Five Tips for Fantasy Map Makers

1. Mind the Rivers

Some worldbuilders spend years getting their plate tectonics and ocean currents just right. All of this can be fun, but you can make a convincing fantasy map without it. The thing you should really focus on is rivers. No one really cares if your ocean currents are off or your mountains aren’t in the right place. Rivers have an intuitive aspect to them that no other geological feature can match and because of this mistakes are easy to notice. To put it simply, rivers flow from higher elevations to lower ones. Most often rivers will flow into lakes, oceans, or other rivers. Rivers do not flow into a lake, wait around awhile, and then flow into a different river.

This is important because an incorrectly drawn river is jarring to look at even if you don’t know why, and because rivers are hugely important to civilization. Most major cities are built on rivers in order to take advantage of the farmland and transportation that they provide. This means that rivers can serve as a vital plot device, and as such their portrayal should not be ignored. Of course all of this can be ignored, it is your world after all, but I would advise making sure that you have a good reason for doing so.

2. Make Your Map Fit Your Story

People grow to fit their environment. You wont find horse-mounted nomads living in the mountains or naval powers in the middle of the desert. People do the best they can with the hand they are dealt. In fiction, we can decide what that best is and determine a hand that will enable it. There is of course fun to be had in drawing a map and simulating the evolution of civilization from the stone age to now, but that is not what most of us are doing. Most of us have a story we want to tell or an idea for a world we want to depict. There is no reason then to design a landscape that does anything other than to enable the story you want to tell. If you want your countries to be fighting for control of a major sea lane they there better be access to water and natural choke points. If you want your characters to venture to a distant mountain and fight a dragon then you better include a mountain or two within reach.

3. Choose a Realistic Scope

A lot of us like to think big. We draw a map of an entire world, solar system, or even galaxy and then set about filling all of it in. The problem here is that you probably wont use most of what end up writing. Trying to fill every corner of a world with detailed is fun, but ultimately futile. Above all remember that map is meant to be a reference for your players or readers, and the focus of the story is likely to only concern a small corner of the world.

Lately I have preferred to start with a single region or country that is going to be the focus of the setting. Once I have a solid idea of what that country will be I start to fill in its neighbors. Unless I have good reason to, I try to avoid writing detailed histories of these neighbors. I make a brief summary of their current state and history, and after that I try to only flesh out the aspects of this neighbor in areas where they intersect with the story I want to tell.

4. Pay Attention to Natural Barriers

Rivers aren’t the only feature on the map that shape a civilization’s development. What hinders movement in your setting can be just as important. Swamps, mountains, deserts, and seas are all important in imposing limits on an empire’s expansion, providing shelter for smaller groups, and providing places to hide all sorts of interesting dungeons.

Once barriers are in place, routes to circumvent them gain immense strategic and economic importance. Mountains, swamps, and other remote areas might also be where your world’s exiles and hermits choose to live away from society. Both of these provide opportunities for interesting conflicts or quests in a story or campaign. Characters and armies can be sent to secure and defend mountain passes, or might discover that the old hermit living in the swamp has the answer to all of their problems, but reaching him can be an entire adventure in itself.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Things

Getting wrapped up in the worldbuilding is easy. It’s also easy to be disappointed. The finished product rarely resembles the initial concept and there is nothing wrong with that, except of course if you are not happy with it. If you getting into your worldbuilding and you realize that you put a mountain in the wrong place or your cities are too far apart. If you begin to get the feeling that your map is keeping you from writing the conflicts and plot lines that you want then by all means change it. Starting a new project by drawing a map can be a great way to start, but that map should not be a cage. Sometimes we need to make revisions, and it doesn’t do any good to get too attached to a map you have drawn. Keep it of course, even discarded ideas can be useful later on. Don’t be afraid to retcon the entire map if it no longer serves its intended purpose.

Subreddits For Creatives

Reddit is one of the biggest sites online these days with so many subreddits available that you are almost guaranteed to one tailored to your interests. Think of any hobby or weirdly specific meme format and there is probably a subreddit for it. So what if you’re a writer or worldbuilder, what are the best subreddits for you?

Worldbuilding

It should really be no surprise that r/worldbuilding ranks among my favorites. The subreddit has grown significantly in the past few years and welcomes worldbuilders of all levels of talent. New artwork, discussion posts, and resources are posted daily. If you stay on long enough you’ll begin to see who the regular posters are and get to watch their work grow and develop over time. My preferred way of browsing this subreddit is to sort by new and look for discussion posts. Participating in brain-storming sessions or answering questions about your own world is a great practice and a good way to finally flesh out parts of your setting you may have overlooked and been putting off for later.

Imaginary Network Expanded

The Imaginary Network is a cluster of related subreddits dedicated to posting all sorts of art with credit to original artists. I like to browse through it when I’m facing off with writers block. My personal favorites are r/ImaginaryBeasts for making up new flora and fauna, r/ImaginaryBattlefields for thinking up climatic showdowns, and r/ImaginaryStaships for when I need my daily dose of SciFi.

