Tag Archives: writing fantasy

Q&A: Angels, Physics, and Wings

Disregarding the physics of it, how do you think the ability of an ‘angel’ ( basically a human with wings in this case ) to fly would influence their fighting style? Would it be an advantage, or a hindrance, you think?

This is a bit like asking, “disregarding their ability to move, what’s the fastest car?”

Physics is a critical component of hand to hand combat. Things like momentum and leverage are what you use in a fight to harm your opponent. Techniques are just the way you apply the laws of physics to your opponent.

So, it’s not entirely inaccurate to say, “if you disregard physics, nothing stops you from turning your foes into chunky salsa.”

A more reasonable example of this is if you’ve got an angry, 200lb, bird man who can take flight at will. They can land on the exact spot they want, because they’ve been doing this for their entire life. They drop on someone, and it’s over. This is part of why the physics are so important. The amount of force they apply on landing is a direct result their mass and velocity. Without physics, there’s no grounding element, no limits, and no way to reasonably predict the limits.

That said, there are huge problems. On the ground, a winged human would be at a combat disadvantage. There’s a lot of very fragile tissue on their back which is vulnerable in melee, and can’t be fully shielded by the fighter’s body. You can’t really armor it without making the wings non-functional, and if you’re emulating birds (which seems likely), you’re looking at hollow bones, which will never heal properly from being crushed. At range, they’d make the character a larger target. You don’t need to hit a normal human sized target, just clip their wing.

The only way to get around these disadvantages is to veer into the overtly supernatural. If the wings are conjured when need and otherwise don’t exist, then getting in the way wouldn’t be an issue. If they were somehow immune to harm that would still have the mobility issues on the ground, but at least they’d be less of a liability.

You started with, “angels,” and then backed off of it onto normal humans. It’s worth pointing out that if you’re wanting to work with the idea of angels as supernatural creatures, then being able to disregard the laws of physics at a whim isn’t that far out there. As they exist in religious texts angels (or whatever your preferred term for them is; the general concept of divine messengers is nearly universal in religion) are more akin to cosmic horrors than Roma Downy standing under a key light. So that’s a situation where I would say, “ignoring physics,” is entirely legitimate, and the results can be suitably gory.

-Starke

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Q&A: Combat Magic

Hey! Sorry if this isn’t your area, but I’m writing a fantasy story set in a world where people have various individual abilities (i.e. one kind of magic each). There’s a villain character with a military background who has magic, who’s fighting a character without any magic. What kind of powers could someone have that would make them really effective on a battlefield/commanding troops, but put them at no great advantage in one-to-one combat of this kind? No worries if you don’t know. Thanks!

This reminds me of a post from a couple months ago. Obviously, it’s not the same question, but might be useful reference.

Support related magic could make someone far more effective in a command position, but have little effect on personal combat.

One irony is that the D&D bard fits your question, almost perfectly. The class is a real master-of-none situation. If you want to fight people you’d be better off with a fighter, paladin, or other front light combat type. If you want to heal them, clerics and druids specialize in that. If you want a mage, there are wizards, sorcerers, and a number of other, better, magic users. What Bards do is buff party members, improving their attacks, helping them resist hostile effects, and improving their skills, while filling in on all the other roles as a backup. Being able to magically inspire your troops may sound like a pretty minor thing, but it’d be a major strategic asset. The class gets treated like a joke by the community, but in the right hands it can be very potent.

Beyond examples like the Bard, even just having an unusual attunement to sensing magic at range could be useful for tracking enemy forces that have their own battlemages.

Remember not to discount your villains who don’t fight. Someone with a military background would know how dangerous powered opponents are in their world, and would take steps to prevent being ambushed by them. Because they’re not able to leverage their abilities in one-on-one combat, they’re probably going to ensure that they’re not alone when your hero comes for them.

Without knowing what kinds of magic exist in your world, it’s a little difficult to know exactly what kind of spell list your villain may have access to. So let’s split this up a bit.

Healing magic, particularly of a sort, on the spot, healing can be incredibly potent.

Being able to augment other characters, such as boosting their attacks or defenses.

Being able “debuff” enemies, reducing the same.

Necromancy, being able to call up the souls of the dead. This one depends a bit on how necromancy works in your setting, but if it involves prolonged rituals, that won’t help in a fight, but it will let you make some friends for when a fight does come.

Wards or bindings that prevent enemies (or certain kinds of individuals) from crossing borders or leaving specific places. Which would lead to your villain being able to bind your hero to a location while they ran for help. Illusion magic could help them make their own forces appear more fearsome, or powerful, significantly impacting enemy morale, while offering limited value in direct combat.

Counter-magic is a bit of a weird one, but could significantly help your villain. It wouldn’t make them more effective in combat, but it could help to negate enemy powers. On a larger command scale, it would give them the ability to specifically negate enemy powers that would be devastating if left unchecked.

As world building goes, magic is opportunity to get creative. You decide how the metaphysics of your world work, and then create powers that fit within that. At that point, your not limited to things like lightning bolts or fireballs, and you can start creating some really unique powers, if you’re so inclined. So, there isn’t really a wrong answer here, let your imagination run wild.

