Tag Archives: world building

Q&A: Build a Monster: Creating new Monsters for Your Fiction

I want to write a story about fantasy monsters but I’m finding it hard to make it recognizable with all the rules and such while making it original. Do you think this is possible?

I think it’s absolutely possible. You need to decide if you’re working with something, “real,” or if you’re inventing your creatures wholesale. Once you’ve made that decision, you’ll have a better path towards shaping your creatures.

If your monster is coming from some real world inspiration, you’ll have a wealth of literature to dig through. Pick any mythical creature, and you can read up on them.

There are two major warnings here:

First: Some creatures cross multiple cultures, and there are significant discrepancies between how they function between them. The excellent examples are vampires and dragons, which have many real world myths, and those myths are often contradictory.

Second: Some creatures have very specific cultural contexts which you probably want to have a concrete grasp of before you start playing around with them. The two examples that come to mind immediately are Skinwalkers and Wendigo (from First Nations myths.) These are not analogous to European Werewolves (and not analogous to one another.) So, if you’re looking for a creature, absolutely do you reading, but if you don’t understand how this creature fit into that culture, you might want to keep looking.

If you’re wanting to make your own creature, that’s where things get interesting. More than that, if you did the research suggested above, you have a head start here.

Nothing says the monsters in your world need to conform to the conventional creature lists. They don’t need to be recognizable, compared to someone else’s fiction. You do have the freedom to make your own monsters.

When you’re writing a monster, you’ll want to have an idea what kind of rules you’re working under. While you don’t need to explain these to your audience (and may not want to), you will need this for personal use.

You can break fictional monsters into roughly three categories: Mundane, Supernatural, and Mythological (or Folklore.)

Mundane creatures are simply animals (potentially very intelligent ones) that inhabit your world.

If your dragons are just massive lizards, with no magical powers, they would be mundane. If your werewolves are just normal humans who have been mutated by a virus, and can’t transform, that would be mundane.

Mundane doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting. It simply means that there’s a non-supernatural explanation for the creatures that inhabit your world.

Mundane fantasy can be interesting. There’s no mystical explanation for the elves and minotaurs inhabiting your world, they’re simply there.

When you’re looking at mundane monsters, you need to consider them as part of the local ecology. Yes, a race of massive, carnivorous lizards would be monstrous, they’d be a danger, but one that a sufficiently advanced civilization could plan around.

Limitations and weaknesses for mundane creatures should fit their status as living animals. You might see a nocturnal creature that has excellent night vision, but poor diurnal vision.

Mundane monsters are the cryptids of your world. They’re elusive, hard to find, and if you do finally identify it, it’s probably a crocodile, because those little bastards like to teleport.

Supernatural monsters break rules for conventional reality. Your werewolves aren’t mutated by a virus, they really are mystical shapeshifters. Your elves aren’t just another humanoid native to the world, they really are magical beings. Your minotaurs might be the result of a wizard’s human-hybrid research program centuries ago.

Where mundane creatures are limited by conventional reality, supernatural ones might exhibit behaviors, or powers, that are impossible to rationalize.

The rules for these creatures are open to the author to create. Now, obviously, if you’re starting with a conventional fantasy creature, some of this may already be completed for you.

Creatures that can go invisible, levitate, psychically manipulate their victims, shapeshift, conjure and control elements, and many other potential powers would be supernatural in nature.

Limitations for supernatural creatures are likely to be a function of the kinds of powers they wield. I realize that might sound obvious, but it’s worth remembering the limits of magic in your setting, and then tying similar limits into your supernatural creatures.

It’s also possible that supernatural monsters might specifically bypass certain limits which affect your world’s characters. For example, if it’s impossible for magic to heal wounds in your world, you might still see a monster with the ability to heal itself or others. Obviously, in setting, that’s a very big deal, and probably something that mages and academics would want to study.

Incidentally, if we’re talking about aliens, they’d end up on the mundane end of the spectrum. Even if they have technology that’s difficult (or impossible) to understand, they’re still a function of the universe, and not a whim of magic. (Though, if your aliens are space wizards, then everything gets a little strange.)

The last variety are mythological or folklore. I probably shouldn’t bundle these into a single header, because they do behave in slightly different ways. The important thing about a mythological monster is that’s it’s not just, “a monster.” It’s a character in the myths it comes from. It’s powers and limitations are a reflection of who it was in those myths. More than that, it has a role in the belief system that created it.

For example: when you’re talking about Jormungandr, that’s not just, “a dragon.” It’s a harbinger of the end times. More than that, it’s a harbinger of an apocalypse that already happened. This isn’t “a monster,” it’s “a monstrous character.” If your minotaur is “The Minotaur,” condemned to the Labyrinth of Crete, that’s a character with their own history and eventual fate at Theseus’s hands.

There’s a lot of room to play with mythological figures, but you’ll really want to read up on those myths, and the culture that created them.

If you want to create your own mythic background for your world, you’ll want to start by reading up on actual myths. Every major civilization has created their own myths (to one extent or another), and digging into this stuff can be very instructive for how those cultures viewed their world. Pay special attention to just how off-the-walls-bonkers everything becomes.

Folklore is similar to myth. In some cases, folklore overlaps with myth. The distinction (I’m choosing to make) is that monsters in folklore are more about enforcing cultural norms and discourages taboos.

One, classic, example of monster in folklore is the vampire. Now, I’m going to be a little reductive here because nearly every form of vampire can be boiled down to, “corpses are weird.” With that said, a lot of vampire folklore is about the proper handling and disposal of corpses, specifically with things going wrong if a corpse is mishandled.

Usually, if your monster has very explicit rules, they’re a folklore creature. If they can’t cross running water, or enter an abode uninvited, that’s folklore.

As with myth, folklore gets really wild, and so you can end up with really elaborate rules, where a creature needs to be in a certain state at a certain time of day, or something goes very wrong for them. Vampires are one of the most common folklore monsters in popular culture, that’s fully separated from myth, which is why I used them as an example above.

Slightly more problematic, but certainly a, “creature,” of folklore, are witches and hags. These are an excellent illustration of how you can blend across multiple genres with your story.

A witch could be a simple alchemist. In this case, I don’t even mean, “alchemy,” as a magical discipline, I simply mean, “alchemy,” as a precursor to chemistry. You have a character who is entirely mundane, but spends their time picking medicinal herbs, which the general population doesn’t understand.

A witch could be a magical practitioner, potentially even an inhuman one. This links into the suggestion above where magic doesn’t heal wounds, but a witch might be able to achieve that feat.

A witch could be a mythical figure. Russia’s Baba Yaga comes to mind as an example, though there are many more examples all over the world. Again, these are specific characters, so if your writing a character interacting with Hecate, you might want to read up on your Greek myths.

In myth and folklore, witches become a very complicated subject, because you’re looking at creatures (or powerful beings), which need to be treated carefully. They can offer powerful boons, but also are incredibly dangerous.

Related to myth and folklore are the concepts of geasa and curses. This is one of the reasons you want to be careful with these kinds of creatures. They may have the ability to apply either one to your characters.

Geasa (singular: gaes), are restrictions applied to someone. They may be required to perform some action, or prohibited from violating some taboo. Failure to do so could have dire consequences. Usually, the geas also comes with a boon of some sort, and violating the terms will break the spell.

A classic example of a Gaes is Cu Chulainn (from Irish myth), who had (at least) two. First he was prohibited from eating dog, and second he was obligated to accept food served to him by a woman. A crone (The Morrigan) intentionally served him dog meat, breaking his powers, and leaving him vulnerable ahead of a battle.

Curses are a little easier to keep track of. Something bad happens to the recipient. There may be a built in way to break the curse, requiring some specific feat. In many cases, those feats are designed to appear impossible.