Writing Prompts

When you feel like writing but don’t know what or you’re just looking for a challenge, r/WritingPrompts is sure to help with its long list of user-submitted starting points that range from established fandom to completely originial premises. The subreddit also hosts contests from time to time and has been the route through which many users have gotten their writing noticed. Writing a response to a popular post it can be a good way to get your writing more exposure online. Several frequent posters maintain personal subreddits to showcase their writing. Unfortunately, popular promts are often highly specific or tied to a certain fandom. If this is a deal breaker to you prefer something with a little more freedom then try the less popular r/SimplePrompts.

Map Making

If you’ve made a battle map for your D&D campaign, a fantasy island, a political map of your alternate history scenario, or you just like making maps then r/mapmaking might be the place for you. Like r/Worldbuilding it’s welcoming of all skill levels and is a great place to post if you’re in need of advice or feedback. Just make sure you have all your rivers drawn right before you post.

How to Build a Country

A lot of us like to bang our heads against the wall trying to design sprawling worlds to rival settings like Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth, but attempting a project with such a large scope takes time and may very well lead to disappointment when progress doesn’t come as quickly as hoped.

The good news is that you don’t need to design and entire world. Plenty of interesting stories can be told that take place only in a single valley, forest, city, forest, or even house. If you are designing a setting for your stories to take place in the you need to be honest with yourself about the story’s scope. Figure how much space your characters need and stick to it, make a few one-line summaries about far off lands that you can expand on if needed. Doing this will help you keep your goals in mind and prevent your worldbuilding process from taking over your writing process.

When it comes to worldbuilding there are two basic methods; Top Down and Bottom Up. The process I am describing here is called Bottom Up, where you start by building up a small corner of the world and then expand in scale to fill in the rest of the map. If you have a story to tell and don’t need an entire world to do it, this is where you would start.

For me, if I am going to build a world Bottom Up then I prefer to start at the national level. Even if I only have need of one or two locations in it, I like to have an idea of where my characters might be from and a general idea of events elsewhere that may have an influence on the course of their lives. This approach also makes it easier to focus on a world’s minutia, if that’s what you’re into, rather than getting distracted by what might be hiding in distant lands.

This list of questions is meant to help focus the scope of a worldbuilding project, and help you to decide on what matters in your setting and what does not.

Where is the country located?

Where a nation is plays a huge role in its success and failure. Just as it is hard to become a major naval power without easy access to the sea, it is also hard to build significant influence abroad if your tiny kingdom is sandwiched between two giant superpowers.

Rivers create avenues for trade and enable farming, mountains provide natural barriers and refuges for outcasts, forests and swamps provide a ready source of timber and place to hide all the things that go bump in the night.

Once you know what stories you want to tell, you can design your geography to create the setup to make it possible.

Where are the people from?

Mass migrations and invasions are hugely influential in our own history and can create divides within a populace that can last for centuries. A small group that speaks one language ruling over a much larger population is a situation that is almost guaranteed to spark conflict. Migrations can also explain why certain languages are spoken, or why your country has five different holidays on the same calendar day.

Going back further, these migrations can play a vital role to constructing the country’s mythos. Perhaps these people were once nomads and settled down after receiving the sign from the gods. Or maybe some of your characters are refugees that have been taken in and are trying to survive in an unfamiliar and possibly even hostile land.

Where are the major cities?

When your farmers go to market, where do they go? Where are the train junctions? Where do people send their children off to school? Where do they go on pilgrimage? What are their industries?

Besides the obvious points that major cities are home to centers of military and political power, they may also be the centers of regional rivalries or home to minority ethnic groups. People from different cities might speak different dialects, wear different cloths, celebrate different holidays, or speak with different accents.

Regionalism is an important part of this. No country is truly homogenous. The monolithic nation states today only seem that way because of decades if not centuries of effort expended to create a sense of national identity. In reality separate regions within a larger country may be fierce rivals, and may even hate each other. Or may compete for lucrative contracts and trading partners. In a nation with less centralized authority, these cities may even enter into their own treaties with foreign powers.

What do the people believe?

Religion can serve to unit a populace around a core of shared goals and values, or it can serve to drive a wedge between different segments of the population. Deciding what people believe goes a long way towards explaining their motivations and their biases.

Similarly, consider whether this country as some sort of national mythos around its creation. Does it see its history as a long and drawn out struggle for freedom, or do its leaders preach a vision of the future in which they dominate the continent? Just like religion, founding mythis can act as powerful motivators.

Who is the government?

Few things tell you as much about a country as who gets to participate in government and there are lots of interesting spins that can be put to make an established system of government unique.

First decide who has the power, the people, hereditary nobles, the king, the church, the rich. The possibilities are nearly endless here and you are free to imagine all sorts of checks and balances, traditions and laws surrounding voting, and even past civil wars that have shaped politics in the country’s “present.”

Once you know who calls the shots, you can start to imagine who might be demanding a larger voice in government.

Who are the country’s neighbors?

I warned before against trying to create an entire world when you only need a small corner of it. That said, it’s important to know where the nation stands. A quick list of what countries border this one, who its allies and enemies are, and who buys what from who will help you get a clearer picture of that larger world.

If the country’s neighbors are likely to play a larger role in your story you might spend a few more paragraphs on past conflicts, customs, and clothing so that you can quickly create foreign characters for your protagonists or player characters to interact with.