-Starke

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Q&A: This Space Intentionally Left Blank

Hi, I’m writing in a medieval/high fantasy setting and would love your ideas on how this scenario could go. A deserter on the run in alpine terrain, chased by both the unit he deserted from, who need to capture him alive, and local militia intent on killing him. He has training, gear and a crossbow, sword and fighting knives. I know this situation is dire. The plot outline is to eventually have him captured by his former comrades, but my question is how this would realistically play out?

You’ll see an answer pop up on multiple choice quizzes, “The question cannot be answered with available information.” That’s apt here, because there’s just too many potential factors.

Let’s start with the consequences and work back. Desertion is (almost always) a very serious offense. Combat, especially in war, is extremely frightening, so running is a very natural response. The result is that any organized militant force needs to deter that behavior. You understood this because you had him being hunted.

Here’s where the unknown factors become a problem. Let’s start with the organization that trained him. Depending on who he was working for, the consequences could be anything from being dragged back in chains and spending decades in prison, to being used as a target in live weapon practice for the next wave of recruits. After all, nothing says, “don’t do this,” quite as much as getting recruits to serve as executioners. So what happens? I don’t know, but it’s probably somewhere between these two extremes. And, yes, being court marshaled and imprisoned is about as benign as it gets.

There’s a wrinkle here, though. So he might not make it back to face the music after all. There are few insults more repugnant to a soldier than cowardice. Deserters are viewed as cowards; they were too scared to do their job. This is also a direct betrayal of their former comrades. Again, the best possible outcome is some minor psychological abuse on their trip to a cell. It’s entirely possible that your character would be mutilated and allowed to expire. Again, this depends on the characters involved. Depending on the structure of your setting, but, realistically, the results would not be pretty. If your character is lucky, their former commanding officer may simply summarily execute them once captured.

So, that’s a personal problem.

I’m not even going to question why their buddies were sent out to apprehend them. It seems like a mistake, unless you’re going full supervillain, with something like, “find him, or you’ll all be executed.” Which would not endear him to his former friends, (in case there was some confusion on that point.)

So, that’s what happens after, but it still leaves a lot of blank spaces working up to it.

Alpine terrain tells me very little. This could be high altitude, it could be mountain ranges near the coasts which are relatively low, but still, “alpine.” If it’s the former, and he wasn’t acclimated, altitude sickness is a serious pain in the ass.

Assuming a roughly earth like atmosphere, altitude sickness starts to manifest at around 2,000m above sea level. At 3,000m above sea level, the rate of incidence exceeds one in four. There’s good news, you can antagonize it, resulting in symptoms at altitudes as low as 1,600m, if you’re so inclined.

Altitude Sickness is hypoxia resulting from there not being enough oxygen in the atmosphere. Symptoms include, nausea, vomiting, headaches, insomnia, fatigue (there’s a fun combination), and vertigo. Short version is, if this goes acute, you’re not doing much of anything until your body acclimates.

Physical activity for extended periods, for example, fleeing through the mountains while pursued by local, acclimated militia, would probably end badly. Also, overall physical fitness is not a factor in resisting altitude sickness. Just because your character is a soldier doesn’t mean they’ll be mysteriously immune.

There are chemical ways to help cope with altitude sickness. Historically, indigenous people in the Andes chewed Coca leaves for their stimulant effect. This also had the effect of combating altitude sickness. I suspect this is because coca functions as a vasodilator, increasing blood flow, and as a result, the available oxygen in the user.

If your character is dependent on chemical assistance to survive, they’d face a logistical problem. They could only carry a limited amount or supplies, while their pursuers would have access to resupply.

Also worth noting that, historically, the Coca plant was viewed as having religious significance, and as a result, consumption among the Incas were restricted to royalty, senior officials, and the military. It’s not implausible that a similar situation may exist in your setting.

In case this was somehow missed, the altitude will make engaging in melee combat basically impossible, as even one skirmish could easily incapacitate your character.

Finally, I’m not even sure if your character can escape. High Fantasy doesn’t automatically mean your character has to deal with magic, it’s likely that magic is a factor. Unless you’ve specifically written around it, and created a reason why it doesn’t exist, mages would be incredibly useful in a military context. Be that as heavy combat units, advance recon, communications, logistics, or even as meat based artillery. Now, it is possible that some of those roles simply aren’t available to mages in your setting for whatever reason.

With that in mind, it’s entirely possible your character, or their gear may be mystically, “marked,” so that it can be tracked remotely by a trained mage. Alternately, it’s possible your character could be tracked by a mage trained in remote scrying. Meaning that they wouldn’t be, “chased,” so much as hunted down.

It’s also likely that your setting may have some countermeasures, but unless your character is also a mage with similar training, they’d be unlikely to know the full range of tracking options available to a recon mage (or whatever term appeals, “auger” or “scrye” are good options.)

So, the short version is, your character’s going to have a very bad time. Desertion, is a very serious crime in any military, usually punished with death, often with a painful death. So, this isn’t going to end well for them, regardless of their intentions.

-Starke

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Q&A: Lessons from Dragon Age 2

regarding your latest dragon age analysis, you state that dragon age used to be great at one point. while i agree, and origins is still one of my favorite video games of all time story-wise, i would like to know if this is actually your opinion or just what i want to hear? because i personally think that in the latest game they really lost track of what made the past games really good, but I’m not sure if that’s your opinion.