The consequences of a curse could easily lead to supernatural monsters, separated from their mythic origins. For a pop culture example, Vampires in Vampire: The Masquerade are descended from (the Biblical) Cain. Cain is the first vampire, and a mythical figure. The vampires wandering around the 21st century are merely supernatural creatures.

Once you have an idea of the kind of creature you want, get out a notepad, and sketch out the power and rules you want to work with. For mundane creatures, it should look more like a zoological writeup.

Example: “The common minotaur lives in the lowlands, foraging for food in small tribes.”

For supernatural creatures, you’ll probably want to look at a short list of powers. Try to balance these powers against what you want from them in the context of your setting.

Example: “The Moorian Newt: amphibious, limited mind control. The newt frequently preys upon travelers who wander into the moors at night, using it’s ability to draw them into deeper waters, where it quickly drowns and consumes them.”

When you’re writing a mythic figure, that’s going to be more of a character biography. Possibly with some powers added in to keep things coherent.

With folklore, you’re looking at a writeup that will probably get a little out of hand. These can be fairly straightforward, but you can also engage in some pretty intricate whimsy.

Again, if you’ve never spent much time looking at myth and folklore, I strongly recommend you do some reading on the subject. The pure level of, “weird,” is hard to articulate.

Once you’ve written out some rules, and fleshed out your monsters, you’ve got a very important decision to make, how much do you share with the audience?

If your character is dealing with a common creature, one well understood and studied in the setting, then your character should have easy access to that information. Even if a creature is uncommon or rare, if it’s a normal part of the world, it’s probably been studied, and that information may be out there.

An excellent example of this behavior is The Witcher, where there’s in-setting scholarly research on the post-conjunction creatures wandering The Continent. The Witchers study that research, and supplement it with their own experiences. It is an excellent template for how you can handle a universe where monsters (including ones with complicated rules and behaviors) are a natural part of the setting. (Even if they are supernatural in nature.)

Except: Back near the beginning, I said you might not want to explain the rules to the audience. It’s an important choice to the kind of story you’re writing. Is this fantasy, or is it horror?

If your character is an expert in monsters, they might be able to identify the creature they’re dealing with and articulate the rules. However, if they’re not an expert, they might have no idea what the creature can do. Similarly, even if they are are a professional, they may still need to determine exactly what they’re dealing with (again, The Witcher is an excellent reference back to this point.)

In horror, there’s a real incentive to keep the full capabilities of your monster unknown. This can be through mistaking one creature for another, or mistaking a mythical creature for its supernatural counterpart (if the supernatural version is known to exist.) In the end, you’ll probably want your audience to have a grasp of the creature’s limitations, but you might never clue them in.

It’s important to have access to the rules for your own use. It is far less important that your characters (and by extension, the audience) has that information.

One final thing you may want to consider, if you’re creating a monster and it’s unrecognizable from the inspiration you started with, that’s not a problem. You’ve created a new monster. You can still use the old name (if you want), or you can call it something new.

I’ve said it before, my favorite, “vampire,” movie is Ravenous (1999). If you’ve watched it, right now you’re probably thinking, “there’s no vampires in that.” And, you would be correct; it’s about cannibals empowered by evil spirits. Except, structurally, it’s a vampire movie. The part where the monsters are distinct enough from vampires is a benefit, not a flaw. It helps keep the audience off-balance, it helps create an unfamiliar tone. It’s a fantastic film, and part of what elevates it is its willingness to eject vampirism when it doesn’t benefit the film’s themes.

So, yes, I believe it can be done. You can populate your worlds with new monsters of your own design. You can also sample myths and folklore for inspiration. You can invent your own creatures. The only secret is, “write it down,” which you should be doing anyway. Not everything you write will end up in your audience’s hands, so having a reference guide for yourself can be incredibly useful.

-Starke

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Q&A: Modern Pirates

I have a modern fantasy pirate setting. Would modern spearguns be good weapons to use?

No.

So, spear guns are a hunting tool. They have to be reloaded after each shot, and (depending on the spear gun) that can be an involved processes.

Spear guns are not designed for use out of water. Some cannot fire at all, and others will not react well. With band driven spear guns, the lack of water can cause the mechanism to fail, throwing the band back in the user’s face.

I don’t know what your max range above water would look like, but underwater, long range spear guns have max ranges somewhere under 10m. That might sound reasonable, but remember that most (decent quality) handguns and shotguns can reliably put someone down at 50m.

If the spear connects, that can kill someone, however that requires hitting them. If you’re underwater, the spear gun becomes a potential stealth weapon. If you’re above water, it’s not an option.

If you’re patterning off the modern world, you might want to look at what real world pirates use today. I don’t simply mean, “AK pattern rifles, and other ex-Soviet hardware that’s floating around.”

The Cold War, and the resulting proxy wars meant there was a lot of very durable military hardware circulating in countries that saw conflict. In the real world this is a very eclectic mix. As assault and battle rifles were the primary infantry weapons, these are the most prevalent. A pirate today could be using a rifle that was originally manufactured over half a century ago.

I’m not sure that an international bipolar structure is necessarily inevitable. We’re certainly moving beyond that into a multi-polar system now, and even during the height of The Cold War there were a lot of distinct international players, even if Soviet and NATO leaders wanted to view the world in a harsh black and white.

With that said, warfare is inevitable. The single factor that, most heavily, averts warfare is trade. When your economy is partially dependent on the actions of another nation, the last thing you want to do is pick a fight. (I’m oversimplifying slightly here.)

Even in the event that you have an (otherwise) peaceful world, you’ll still see a need for militaries, to deal with the disaffected. These are forces which are too well equipped and hostile for normal law enforcement responses. The cliché answer here are terrorists, but pirates are another case, one we don’t often think about.

A decade ago, the modern pirate was viewed as Somali by default. Somalia’s government had complete collapsed by the early 90s, leaving Mogadishu as one of the only real examples of a feral city.

Alone, a failed state wouldn’t have lead to pirates, but off the north coast of Somalia is The Gulf of Aden. Any shipping moving from the Atlantic or Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean must either pass through the Gulf of Aden, or around South Africa. (3,750 miles away.) Roughly 12% of all seagoing shipping passes through The Gulf of Aden.

The lack of a functioning government in Somalia, combined with rich shipping just off the coast, was a perfect recipe for piracy. And it’s happened more than once. In the second century CE, the Roman Empire deployed a permanent naval garrison to the Gulf of Aden to deal with pirates. This isn’t critique of the people, simply a consequence of the geography creating a natural choke point.

It’s worth noting, before we move on, that the Somali pirate is already (mostly) history. A coalition government was formed in 2008, and it’s been slowly rebuilding the country. Additionally, the entire region has seen a dramatic increase in naval patrols (from a number of countries.) Combined, it’s dramatically reduced regional piracy.

Now, let’s take that model for a second and apply it to the golden age of piracy. Economic exploitation of The New World was driven by European empires. The European powers were warring with each other, meaning the bulk of their navies were needed at home. (Both as defense and deterrence.) Shipping from South and Central America needed to pass through the Caribbean (the entire point was to move foreign goods to consumers in Europe), and military protection was limited. The result was nearly a century of piracy.

A weird quirk of the mercantilist economics practiced in Europe at the time contrasts hard with modern globalization. The European empires were trying to set up entire, self-sufficient, economies in parallel to one another, selling the final product to whomever would pay. This put them in conflict. In contrast, modern economics tend to run supply chains across national boundaries. (The is where the economic interdependence reducing wars comes into play, not simply, “we trade with them so we don’t want to go to war.”)

So, what do you need for a pirate infestation?

Having an area that is difficult to patrol, is a must. Failed states (and feral cities) are almost a necessity today (because civilization of one form or another basically blankets the planet, especially anywhere we take trade goods.) The Caribbean is far less attractive to piracy because of its proximity to a major naval power (something that was not true during The Golden Age of Piracy.)

A background war that ties up the major navies would be advantageous, but not necessary. (Though I doubt the average pirate would have the background in international politics to understand this point, and actively foment the war.)