Armed with this brief outlining you’ll be able to quickly incorporate one line references to far off places. Small details like this are a huge part of what gives a setting sense of size and depth.

Conclusion

Do you prefer this approach, or would you rather build your worlds from the top down?

There are many more questions that can be asked to facilitate this Bottom Up approach. Find me on twitter if there is one that you’re especially fond of or wish I had included.

Ten Books to Sum Up the Decade

One of the most important things that a writer can do to improve is read, so in celebration of the new decade I have assembled a list of ten books I have read between 2010 and 2020 that have influenced what I aspire to in my own writing.

Dune by Frank Herbert

There are more printings of Dune than I care to count, but it’s hard to go wrong with this. Source

Now is a good time to be a fan of Dune, and a great time to start reading if you haven’t. With a new movie coming out next year and the recent re-release of the classic board game there is a lot to be excited about. Frank Herbert crafted a feudal and self-limiting version of the future where humanity has been cowed by its failures and found comfort and stability in its past. Travel between planets is controlled by the influential and mysterious Spacing Guild and technological advancement has stagnated thanks to humanity’s fears of what it created in the past. The novel focuses on Paul Atreides, heir to the house Atreides which claims to trace its origins back to ancient Greece. The novel begins with House Atreides having been given ownership of the planet Arakis, a desert world of great importance, and an obvious trap.

What makes this book and its sequel so interesting is that it is not the story of a man trying to reach some imagined future. Paul knows the future. It is the story of a man who knows his fate and knows the terrible things that he must do. Even as he works towards this terrible future Paul does his best to divert it. In several cases he opts for the lesser of several evils or makes choices different from his visions simply to prove that he can. All the while he creates the very future that he fears. He knows what must be done but he does not want to be the one to do it. Psychic powers such as reading the mind and fortune telling are often depicted at having a terrible cost, but I know of no other narrative that more vividly and creatively captures the horrible price of power.

Codex Alera by Jim Butcher

Wild furies or furies whose masters have recently been killed become a problem for the characters at several points in the story. Source

According to the author the idea for this series began as a dare; write a good book using two bad ideas, Pokemon and a Lost Roman Legion. He succeeded in crafting an engaging high fantasy world with easily understandable but endlessly interesting magic system and culture that is familiar but has shaped by the world it found itself in.

Like with many of my favorite books the magic and the worldbuilding drew me in. Jim Butcher created a coherent and engrossing world out of what was supposed to be an impossible dare. He created a society where everyone could do magic and that magic is taken to its logical conclusion and used for everything from quickening the pace of armies and chilling food, to creating human artillery and magical airlines. To me creating this vibrant world from what was supposed to be a pair of terrible ideas speaks to the author’s skill as a writer and makes it an essential read for anyone looking for some good, modern fantasy.

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I find this to be unusually vibrant cover art for a nonfiction book. The author also has a biography of Stalin for those interested, which is also fantastic. Source

This may turn out to be the only nonfiction book on the list. I have included it because I find the topic fascinating and also because of the way in which Montefiore portrays the character of the various Romanov Tsars. In some ways this book is a history of Russia. For about 300 years the whims and desires of this family determined the fate of millions and given the autocratic nature of the Russian Empire a history of the Romanovs might as well be the history of Russia.

Montefiore manages in this book to paint a vivid picture of the personality of each Tsar. Instead of an ancient and dusty portrait we get a glimpse at a living breathing human who held the fate of millions in their hands. Many of them were deeply flawed, but all of them were human. This I believe presents a lesson not just of history but for any worldbuilders who want to write a compelling despot. Each Tsar presided over an incredibly inhumane regime, but not all of them were bad people. None of them chose to be born into the imperial family. Montifiore portrays many of these Tsars as very relatable and sometimes tragic individuals. Although we sometimes feel bad for relating to people we might want see as evil I think this is the most important lesson of the book. Anyone could be a dictator given the right circumstances.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Depictions of a lone figure in power armor are especially appropriate for this book. As time goes on Mandella finds himself increasingly alienated even from the other soldiers, who are from vastly different time periods. Source

Science fiction authors have the opportunity to imagine and explore an entire universe and all too often they still manage to make it feel small. Joe Haldeman did not have that problem. When the book begins we see humanity in the early years of its travel between the stars, getting ready to go to war with an enemy they know nothing about. The books focus is on William Mandella who was chosen as one of the first to go off-world to fight the Taurans. In each battle the time dilation means a relatively short time passes for him while years go by on Earth. The interest that accrues while he is gone makes him and the other soldiers rich, but each time they return to Earth they find that it has changed drastically from what they knew and the alienation convinces many to reenlist each time they return. A lot of this makes you wonder what the point of the war is, decisions regarding strategy are made years in advance of an actual battle taking place and by the time the battle is fought the decisions made may no longer be relevant. As occurs at the end of the war when many soldiers return to Earth to find out that the war has already been over for years.