It’s not. I found Origins underwhelming, with both design, writing, and business decisions that I’d call questionable at best. The business decisions fall well outside the scope of this blog, and I covered my issue with the game design last week.

I realize it’s a dark horse in the fandom, but the only Dragon Age game I really like is 2.  The writing does a couple things very well, giving the game a truly unique flavor from the rest of Bioware’s releases. That’s kind of the problem. So, there’s four things discuss, that are worth taking a moment.

Dragon Age 2 does a good job with shades of gray morality. In most Bioware titles, it’s easy to identify the good/evil dynamic. To borrow a phrase, your choices split between being a saint, or eating babies. That’s not true in DA2. The game presents you with a lot of situations where both sides have legitimate positions, and you’re left with some difficult choices. This can easily leave you feeling like, no matter which way you went, you’d made a mistake. There’s a true to life quality to this, and it fits well with the overarching tone the game is following, but if you came here for a conventional power fantasy, the game shanks you at almost every turn. This is something that Origins claimed it would do, but 2 delivered, and the community’s reaction was less than enthusiastic.

It’s story and setting are serious, it’s characters aren’t. Origins and Inquisition both inject their humor into the events around the characters. Sometimes these are the result of character action, but often these jokes are delivered deadpan by the world. This is a familiar beat in tabletop roleplaying games, where the GM chooses to be a smart ass for a second, but it’s incongruous with the setting that the development team was trying to sell.

DA2 doesn’t do this, nearly as much. Most of the humor there comes directly from the characters responding to the horrific events around them. Again, there’s an uncomfortable truth to this kind of behavior; humor is often a defense mechanism. It’s a way to deal with things that are too horrible to deal with. In contrast to a normal heroic story, this is an arc of people falling apart, or struggling against it. There’s a corrosive quality to the events story, where characters simply trying to survive and cope with the things they’ve seen. This can leave you with the impression that these are truly horrible people, and over the course of the story, a few of the recurring characters become far less palatable than they were at the beginning.

It violates audience expectations from the developer. This isn’t automatically a good thing, and the fan reaction can probably serve as a warning against this kind of behavior. DA2 is very critical of the normal Bioware game, to the extent that it’s almost an inversion. Your character starts in a relatively stable city surrounded by loyal friends and family, but as the story progresses, the city falls to ruin, the friends and family start to scatter or die. While Hawke, the protagonist, becomes more politically important, they become more disconnected and isolated. The opening cutscene even tells you, this isn’t the story of how a scrappy hero arrived to save the day, it’s the story about how someone who tried to make things better served as a catalyst for the unspoken chaos that followed. This is more in line with authors like Michael Moorcock than Bioware’s normal stable.

If you picked up 2 after playing Origins,  you’d be greeted by a mostly unfamiliar setting. There are some superficial similarities, the game’s prologue and first chapter play out during the events of Origins, however, almost immediately the tone is unrecognizable, for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, Dragon Age 2 is in a completely different fantasy genre from every other game in the series.

I mentioned Michael Moorcock earlier, and there are some hints of Elric of Melniboné in Dragon Age 2, but the major influence, visible up front, is Lankhmar. From Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, the city of Lankhmar was a fantasy pastiche of contemporary New York City. The strange confounding, almost ungovernable mess should be immediately familiar to any player who spent any time wandering Kirkwall in Dragon Age 2. The similarities aren’t just in the architecture or denizens, but in the borderline feral quality that resists governing. Leiber’s opportunistic rogues are also instantly recognizable as kindred spirits for Hawke and party. Even the narrative structure of the game, as multiple semi-connected vignettes is very reminiscent of the short stories. There’s still a lot of Warhammer here, but it’s marinating with a diverse array of influences, and the result is something completely different.

There are some major flaws. Some critical exposition for understanding what’s going on in the city are buried in an unmarked collectible sidequest, leaving many players with the impression that the events happened for no reason. (This may have been impossible to complete on some platforms due to a bug, making things worse.) The ending is rushed, probably owing to an abbreviated development cycle.

In spite of how the community rejected Dragon Age 2 at the time, I think it’s probably the single best example of writing from Bioware. I can understand the people who didn’t like the gameplay experience. I can understand the people who felt betrayed. They were promised a specific kind of experience, and were delivered something unexpected and, at times downright vicious. Personally, I still prefer something that takes risks, and commits, more than a writer that plays it safe, even when it doesn’t quite work out. Also, the sarcastic personality was shockingly close to my outlook on Dragon Age after playing Origins, so that probably helped a bit.

-Starke

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Q&A: Good Writers Steal: Understanding Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity

You know when you compare the lore of Dragon Age and Pillars there a lot of similarities and it wouldn’t be that hard to put both settings in the same world.

No, they really don’t fit together.

This is kind of ironic, because that’s how we got Dragon Age‘s setting in the first place, and why I’m answering this.

Let’s start with what the two settings still have in common. Both games are based around evolving D&D into a new, non-licensed system. In both cases, the long term goal was to pave over some of the more idiosyncratic elements, and create new settings that could be used without raising the ire of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast.

In both cases, they started with an approximation of D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting, and then started mixing in other inspirations; and that’s when the wheels come off this wagon.

