Tag Archives: world building

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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Q&A: Changing the Ground Rules

Two questions. 1. Would real-world knowledge of weapons be enough to break immersion for someone when reading a book that basically uses video game weaponry? Because video games are a visual medium, it’s easier to get away with things that don’t necessarily make sense, like the bladed tonfa from Warframe. 2. If one did go about this, would you suggest blending real-world knowledge with fantasy/fantastical aspects, or would a matter-of-fact ‘it is what it is’ kind of policy be better?

Let’s take this apart into a couple different pieces.

Would real-world knowledge of weapons be enough to break immersion for someone when reading a book that basically uses video game weaponry?

Yes.

It’s not even about video games. Writers and filmmakers can screw up a lot of details, and if you’ve background in that field, it will drive you nuts. This isn’t goes way beyond weapons into other things like lawyers, police, doctors, programmers, ect. Really, if you’re in any technical field, you run a real risk of being driven up a wall by technical errors made by writers who don’t know the subject matter.

This can be true with weapons, because they’re very technical pieces of equipment, there’s a lot of information to manage, and you can easily end up with a writer who thinks, “they’re just point and click, right?”

The only way to deal with this is, simply, to do your research to the best of your abilities. There will be errors, but usually minor mistakes are forgivable, if the attempt has been made.

Because video games are a visual medium, it’s easier to get away with things that don’t necessarily make sense, like the bladed tonfa from Warframe.

No. It has nothing to do with the medium. If anything, it’s easier to screw up with weapons in a video game, because you’ve put the player in control of managing the item, and very few games seek to accurately reproduce real weapons.

The common example of this is, simply that many first person shooters use left handed variants of the weapons. Specifically so it will eject shell casings in front of the camera. It can get much more bizarre however.

For a recent example, there’s Generation Zero, which has two different 9mm ammo types. It segregates 9mm into Pistol and SMG. The weapons to pick from are the Glock 17, the MP5, and the Sweedish m/45. The problem is, all of these fire 9x19mm Parabellum. It’s the same bullet. At the same time, it has no qualms about chambering the same 7.62mm round into an H&K G3 (which fires 7.62x51mm), and an AK variant (which fires 7.62x39mm). (And before someone says anything, no, it’s not an AK-308, the game is set in 1989.)

This is a problem that, you’d probably never see in any other media. A writer is unlikely to really dig into the munitions to the point where you’d see that kind of weirdness without doing any in depth research (though, this kind of mistake does happen.) This isn’t a visual media thing, because if you have a game or film, where you only see the characters messing with magazines, the writer simply couldn’t make this kind of a mistake.

Now, I used Generation Zero as an example because the game is set in 1989. The weapon selection reflects that. However Warframe is a different animal.

Set somewhere between eight to twelve thousand years from now. The setting permits the ability to travel between planets in the solar system in minutes, and characters are wall running, cybernetic, murder ninjas. In context, I don’t think the idea that some Tenno use bladed tonfas is that weird.

2. If one did go about this, would you suggest blending real-world knowledge with fantasy/fantastical aspects, or would a matter-of-fact ‘it is what it is’ kind of policy be better?

The important thing is setting the ground rules for your world. If you fail to do so, the assumed rules will match the real world. This can trip you up, when the real world conflicts with yours. Additionally, simply redefining things in ways that are factually incorrect to the real world can be viewed as a mistake on your part.

The closer your world is to the real one, the harder it becomes to tweak things. No one questions Generation Zero’s killer robots wandering the 1980s Swedish Countryside gunning people down, it’s the weird logistical stuff that raises an eyebrow. This is clearly not our world, but the parts that almost sync up are where you’re more likely to step back and say, “wait, this doesn’t make sense.”

With Warframe, the entire world is fantasy. (Technically, science fiction, but for this discussion that’s an academic distinction.) It’s strange, difficult to rationalize, and going in you don’t have a reference for how things, “should,” work. Setting the ground rules becomes easy. So saying, “well, does this make sense?” needs to be balanced against the setting’s lore. (Incidentally, I’m not well versed enough in Warframe to get into lore discussions.)

Genre can also establish rules that you then need to work around. We, “know,” vampires can’t walk out in daylight, because those are “the rules,” until you get into something like The Witcher or, ironically, even, Dracula, where that rule doesn’t apply. Vampires can walk in daylight, they may choose to avoid it if they can, but it won’t kill them. Or will only harm them under specific circumstances. Hold this in contrast to something like Vampire: The Masquerade where catching a sunrise will reduce a Kindred to ash. I bring up vampires because it’s a sub-genre that frequently needs to need to set the ground rules telling the audience what does, and does not work, for this version of vampires.

It is easy when it’s a fictional attachment to the world. It’s harder when it’s bundled into a world that appears to follow the same rules as the one you live in. Staying with the video game theme, a very good example of a fantasy world with it’s own rules layered into a, “modern,” setting is last year’s Disco Elysium. The firearms technology seems to have stalled out around pepperbox pistols, which exist next to ceramic assault armor more advanced than what we have in the real world. It spends a lot of time with world building.