Haldeman’s work is a reflection of his own experiences in the Vietnam war. The alienation Mandella feels on returning to Earth is a reflection of the experiences of him and other veterans when they returned home from Vietnam. The futility of the war between Humans and Taurans can also be seen through this lens. After centuries of war all of Earth is reshaped to support the war effort and in the end it is revealed that the war began as an understanding. Mandella returns from his last battle to find Man and Taurans living together in peace and this is something that we later see many veterans of the Forever War unable to accept. In this way Haldeman takes the reader through his own experiences in Vietnam and helps us to understand the alienation felt by many veterans by depicting the drastic changes seen by soldiers of the Forever War who were taken out of their own times and forced into others.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Each book’s cover art does a fantastic job of capturing the mood of the novel. Source

Old Man’s War treats space travel in a very different way than The Forever War but I always felt like there was a common thread. Old Man’s War features many more aliens than The Forever War but the battles seem just as pointless. In it humanity is locked in a state of constant war with other species over the handful of habitable planets available in local space and rejects any proposals that would establish a lasting peace. Soldiers from Earth are recruited when they reach old age and are given new engineered bodies designed for combat. When their terms of service are up they are rewarded with a new younger body and a home on a new colony world. This is the only way for many on Earth to have a chance at seeing the stars.

Like The Forever War, the characters in Old Man’s War are made to fight aliens who did not need to be humanity’s enemies until the Colonial Defense Force made them such. The novel makes you think about whether we are entitled to the land we take, the ethics of consciousness transfer, and the value of learning more about the people you consider to be your enemies. One alien race, the Consu, are seen as a complete mystery until John Perry thinks to look deeper into their motivations and this becomes critical to the resolution of the conflict in the first book.

Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

In order to protect themselves from malignant spells many in Earthsea hide their true names and go by monikers. Ged’s is Sparrowhawk. Source

If you want a book that features subdued yet powerful magic then there are few better books to read than Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin imagined the world of Earthsea as a vast archipelago surrounded by vast oceans. The people who live on these islands are described as having darker skin, a notable deviation from much of fantasy that normally focuses on characters who resemble white Europeans. Magic in Earthsea is performed by learning the True Names of things, and training a full wizard on the island of Roke is shown to take many years. Most of the books are related in some way to the story of Ged, the main character of the first book who later becomes the headmaster of the school on Roke.

What I think the series does best in terms of magic usage is enforce consequences. We never really see a limit to a wizard’s power although it does seem that some are stronger than others. Many limits are self-imposed by wizards who unwilling to disturb the balance of the world. Indeed, the conflict in several of the books is caused by wizards (including Ged) not heeding this balance and leaving everyone else to deal with the consequences.

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I really love the understated covers used for the newer printings of the Culture Novels. The first chapter of Hydrogen Sonata can be read over at Orbit books, which is conveniently the source for this picture.

I have not read all of the Culture novels, and my reading order has been sporadic, but as far as I can see the Hydrogen Sonata is my favorite of the bunch. Banks does something in his books that I would never have thought to try; he wrote about a post scarcity society. We see societies like this in science fiction all the time, but often they start to show their cracks when we look too closely at how they are structure. In his novels Banks showed us the Culture, an extremely advanced anarcho-socialist civilization where every need and want of the populace is provided for by hyper-intelligent AI called Minds. The Culture has no central government and people are free to leave and join it at will. Events are steered by committees of AI acting on their own initiative and by the mysterious group within the Culture known as Special Circumstances, although we are told that many large-scale decisions are made via public referundum. Banks’ ability to imagine the conflict that would matter in this society and portraying them with a unique mix of wit and seriousness really show off the skill he had as a writer and worldbuilder.

The Hydrogen Sonata was the last Culture Novel that Banks wrote before he died, and is named for a song of the same name that one of the books central characters has decided to dedicate her life to learning. As the book starts the Gzilt civilization is getting ready to sublime, an action undertaken by certain advanced species in which the ascend to a higher plane of existence. Some choose to stay behind, others try to make their last days into an endless party. The books tone is equal parts melancholy and anticipation. There is a bittersweet aspect to subliming as a civilization leaves behind all it has built as it goes into the next, and possibly last, stage of its development. A fitting end to a great series and a great career.

The Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan

One of the great things about these books is that if you are interested in the lore you can find a lot of backstory in the RPG, which can be bought on the author’s website. Source

I love fantasy that takes place in periods other than the medieval, and especially fantasy that gives you a sense that the world had changed over the time. The Kingdom of Adro is one of a cluster of nations known collectively as the Nine, which seem in some ways comparable to Europe in the 18th century. In Adro, the books begin with a coup staged by Field Marshal Tamas, a brilliant commander who has now turned on the country that he served so dutifully for so long. In the course of his rebellion he comes in conflict with an ancient oath and gods that had been long forgotten. We get to see the birth of a new, democratic Adro that emerges from an explosion of violence and bloodshed. Politic intrigue and personal rivalries are as often an obstacle to the protagonists as the armies that block their path and even protagonists are not free of their own selfish motivations that can and do lead to the deaths of thousands.