To condense: Forgotten Realms is a “standard, Tolkienesque fantasy world,” where numerous immensely powerful civilizations have fallen into ruin. There’s a full chronology of empires rising and falling throughout the setting’s history. The modern cultures often live directly adjacent to civilizations so advanced that their residual magic defies comprehension. This is the setting of games like Neverwinter NightsBaldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and the MMO Neverwinter, along with, literally, hundreds of novels.

Pillars of Eternity starts from that point, and plants the clock firmly in the 17th century (though the overall technology doesn’t perfectly match any specific point in history.) It then uses the altered setting to talk politics and philosophy. Up front, I’m a fan of this kind of approach to fantasy. Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say, and can do it without getting preachy. Taking your “normal” fantasy prejudices, and then pulling that apart and using it as allegory has a lot of merit. I’m also a big fan of taking a setting (in this case, the “standard fantasy setting”) and pushing the clock forward, asking, “what happens next?” What does colonialism look like in a world where you have dragons and wizards?

On the surface, Dragon Age may look somewhat similar. There’s no colonial themes, firearms, or advanced sailing ships, but it is building off of the same, standard fantasy setting template. Where Pillars looked to real history, Dragon Age went someplace a little different: Warhammer.

I’ve talked about Warhammer Fantasy before. A lot like Pillars it’s adapting the fantasy setting to a specific historical era, in that case it’s target is the late 15th, early 16th century. It’s less interested in saying anything, but it was designed for a tabletop strategy game, where the narrative was, at best, ad hoc. Along the way, it’s embraced the mindset of the era, and pulled a lot of the conflicting tones from that time in history together into a weird amalgam. This is a setting where the church is under siege from literal daemons, instead of the protestant reformation. It’s a setting where new ideas are starting to stream in, and simultaneously are mixed with incredibly dangerous concepts that threaten to, quite literally, rip the universe apart.

I love Warhammer; it is a brilliantly stupid setting, and within that context it has a real identity. I know I said I like settings that have something to say, but you can get by on sheer charm. Warhammer is an incredibly bleak setting that turns the pitch black horizon into comedy.

Warhammer is a postlapsarian world. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is a concept from Christian literature holding that humanity is a fallen race; separated from divinity for our sins. Warhammer pulls this out as part of the philosophies and outlooks that define its era, and runs screaming into the night with it.

Like, Warhammer, Dragon Age is also postlapsarian. The specifics are different, and more solidly tied to human hubris. It’s setting mimics middle ages Catholic church politics, complete with the schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. It skips over the Protestant reformation that dominates Warhammer’s thoughts on the subject, but some of that is a function of time.

The biggest difference is tone, and part of the reason why I’ve spent 700 words leading up to a tear down.

Dragon Age wants to be a serious game, about serious people, doing serious things. If it would make up its mind, or lighten up a bit, it could have been pretty great. (Or, arguably was.) Now, let me explain why I sidetracked into talking about Warhammer up there: Dragon Age is a poorly executed riff on Warhammer, not Forgotten Realms.

In Dragon Age/Warhammer, mages are unstable and risk corruption by demons/daemons from the fade/warp. They’re constantly struggling to keep control over themselves, and the demons/daemons are always nibbling at the edges of their minds. If a mage loses control they can become possessed by a demon/daemon, and become an abomination/a daemon, physically transforming the unfortunate mage in grotesque ways. Because of this, mages are hunted down by Templars/Templars of Sigmar, sometimes/usually called Witchunters, who have enormous authority granted to them by The Chantry/The Church of Sigmar.

Travel through the fade/warp is possible, but extremely dangerous without a trained mage (or a functioning Gellar field in WH40k), this can allow an experienced mage to travel vast distances (Warp travel is technically an FTL system.) The fade/warp is a substructure of reality shaped by the subconscious psychic energy of the universe’s population, and the demons/daemons within are direct manifestations of vices/base emotions.

Civilization is threatened by incursions from the Darkspawn/Chaos, a mix of strange fade tainted/chaos warped creatures, who come from the south/north, but can pop up nearly anywhere.

Now, to be fair, there are differences between the settings, the Dwarves are being pushed to the edge of extinction in a handful of holds, having lost their once grand empire because of prolonged combat with the darkspawn/greenskins (orcs, goblins, and some other critters.) I also, don’t really want to get into a full discussion of the similarities between the Lizardmen and the Qunari, because that quickly gets esoteric. There’s also a lot of armies in Warhammer that simply don’t appear in Dragon Age. Some like the Skaven and Greenskins appear to have been rolled with the Chaos armies, others like the Vampire Counts, Tomb Kings, High Elves, Dark Elves, and Wood Elves are basically absent.

So, where’s the problem? A couple things.

It doesn’t bother me that Dragon Age was heavily inspired by Warhammer. After all, Warcraft also began life as a Warhammer game, and that splintered off into its own identity. Everything we do as writers builds on things we’ve consumed. The material you read will seep into the things you write. That’s fine. That’s the nature of being a creative. Look outside yourself, see things, take a look, and incorporate the parts that make sense.

