Thursday, February 14, 2019

Mother Stole Fire: Core Themes

Julie Dillon

Tristan Tanner over at Bogeyman's Cave had a post featuring the six core themes of his setting, with an invitation for others to do the same. I'm taking up the offer for Mother Stole Fire and putting a little twist on it - instead of six themes, I'll be going through six features of the setting and explaining the thought process behind them. (Michael Kennedy did a post on thematic worldbuilding, too, so this is a decent follow up.)

0. A Note

My favorite aspect of fantasy is that it's intrinsically a personal thing. Of everything I have written in my time writing things, this might be the most-so, which means I am both quite proud of it and constantly going "nooooooo I'm falling into self-indulgence i don't even know if this makes sense to anyone but me!"

1. Mother

She started as a pretty plain plain flipping of the script: mother goddess as active head of the pantheon. The theft of fire was a natural extension with plenty of precedent (Greek and Pacific Northwest myth as my two touchstones, though there are certainly more), and that was further synthesized with the development of firemaking as synonymous with the emergence of modern humans and the transition from the into the Holocene. And if fire was stolen, then it must mean that Mother is a trickster. The character builds herself from there.

I haven't written much about her husband Baba Tubalkhan, but he operates under the same principle. The name gives away a chunk of his lineage (and his propensity towards metalwork), but there's a smattering of Odin about him as well (the missing eye, given up for greater wisdom. Granted that could be a bit of Ra too. Maybe he has a really nasty cat.) Sky gods and sun gods and ineffable eternal principles don't have anything to do with actual people and tend to make bad parents, so he's the god of craft, good judgement, and wisdom. Actual dad stuff.

Mother gets top billing, but that's what happens when you RKV a dragon out of nowhere. Baba hates the spotlight anyway.

2. The Gods

They don't come down from Mt. Olympus to fuck chambermaids. They're not external cosmic forces either. Maybe it's better to say that the gods aren't real, but they are true. They're not things. They're not people. They're actions, verbs, reflections. The act is the image is the magic is the god. They don't have much to do with religion because religion is based in belief and gods aren't a matter of belief. A god with only belief has no power, has no being, it has nothing to reflect. These are personal gods, relatable gods, our gods. Stripped of dogma and strict hierarchies. Living and breathing and changing gods. Old gods, who encompass the breadth and depth of humanity as a whole. There's no god who will impose justice from the outside, only the god of the justice we live out.

Practically, this is a way I can have loads of gods without having to worry about all the mess of divine intervention or worrying about sources of magic. Organized religion in Mother Stole Fire is lightweight when it appears at all. Wandering mendicants and roadside shrines, a few assorted cults and monastic orders and so on. Nothing really big, and certainly nothing that gets mixed in with politics.

Plus I get to dig deep for obscure mythologies (which is fun) and continue with the theme of combining anything I can draw a connection between and use reader familiarity to draw people in.

3. The Folk

Elves have gotten a rough deal of late. With reality trapped in the attitude that the world is something that can be mastered / conquered / commoditized and a whole lot of modern fantasy removing wonder and awe with all with all the grace of a battlefield amputation, they've been reduced to pointy-eared fops writing melodramatic poetry about leaves.

I don't like that one bit. So I mainline the opening of Princess Mononoke and Shadow of the Colossus and Hellboy and make sure that the wild spirits of untamed nature are not forgotten. 

They're also the force that drives humanity in Mother Stole Fire to be far more respectful and more humble when it comes to treatment of the world around it: you must respect Pele, because she's a fucking volcano and you aren't. (Those who read my take on modern Lovecraft will already be familiar with my feelings on the matter of humility, but I do go on and on (as my old man used to say, "I'm the best at being humble!")

4. Humanity

Here's where things start pulling together.

Humans in Mother Stole Fire consist of five primary peoples (manu, idaltu, neandr, florin, lilu) and a panoply of cultures and societies within those peoples. I deliberately want to avoid homogeneity so I tend to fall into the "city states are the best states" camp. The sphere of human culture is wonderfully, dizzyingly diverse (as it is in reality), but at the foundation of it all is the bedrock of kinship among all humanity. Foundation is the wrong word: It's more like a web, all the connections between. No one stands at the center. There is no center. There are only the multitudes.

Which is all to say (as I have alluded to in other posts), Mother Stole Fire is a sight better off than we are. I mean, it would have to be, when concepts like the equality between man and woman and the universal dignity of the human person come about before agriculture and written language (and have remained ingrained due to positive feedback loop). Save Dis, there are only two authoritarian empires that ever had great sway in the world, and both of those have collapsed.

5. Hell

I'm terribly unsubtle when writing about Hell. It's the late-stage capitalism quarantine zone. Slate Star Codex's "Meditations on Moloch" in city-state form. It's every horrific thing pulled out from the past and wadded together in a hideous fleshy paste of suffering.