The trilogy is solid gunpowder fantasy, a newer subgenre in that frequently revolves around political revolutions in a changing world. What I like best about the series, besides the magic systems that change and evolve alongside those who practice is, are the character motivations. In staging his coup Tamas married is desire for revenge with the frustration of his lower-class origins. As Field Martial he reshaped Adro’s army into one that rewards merit instead of noble birth and in his quest to avenge his dead wife he creates a similar but bloodier transformation for his nation. It is a stunning example of how revolutions get wrapped up in personal agendas and force you to question whether all of it is worth it. Tamas creates a new, potentially better nation but sets in motion a chain of events that lead to countless tens of thousands of deaths in a war that he engineers with the neighboring Kez for the sake of his own revenge. The end result is a drastic change in the balance of power and politics on the continent and no doubt many in the new Adro who owe their new prosperity to the revolution would thank him for it. But was his revenge worth it?

The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

The cover art has an esoteric, medieval feel that I think fits the book perfectly. Source

Book one of the Prince of Nothing trilogy took me a long time to get to. A friend had been telling me about it for years but I only recently read it and was very surprised by how much I liked it. The Darkness that Comes Before takes place in a world that was destroyed many centuries in the past. The kingdoms that now exist are mere shadows and echoes of their past and now all of them are headed once again to their doom. I love the feeling of history this book has, we are not told much about the world’s past, but everywhere the characters go feels old and lived in. Everywhere you look there are people desperately holding o to the glories and fears of the past and try to make them their own.

In this first book many of the POV characters are observers rather than actors but we see through their eyes how arrogance, greed, and fanaticism lead so many to ruin. Magic is also handled quite well although we are only shown its power a handful of times. Drusas Achamian is a POV character and belongs to a sect of sorcerers known as the Mandate Schoolmen. In his chapters we are presented with a frustrated, demoralized, and often drunk man who seems to have little control over his own destiny. In much of the book he seems to be more of an errand boy than a powerful sorcerer and we do not see him actually cast a spell until the very end of the book. But we do a glimpse of his power when we are shown how others treat him. Those who know who and what he is are cautious around him. Even the headmaster of the largest sorcerers school does not go to meet him unless under heavy guard. To me this shows a great deal of skill on Bakker’s part in shaping our opinions of the character when so far Achamian has simply been caught up in events and has not yet begun to shape them himself.

Hyperion by Dan Simons

It seems clear that the Shrike and Hyperion have some greater purpose. Whatever it is Simons keeps that secret close to his chest in this first novel. Source

Okay so technically I didn’t read this book, I listened to it, and somewhat recently. But I think that this list meant to sum up a decade might as well end with one of my more recent reads. I was at first reluctant to give the book a try after I heard it compared to a science fiction version of Chaucer’s Catebury Tales (which I have not read) but the frame story format gave Simons a great deal of flexibility in telling the story of the seven pilgrims whose lives have all brought them to Hyperion, and their expected deaths, for a variety of reasons. The novel follows seven people on their journey to undertake a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion where they will meet the Shrike, and most of them will be slaughtered in very painful ways. They do this in the shadow of an impending war that will take place on and around Hyperion. At first this premise sounds absurd. After all why would these seven people have agreed to die? Well, according to legend and the Shrike Church the Shrike will allow one of the pilgrims to make a petition of the Shrike. Each of these pilgrims have something that they wish to do or ask for that they believe that the risk is worth it, and we learn their reasons slowly as the book unfolds.

By writing Hyperion as a frame story Simons took advantage of the format’s unique ability to tell multiple stories at once. There are hints of noir, travel diaries, love stories, and tragedies all wrapped up in the novel and tied together with a bow made of political maneuvering. The pilgrims that are the center of the story are pawns, but they do not know the game they are being used in. As the plot evolves we begin to get the impression that even those moving the pawns are unsure of the game and that each pilgrim may hold the key to unlocking the secret of the Time Tombs in which the Shrike resides. And that the coming war may spell the end of humanity as they know it.

Disclaimer: If you click one of the amazon links in this post I may earn a small commission. Please consider buying something through one of the amazon affiliate links to help keep this site up.

So You Want to Invade a Planet

Look up at the stars. Somewhere out there someone is doing something that makes you don’t like and you want them to know just how angry it makes you. How will you do it?

In this scenario I have assumed that FTL is somewhat slow but still possible and that the end target is a developed Earth-like world.

1. Assemble your fleet.

Decide what your goals are, is this meant to be a raid against the planet or do you plan to occupy territory? Make sure you don’t leave your own world undefended when you assemble this fleet and make sure the fleet is equipped to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The ships may be gone for several years and once they leave resupply will be difficult. At least some of your ships should be equipped to harvest local resources and grow food or manufacture munitions.

2. Get Underway

Timing is important. The planet you’re going to might be years away. The main fleet should leave together so that you don’t scatter your forces too much, but it may be a good idea to send a few smaller forces ahead to scout your target. A lot can change while in transit the early you find that our the easier it will be to change course and make new plans.

You may also consider sending smaller detachments after the main force. These could be mostly resupply missions, spaced out so that the fleet can depend on resupply at scheduled points during the campaign.

Remember that depending on the technology available to you there may be a substantial period of deceleration as your approach the target system. This means your engines will be pointed towards your destination and sending out a lot of easily detectable heat and light. If this is a system that gets a lot of interstellar traffic it might be possible for all of this to be lost in noise, though at this point it would be better to assume that you have been seen and that there will be ships waiting for you when you arrive.