Blending fantasy and reality together is difficult, but doable. First, you need to cue the audience in that this is not, “the real world.” Doing this organically can be challenging. Second, you need to explain that divide enough to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The audience has to believe in you world, more than they care about nitpicking.

Some rules are much harder to break than others. It’s easier to tell a story with fictional weapon than it is to tell a story that breaks the laws of physics, or violates logical structure. The latter needs a good justification.

It’s all about the story you’re trying to tell. If you’re looking at something and trying to make a decision if you want to the real world or throw it out for something fantastical, do some research first, and once you’ve gotten there, decide if you want to twist things.

Nothing ties you to the world that exists, but, you need to know the world you live in, before you decide to depart it.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Military Superpower

Would it break the suspension of disbelief to have the “most effective military by an immense margin” in the world (it’s basically the world police) be have only around 500 active fighters because they’re the only people highly trained to use magic effectively?

It will depend on your world building, but breaking suspension of disbelief is a real risk. Having only one military superpower in a world does some weird things. So, let’s talk international politics.

If your setting has multiple, viable, nation states, and one of them has an inordinate advantage, what you have is a monopolar system. Everything relates directly to that nexus state. Any interstate conflict will need to be measured, carefully, against riling the superpower, and any interactions need to be measured with consideration for their interests.

For example: If two if your states are negotiating a trade agreement, both sides are going to be concerned with how their treaty will affect their relationship with the nexus state.

If two states go to war, the presence of the nexus state’s interests will be a pervasive, and vital, strategic consideration. For example: If the nexus state citizen owns a mine in the disputed territory, the warring states are both going to need to be aware of it, and careful not to interfere with that holding’s ability to function.

How all of this will manifest depends heavily on how the nexus state works, and how presents itself.

Real world international politics is based off hard power, and soft power. Hard power is military capacity. (Technically, hard power is the capacity to coerce or force other nations to do what you tell them.) For your purposes, your nexus state has unlimited hard power. That is, kind of, how military superpowers work. (Though the actual math tends to be a little more sophisticated than this, because applying hard power usually comes with a cost in attrition.)

You can think of soft power as an “influence currency.” It’s the ability to go to another nation’s government, ask for something, and get what you want. Hard power can affect soft power (both positively and negatively), but there’s nothing inherently nefarious about soft power. It’s not coercive.

The interesting thing here is, while your nexus state has unlimited hard power, the other states can cultivate power in their interactions with one another. So, there is room for political maneuvering between them.

How your nexus state chooses to express their power will seriously affect your setting. If they’ve set themselves up as guardians of the world from all external threats, then they may be relatively hands-off. Individual states aren’t going to pick a fight with them, but they may feel free to squabble with one another. If your nexus state is involving itself in ruling the world, and views the various other nations as extensions of itself (as an imperial power), then those interstate conflicts are going to be mostly fought through political means, and may only engage in actual violence through proxies.

There is an interesting detail here that I’ve skimmed over, because it doesn’t apply in the real world, but might be a factor in yours. The rarer magical talent is, the easier it will be for your nexus state to maintain control over it. If your state has unlimited hard power, they may be able to parlay that into the ability to simply take any prospective mages from other nations. This would encourage the situation you’re describing. They control the only 500 mages in the world, and as a result, have complete power over magic. (You might be able to make a nuclear proliferation allegory out of this, depending on the specific scenario you’re working with.)

However, if they’re taking mages from the other nations, that would breed resentment. It’s possible those states might seek to keep some of their potential mages, hiding them, and training them in secret. Their training might not be as good, but if your mages are powerful enough to completely warp the balance of power, one or two could be incredibly destructive forces, giving a state some covert options that, “break the rules,” for how the world is supposed to work.

It’s also possible, when employing the mages against other nations, you could see some internal dissent from mages who were originally from those nations, being asked to attack their own people.

Another consideration, I mentioned in passing earlier, is attrition. In the real world, any military action will come with losses for both sides. In your case, this means your nexus state could find itself into a prolonged conflict eroding its power. So, while a single incident wouldn’t bring them low, years of campaigning on multiple fronts could wear them down.

Having a scenario where 500, magically empowered warriors have completely tipped the balance of power in their world won’t make, or break, the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The world you create will do that.

-Starke

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Q&A: Writing Dungeon Treasure

In my WIP, my characters find a shield left in a thousand year old ruin. Are there any metals that the shield could be made out of so that it might still be useful if preserved properly in a locked chest or something? I immediately counted out iron because of rust, and maybe copper and bronze corrode too much. I was contemplating gold because it seemed to be the most durable age-wise, but maybe it’s not that useful weapon-wise?

Gold won’t corrode, but it’s far too soft for use in combat. Bronze, iron, and copper will oxidize. This doesn’t mean they can’t be preserved for thousands of years, but they wouldn’t survive in an ancient ruin’s chest.

As a bit of trivia, when copper and bronze oxidize, they turn green, not brown.