Also relevant to the Golden Age of Piracy, and less so to modern Somalia, having wars going on in the background will result in experienced sailors who no longer have a job when hostilities cease. At that point, piracy (or privateering, (if letters of marque are being handed out) will be one of the few ways they continue to earn a living, while still using their skill set.

Depending on how different your modern fantasy world is from the real modern world, you could expect to see a lot of infantry hardware, and possibly even decommissioned military ships converted into pirate service.

The end result is, no, your modern fantasy pirates probably wouldn’t want to use spear guns. They’d probably be using normal guns. Rifles and shotguns, with the occasional handgun.

-Starke

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Q&A: Magical World Building and Arcane Spell Failure

Is there any “realistic” reason why a mage couldn’t wear simple armor? Is armor really that heavy? Or is just some stuff leftover from DnD

This isn’t even a thing in D&D anymore, so let’s talk about where this is coming from and why it really doesn’t matter, unless you want it to.

It’s important to understand that the magic in the worlds you create isn’t real. You can base your magical theories off of real world mysticism if you want, but that will lead you more into a discussion in metaphysics, rather than, “can I cast spells while using a tower shield?”

D&D’s had a long history, and when it comes to Wizards (and Sorcerers) a lot of it trends back to one fictional character: Gandalf. Gandalf wandered around in robes, with a walking stick, so Wizards got the ability to wield a staff and couldn’t wear armor. The big floppy hat was optional, but encouraged. (There is a lot more to unpack with Gandalf, but this is, almost certainly, where D&D was drawing inspiration from.)

With the caveat that I never played AD&D in tabletop, my understanding with that edition was that Wizards were flat out blocked from casting spells while wearing armor.

My introduction was in 3rd Edition. This edition had a few major changes, including the ability to take armor proficiency, “out of class.” This meant it was suddenly feasible for players to roll up a human Wizard and immediately give them proficiency with light armor. The result was a rule called, “arcane spell failure.”

In D&D, spell casting has five distinct components: verbal, somatic, material, focus, or divine focus. Most spells only have a couple, and (as far as I know, none have both focus versions.)

Verbal components require the spell caster speak as part of the spell. Material components are consumed in the casting (there’s also a version that consumes XP off the character), Focus components are items which are needed for the spell but not consumed. Divine Focus components are the easier to grasp example here, because they’re usually holy symbols needed to cast the spell. Non-divine Focus items work the same way, just they’re not a holy symbol.

Somatic components are how the designers justified, “arcane spell failure.” The term “somatic” just means, “of the body.” In D&D terms it refers to very fine hand movements necessary for spellcasting. If a wizard wants to cast a spell with a somatic component, there’s a specific hand gesture associated with it, and they must replicate it perfectly. This is sensitive enough that wearing any armor could slightly “throw off,” the Wizard and cause the spell to fizzle. (The chance for this to happen increases based on the armor worn.)

So, this is where D&D is very D&D. Arcane spell failure applies only to “arcane” spells, and doesn’t affect divine spells at all. On the surface this sounds fine. Except, some spells appear on both Arcane and Divine spell lists. There’s no explanation why a Wizard needs to be much more precise when casting Bear’s Endurance, while a Cleric can cast it in heavy armor.

Starting with 4E, arcane spell failure has been mostly scrubbed from the game. From what I remember, 4E doesn’t even address Arcane Spell Failure at all, and I’m actually struggling to remember what armor proficiency even does in that edition.

From what I know, in 5e, proficiencies allows you to spell cast in that armor weight. (Though, I’ll admit, I haven’t read any of the 5e core books.)

So, that’s D&D. Other fantasy settings have their own rules, and they run the gamut. So, why did D&D go the route it did?

Probably balance. Originally the idea was that armor would make you considerably harder to hit in combat (conceptualization for how D&D’s armor system works is a discussion on its own), so, because spell casters would become godlike beings, it made sense that you’d want to keep them from also being effective melee fighters. Combined with there being some particularly nasty melee based spells in D&D which are (or were) high risk/high reward decisions.

Over time, D&D’s defense options homogenized considerably, and by late 3.5, (and also in Pathfinder) you could get a pretty respectable Armor Class on your starting character regardless of class. A Fighter or Cleric would be getting it from their armor, a Rogue would be getting it Dex bonus and their (lighter) armor, and a Wizard (or Sorcerer) would be getting it from their spells.

Modern D&D’s approach is actually pretty reasonable, it’s not that mages can’t cast while wearing armor, it’s simply that they spent their time learning their spells, and not martial combat. As a result, they never learned to fight in armor, and simply don’t know how.

This might sound a little ridiculous when you’re talking about leather armor, but it actually makes some sense for chain or plate combat, as both require training and conditioning, which an academic would (likely) lack.

Beyond that, in game systems, you usually see four approaches to mages in armor: Complete prohibition, negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, and agnostic systems.

Complete prohibition is where the mage simply can’t use armor (or can’t cast while wearing it.) This usually isn’t a result of the armor’s weight, but may be other factors, such as the armor (somehow) cutting the wearer off from “the flow of magic,” or creating some kind of magical interference.

Negative reinforcement is where the mage is penalized for wearing armor, but can still use it if they’re willing to make that sacrifice. Technically, 3e D&D was an example of this, because the Wizard would need to take armor proficiency feats, and then still risk losing any spell they cast, though it was technically possible.

Positive reinforcement is where the mage gains benefits from going unarmored. From a world building perspective, this can be very similar to the previous group, however if your mages have specialized garb that enhances their magical powers, that would be an example of this. If said garb can also appear as armor, then we have the next example.

Agnostic systems are where the game (or setting) doesn’t care what the mage is wearing. They can wear any armor they like without affecting their ability to use magic (though they still may need training to use the armor effectively, and as a result may abstain from armor.) As mentioned in the last paragraph, if you have specialized magic enhancing garb which also appears in armored variants (and that’s the only difference) then you’re probably looking at this. D&D’s Clerics are (ironically) an example of this.

So, you may have noticed I dropped D&D into two different categories here, and that is something to keep in mind for a sufficiently diverse world: Not every magic user is going to be following the same rules.

D&D’s Clerics have no restriction when casting in armor, their Wizards have to be very careful about armor because it impedes their hand gestures, and Druids have sworn oaths against wearing metal armor (if broken, these oaths suppress their their spellcasting.)

The structure of D&D encourages creating characters within limitations. This can be a very good thing from a character building (and world building) perspective. When any character can do whatever they want, they will tend to blend together. If your mage doesn’t wear armor because they’ve never trained to use it, and they can use their magical prowess to defend against attacks, that will give them a very different identity from a walking slab of meat wrapped in steel.

Further, when characters are limited by what they haven’t learned (or cannot do) because of their background, that will encourage a more diverse world, with a larger number of distinct groups and factions.

There’s also a potential for very direct explanations, like saying that a mage in your world shouldn’t cast electrical spells while wearing steel, because it will arc back onto them… but lightning’s fine, because that’s a bolt of plasma.

Similarly, geas are another potential restriction. Your character has magic, but it’s restricted by specific taboos. D&D has a bunch of these including the Druids (mentioned above), Clerics, and Paladins. If your setting has nature mages who lose their abilities if they, “use the artifice of civilization,” that could be a very chunky (or even debilitating) restriction.

Because you’re creating your world, you have a lot of freedom to say why magic does, or does not, play well with armor. D&D used it as a balancing mechanic, but turned it into a world building element until later abandoning it. While I’d strongly recommend staying consistent (you’re not cranking out multiple editions of a 45 year old RPG, and adjusting it to keep it fresh, and balanced-ish), it is a decent reference point for considering options in building your own fantasy setting, just don’t be afraid to step well away from it if you’d prefer to do something else.