3. Fight Your Way Through the Solar System

Space is big, dark, and cold. Any ship is going to give off a huge amount of heat as it moved through space, especially when it starts to starts to decelerate as it approached its destination. A single ship might be overlooked, but a large fleet will be hard to miss, so don’t worry too much about the element of surprise. You can’t really hide your fleet anyway.

What you can do is make the enemy unsure of your intentions. Split your fleet into several battle groups and send them on different trajectories through the target system. This robs your enemy of a single large target and the potential for a decisive battle and allows your fleet to hit multiple targets roughly simultaneously. An advanced world probably has several populations centers through a single star system and you won’t want give your enemies a chance to attack you from behind while you’re busy landing troops on the planet.

When you do enter the system you should consider employing long range missiles. Unmanned missiles are smaller and can move much faster than manned vessels, giving them a better chance of making it through your target’s defenses. The missiles can be used to strike at targets well in advance of your fleet’s arrival to minimize the risk to your own ships.

4. Establish Orbital Superiority

By the time your ships reach the target planet their defenses will have hopefully been greatly weakened by missile strikes and their fleet will have been dispersed to deal with the multiple battle groups you’ve sent through the system. If the planet has any space elevators or sky hooks now would be the time to seize them. Ships should be positioned so that the entire planet can be observed.

5. Find Your Targets on the Ground

You probably lack the troop numbers and the will to fight for every inch on the planet’s surface. Before landing begins, select targets on the ground that might pose a threat but are also not ones you care about owning yourself. These targets should all be destroyed from orbit before any landing operations begin. Munitions used here need not be nuclear, a few metal rods dropped from orbit should be more than enough.

If multiple continents on the planet’s surface have been settled it may be worth targeting any infrastructure that might connect them in order to hinder the enemy’s ability to move their troops around. Of course this assumes that you do not want that infrastructure for yourself.

6. Deploy Ground Troops

Ground troops should only be deployed to secure targets that you have decided are vital to the success of your campaign; planets are just too big to consider anything else. Power plants, space ports, terraforming stations, and government buildings are all worthy targets as just owning them will give you control of other areas and may yield valuable intel.

The scale of the landing really depends on what your goals are. If you want to disable a few critical systems while securing intel and prisoners then you may not need to deploy more than a few thousand troops. If you plan on holding territory for any length of time then tens or even hundreds of thousands may be needed.

7. Pack Up and Leave

Annexing an entire world requires a massive commitment of resources and millions of soldiers over many years may be required to completely secure a world. If regular bombardments do not phase you then this could conceivably be accomplished with a much smaller force at the risk of rendering large segments of the surface uninhabitable.

If your goal was just to knock the system out of action to prevent them from supporting your enemy’s war effort then your options are much simpler. Once your troops have secured whatever intel or prisoners you wanted on the surface you can extract them, blowing up space ports and even power plants as you leave. Space elevators and skyhooks can be demolished by the fleet once troops have been fully evacuated.

All those space ports and elevators will likely take many years to fully replace, but to hinder outside relief then nothing quite beats a selection of orbital denial weapons (You can keep your fleet in orbit of course, but if this is part of a larger conflict then the ships are probably needed elsewhere).

A minefield in space is not going to look anything like what we see on Earth, and mines as they have been depicted in Star Trek several times would be hard to make work. Space is big and mines are tiny, you want your minefield to depend on more than just chance collisions. Here I think a swarm of small, automated satellites would come in handy.

Satellites could be deployed in order and throughout the system and outfitted with various armaments including missile launchers, rail guns, and gamma ray emitters, and if you’re more a fan of the classics then explosive satellites could be designed that would then release shrapnel to clear their orbits of enemy ships.

FTL and Its Implications

Almost all space opera depends on relatively easy travel between the stars. Deciding on just how characters are able to do this has massive implications for the story being told and the society in which your characters live. FTL travel enables all of the other stories that happen in a setting, so it should be no surprise that deciding on how FTL is achieved is one of the hardest parts of scifi worldbuilding.

Disregarding portals, let’s look at four basic flavors of FTL.

  1. FTL is Impossible: Travel between stars takes a long time. If travel beyond the solar system is possible then it will be primarily through generational ships. Contact between solar systems will be rare if it occurs at all.
  2. FTL is Possible But Slow: As it turns out the speed of light is just a suggestion but spacers can still expect to find that many years have passed since they left. Relativistic effects may come into play.
  3. FTL is Possible and Fast: Travel between worlds still takes time but is not a life sentence.
  4. FTL is Instant: A ship disappears in one place and reappears in another. There may still be limits in how much distance can be covered in a single jump or how long the engines need to cool down.

The in-universe explanations will vary but the results are essentially the same. Some use extra dimensional spaces, others use alternate universes. Whatever the explanation is it will have huge repercussions for the story being told.

Two of my favorite examples in established fiction are John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. In both of these series the methods of FTL travel can be seen to shape the story. In Old Man’s War FTL is accomplished via Skip Drives that resemble Method 4 and we are treated to dialogue in which we see that they are limited by distance with fleets taking time to assemble as ships must first maneuver to systems within a more favorable range.

