Fifteen Years of Ismae Worldbuilding

The known world

Like James S. A Corey’s Expanse series, Ismae origins lie in online roleplaying. Back in April 2004, Amanda and I were playing various online games and had grown bored of the clichés and tropes, trudging through the same scenarios we’d seen time and again in books, TV, movies, and gaming.

Tabletop role-playing games were a staple of my youth, and I found that the new generation of computer games wasn’t meeting my expectations of the interactive storytelling I’d known sitting around a table with my friends. So we decided to build our own world (using software of the time) and attempt to bring the qualities I missed and Amanda had yet to experience (small-town Indiana wasn’t quite the hotbed of nerdom that a SUNY school town was back then) to our gaming together.

Years passed, friendships were made, and much fun was had. However we felt limited by the genre of the platform we were using. It was traditional high fantasy—elves, dwarves, and quaint Medieval-style villages. You know the type. You like the type. (We know we do.) We attempted to develop the world on other platforms, but eventually life intervened and the roleplaying group drifted apart. Ismae went dormant. But things you love never really stay dormant.

We don’t remember an exact date or even what brought it up, but one day we began talking about Ismae again. We discovered Amanda and I both had continued rolling over concepts and characters in our minds in the intervening time. It was like opening a tap. The solid fundaments of what Ismae is today began then. We archived the previous gazetteer and development notes and started fresh with the goal of continuing in a medium we could manage with just the two of us: fiction.

This phase of Ismae’s evolution was painful at times. We both wanted to create something free of the rigid expectations of both high fantasy and hard sci-fi. From there we asked questions about Ismae and how it differed from Earth and the worlds of other authors: Who lived there? Why do they live like the do? How did their civilization start? What types of government are found there? What religions? What resources? How about a world with no humans? There were arguments (there still are), but they were productive and led us to the world you’ll find in Things They Buried and all the other Ismae tales. If this had been a lone writer, what evolved from that single POV would have been far less vivid and inventive.

We wrote scraps of stories and scenes that gradually became “the book,” as it was known for a few years. It began with Aliara: “The drunk Minikin had been babbling for hours.” and meandered for a while from there. Then Amanda had a dream about a creepy, abandoned theater manned by automata, and (thankfully) wrote it down on waking. This dream was the keystone, allowing the plot to reveal itself. The complete rough draft followed. We needed roughly two years to complete it, though we spent much of that time developing many of the world’s unique features—zoetics, opoli, mysticism, even the slang.

Our process has smoothed out significantly since then. These days, we attack worldbuilding from a character’s point of view, but there are still global questions and decisions made almost daily. It never ends—and that’s fantastic.

The Ismae world map featured here can also be found in our gallery.

Do you have other questions about the world of Ismae? Let us know.