You’ve heard the old quote, “good writers borrow, great writers steal?” That’s here. You see a neat thing in text, in a game, or on screen, you’ll remember it, you’ll try to snarf it up and consume it. It becomes a part of you, it affects how you look at the world (even in a small way), and will affect your writing. This means that, most of the time, when you see someone saying, “they just ripped off X,” and list one or two things, it’s not.

In taking inspiration, see something you like, take it, digest it. Look at the concept from all sides. Roll it around in your head. Ask yourself what it means when it gets dropped into your work. Don’t just lift entire systems, or characters, and transplant them without considering them. The goal is that, on the other end there’s no way to know, and that the previous paragraphs I wrote where I describe both settings with a simple proper noun replacement scheme can’t happen. (And, I could have gone on for a lot longer. The similarities vastly outnumber the differences.)

If Dragon Age‘s setting is Warhammer, it’s rules are Forgotten Realms. This is something of a problem. You’re presented with one system for how the setting works in text, prose, and fluff, and you’re presented with a completely different setting when you actually engage with the material directly. I wish I could say this is a problem unique to games with narratives, but that’s not entirely true. This can become a problem any time a writer establishes one set of rules for the, “little people,” of their world, and a different set of rules for their protagonists.

Magic in Warhammer is dangerous. A wizard is channeling the power of the warp, and hoping they can keep control over it. In Dragon Age, magic is described as dangerous, and in both cases the characters risk drawing the attention of a demon/daemon. But, in actual game play, the only threat Dragon Age mage faces from casting is running out of mana. Magic can never slip from their control reeking havoc outside of a cutscene. Untold horrors can’t spill forth from a tear in the fabric of reality. They’ll never be possessed against their will (again, outside of a scripted sequence, when the power of plot compels them.) Dragon Age‘s magic is built off of Forgotten Realms (even though it ditches D&D’s Vancian system), because the gameplay was designed without regard for the setting. Or, put another way, the protagonists follow different rules from the rest of their setting.

As a writer, if you look at Dragon Age you need to assess that fundamental cognitive dissonance first.

There is another piece of dissonance between Dragon Age and Pillars, their approach to humanity. (I’m abbreviating here, as both settings have many non-human individuals that fit inside this context of this argument, while still being explicitly something other than human.)

Postlapsarian views humans as fundamentally fallen. Pillars solidly rejects that entire thought process. There’s a full state of nature debate in there, and if you really believe people can’t be trusted to managed their own bowels, you have the option to say so, but the story doesn’t endorse this. Dragon Age enshrines the idea that people broke the world, and all of the horrific monsters wandering the world are their fault. In Dragon Age magic is an emblem of (and conduit to) that original sin. In Pillars magic is another tool for advancing civilization’s understanding of the world (in addition to being a highly destructive weapon that’s significantly affected the setting’s history.) In fact, the metaphysics of Pillars are under the control of characters. This is reminiscent of how D&D’s gods tend to be ascended adventurers, but it creates a setting where the sentient races are in control of their destiny, and aren’t being told they need to atone for anything.

If you want to take two settings and blend them together, the first step is to pull them apart and start sifting through the individual pieces. See how they connect to the rest of the setting/story, and ask yourself what it affects and if it makes sense. Also, remember you’re free to disagree with the authors on their conclusions. Don’t simply take something, make it your own first.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fantasy Weapon Selection

Bit of an unusual question, why are halberds and other pole arms curiously absent from most fantasy?

I’m just going to start out by saying, there’s no single answer to this. When many writers are making similar decisions, you can sometimes track back to a singular source, but when you’re dealing with an entire motif like this, writers (and world builders) are making their decisions independently of one another.

The first possible reason is inspiration. When you’re creating your fantasy setting it’s very likely you’re drawing inspiration from somewhere. Many fantasy authors (intentionally or otherwise) draw inspiration from Lord of the Rings. This is so ubiquitous that you don’t even need to explain concepts like Elves, Orcs, and Dwarves to an uninitiated reader. It’s so ingrained in the cultural lexicon of fantasy that defining these things doesn’t even seem necessary.

Actually, a bit of fun trivia to think about with this: the correct terms in English are “dwarfish” and “dwarfs.” The terms “dwarven” and “dwarves” aren’t completely original to Tolkien, but in modern literature they trace directly back to him.

If we’re going to lay blame at the feet of Tolkien, then it’s worth remembering that his work does include polearms, however, those weren’t the weapons used by the heroes. Tolkien’s heroes were designed to be legendary leaders, and their weapon choices reflected that to an extent.

If you’re creating an adventuring hero who is secretly the lost heir to the throne, you’ll give them a sword as their weapon (unless you’re deliberately being subversive.) There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a legitimate aspect of how western society looks at the sword as weapon, but it is worth remembering.

Now, if you’re drawing inspiration from a story about a character who’s a lost scion, or has a sword as their primary weapon for some reason, then it’s distinctly possible you’ll lift the weapon choice without thinking through why.

I’m less confidant that a similar logic applies with axes. I’m not completely certain what Tolkien was referencing when he picked the axe as the weapon of Dwarven kings, but here we are. If your setting is heavily influenced by cultural elements from Northern Europe, or he could have simply picked the weapon for more novel reasons.