The Forever War takes a very different approach to FTL travel. For the most part travel between the stars is very, very slow. Soldiers sent off to fight the Taurans might return to Earth to find that while they might have only aged a few months or years, decades or even centuries have passed for everything. Something similar but less extreme is seen in Dan Simon’s Hyperion and we can see how this difference in how spacers experience time might create a group separate from the rest of civilization.

In the first example the limitations of space travel are a strategic challenged while in the second space travel is a societal issue. Although this would still be a massive advancement compared to what we have today it would mean that society would need to figure out how to deal with the spacers and soldiers who find themselves outside of their own time period.

Both of these methods and the rest of the four have their own implications and should explored at least in the world building stages so that a consistent and reasonable narrative can be presented to your audience. Science fiction is just that, fiction, but failing to be consistent about something as integral as travel times can quickly cause the audience to lose interest as the contradictions mount.

So which flavor of FTL is your favorite? Let me know on twitter @expedition_blog.

Disclaimer: I may earn a small commission if you buy something after clicking one of these links.

Using Pseudoscience to Beef Up Your Technobabble

All good genre fiction needs its technobabble. However wacky and unreal you want to make your universe is okay so long as it is backed up by consistency and enough internal logic to make your readers suspend their disbelief for a few hours.

History is full of discredited theories and failed hypotheses. Some were just plain outlandish when they were first proposed and still are, others seem to make sense at first but fall apart under scrutiny. Even though they have been debunked or misrepresented, these five examples of pseudoscience may serve as starting points for those worldbuilders looking for a way to justify their strange tech and magic spells.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Linguistic relativity began as the idea that the language a group speaks influences the way that its members look at and think about the world. Forms of the hypothesis varied from declaring that language determines the way the speaker looks at the world to merely influencing a speaker’s world view. Debates about this topic have been going on since Plato’s time but for the most part the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis appears to have been discredited.

Arrival used the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to explain the alien language that changed its user’s perception of time. Source

Even so, the idea that language can influence a speaker’s mind is incredibly compelling and gives us a great starting point for explaining magical languages without necessarily invoking true names. Might some industrious wizard have designed a language to shape its speaker’s mind to better accomodate to spell casting or to lessen the risk of magical misfires? What I like best about this idea is that it allows for competing magical traditions. I love magic systems built around true names like in Earthsea but they make it hard to imagine different cultures having different approaches magic. Using something like Sapir-Whorf lets us have different cultures each with their own magical languages, or schools of wizards devising languages optimized for their particular niche.

Phlogiston

There was a time when people thought that combustable materials contained a unique element that was released when burned. They called it Phlogiston. Unlike the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which sounds convincing at first, the flaws with Phlogiston theory are immediately apparent. That said, it would provide a great explanation for all manner of steam punk goodness.

Need an explanation for why those little brass cylinders are able to power your automatons? Just use Phlogiston! All you need is for some mad scientist to find a way to extract and bottle phlogiston and you have a ready made battery for all your science fiction needs.

Quantum Physics

Unlike the other examples on this list, quantum physics is a very real but also very misunderstood part of science. I personally cannot think of anything that is misrepresented to a greater degree in science fiction than quantum physics, and I’m not sure many people actually understand it either. At a certain scale, we’re talking protons and electrons and even smaller, classical physics no longer describes what we are able to observe. Quantum physics describes interactions on this subatomic scale. That’s it.

We can only calculate the probability of an electron being somewhere and not its exact location. I’ve often wondered if this could be used to explain the Heart of Gold’s infinite improbability drive. Source

Yet it has been used in many works (and by modern day snake oil peddlers) to explain many apparently magical effects. And if you’re writing genre fiction then that’s perfectly okay! Quantum physics has a lot of weirdness to it that is unintuitive for most and science fiction is all about science that has yet to be discovered, so don’t feel bad if you use quantum entanglement or tunneling to explain away your new warp drive. The audience wont mind.

Luminiferous Aether

It was once thought that light needed some medium to travel through on its journey between the Sun and Earth. In the nineteenth century there were some who proposed that some luminiferous ether existed between the planets that allowed light to travel. This was of course disproved, but like phlogiston it holds lots of potential for writers of steampunk fantasy.

What might the ether do if it could be harnessed? It could hold the key to powering giant brass spaceships, or be tamed to craft constructs from hardened light.

Vitalism

There was a time when it was thought that living matter was fundamentally different from inert materials. This was disproved when urea was successfully made from inorganic starting material. That said, the idea that living things contain a “vital spark” is hugely useful in fantasy fiction.

One doctor once tried to determine weigh souls by placing terminal patients on a scale as they died. Like any mad science experiment it was packed with flaws. Maybe your characters will have better luck. Source

Immediately it provides a power source for spells, justification for ghosts, a way for enlightened characters to sense the presence of others, and has lots of avenues to be exploited by the villains. What happens when a character’s vital spark is stolen? Can illnesses affect their spark? Does losing their spark kill a character or just make them husks of themselves? Can sparks be recycled?

Conclusion

There are plenty of other examples of pseudoscience that I could have referenced here. Just one example could be the topic of an entire book. These are just a few that I personally find to be especially interesting. The point I am really trying to get at is that history is filled with misconceptions and while they turned out to untrue in our world the “what if?” part of worldbuilding allows us to explore settings where the unreal is real. Many of these ideas are specific to particular eras in our own history, most of the examples I have used would not be our of place in our 19th or early 20th century. In many cases they show a desire to better understand our world and a desire to fit classifications and causes to observable phenomena. Crackpot theories and pseudoscience show a world where science is advancing, it’s up to you the writer to decide how accurate they are.

