The Language of Myth

Posted in NEWS on July 28, 2008

By Nik Davidson

Nik Davidson makes games, writes stories, solves problems, and plays Magic. He's almost certainly doing one of those things right now.

Let's get the obligatory introduction bit out of the way. I'm Nik Davidson, longtime designer and producer of MMOs, and for the past year, Senior Producer at Wizards in the digital games group, working on [REDACTED-CLASSIFIED] which is due to be released to the public in [REDACTED-CLASSIFIED]. It's worth noting as well that I am part of the amorphous Wizards brain network that supports Magic R&D in some subtle ways. (Note: Amorphous Wizards Brain Network would be a fine band name.) While Mark, Devin and the rest of the folks you know do all of the heavy lifting, there's a bunch of us in a wide variety of non-Magic roles who are there essentially as a farm of SETI at Home–style brainpower, tapped to do playtesting, feedback rounds, hole-filling designs (I've got a few doozies in upcoming sets) and so forth.

So why am I writing about flavor? Well, it so happens that I've also been tapped to write for a handful of Magic sets, specifically flavor text and names. It might seem an odd fit that a numbers-and-spreadsheets guy writes flavor text, but I'll let you in on a little secret. After you've been mashing data until your fingers bleed, left your thousandth meeting, and put the last ornery spreadsheet to sleep, writing flavor text is fun.

Shadowmoor and Eventide were the two most challenging writing tasks that I've ever tackled. The reasons can be shown fairly simply: mythology is a language, and Eventide's mythos is a language that very few of us speak.

One of the ways to evaluate the setting of a Magic set is to determine just how far from good old Earth history the world has strayed. Let's take a look at Tenth Edition to see what I mean. There's nothing particularly fantastical about Ballista Squad, or Grizzly Bears, or Stalking Tiger. We've got Highway Robbers and Gravediggers. (Slightly less zomboid, one presumes.) Even when one starts to move into 10th's fantasy elements, we're on pretty solid footing. Dragons, Elves, Goblins, Griffins – you've almost certainly encountered these classic fantasy elements in books, film or other games.

When I bust out the Weirdometer, and wave it over the 10th edition cardset, it registers a mere 2.0 out of 10. There are a few oddities lurking in there, but nothing that's particularly jarring. If you're a passingly well-versed fantasy fan, you're almost certainly feeling at home among the creatures and concepts that flesh out 10th edition. You speak the language pretty fluently.

Let's move on to Lorwyn and Morningtide. Here, the Weirdometer picks up a bit—looks like a 4.3. We've shifted our mythos; the plane of Lorwyn draws heavily from concepts of Celtic myth, which on average, you're a little less likely to be fluent in. Faeries and boggarts, wild elementals, and borderline-telepathic kithkin, not to mention Amoeboid Changeling. Still, you've got elves, giants, and treefolk to provide the foundation of a myth that you're familiar with. With these classic elements to work from, and maybe a high-school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (even if you don't admit it to your current crop of friends), you may not be fluent in the language of Lorwyn right off the bat, but with a phrasebook and some practice, you'll get through just fine.

With me so far? Then let's hop through the Aurora and take a gander at the world of Shadowmoor. Weirdometer reads a steady 6.5 as an already eclectic place just went Tim Burton on us. Now, if you've been with us from the start of Lorwyn, this is sort of like going from Spain to Italy in terms of myth. If you spoke passable Spanish to begin with, you'll be able to muddle through enough Italian to get by. The clear themes of reversal and change make the transition between Fallowsage and Hollowsage pretty accessible, but that assumes you've been on the ride from the beginning, or at least since October of last year.

Enough preamble, we've got some Eventide to explore! Let's start like we did with Tenth, and scan the cards for things we recognize from our own mundane little blue planet. Let's see... Lingering Tormentor. Nucklavee. Sturdy Hatchling. Aha! Loyal Gyrfalcon! Yes, it appears that in all of the creatures of Eventide, the only one we have direct reference for on this little blue rock is this lonely white bird. (We'll forgive it for being giant and carnivorous—we're just glad it looks like a bird!) Weirdometer? Pegged.

So let's get out there and poke around the best source we've got for more information: the flavor text! I'll attempt to put together a rough phrasebook of mythology for those of you new to the wilds of Eventide by looking at ten of my favorite flavor pieces in the set. (Pay special attention to the bits about bogs. Seriously.) Much of this new world will be described in quiet ways, in enigmatic ways that you'll need to ponder and tease out. And then there's Shorecrasher Mimic:

The Aurora replaced the changelings' innocence with malice and their curiosity with hunger.

How refreshingly direct! After moving from Lorwyn to Shadowmoor, the astute reader must be wondering where the changelings have been hiding. Turns out they've been hiding RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

Taking a closer look at Eventide flavor gives us some keen insights into what happens to Lorwyn's races, inverted by the Aurora and taken to their fanatical fringes. To wit, I give you Endure, one of my favorite flavor pieces:

The Aurora had lessened the kithkins' kindness, deepened their paranoia, and dulled their sense of pain.

The one kithkin value that remains equally powerful is community—not the kind, nurturing community of Lorwyn's idyllic plains, but that of an overpowering sense of identity. Kithkin belong; all that is Other does not. To look at the kithkin of Eventide, you realize in passages like this that while thoughtweft has transformed from trust and empathy to paranoia and resentment, the effect is the same. Those little guys manage to well up fantastic courage to throw in the face of the things that go bump in the night.