In all of this, the spear, to say nothing of more advanced polearms, gets lost in the shuffle. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t fantasy settings that use polearms, but, like you said, they’re less common. In the long term, this creates a kind of “authorial confirmation bias,” where you’re more likely to be influenced by fantasy settings that eject or discount polearms, than you are to immediately think of these.

Another factor is, very often, a polearm isn’t a good weapon choice for the kind of character you’re writing. This is a little more subjective, because your world building could easily go either way. However, in general, the wandering adventurer is more likely to be in situations where they need a sword, axe, or dagger, far more often than ones where they’d need a spear.

There’s a slightly speculative quality to this logic, which then becomes self-confirming when you combine it with the previous element. If your character is a specific kind of roving adventurer or mercenary, and you expect that kind of a person to carry a sword or axe, then you’re more likely to give them a sword or axe. Again, historically, in Europe (and elsewhere) they’d probably carry a sword or axe as their sidearm, with a spear or other polearm as their primary weapon.

To be fair, there is some basis for this. If you have a character who’s a member of the city guard, or isn’t in active combat, they may not carry their primary weapon around with them everywhere, and might restrict themselves to their sidearm. This is somewhat analogous to a modern era character who carries a handgun, but they’re not going to wander around with a shotgun or assault rifle as part of their day to day gear. It’s likely something they’d have on hand, but wouldn’t carry regularly.

Also worth noting that in early modern Europe, it was fairly common for nobility, and other members of society to carry a sword as a normal accessory. Over time this fell out of fashion, but there is some basis for the idea of a character who carries a blade, instead of a polearm.

Ironically, greatswords and greataxes would fall into a similar situation. Those are primary weapons, not sidearms, but many fantasy settings will gleefully include them while ignoring polearms.

Another factor which may be relevant, though I’m not sure exactly how relevant is swashbuckler films and literature, and the resulting pulp genre. This included scenarios with combatants who would have eschewed polearms for various reasons. For example: Anyone who engaged in ship to ship combat, such as pirates, or naval officers hunting pirates. To be clear, I’m not blaming The Three Musketeers for squelching polearms in fantasy literature, but there is a progression from this material, through early fantasy pulps like Robert E. Howard’s Conan or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser into modern fantasy.

Modern fantasy takes, pretty much, equal measure from the early sword and sorcery pulps, and blends that with Tolkein’s intricate worldbuilding. The result is, slightly idiosyncratic, but it does start to explain why a lot of authors might eschew spears or halbards when they can just give their characters a huge axe. It’s also part of where fantasy settings become anachronistic.

If you’ve never read it, Conan is deliberately anachronistic. Robert E. Howard loved history, and gleefully grabbed the bits that appealed to him, mashing them together with reckless abandon. The result is fantastic writing, but there is no way to reconcile the Hyborian Age with real world history. The names are the familiar, but everything else went into a blender.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is a similar situation, though the names are alien in ways that should be immediately familiar to anyone who has read modern fantasy. In some ways, it’s even more significant, because the fictional city of Lankhmar was designed to be a fantasy allegory for 1930s New York, with completely inconsistent technological advancement scattered across its setting.

To be fair, I may be overthinking this. As I mentioned earlier, authors read one setting, it becomes a part of their understanding of the genre, or at least a familiar touchstone. When they go to create their own works, the things they’ve read (or viewed, played, consumed in whatever form) influence their work. So, while the specific examples I’m giving influenced a lot of writers, it’s not like those are the only possible paths. It’s also worth remembering that many authors will get their point of contact further down the line. So, they’re picking up on the influences of someone else’s influences.

This may sound like a nonsequitur, however, no one’s work is ever, truly, original in some cosmic sense. You’re influenced by everything you’ve read, watched, played, or otherwise engaged with. It becomes a part of you, and a part of how you look at the world. When the time comes to write, those influences will affect what you create. Being aware of this means you can step back and have the self awareness to start to deliberately change things.

If you want to see fantasy that uses polearms more heavily than what you see now, you’re certainly welcome to. There are plenty of reasons for your characters to use them. Especially in character archetypes that normally eschew polearms in conventional roles. For example, spears have been used in hunting for thousands of years, so it would make perfect sense for your ranger or druid to carry one as their primary weapon. Of course, most polearms saw use on the battlefield, and that’s certainly one use. You may have characters who are members of the city watch, or a similar group, who break out the polearms when things get dicey. This is before you consider the idea of arming characters like your clergy or mages with weapons you usually don’t associate with them. Again, there could be any number of reasons, you’re only limited by your creativity, and the ideas you found abandoned along the way.

-Starke

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Q&A: Guns and Magic

In the story I’m writing, the overall feel of the setting is mid/early 1800s, technology-wise. There’s magic, and given the time period I’m having trouble justifying there not being guns, but I’m not sure how to have them present in the story without ‘just shoot the wizard’ killing the tension. My initial thought was to make them less advanced than guns were at the time, and expensive enough that they would be less common, but I’m not sure how believable that would be. Do you have any advice?

Well, one problem with simply shooting the wizard is being able to actually put a bullet where you want it. The 19th century covered a lot of technological development. When the century began, smooth-bore single shot, firearms were still the norm (though rifles did exist). While firearms did get steadily more accurate over time, flintlock muskets are not an example of that. Additionally, any missed shot means your character will be facing a long reload before they can fire again.