-Starke

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Q&A: Sci-Fi Arsonal

Any tips on creating sci fi weapons? I want a whole range of them, rifles, guns, swords, knives, bow&arrow, cannons, missiles, bombs, etc.. Using being made with up sci fi materials down to the projectiles, computer controlled, mind controlled etc?

If you’re having a hard time coming up with weapons for your sci-fi setting, my thought would be looking at equipment sourcebooks for RPGs. This will also help you pick the gear that best fits your setting. Core books can also be useful, as most RPGs will include some sample weapons and armor as part of the main rules.

As a sort of obvious example, if you’re writing a cyberpunk dystopia, a bunch of beam weapons wouldn’t make much sense. At the same time, a distant future setting wouldn’t be restricted to kinetic firearms, unless you wanted that.

So, with that in mind, a few things come to mind. You’re not likely to see swords in a science fiction setting, unless they serve some cultural role, if you’re dealing with things that can shrug off ranged attacks, or if you’re looking at fights in very tight spaces. (For example: You might see these in boarding actions on starships, especially if your ranged weapons would puncture the hull.)

The bow is a similar situation. You’re not likely to see it outside of very niche circumstances, or if there are cultural reasons. The weapon is very unwieldy, so even if you need to deliver a large payload, there’s more efficient ways to do that.

None of that means you can’t do these things. There’s a lot of sci-fi settings that incorporate various melee and bow weapons for any number of reasons. If you need a ranged weapon that is absolutely silent and has no energy signature, a bow or crossbow may be the most efficient way to achieve that. It’s also entirely possible you have energy bows of some kind that simply deliver far more killing power than the “conventional,” weapons in your world.

Moving beyond that, there’s an awkward truth to a lot of energy weapons in fiction. You have three kinds:

Kinetic weapons. These will usually differ from real world firearms in some technologically significant way, and the performance of the weapon is probably far beyond what you could achieve with gunpowder, but it’s still a gun. You pull the trigger and bullets come out. (This includes smart bullets, where the ammunition itself is electronically guided, and weapons with targeting assistance built in.) Gauss weapons are one of the more common examples of this (both coilguns and railguns. These propel the projectile by using and manipulating electromagnetic fields.

Beam weapons. This can be anything from a laser to something more advanced like Star Trek‘s Phasers and disruptors. These can be further split into short burst beams and sustained fire. The former will fire a brief burst of light, while the later can maintain a sustained beam, and may need some time on target to take effect. In some cases these will be used interchangeably. Either because the weapon has alternate firing modes or because the users are exercising trigger discipline.

Finally, we have energy projectile weapons which fire visible, discrete, energy blobs. As a functional consideration, these frequently travel at comically low speeds in visual media because, otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to track the projectile with your eyes. Star Trek sometimes gets inconsistent between these two, with both pulse and beam phasers and disruptors.

When you step back from that, a lot of this simply becomes different flavors of “space magic.” Star Trek takes it on the chin here, but it’s an excellent illustration. We’ve seen antiproton, polaron, tachyon, plasma, tetryon, and dozens of other beam weapon variants. While each one has it’s own contextual implication, from a narrative perspective they’re just different flavors of “ray gun.”

The, “space magic,” comment may sound critical, but it’s not. To an extent, in the context of a setting like Star Trek, the exact flavor of a weapon adds texture and credibility to the world. They’re not firing, “death rays,” they’re using, “a compressed tetryon beam.” What’s the difference? There isn’t one, just that the latter sounds more technical and scientific, while the former sounds more fantastic. There isn’t a right answer to which is a better fit for your world, it depends on the kind of story you’re trying to tell.

When it comes to military hardware in a sci-fi setting, I’ve got a soft spot for Warhammer 40k‘s batshit insanity. It’s a setting that’s built off of material like Dune, Starship Troopers, Star Wars, and a lot of other classic sci-fi. The killing power the setting’s weapons is downright bonkers. We’re talking about a setting where a standard infantry weapon that can explosively liquify its target on impact is considered underpowered. You can skim through 40k’s wargear online, if you’d like to get an idea of what your options are there. Just remember that Games Workshop is very litigious about their trademarks.

Ultimately, the best way to get a feel for the kinds of technology you want to use in your setting is by starting with the genre, and looking at what’s out there. While I’m not a fan of the politics, Starship Troopers, is a good starting point. Armor by John Steakly is another solid option to follow that up with. Dune is more about the politics, but the eccentric technology of its world is critical to how it functions, and it’s worth exposing yourself to it. If you find the books intimidating, I’d recommend the miniseries from the early-2000s.

While some of this might be a little tricky to run down, my recommendation on RPG splatbooks is heavily influenced by the pencil and paper RPGs I’ve played. The Trinity Technical Manual from the game of the same name had a lot of interesting concepts. (Trinity itself was an interesting setting, though it did suffer from White Wolf’s inconsistent sensitivity.) D20 Future (not, technically a weapons list, thought that was included) was a supplement for D20 Modern. Because it’s bundled in with D&D 3.5 (legally), you can find the text for most D20 Modern (including D20 Future) in online SRDs. Unfortunately, the item focused D20 Future Tech supplement is not as easily available, and prohibitively expensive. Without knowing exactly what you’re looking for, GURPS in general is an easy recommendation, but pinning down a specific setting (and a short list of source books) could be trickier. GURPS Space has been around in various printings for over 30 years, and if you can find a cheap copy, it should probably provide you with excellent ideas. (Incidentally, there are four different editions, and the prices vary wildly.) There’s also a mix of supplemental books for GURPS Space, which is a rarity for GURPs.

It’s not about weapons, and could be a little tricky to track down, but I do have a real favorite in Star Trek: The First Line. This was sourcebook for Last Unicorn Game’s short lived Star Trek RPG in the late 90s, and focused on Starfleet Intelligence. It’s a very interesting look into espionage in a setting that only clings to this side of Clarke’s Third Law through aggressive technobabble.

-Starke

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Q&A: TVTropes: Nebulous Evil Organization

Are there good real-world justifications for what TVTropes calls “Nebulous Evil Organizations” [SPECTRE, Hydra, Cobra]? They’re invariably portrayed as people with enough status and resources to be running the societies they attack, but instead they keep confronting them directly with terrorism and low-level crime. They’re built like Bain Capital but behave like al-Qaeda. Are there realistic explanations for why they’d do this, instead of just using lawyers and lobbyists like a normal plutocrat?

Not really. The closest you’ll see is in the real world are organized crime (which TVTropes already bundles off as, “The Syndicate”), and state sponsored terrorists or intelligence operations. Though, things do get a little more complex, so, let’s pull this apart and talk about why this is so useful in fiction, because almost none of it translates to reality.

Every story needs an antagonist. This doesn’t need to be a distinct character, it can be an aspect of the protagonist’s psyche, or even just some existential anxiety, but you need something to press against.

A nebulous evil organization is a natural foe. You don’t need to have plan, or even any idea what they’re doing. They can simply be your bad guys while you work out the details. They will always remain a serious threat, no matter how much your protagonist learns and grows. For a buzzword, it’s “infinitely scalable” evil: The villain who will always fit your story, no matter how big or small.

These kinds of organizations exist, “beyond time,” in the sense that you can compact or twist the chronology as much want and the organization could still, credibly, be there. if you have normal mortal villains, you can’t simply ask them to sit down and wait for years while your protagonist goes and has an existential crisis, undergoes a training montage, or engages in three hundred filler adventures.

That last bit was supposed to be a joke, but it is someplace these antagonists fit very well. Nebulous evil organizations are a godsend for episodic stories. The antagonists can be custom tuned to the individual episode without worrying about whether it makes sense in the larger metafiction. They can even be disposed of if it fits the episode, without worrying about the long term consequences.

In extreme examples of the beyond time comment above, you have ancient conspiracies (which TVTropes categorizes separately) which allow you to have antagonists who can exist at any point in history. This can also allow you to coopt real historical events or figures and re-contextualize them into your story.