The important thing is that Hell is made by people. It's not an external force at all, and all those demons up all the way to Moloch are our doing. It could be undone if people thought to stop.

Terribly unsubtle. Matched only by my incredibly idealistic effort to stave off crushing existential depression by making Mother Stole Fire a setting where Hell has been contained.

6. Death

It's the end. Ghosts are just magical leftovers without any continuity of consciousness. Hell is just a city. All attempts to maintain one's being after bodily death will eventually fail. There are no gods of death, only of mourning. No one ever comes back, and everyone knows it. Mother clutches her stillborn child and weeps.

In other settings I might put an afterlife, but not here. It'd feel cheap to have an easy way out of the human experience. It wouldn't be true. We don't get takebacks, re-dos, or sequels, and so there's no good reason I can see to add them into a setting that's supposed to be about people.

It's the final reaffirmation of all the rest of the setting: We are masters of nothing and only momentary inhabitants of the world, but we are not alone. 

(Now's an appropriate time to link to this tumblr post regarding the spiritual nature of art and how that relates to mortality. And to say that the real motivator behind starting this blog was that moment of realizing my own mortality that sunk in after my dad died.)

So that's Mother Stole Fire, in a nutshell.

Julie Dillon


  1. Confession: I have never actually run a proper game in Mother Stole Fire. Just one half-proper one. I am okay with this.

    Several comments fit here as well, including "Wow, Appendix Dan goes hard with the Pratchett and Le Guin", "Writing blog posts is way easier than writing a novel", and "If I do make this a setting book I will try my damnedest to get Julie Dillon for the cover because she is perfect."

    1. One should embrace Pratchett and Le Guin at all opportunities.

      Also, Dan, are you catching the lore-prose bug, now?

    2. I've had that bug for as long as I've been able to string words together.

  2. Very nice! Your passion about this setting bleeds through easily and it is a joy to read. I will say though what are Truth, Justice, and Love if they aren't eternal? They are profoundly human and eternal by their very nature. If they are eternal, then, what are human beings? And what is Hope if there is no life out of death? It is essential to our nature to rise again, out of the underworld of suffering into the light of a new dawn, born and reborn, the fire of our reentry burning away the dark.

    You can leave this alone as my own self-indulgent philosophzing if you want to avoid another Anthropocentrism versus aliens conversation.

    1. Love and justice are about the connections between people, and as such must be as ephemeral as we ourselves. The enduring nature of truth rather depends on your definition of "truth". If there's anything to it beyond simple conformation to the facts, it also cannot endure much longer than those who spoke it.

    2. No worries, man, I enjoy these conversations.

      I'd say that you can't have something that is both human and eternal, as humans are finite. Were those traits to be eternal, they wouldn't be ours. I'm not much in favor of systems where we only get credit for our wrongs.

      While thinking upon my response I happened across what might be a lynchpin - the idea of something as a state or something as a process. Rebirth is generally presented as a change of state (as you did here) but from my own experience positive personal change is always part of a long process over time, without a set end goal.

      It's Plato vs Sisyphus, essentially.

    3. I guess I fundamentally disagree with the proposition that human beings aren't eternal which might be the core of our disagreement which neither of us can do anything about. I think there is an afterlife and moreover a resurrection. I think that the divine is eternal and that human beings are divine, though to a different degree than God. I think the danger of not believing this is that it cheapens human life. Many might say that an afterlife cheapens this life, but it is the sacredness that comes with the belief that humans are divine that necessitates that they be treated with respect in this life.

      If we are all just mayflies among other mayflies than why not step on another person? If you only live once and there is no reason to sacrifice the quality of your life for another, then why relent in the pursuit of your goals when you are causing suffering? It is only if the individual is of inestimable divine worth that makes the sacrifice of one's own life to save another's a logical action.

      On the subject of rebirth, I agree that it is a process but I think there is a fundamental state change in the devotion of one's self to the process,a death to self that makes rebirth possible. This requires a surrender to the fundamental locus of change, the spirit of resurrection.Then you can embark on the process or journey of change time and time again, entering into chaos and emerging stronger each time. The only way any of us can march fearlessly into a dangerous world is if we believe that Being is good and that death is not to be feared.

      For me there is no way to arrive at those beliefs without looking to Christ, the one in which the human and the eternal meet and recognize each other. In whom the goodness of God is ultimately revealed. And it is his sacrifice that robs death of its sting.

  3. I think your first link might be pointing to the wrong site.

  4. Oh man, everyone should make one of these!

  5. I'm tempted to make a post like this now.

    1. Do it! Half the fun is seeing everyone else's thoughts.

  6. Dan,

    Just got turned on to the whole OSR thing and I’m eating up blogs left and right. I’ve seen the discord mentioned a bunch of places, but all the invites are all expired.

    Can you a hook a guy up?

  7. I'm a copycat

    1. Hey man, copycatting is where it's at in this game.