There’s also a lot of considerations with magic that can make firearms as much of a detriment as an advantage. First, gunpowder is exceptionally flammable. If your characters are using firearms, they’re carrying around a supply of improvised explosives, that a pyromancer could use to kill them on the spot.

If you have mages that can manipulate metals, then that’s a pretty serious threat for anyone trying to use a gun. (Or metal weapons and armor, for that matter.)

If your magic interacts with the physical world (which, honestly, magic in most settings does), guns are going to be physical objects, subject to magic in one form or another. You don’t need to fully remove them from the setting, but simply understanding this can give you options which can make firearms another tool, and challenge, for your characters to work around.

A lot of the fantasy genre today draws heavily from Tolkien’s work. He defined the genre, and his setting has become the base most writers work from. To the point that the phrase, “standard fantasy setting,” has inherent meaning. Modifying off of that template offers you opportunities to discuss things, or evaluate concepts, that you simply can’t otherwise use.

Modifying a fantasy setting with a specific technological threshold opens up a lot of technology you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you want a standard fantasy setting in the 1890s, you’re opening the door to things like revolvers, steam engines, trains, telegrams, photographs, electricity, and “all the wonders of the modern world.” That’s kind of the point.

Once you’ve done that, the best route is to ask yourself, “what would magic do to this technology?” For example: “how would magic have affected the creation of the telegram?” If your setting is one where magic allows for instant telepathic communication, then the telegraph is redundant. You could already go to a mage, and pay them to relay your message. But, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It could be open to manipulation, or surveillance. Business interests who operate networks of telepath mages may work to discredit, or undermine the development of telegraphs as a viable technology, even if their own service is inferior.

On the other end of this is the basic firearms question. Would magic allow for more advanced firearms? It’s certainly possible. Mages may be able to concoct alchemical propellants that are more efficient, and cleaner than real world firearms, allowing for more mechanically complex weapons than the real world supports. It’s also possible that magic would allow for additional defenses against firearms. A spell that was originally designed to protect against incoming projectiles may be equally effective at stopping a bullet. These potentials may even interact with one another, where conventional bullets will stop, but (exorbitantly expensive) alchemical rounds will blow through the shield, hitting the mage.

Another possibility is that, where you have mages, you also have magical abominations, wandering the wilds. When dealing with things like that, it’s entirely possible that conventional firearms are ineffective, requiring something special to deal with the creatures.

If your fantasy setting has a legitimate reason to include firearms, my recommendation is to look at those as a challenge. The danger that someone could gun down one of your characters if they do something stupid, or don’t think through their actions is a fantastic motivator, and something that’s worth keeping around as a credible threat.

If your fantasy setting looks like it should include firearms, then, probably should. This is a technology that reshaped the world, and having to account for it challenging your setting’s history and traditions is entirely reasonable, and something you probably want to play into, rather than avoid.

-Starke

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hey i’m creating a race of fairies and since they generally have small builds and metal such as iron cold steel are deadly to them what are some good materials to use for the fairies to craft their weapons, i considered gems but doing some research i realized substance like diamonds and crystal are utterly impractical even for the fairies.

Well, fairies are magic. If a fairy wanted to wield a diamond sword, they could and no audience would question it. Magic is the solution to a lot of problems. The weakness of a weapon forged with magic is, of course, a steel blade but that only matters if they’re encountering humans wielding steel on the regular. Fairies can do whatever they want and dance merrily on the graves of scientists the world over, so don’t let that stop you.

Blades of pure light.

Blades of diamond.

Blades from plants.

Fairies wielding magma blades or swords forged from stardust.

A sword of glass containing the beating heart and heat of the sun.

Futuristic fairies who behave like aliens in Iron Man style power armor formed from plastics/polymers wielding lightsabers and firing bolts of plasma.

They’re fairies. Sky’s the limit here. Except, it’s not because then we catapult ourselves out into space. Go however far your imagination takes you.

Look to myth for your solutions, especially the Celtic Sidhe. Unless you’re dealing with a modern setting (and even if you are) mythology has already developed solutions. It’s a great place to start your search.

However, here are some things I’ll point out:

Cold Iron/Cold Steel are a reference to a specific forging technique rather than a type of metal, though in folklore it can just mean steel swords. Still, this will open up your options some.

Cold Iron for fairies dates back to when iron forging was still mostly new, or less common. There’s certainly lore out there with mythological fairies fighting warriors wielding iron blades, but were unbeatable until new forging techniques were developed.

Ask yourself: is it the forging technique which makes these swords dangerous to your fairies or is it the metal itself? In which case, then you can cut out “cold” as it’s just steel.

Here’s the Wikipedia article about iron in folklore. It may help you some in your search.

If you want to write Urban Fantasy with fairies then I’d go with the forging process rather steel itself. The reason is that they couldn’t go anywhere. At least, not places like the US or Europe or anywhere there’s a high steel content in the buildings, cars, and sewer systems. Even with a shift to polymers too much of the major metropolitan centers in the developed world are built on steel bones. Science fiction fairies re-emerging in the future where all metals are polymers has more potential.

Honestly, any army from a period using steel or iron weapons could curb stomp fairies if they’re allergic to the metal. Using the forging process moves all to some and then down to almost none, making way for the future fairyocalypse of 2018.