So, what’s real about all of this?

There are plenty of organizations which have been around for a long time. Depending on your job, it’s entirely plausible you work for a company or organization that’s older than you are, and in some cases you’ll still see family traditions going back a couple generations (though, this is not as common as it used to be.)

This does extend to criminal organizations, corporations, and NGOs. In every case, the organization will be more important than the individuals, so the basic structure of a nebulous entity has some real grounding.

One of the greatest challenges for law enforcement dealing with the Italian Mafia in the mid-20th century was that the organization as a whole was designed to insulate the leadership, while the street level, rank and file personnel were expendable.

The street level crime component is, entirely, a narrative conceit. It’s there to make to make it easier to introduce the organization into a story, and allow easier access for knowledgeable characters. In an episodic structure, it helps plug the organization into places where it, otherwise, wouldn’t fit.

Street level operations make sense in one context: organized crime. If your organization is engaging in racketeering, then that street level crime is their foundation. They need that or they cease to exist.

The problem is that street level crime is pocket change compared to what someone could achieve with the resources. Even just something like limited patent trolling could make the cashflow from city wide racketeering operations look downright anemic. There is so much more money to be made in white collar crime, it’s not funny.

The reason you don’t see a lot of this in fiction is because it’s hard to grasp. If you have concrete visible villains, that’s easy, but financial investigations are complex beasts.

Let’s use the example above: Patent trolling is about getting a patent issued specifically with the intention of carving out a chunk of existing technology and then collecting royalties from companies that depend on these systems. This can (and has) included things like basic CPU architecture, or even the use of a “shopping cart” system on retail websites. This can be further supplemented by the purchase of existing patent portfolios (collections of current patents), which are then used to leverage payments from other business, or protect against the same.

Now, which is easier to understand and more sympathetic? Exploiting intellectual property laws to extort massive corporations in a courtroom, or mobsters mugging people?

The irony in all of this is that these nebulous organizations pattern themselves off of organized crime, but when it comes to criminal activity, organized crime is picking at the crumbs. They’re built on a foundation of street level operations that will never generate the revenue streams of a corporate raider.

It would make far more sense for a nebulous evil organization to play the stock market, rather than starting from street level crime. However, that also makes the organization less accessible. From the perspective of a writer, it means you have fewer options for how to insert them into a story, and requires more creativity. To be clear, I don’t think requiring more creativity is a bad thing, but I do understand that will make the author’s job harder.

If you had an organization like this, it would make sense for them to have some street level operations, but not criminal ones. Petty crimes would open the organization up to law enforcement scrutiny for, again, pocket change. From a risk/benefit perspective it’s just not worth it.

Terrorism is a different situation. There’s a lot of money to be made in playing the stock market around a terrorist attack. If you knew it was coming you could manipulate the situation to your advantage. This also extends to things like construction or defense contracts. This kind of behavior already occurs opportunistically, so it’s not implausible to suggest a corporation would try to foment wars in order to boost their bottom line. Whether that’s selling weapons, supplying PMCs, or even just trying to get access to the natural resources of one of the countries in the aftermath of an invasion.

Sponsored terrorism has real potential for a sufficiently amoral group who wants to “kick the sandbox,” so they can exploit the resulting chaos.

I can’t cite any specific examples of someone backing terrorists for financial gain. (Though, the US backing of what would become the Talaban in the 80s does come close.) The closest example that come to mind is the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in ’53. Mosaddegh was the Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 to ’53, when he was ousted in a coup backed by the CIA and MI6. This comes back to British Petroleum.

Prior to Mosaddegh’s rise to power, most oil production in Iran was controlled by foreign (mostly British) interests. To put it mildly, the contracts with the Iranian government were not particularly equitable. The newly elected Prime Minster set about nationalizing Iran’s oil production. This caused British Petroleum (at the time they were called the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) to go to the British government, and ultimately MI6. MI6 went to the CIA. The CIA had been looking for an opportunity to experiment with regime change, and dispatched Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson) to Iran with the goal of finding someone they could install. Roosevelt chose to go with a monarch, Shah Palavi, and the ’79 revolution leading to the Islamic Republic was a direct consequence of BP’s greed.

I’m glazing over a lot of details here. There are entire books written on the ’53 coup and ’79 revolution. Short version, yes, terrorism or other forms of aggressive regime change can be very profitable. However, this can also be hard to follow, and doesn’t give your protagonist an easy entry point.

Okay, let me explain that last point: The value of a street level threat is it gives you a low stakes entry point. If you’ve got an organization that is simultaneously operating at street level and plotting to use weapons of mass destruction, you can transition from the low stakes conflict to the high stakes political intrigue. You can even do this naturally through a single investigation. This almost never happens, reason being, it’s incredibly dangerous for the organization to be operating in both worlds.

Again, I have a real world example, but I’m going to be very brief. In 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were investigating a break in at the DNC’s offices in DC. What they discovered were connections that linked the burglary to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and eventually lead to his downfall.

Like I said, this almost never happens, and here’s why. If you’re operating at street level and making political power plays, that street level exposure is a real vulnerability. It can be used against you, and can destroy your organization.

The other real world example is the Mafia (and other organized crime.) Again, street level exposure is their major vulnerability. They don’t tend to transition into more sophisticated criminal behavior, (like stock manipulation), and while I could speculate why, I don’t have a concrete answer. It probably comes from many different issues working together.

Having said all of that, even on the terrorism front, your organization is safer using lobbyists and lawyers to get what they want. Problem is, that’s not “exciting,” so many writers skim over that and go straight for the overt behavior that says, “hey, these are bad guys,” even if what they’re doing doesn’t make sense.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use nebulous evil organizations. They’re a very effective and versatile tool for a writer. Saying they don’t make sense is only problem if your reader stops and thinks about it. At worst, I’d say, “get ahead of the curve,” and think about how they could achieve their goals in more subtle (or at least creative) ways. So long as your world is interesting enough, your readers are less likely to nitpick. The biggest danger is, simply, getting lazy, but that is always a risk.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Chosen One

If I have a character who is a very special chosen one, and it’s also a sci-fi story, how quickly could they master fighting from zero ability and not be too implausibly quick?

I have no clue.

We’re talking about science fiction. So, that suggests there’s technology available to characters that exceeds the real world.

It’s entirely possible to imagine technologies that would allow you to implant advanced training into someone in a matter of minutes. That’s not just martial arts, that’s any skill.

The first example of this that comes to mind is The Matrix (1999), though We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, by Phillip K. Dick, and Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan, both play with the idea of implanting memories into new bodies.

The problem you’d run into with any skill which required muscle memory is implanting the muscle memory itself. That’s a consideration, but it is solvable. Rental sleeves (bodies) in Altered Carbon are prewired with reflex packages. The Matrix is a computer simulation, so issues with muscle memory are ignored there. It’s an issue, but it can be accounted for. Either through more invasive skill implantation, or possibly even some kind of further augmentations.

So, how long would your character need? I don’t know. It could be as simple as, “take this pill and count back from 100.” That’s the joy, and difficulty of science fiction.

If you’re going to this route, you need to consider how it would affect your world. If your characters live in a world where developing an entire new skill is easier than treating a headache, that’s going to seriously affect culture and society. It’s also worth considering that, “off the shelf skills,” may be somewhat uniform. So, if two people had both gained strategic skills from the same processes, they’re more likely to have similar strategic doctrines. Someone from a different background might be able to account for and exploit that. This also applies to distilled hand-to-hand packages, where someone familiar with the package could probably anticipate how users would behave, and get ahead of them.

So, let’s rip the guts out of the chosen one. I realize my perspective is a little ironic given I just cited The Matrix, but I’m not a fan of, “the chosen one has superpowers.” Or at least, I’m not a fan of, “the chosen one has superpowers because they’re the chosen one.”

