-December and should contain four new stories, including the conclusion of Dafydd’s Talisman Two and the first story from another new writer.