-Michi

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Q&A: D&D Raksasha

Would having backwards hands (Like a Raksasha from D&D) provide any kind of tangible combat benefit.

I kinda doubt it. Both my editions of the Monster Manual insist that it doesn’t affect their manual dexterity, which, I’m not so sure about that. They suggest that all it does is make the Raksasha look more disturbing.

I mean, if you spend enough time, you may be able to come up with some extremely situational examples, where their reversed hands would be an advantage. For example: They can claw you on a backhand, instead of a normal rake. Though, the value of that is kinda dubious. Mostly this detail is just to make the Raksasha more memorable and feel more unique. I mean, the 3.5e MM runs to over 300 pages, the Raksasha needs something to stand apart from the crowd.

Details like this can help to sell a fantasy creature you’ve created. Weird little anomalies you can use to make your world feel less generic. At the same time, these don’t need to be immediate, concrete, beneficial powers. Things like the Rakshasa’s reversed hands can just be there to sell your setting.

-Starke

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Q&A: Tanking

Hi there, I was wondering; in a fantasy setting, should “ranged fighters,” AKA archers or mages (especially mages), wear any kind of armor? One of my friends (who is a little too glued to the idea of using gaming terms for his fight scenes) doesn’t give his ranged fighters much protection because “they have tank who will aggro,” despite me telling him that in IRL situations enemies won’t always work like that, and ranged fighters are deadly and would easily become top priority during battle.

Which works right until the tank can’t maintain aggro, then the DPS scatter, because of course they do, and everyone wipes because, turns out, it’s nearly impossible to hit two idiots on opposite sides of the arena at the same time with the same AoE.

…or the tank never slotted a taunt, and the healer ends up running from and DPSing Bloodspawn, while the DPS stand in stupid trying to revive each other. No, I’m not thinking of a specific event, why do you ask?

Games are, by nature, an incredibly abstract approach to combat. Even inside of an MMO, the sharp difference between how PvE and PvP plays out should be a pretty solid indicator of how fragile the entire concept of aggro is.

An AI driven NPC needs to know who to attack. In most cases they’ll prioritize incoming damage, and target whatever’s dealing the most. The entire idea of a tank is to fake out that number, boost it further, or in some cases, completely override aggro generation, and take the brunt of the enemy’s attacks. Which is downright hilarious, when you step back and think about it. You’re talking about sending a party of adventurers up against an ancient demon who’s been sealed outside of the universe for millennia, but he will ignore the people actively trying to kill him, because that idiot who’s doing almost nothing to him said some mean things about his mother.

As I understand it, and I could be wrong here, Tanking is something that has come, almost exclusively, from metagaming. The idea that, “well, players are going to take damage, so let’s concentrate it on a single player to make the healer’s job easier,” doesn’t have a place in the real world. I’m not sure if the strategy dates back to tabletop, or came from the early MMOs like Ultima Online or Everquest. As I said, it doesn’t have any basis in reality.

The closest you can get is the role of infantry and skirmishers in mass combat. But, at that point, sticking infantry between your enemy and your archers wasn’t about protecting the archers, so much as, that the infantry were your primary combat force.

Step into PvP, and the value of a tank diminishes sharply. Most human players understand that, so long as the healer is up, nobody’s going anywhere, so they become public enemy number one.  Hell, most of the times, when you give players an AI controlled encounter with a healer, your priority is clear. No, it’s not the big tanky guy/girl/sentient iguana with death rays mounted on its armor.

That said, I’ve seen a lot of games try to make the tank more valuable in PvP. Reducing enemy mobility, debuffing them, applying selective buff manipulation that makes a taunted target deal far less damage to other targets. All of it is a band aid on a system, trying to make the role function in an environment where the tank’s foes are smart enough to say, “nah, he’s not a problem, I’m going to wax the healer first.” Though, bonus points awarded to the games that just go, “screw it, the tank is the healer.”

Mages wearing robes is a setting or character decision. If armor somehow impairs a mage’s ability to cast magic, then that’s something they’ll want to avoid. If a mage isn’t, primarily, a combatant, and dislikes, or can’t afford, armor, they may avoid it for those reasons. That said, if armor doesn’t interfere with your mage’s ability to cast magic, they understand how to use it, and can afford it, not wearing armor is just being stupid (even if it is that character’s preference).

The whole concept of tiering armor based on the combat role is another gameplay abstraction, without a lot of basis in history. Armor was expensive. To the point that most rulers couldn’t afford to outfit large standing forces in heavy armor.  You got the best armor you could afford. If you were supplied out of an armory, you wore what you were handed, which might just be a padded gambeson.

Thing is, I rather like armor tiering. At least from a gameplay perspective. It informs the player what the armor they’ve found is useful for, and is very useful for deciding if the gear you just found is going to be helpful for your playstyle. In MMOs it can help break up players, so that you have an easier time identifying their roles. But, it is an abstract, game system, with no relation to reality. Trying to take these things out, and evaluate them outside of their native environment can be tricky. This is how you end up with characters who can instantly cram three hundred cheese wedges down their gullet to fully recover from being set on fire and flung off a cliff into the sea, hundreds of feet below.

-Starke

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