Chosen ones aren’t automatically cliche, however, that is a real risk. The more inherently special and unique they are, the greater that risk becomes. Through no fault of your own, the phrase, “very special chosen one,” sets me on edge. It’s not the wording, it’s the concept.

One of my favorite, examples of a “chosen one,” is the player character from Fallout 2. The Chosen One was picked by a village elder to go out and save their village. That’s it. While the game allows the player to announce themselves as “The Chosen One,” like it’s their name, and the rest of the world basically laughs that off. Outside of their village, they’re just another wandering tribal.

I’m bringing this up, because if your character is designated as, “the chosen one,” by someone without any real power, that’s just a title. A sheltered, or egocentric, character may not even realize that being designated The Chosen One is basically meaningless. Much like Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers, just because you think you’re “on a mission from God,” doesn’t mean that anyone else cares.

When the character is designated as the chosen one by a higher power, things can get tricky. The idea of a divine champion has been done to death. It’s become cliche through overuse.

These kinds of empowered chosen ones present a real problem to their writer. If you’ve said, “this character is The Chosen One,” and even worse, “they’re destined do this thing,” it strips a lot of tension from your work. Your audience knows your chosen one will survive, and succeed, because they’re necessary to fulfill the prophecy, or whatever they were tasked with. There’s a lot of variations to keep this interesting, but it is a plot element that needs to be handled carefully, with consideration towards how it will functions in relation to the mountains of fiction that went before you.

I’m going to step back for a second and just say this: It’s impossible to be 100% original. The problem with chosen ones is that they’re going to derivative of other chosen ones from other stories. That’s fine. That’s not the problem. Creativity comes from how you use this plot concept. Being labeled as cliche (in this case) only means that you failed to come up with something that felt fresh. You took the same plot components that many others have handled, but didn’t managed to assemble it into something that felt compelling. When I’m talking about cliches, and saying, “this needs to be handled carefully,” that’s what I mean. You need to take the parts of a chosen one, and assemble it into something that fits into your story in a new or interesting way.

In the narrow example of this question, we have two parts. We have the chosen one, and we have rapid training in science fiction. Both of these have been covered before. However, there have been many more works dealing with chosen ones, while the list of works where characters gain advanced skills through unusual means is much shorter. Between the two, it will be easier to come up with an original work using the latter.

Mixing different pieces together to get a different perspective, or reworking how those pieces function, is how you get original and creative works. It’s just that’s going to be a lot harder with plot elements that have been done to death.

With that in mind, I have no idea how long it would take. I don’t know what rules apply to your chosen one. I don’t know what technology your setting has. Either one of these can set the answer for your story. That’s under your control. Ideally you want to follow those answers through. Even if it’s just that your protagonist can quickly gain skills, that’s going to have a massive, long term, effect on them.

It’s your story. Do something creative with it. Just because something’s at risk of being cliche doesn’t mean you can’t use it, it only means you need to be more creative.

-Starke

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Q&A: Hunter/Hunted

Upon learning that the people the MC worked with for some years are going to kill him/her as they believe him/her to be a threat/no longer safe to work with, the MC makes a run for it. Can you shine any light on what it may be like to be on the run for several weeks and, on the flip side, what it may be like to be the ones trying to find this MC?

This is a variable question, based on the organization. Obviously, being on the run from a slightly unhinged HOA would look very different from someone who was working for a Bond villain.

When you’re getting into world building, you really need to know how extensive your organizations will be. Everything about this question will hang on the organization and the character’s training.

For your purposes, you need to decide three things about the organization. How much capacity does it have, how much intelligence can it gather, and what is its reach?

Let’s start with the influence. Any organization will have limits to how far it can reach. If you’re dealing with a small organized crime outfit, it’s going to have difficulty applying it’s influence a couple states over. It may still be able to send people out, but their ability to operate will be limited in unfamiliar territory.

If the organization has an extreme reach, then your character can’t slip their perimeter and disappear. Again, the Bond villain example above isn’t that far off the mark. Shadowy conspiracies, or global criminal empires aren’t going to be thrown off (much) by running. Your character may still be able to escape by leaving the planet, but may not be a viable option.

A quick warning here, before we continue: If you are going with a massive global conspiracy that your character worked for, you really want to nail down who these people are. You, probably, want to share some of that information with the audience. There’s a lot of potential for a thriller about a character running from a massive conspiracy they don’t understand, but, at the very least, you do want to keep your audience at least up to speed with your PoV characters.

The amount of intelligence an organization can collect is critical for evaluating how effectively they can track someone. In the modern day, it’s remarkably easy to collect significant information about someone from publicly available information. Last month I watched someone parlay a Twitter bio into the individual’s full name, address, and current place of employment in under twenty minutes, using only public data. Do not underestimate how much information you put out there.

At the same time, there’s a huge difference between being able to run someone to ground using public information, and getting access to confidential databases. If your organization has money, they can buy plate reader data, and track your character’s location in real-time if they’re taking their car. If they have access to law enforcement databases, they can track your character through far more means, (potentially) including facial recognition technology, real-time tracking of their credit/debit card usage, and immediate flags if your character’s ID pops up.

This means, “hiding,” may be as simple as crashing on an old friend’s couch, or it could require significant tradecraft to drop off the radar.

The final thing you need to lock down is the organization’s capacity. Can they send one guy with a handgun? Can they send a kill team? Can they flag your character in federal databases as a terrorist, and send in SWAT teams to kill them.

There’s two parts here, the organization’s own manpower, and their ability to co-opt other authorities. This will factor into their ability to gather intelligence, if they can piggyback on someone else’s surveillance work, they don’t need to do that themselves. It keeps the organization safe. This could be a data tap, or by having people in the other organizations. It’s the signals vs human intelligence balance, either possibility will work. Either option could blow back on the organization, or they could have legitimate authority. If they have the ability to co-opt other authorities, you can assume they have access to the manpower and intelligence gathering capacities from those organizations.

Depending on how you structured the organization, their operations could be virtually anywhere. You’d need to lock down how they operate. However, we’re only half done here.

Your character’s experience will alter radically based on their own background and approach, so let’s split this up into pieces as well. You need to establish your character’s resources, their skills, and their paranoia.

Being on the run is expensive. Both, before and after you start hiding. You need to pay for your safe house, that means renting or buying another place. Because it’s a fixed location, if it’s compromised it’s gone. If you’re staying on the move, you need transportation, that costs money. You need food, that costs considerably more if you’re out in the open collecting it. You need someplace to lay low while you sleep and prepare (if you’re going on the offensive.)

The end result is, your character is going to need considerable resources to go into hiding. For our purposes, resources is collective, it refers to contacts they can use, vehicles, weapons, other equipment, false identities, safe houses. Even their ability to collect intelligence against their former employers would be a form of resources. Anything on this list has the potential to be useful when trying to stay out of sight, or if they’re trying to shut down their former associates.

The important thing to remember here is: This isn’t a bank balance.” However, your character will burn through the resources they have as they try to stay out of sight. Any resource they use is another potential piece of evidence their foes could use to track them down.

For example: if your character used their old sidearm to fight off an enemy, and the cops run the ballistics, there’s a real chance the conspiracy could get that info and immediately know your character was there.

One of the major dangers when facing off against an organization with extensive intelligence operations is that all of your bank accounts are now being monitored. If your character had money hidden under a false identity, they still have that money, but there’s a real potential that pulling out their credit card will bring the metro PD running.

Your character’s skillset will heavy affect how well they approach this. Someone with a more covert background will probably have an easier time blending in. They’ll have a much better grasp over what actions they can take safely, and which ones will light them up for their foes. They may also be in a much better situation for evaluating when to, “misstep,” in order to provoke a response. There’s an entire skill to knowing when you should appear to make a mistake in order to draw your foes out.

Now, I’m talking about this with the assumption that your character is an assassin or spy, but the truth is that a lot of people will cultivate those skills. If your character was a cop, private investigator, bounty hunter, or career criminal, they’d probably know most of this, even if they eschewed violence.

