Tag Archives: world building

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.


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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?”


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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.


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.


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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.


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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?


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.


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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.


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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.


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Q&A: Anachronism Stew

Could carrying multiple weapons at the hip be at all practical? My rogue knight, he’s paranoid so he carries a dagger, a tomahawk, a broadsword, and a scimitar on him at almost all times. Would this work in any way?

There’s a few questions here.

Multiple weapons is normal. That’s not even a paranoia thing. At the very least, a character would carry a primary weapon (maybe a spear or other polearm), and a sidearm (a sword, battle axe, or something similar.) They’d probably also carry a dagger. Historically these were a combination of eating implement, multipurpose tool, and emergency weapon. Depending on context, they may also carry a shield (which is, ultimately a weapon in its own right.)

A hatchet would end up in a kind odd state here. It’s reasonable for them to carry it as a tool. They probably wouldn’t use it in combat by choice, but if it’s the only thing you can reach, sure. This puts it in a similar class to the dagger, but carrying both would still make sense.

It’s also possible, depending on their culture, that they’d carry throwing weapons. Throwing axes or javelins are the two that come to mind. (Probably because you mentioned tomahawks.)

The term tomahawk throws me off a bit. The word is Algonquian. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind if your setting is a pseudo-medieval Europe. Trade off is, if you’re wanting a “New World Colonization,” theme, then yeah, a tomahawk would make sense. Though, at that point, your character would probably be carrying a musket as their primary, a pistol (or several), a saber, possibly a bow, a knife, and said tomahawk. Again, nothing wrong with this if you want to step into an early modern setting (think 17th century), it is an incredibly interesting era that’s undeserved in popular fantasy. So, feel free. Though, you might want to do some additional research before you jump in.

There’s another weapon nitpick: the broadsword and scimitar combo is weird. The scimitar is Middle Eastern. The broadsword is an anachronism. Unless you have a character who’s dual wielding, I’d recommend only bringing one dedicated sidearm. (The pistols example above is an anomaly. Some combatants carried multiple black powder pistols and would simply swap out weapons instead of reloading them in combat. This was a rarity, and fell out of practice as faster reload systems became prevalent.)

So, we have an anachronism stew here. We’ve got a European knight, who’s using a Persian weapon, and a Native American weapon. This is a little odd. (The word, Scimitar, entered English from either French or Italian.) You can bring all of this together, but it’s worth remembering that weapons, (and martial arts) aren’t universal. Historically, these had regional roots. Picking them indiscriminately can, at best, result in an anachronistic mess, and at worst can be downright offensive.

I’m not sure what you’re after with, “rogue knight.” I mean, is he supposed to be multi-classed, because the real world didn’t work like that. A knight spent most of his life training for combat. There wasn’t really time for him to go out and develop a side career as a thief.

Now, if your setting has militant orders who train for clandestine warfare, sneaking in and around, that’s an option. There’s no real world equivalent. Modern special forces were an evolution of the extreme lethality of 19th and 20th century combat, though it’s possible a fantasy setting may have militant orders that operate like this.

Another possibility is that your character wanders around, basically of their own accord. In that case, the term you’re looking for is Knight Errant.

A former knight who’d been excommunicated could also be described as rogue. I’m not at all sure how that works out, but I’m confidant your character would have cause to be a bit paranoid if that were the case. Particularly if there are religious inquisitions on the lose. Most of the time we think of the Spanish Inquisition (15th century), but the inquisitions date back to the 12th. Militant orders date to the 10th, so there’s some overlap here.

Putting this together, it is possible, you have an excommunicated knight who fled to The New World to avoid inquisitorial scrutiny. This could get close to the specific combination of weapons you’re looking at, but we’re realistically talking mid 17th century here. Of course, with a fantasy setting, things start to shuffle around a bit.

So, in answer to your final question, could this work? Yes, but that loadout is a little awkward. You may want to do some further research on the era you’re looking at, before you start tweaking the world.


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Q&A: A Knight’s Arms

I’m writing a book in a fantasy setting and my main character is a knight. His main weapon is a longsword, with a shortsword as a sidearm. Do you think he should carry a bow as well, or would that not make sense as that is what archers are for?

Normally, a longsword would be the sidearm. The shortsword, or long knife (the terms are analogous) would be a backup weapon. This is more or less how knives are used today. Their primary weapon would probably be a spear, or another polearm of some variety. That said, this is all very dependent on the culture you’re working from, so I’ll loop back to that in a minute.

Mounted archers certainly existed. They would act as skirmishers, harassing enemy infantry at close range, while staying out of melee. It’s a distinct combat role, and not something you’d normally associate with knights. (For reference, mounted archers aren’t the only form of skirmishers. Small squads of archers or even specialized infantry units performed the same role.)

Normally (at least in Europe) the role of the Knight was cavalry. These would be mounted units that charged into enemy infantry to disrupt their formations, then they would either break contact and repeat or they would remain in direct combat against the disrupted infantry.

While charging, cavalry benefits significantly from polearms, (particularly spears and lances.) After the charge, because of the ranges that combat will occur at, a soldier will be better served with a sword. They’ll be stuck in close quarters surrounded by enemy infantry. The horse is a critical part of their armaments, providing a serious advantage, but they’re still attacking people next to their boots. At that point, a sword is a much better tool than a spear.

It’s fairly plausible that your Knight would know how to use a bow, and had received rudimentary training on one, even if they weren’t a master marksman, and didn’t carry one normally. This isn’t so much an endorsement of the idea that they’d need to carry a bow, so much as the basic suggestion that, yeah, these options would be open to your character.

So, that’s reality (specifically historical Europe, where we usually draw the model of a knight from), but, you’re writing a fantasy setting and that may differ significantly from the real world.

When you strip out the specifics of the training, a Knight was an elite, specialized, combatant. Real Knights were trained to do some of the most difficult jobs in Medieval combat, and as a result required substantially more time to prepare. Knights were, in some ways, analogous to modern special forces. This means it’s better for you to tailor your knight’s weapons to the threats they face, rather than suggesting a basic set of gear and asking if that makes sense. It could.

So, if your fantasy setting is “basically Europe,” with the serial numbers filed off, then, yeah, a longsword, shield, spear, dagger, and possibly some kind of ranged weapon like a shortbow, would make sense for your character. Especially if they’re operating on their own or with a small group of other knights errant.

If your setting is swarming with monsters, then a heavier, or more versatile polearm, like a halbard, poleaxe, or voulge may be more useful. Additionally, a heavier bow, and more time spent honing their marksmanship, would be appropriate.

If your setting is densely mountainous, with no real opportunity to use a horse, where most encounters occur in very tight spaces, then you’d probably get more value from the sword than the spear.

A knight’s role in society, their armor, their weapons, even their training, are all part of the larger world that they inhabit. If your fantasy world starts to depart seriously from the real one, you might want to go back and consider what else would change.

For example: if your setting is a volcanic archipelago, with tiny coastal enclaves on the islands, then that world’s knights would need to be equipped for travel by sea, and combat aboard ships. So, lighter armors would be far more useful. Swords (assuming there were sources of iron), would still make sense as a weapon choice, but aboard ship, you wouldn’t have room for polearms. Those might be used during amphibious assaults, however. Your knights would probably still benefit from some kind of ranged weapons, though at that point, thrown options would be better (salt water is not kind to bows, and you never want to get your bow wet.)

So, do your choices sound reasonable? Yeah, they might, if they fit with the world you’re creating.


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Q&A: Guns and Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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