So, this whole thing builds off a fundamental world building problem of challenge/reward structures in games. This is relevant for writing, because it can affect how you build parts of your world, and you should consider the reasons behind your choices. So while I’m talking about game design for the moment, think about how this applies to writing.

If you’re asking the player to fight through an extended dungeon sequence, you need to give them something at the end. That doesn’t need to be a physical reward. For example, Skyrim’s word walls which provide tangible abilities the player as a reward are fine. In a more abstract sense, information can be an entirely valid reward. That’s fine. It’s also true to life, somewhat, because the real treasure of most ruins is information about the people who built it and lived there. There’s also a boss chest in there with a random assortment of items, that makes no sense.

The problem with the boss chest that awards random, level appropriate items, is when they player is the first person to walk those halls in thousands of years. Any tangible weapon, would have rusted, or rotted away. Skyrim is an excellent example of this, as the various tombs, ruins, caves, and other dungeons exist in a weird kind of suspended animation. No human (or elf) has been in that ruin since the Metheric Era (at least 4500 years ago), but the candles are still burning, and there’s a chest with Dwarven gauntlets that are thousands of years more advanced than the ruin’s builders. What?

This works for a game, because as a player, you’re looking for that dopamine hit. You get a cool item, you feel good about it. It’s reductive to boil games down to a Skinner box, but in this case, the comparison is apt: Push the button; receive treat.

This doesn’t work in writing. There’s a lot of pieces to why, but the short version is perspective. In a game, you are the protagonist. In a story, you are witnessing the protagonist. So, when the player gets a piece of junk gear that’s marginally better than what they’re wearing, that’s a dopamine hit. It’s something cool you can use, and you will get the opportunity to play with it.

In a story, you don’t care if one of the characters finds new leather gloves in a ruin, unless there’s something special about those gloves. You’re there to see them grow as a character, and their gear is incidental to that. If that gear facilitates new options, or spurs character growth, then you’ll care. If those gloves belonged to someone the character knew, and they’re a hint to what happened to them, then the reader will care. If the gloves have special properties which can help with a challenge the character is already facing, then the reader will care. If the gloves offer two extra points of protection (whatever that means), the reader will not care.

A thousand years is a long time. If you’re talking about today, a one thousand year old weapon might be a low quality steel sword. A thousand year old shield may have been wood, which would have rotted away unless carefully preserved. So you’d be left with the iron frame for a shield. Or, you might have a low quality iron shield.

Many fantasy settings exist in a kind of technological stasis. I mentioned Skyrim a minute, so let’s look at that. The games span a little under a thousand years (Elder Scrolls Online takes place 952 years before Skyrim). In that time, there’s been no meaningful technological development in the setting. This also not even an egregious offender on this front, Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Star Wars are also guilty of this, with, literally, thousands of years of history where no meaningful technological advancement occurs.

Contrast to the real world where the last thousand years saw the development of civilization from fractured city states into unified nations, the development of mechanized transport, near instantaneous worldwide communication networks, and space travel. Most of that, in the last century.

When you’re sitting in the moment, looking at the past, it’s easy to see things as static. “Yeah, people fought with swords for thousands of years,” but, when you start looking at the details, you realize, nothing is static. The swords taken on crusade in 1096 were substantially better than the swords the Roman Legions were using in 96. And those Roman Legions were terrifyingly well equipped in comparison to the Greek Hopolites in 404BC.

There are settings that can justify long periods of technological stasis. In Warhammer 40k invention is seen as religious heresy in almost all cases; this is an example where technological development would stall out. This is further reinforced because of how jealously the Machine Cult guards their technology, while still viewing it in religious terms. There’s something sickly amusing about the idea of a religious cult that would worship a toaster, but, it could explain this kind of stasis.

Post-apocalyptic settings (including 40k) have some justification, because the people who knew how this stuff worked are dead, so the survivors have to play catch-up. Insert a religious order that blocks technological progression, with the political power to enforce it’s views, and you’ve got some justification for technology lying fallow.

This is where the boss chest makes sense. (Sort of, anyway.) If the world has fallen from some forgotten golden age, it’s possible that whatever’s at the end of the dungeon could be weapons or armor made from some lost alloy, that survived the millennia unharmed. It’s even possible it was stored in a climate controlled armory, rather than in a wooden chest that should have rotted away centuries ago.

Golden age gear can also work as story hook, on the idea that this stuff is significant enough to be an important step in preparing your characters to face whatever they’re dealing with. It’s the rare moment where you really can get away with a loot hunt in a non-interactive story.

The other possible payoff to all of this is a shaggy dog. Your character goes through all of the effort to get through the ruin, and they find a ruined artifact. They put hopes and dreams on this chunk of corroded bronze because they believed it was their key to victory, and now they have nothing to show for it. Remember, your reader isn’t here for the loot, they’re here for your character. How your character deals with that, how they move on, that’s the reader’s payoff. That’s what they’re here for. There’s nothing wrong with screwing your characters over, so long the result is interesting to read.

I’ve said this before, but your job as a writer is not to make life easy for your characters. Your job is to make their lives interesting.

-Starke

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