Remember, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” How much prep your character did before this situation hit the fan will affect their ability to walk away and disappear. Some of this bundles in with the idea of resources above, but if your character expected, or at least prepared for the potential that they’d need to go into hiding (potentially permanently), they may have set up multiple exit plans to get out and disappear. If they have a plan, and backups, to simply drop off the face of the earth, they’re probably going to be able to execute those. They would have been in a situation where they could accurately assess the organization’s intelligence, and probably had a good idea how to leave no trace. An especially paranoid character may even have set up some dead man switches in the organization to make tracking them even more difficult when they disappeared.

Of course, it’s possible something would cause the character to abandon their exit and switch over to hunting or dismantling the organization. This kind of a decision is very contextual, based on your character and the people in their life, so it’s a bit difficult to chart and say, “it’d be like this.” However, it would be an excellent mid-story turning point for the character, where they go from being the hunted to being the hunter.

Beyond this, everything’s character. The relationships between the characters will determine how this, “feels.” Once you have an idea for the kind of characters and organizations you have, you can start to research the details and lock this down.

-Starke

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Q&A: Magical Warfare

How would a magical war go? Like, what would be the set up for platoons specifically?

How magical, and what kind of magic?

The problem with a question like this is that, from a world building perspective, magic basically takes the form of alternate technology. It exists and develops alongside technological advancement. In some cases it may evolve faster, but, the overall concept is identical.

So there’s two factors we need to look at. How powerful is your magic, and, how common is it?

The more powerful your magic is, the more it will disrupt how warfare is fought. This is also true for overall political power in your world. The more powerful your mages are, the more they’ll be able to completely exclude non-mages from all power structures.

For example, if your mages can casually obliterate non-magical infantry, your world won’t have much use for “conventional,” infantry. You might even see mages waging war against one another directly via spellcraft, rather than any conventional concept of warfare.

Why invade a resisting city when you can rain fire on it, or consume the souls of all it’s non magical residents turning them into a kind of zombie? Why not just drop it into the sea, and be done with it?

This is where the exact nature of magic in your world becomes very important. You need to create rules for how magic works and then plan accordingly.

How common magic is in your world also heavily influences warfare. If magic is incredibly rare. If mages only come from a few noble bloodlines, you’re not going to see a lot of magic on the battlefield.

On the other end of the spectrum, if magic is relatively common. If anyone can be taught to cast basic spells, you could easily see a situation where combat magic is the norm. Where every soldier in a battalion was expected to understand a basic ranged spell, and a shield against incoming spells.

Worth noting, when I’m talking about how common magic is, there’s a few potential factors to consider. How often can someone cast? Are there any significant costs associated with magic? How hard is it to teach? And of course, who can cast magic? Obviously, if your setting allows anyone with some education to cast magic, that’s going to look very different from a world where magic is exclusively the purview of a few hereditary bloodlines.

If magic is powerful enough, but it takes some time to train up magic users, you might see a situation where military forces constricted significantly. Where a few squads would be considered enough to secure and occupy an entire city.

Similarly, if spells have a considerable cost associated with them, or can only be cast on very restricted schedules, that will have less of an overall impact on the way your world develops than if they can cast at will.

Another important question is, “what are they fighting for?” Historically, more wars have been fought over resources than ideas. When your world allows for basic transmutation of one good into another, for example converting something into gold, then gold has no value. You can’t fight over gold, because it has no value. If a mage can conjure up enchanted plate, then steel isn’t going to have much market value. If a mage can easily produce enough food to feed a thousand, then you won’t have a need for farmers or agriculture. Things get weird. Do empires war over magical materials that are consumed to produce goods? Do they battle over nexuses of magical energy? If they can use portals to bounce around at will, do they even bother securing their own borders, or do they operate out of heavily fortified enclaves leaving everyone on the outside to fend for themselves?

As a writer building a world, magic is open to your imagination. You can do, nearly, anything you want. The only thing you’re tested on is how creative can you be? Can you create a scenario that fits the shape of the world you want? Magic in warfare can be anything from magical artillery to squads of superheroes. The only question is, “what do you want to do?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Low DPS

I have a fanfic where a character has a whip as a weapon for Evil Overlord Aesthetics. She thinks she’s in a video game, and when she realizes she’s actually in a dangerous situation she ditches the whip for an improvised weapon (sharpened rebar) that’s easier to kill with. Is this a plausible change, or is it easier to kill with a whip than I assume? While fear is affecting her judgment, if you can kill with a whip and she knows how at least in principle, maybe this isn’t a leap she’d make.

ree-fireparrot

You don’t need to justify a character taking a poor weapon choice into an encounter in a video game. There’s plenty of reasons you might take garbage gear into an encounter. Achievements, grinding unlocks, because individual weapons and attacks level up from use. This is before we get into novelty, thematic, and RP builds, which is what you’re talking about.

There’s a legitimate point in games, where you can start screwing around with non-optimal setups. You’ve gotten comfortable enough with the mechanics and the game cannot punish you for abusing it. Usually, this is due to system knowledge, it’s not just, “my reflexes are so good.” When you know how a game will behave, you gain a lot of freedom.

This should be obvious, but, the rules of a game do not have to mimic reality. In many cases, they won’t. What did you find was the most realistic element of Skyrim? The ability to yell at people so hard they’d vaporize? Being immune to hypothermia? Becoming a vampire? The ability to recover from near fatal wounds by freezing time and instantaneously consuming one-hundred-and-forty-five carrots. Owning your own house? Games operate under their own rules; rules which can get away with barely paying lip service to the real world. When you’re writing in a game world it is very important to create (or understand) how those rules work, and the effects they’ll have on player behavior. After that, the real world doesn’t matter.

This is part of why the, “she’s in the real world but doesn’t realize it,” doesn’t play for me. Something like Star Trek‘s holodecks not withstanding, video games are nothing like the real world. Even hardcore simulation games tend to have weird idiosyncrasies. Before we talk about graphics or the interface.

Because the rules are artificial, new players will try things that don’t work, but look viable. The technical term for this is a, “noob trap.” Generally speaking, these are regarded as poor design, but they still happen, and experienced players learn to navigate around them.

Some games will actively encourage you to swap out your gear, sometime for less optimal choices. The logic is fairly straightforward: If you let a player simply run the same loadout for 20-60 hours, they’ll get bored. To quote Soren Johnson, lead designer on Civilization 4 and Offworld Trading Company, “Given the opportunity, Players will optimize the fun out of a game.” Players will take the most risk averse, tedious, approach to a game, and then blame the game for their choice to play it that way.

There’s a number of ways you can counter this: Including gradually aging out existing items (either by providing a drip feed of better gear or by causing existing gear to decay), a focus on situational weapons. This can result in situations where you’re best option is use something that would normally be sub-optimal, because it’s the best option in the moment. In the right circumstances, that could include your character’s whip.

Developers will also implement mechanics designed specifically to counter this kind of play. An example close to Johnson would be the Firaxis reboot of XCOM, and it’s eventual sequel. Players used overwatch, inching forward with soldiers covering one another as they moved up. This somewhat mimics a real military tactic called a staggered advance, where soldiers will cover each other as they move forward. However, it also slows the game down and trivializes a major risk; charging into a pack of aliens you didn’t see. XCOM2 addressed this by using mission timers aggressively. You couldn’t advance slowly and methodically, because you only had X turns before very bad things happened. Similarly, the spiritual successor, Phoenix Point, tied its overwatch mechanic to a depleting resource. Again, invalidating the optimized strategy.

Here’s the problem: Low damage isn’t fun. As a concrete example: This is the problem with high level combat in Fallout 4. Enemies continue to level with you. Your level is uncapped. But your maximum damage output caps off at level 49. You, and the enemies, continue to get tankier, as your health pools grow, but you will never hit harder than you could have at 49.