Meanwhile, Lorwyn's flamekin, now cinders, are losing their struggle to retain their sputtering flame. Thus do we see the cinders' devolution complete itself, in Crumbling Ashes:

“I was there to watch my brothers' quenching. I drew the slightest warmth from their dying rage.” —Illulia of Nighthearth

And here I thought that veteran game developers were the most bitter people around. I stand corrected. The cinders are a failing people—they know it better than anyone else, and they're going to do as much damage, and rage with as much power as they can muster, before they go.

Now, before we go much further, I need to reiterate Doug's warning: Everything in the folklore of the British Isles wants to lead you off into the wilds and murder you. The main difference between them is the type of wilds that you'll be led into before being horribly murdered. Case in point, the duergar: in lore, quite fond of luring travelers into bogs or tunnels. (It's worth noting that bogs are especially bad. All kinds of creatures will lure you into bogs to eat you. Listen, there's nothing in a bog that's worth risking your life over. Cranberries? They're okay. Murdered by a duergar? Not cool. And cranberries aren't even native to the British Isles! So there's really no excuse at all.) Eventide's duergar are completely subterranean. The problems start Duergar Assailant:

Some duergars dismiss the world above as a fable. They react violently when their comfortable illusions are dispelled.

I'm especially fond of flavor pieces, like this one, that do more than describe the physical nature and the actions of an element of Magic fiction—they go on to ascribe belief, history, and a more complete sense of place.

Eventide definitely has no small amount of “What the heck is that?” going on. Like, oh, I don't know, Spitemare. For a flavor text writer, these are a special challenge. With a quick trip to Mr. Google's Knowledge Emporium, you'll learn that Kelpies are foul water-spirits that pull children under water to drown them. (In bogs! Don't let your kids near bogs!) But go ahead and try to search for “red AND white AND zebra AND lightning AND snakes AND legs”. Like me, you may be astonished by just how many pages do include all those terms, and how not useful they all are for coming up with inspiration. Still, I think the flavor text writer for Spitemare performed quite admirably under pressure:

“I knew a creature carved from a dream of wild freedom. Any attempt to leash or exploit it failed, and at terrible cost.” —Ashling


Possibly my favorite of the races of evil things that will lure you into the bogs and kill you are the gwyllions. While accounts of them vary wildly through Welsh folklore, the Eventide gwyllion is a creature that, while malicious and hungry for tasty babies, will behave itself if you treat it politely. One source actually says you'll know them by their loud, echoing cries of “Wb!” (My editor notes, “They yell 'wb'? No wonder they're white-black!” My editor. He's a funny guy.) Now, the way I figure it, any creature that can perform loud, echoing cries without the aid of vowels is a creature I don't want to follow into a bog! Folklore says that you're always supposed to invite them into your homes and treat them well. If not, well, I think Nip Gwyllion says it best:

Once your life and all your worldly possessions have been surrendered to her, a gwyllion can be surprisingly civilized.

Also, folklore says that if you point a knife at them, they run away. That works for a surprising number of authors, too!

While gwyllions are Hags by creature type, the green-black hybrid Hags are just as intent on baby-eating and into-bog-luring-to-kill-you, and not nearly so polite about it. Take Stalker Hag for instance:

Her hunt is silent until a bone snaps or flesh tears. Her victims never know to scream.

It's never scary in the horror movie when the victim screams in terror. In fact, I often feel like that's a cop-out, telling the audience to be afraid by showing the poor damsel in distress, audibly terrified. What scares me most is when the horror is so sudden, so unstoppable that it's all over before you have time to react.

Let's take a moment and discuss Regal Force, because it illustrates a couple important points about writing for Eventide. First, that not quite everything will lure you into a bog and eat you, and second, that due to the strangeness of the setting, we writers often had almost nothing to go on. The art description for Regal Force described the elemental as a large imposing force of nature, looking like a giant horned toad king. Yes, that's right, behold the awesome majesty of the giant horned toad king! Oh, and there's four lines available. (In the world of flavor text, four lines is a novel!) As a writer at times like this, one often falls back on the fundamental themes of the card's colors and functions... because the subject matter is just too weird. The writer of Regal Force's flavor text demonstrates thusly:

It rarely moves, standing stock still in its clearing. When it does stir, ravens stop their cawing and crickets their chirping. All of nature watches in awed silence.

The awesome thing about this flavor text is that somehow, it seems custom-made to tell the tale of giant horned toad king. That's the sort of thing that makes us flavor writers give each other the “nod of admiration”.

In a similar vein, let's take a look at the Sapling of Colfenor. This one had a few things working for it to make it a challenge for flavor text writers. (Flavorers? Flavoreurs? Hmm, I kind of like the latter.) One, this is a major story character, and there is exactly one line of space available to tell that story. Two, at the time of writing the flavor text, we mere flavoreurs (hey, that is good!) hadn't seen the book! What to do? Well, in the end, I fell back on the tried and true method of referencing what Colfenor's Plans and adding a little pun. Bam! Major story character, tackled in six words.

Her plans may yet bear fruit.

Lastly, we take a look at probably my favorite amongst my flavor pieces in the set, Soul Reap, for a final lesson in Eventide myth.

Their thoughtweft carried Darial's last thoughts back to his doun. They sorely wished it had not.

See, Darial didn't listen. He followed something into the bog. I don't even know what it was. Something horrible. Something with an unpronounceable name, no recognizable face, quite possibly yelling “Wb!” all the while. Despite all my warnings, Darial took off and decided that the lure of cranberries was worth the risk.

Well, let this be a lesson to you, my friends. If nothing else, turn off your telepathy before you go off into the bog. It's just common courtesy in Eventide.

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