Why do I bring this up? Few things in video games kill the fun like low outgoing damage.

Few players would choose to take a very low damage weapon simply for the aesthetic. (Note: “Very” is the operational word here. Everyone has slightly different tolerances for what they’ll accept. However, if the character is considering using an improvised weapon, clearly the whip is well below what they’re happy with.)

Either their whip is a valid weapon choice, or your character’s decisions leading up to this moment don’t make a lot of sense (even from the perspective of being in a video game.) There are whips in games that are legitimate options. For example: Bloodborne’s Threaded Cane, or the Vampire Killer from Castlevania. If it’s something like that, then the whip will still do its job. (Unless, the real version is nothing like the game counterpart.) However, if that’s not the case, your character is taking fetish gear into a fight. That’s going to be messy and unpleasant for her.

If you have the room to use it, the whip is a good defensive tool when dealing with unarmored opponents. So long as your character doesn’t need to kill their foe in this scene, the whip gives them a lot of options to create an opening so they can break and run, or buy time for reinforcements to arrive.

If she wanted to kill people, she would have brought a weapon to achieve that. If she’s using a whip is for fun, bringing it to a fight won’t be. I would think she’d have learned this before now.

-Starke

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Q&A: Magic to Power

So I’m writing a story where magic exists. But it’s not exactly outlawed In the kingdom. But there’s a bunch of superstitions involved that they don’t use it. And the king actively encourages those super stations albeit not blatantly. My question is the king still employes people with magic from a group or some sort of organisation that trains these people in secret. How would I go about forming that? Would they work better as spies or independent contractors? This is set in roughly about 1700.

They’re not going to be, “independent contractors.” I’d say, “not in the eighteenth century,” but, given the circumstances, no, not at all. So, let’s talk about how these things would have to function.

For mages to be independent of their government, one of two things has to be true. They must either be powerless, meaning the magic they perform is trivial and ineffectual, or they must be more powerful (either individually or collectively) than the governments that seek to control them.

If their magic is utterly powerless, there’s no reason to pay attention to them. They’re irrelevant. If your world’s mages struggle light a candle with their magic, they may be scapegoated by groups, but governments wouldn’t care unless they wanted to get in on that.

Basically, if magic works as advertised, that’s going to be an asset to any ruler. It doesn’t matter if someone is a soothsayer, a healer, or able to throw fireballs around, their powers are useful.

If you are an eighteenth century noble, you do not want the peasantry to have that kind of power. Inevitably, they will use it to kill you. This is before you consider the kind of damage a single disgruntled mage could cause to your kingdom. The ability to project fire (or any other element) could completely destroy your agricultural base. Fire in particular opens up the possibility of remote detonating gunpowder stores. Prescience or clairvoyance could be used to sabotage your economy. Simply put, having a rogue mage out there could wreck your domain.

So what do you do? You make them work for you, or kill them if they refuse. If you need to, you can justify a public execution by pointing to all the harm they could have caused, and whatever harm other mages had inflicted in the past.

At this point, the way people learn magic and gain magical power, becomes really important. I’m mostly interested in two categories, and grouping everything else in.

The first group gain their powers spontaneously. It could be random, exposure to something in the world, demonic possession, really, whatever. The end result is the magic user gains magical powers intuitively and they can pop up anywhere.

If you’re dealing with this group, your goal will be to find and shut them down before they become a problem. It’s also an issue because you could potentially get a rogue mage in your peasantry. So, this needs to be quickly dealt with. Given the time frame we’re talking about, it’s not out of the question that one of The Holy Inquisitions is specifically rooting out magic users.

The second group gain their powers predictably. You know who will become a mage before they gain their powers. This could be the traditional academic wizard, who learns magic through study, and finding hidden lore, it could be your superhuman martial arts masters, it could be people that gain magical powers through their bloodlines. The short version is, you don’t have to worry about a surprise peasant mage, and any rogue mages are an espionage problem.

If it’s academic, it’s very likely that court wizard is an established position. Similarly, if superhuman martial artists are part of your world, they may also have a permanent court position. If it’s a bloodline, then those are probably very powerful families who have a lot of political influence, if not outright control.

Depending on which group your mages fall into will determine how your ruler needs to worry about magic. If it’s completely random, then it’s more about damage control; securing (and recruiting or eliminating) mages before they can become a problem. Mages become an incredibly valuable asset in dealing with other rulers, because you don’t know if they have mages. Tipping your hand about your resources to other nobles becomes very dangerous.

Further, if magical talent manifests randomly, it is extremely likely that any unified control over them would rest with the governing religious bodies, not with your king. It’s entirely possible a single mage is powerful enough to kill your ruler, but to take on a continent wide religion that’s been in power for over a thousand years? They’ll know how to deal with an inexperienced spellcaster.

Note: This also applies if you’re dealing with a large, well established, empire, like Rome at the height of its power. They would also have the capacity to locate and detain new mages.

If we’re talking about religion, then we have a perfect justification for magic being good when the organization needs it to be and evil when someone does it else does it. When a member of the church casts a spell, “it’s a miracle,” “it’s a holy act,” “an implement of divine will.” When a heretic does it, “it’s witchcraft.” Church affiliated mages might even look at the aggressive use of magic as, “fighting fire with fire,” or “turning The Devil’s tools against his own.”

It’s also distinctly possible that you have multiple kinds of spellcasters. So it could be your church affiliated mages are using entirely different spells from the ones used by rogue mages.

This is the problem with, “superstition.” It needs to be based on something. For people to shun a mage, the magic they use has to be dangerous, unpredictable, or both. For example: If there was no, “beneficial,” magic, just curses, people would be a little circumspect about interacting with a mage. Or, if magic required the intervention of a demon, and you could never be completely certain it would do what it was told, same result.

How would a king form a secret organization of mages? With the stroke of a pen. He may simply hire from registered guild mages, offering them a job. He might form a covert group of witchhunters, possibly even hiring veteran inquisitors, with the task of finding willing, unaffiliated recruits. The options are open. What he can’t do is, have a secret cabal.

If you live in a world where magic is real, you’re going to become attuned to the idea that people use it to advance themselves. Even if you can’t, even if no one you know can, you know people can and do. A king propped up by a hidden cadre of mages will stand out. Even if this is standard practice. Even if magic is subtle. You may not be able to prove that your king is in power because of mages secretly backing him, but if the mages are helping him in a meaningful way will be somewhat obvious: Things go too well.

At the same time, if magic is subtle, it would be a boon for any court spymaster. Either directly or by employing their own mages. This isn’t a problem your king would be dealing with directly. That’s what his spymaster is for. As to a question of whether mages make good spies, it depends on your magic. Even if your magic is overt, an individual mage may make a good spy simply from their non-magical talents, and being a mage may get them access to places that a non-mage wouldn’t. Conversely, if magic is persecuted, it would also be a liability for any spy. Get caught practicing magic, and they’ll kill you for that, without even realizing you’re a spy.

Ironically, forming good relations with a magical power base is a vital skill for a king in a magically active world. He needs mages that are at least friendly enough that they won’t wipe him out for a rival. It would also, significantly alter the balance of power from what we saw in the real world, where, by the 18th century, the Catholic church was dealing with losing power in much of Europe, and the modern nation states were on the rise. For a religion empowered by spellcasters who can inflict religious edicts directly, the results would be considerably different.

When we’re talking about alternate histories with fantasy elements, there are a lot of historical events that could go very differently, which I couldn’t even begin to list here. The big thing I’d suggest considering is that if mages were aligned with multiple groups, you could easily see a “cold war” type situation, with proxy wars playing out, or a even a magical, nuclear detente.

What you have here digs pretty deeply in your world building. It’s not simply, “1700s, but with mages,” or at least, shouldn’t be. You need to reevaluate history up to that moment, and try to figure out what would have happened with those changes.

-Starke

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