Have a favorite superstition that I didn’t mention here? Find me on twitter @expedition_blog to let me know!

What if the Church Ruled the World?

Asking “what if?” is an essential part of world building. What if Germany won the war? What if John Wilkes Booth had failed? What if bagels had never been invented? Single and sometimes insignificant events can have huge implications if you explore the lines of possibility. So the other day on reddit a user was asking for thoughts on a world where the Church dominated and it got me thinking about what such a world would look like. Before I begin I should say that this is not an especially detailed outline, you’ll notice that I also did not pick a point of divergence from our own timeline. This is because I wanted to focus more on the “big picture” concerns. Now, with that out of the way, let’s get into it.

First, could it actually have happened? Well, maybe, and that is a big maybe in my non-expert opinion. to start, the Church would had to come out of the Protestant Reformation mostly unscathed, and then it would have had to achieve at least the appearance of control over government. Then it would have had to greatly expand its influence outside of Europe which comes with its own set of challenges. Of course, in this timeline the Reformation might never had happened leaving the Catholic Church relatively unopposed in western Europe with Orthodox Christianity in the east left as the

If we take the view that world-spanning theocracy would have been possible then we will have to be a little loose in what we describe as “world spanning.”

Image medieval Europe. Do you picture devout citizens attending witch burnings and risking punishment for minor sins? Historically this was not the case and it would be unlikely to be true in our imagined theocracy. There were of course many instances of religious violence and punishment but that does not mean the church was all seeing or enjoyed universal jurisdiction. Making laws to regulate morality are one thing, enforcing them are another.

Next, let’s look at the medieval Catholic Church. In many places the Church owned a great deal of land and Bishops would rule over estates much like the rest of the aristocracy. Even up until the later half of the nineteenth century the Pope ruled a small area of Italy referred to as the Papal States. So from these examples we do have some idea of what it would look like if the Church ruled the world. It even caused some issues in 1848 when the Pope was forced to balance the popular pressure for a unified Italy with a reluctance to be seen to oppose the interests of the catholic Austrians.

Saint Peter's Basilica
The Catholic Church is still the largest Christian Church in existence with 1.7 billion members as of 2017. Source

We also see what it is like when the Church becomes a path to power. When joining the priesthood became a viable career path for younger sons of the nobility the Church found itself having to compensate for the tastes of these upper class acolytes and wound up declaring that beavers are fish so that they could be consumed on fast days. Changes like this allow the letter of Church law to be followed while forsaking the spirit of them and I think we would see a lot of this in a world-spanning theocracy.

Finally, we should look at the many smaller schisms, aberrations, and the “pagan” practices that were absorbed into Christian tradition. No matter how wide spread the Church became it was always difficult to completely erase pre-existing traditions.

From these three things we can draw a few conclusions.

  • Religion and politics rarely coincide.
  • When religious service becomes a pathway to power compromises will be made.
  • Uniformity is hard.

If we assume that it would be possible for the Church to have gained control of Europe before moving on to the rest of the world that control would be far from uniform. It is unlikely that the Church would be able to supplant all rulers and instead we might expect to see a Church-led coalition where direct Church power in strong in some places and weak in others and Church decrees are rarely carried out in full.

I think true devotees might be rare in this scenario. But I would not be surprised if a few leaders like Mozgus emerge in response to what they might see as rampant secularism. Source

Now, if we them assume that the Church expands outwards from Europe and conquers the rest of the world how will that go? We will have to assume that it occurs in piecemeal. In some cases European rulers will likely embark on wars of conquest in the name of the Church as a way to settle old scores and achieve personal goals. Especially in North Africa and the Middle East. Elsewhere, Church sponsored missionaries and trading expeditions will spread economic and religious influence to the rest of the world. The challenge here is really to figure out how long it takes and how tightly this Christianization of the world takes hold.

It should be safe to assume that the first few expeditions to the Americas will bring the same mix of old world diseases as they did in our timeline. Establishing both Catholicism and control in these lands were most of the prior inhabitants are dead or greatly weakened should not be terribly difficult, although it may take a few wars and centuries to see through to the end.

It’s the rest of the world that is the major stumbling block in my mind. Regions that have established powers, their own religions, and some measure of immunity to the diseases that follow the Europeans. Of course in our history the European powers managed to conquer or establish spheres of interest nearly everywhere they went so I think it is safe to assume that things would turn out the same way in this alternate timeline.

Remember though, in this scenario we’re not just looking at political or economic control of the region, but spiritual as well.

Religious domination will take considerably longer than other processes. In all regions there are bound to be missionaries and converts. In this scenario we are assuming that a Church-led coalition dominates Europe and the rest of the world. The Church’s claim to authority will rest on their ability to claim the majority of their allies’ subjects as members of the Church. As long as there are sizable populations of non-believers a ruler who wants to split with the Church can claim to be acting in the interest of these subjects when they do so. If this is the case then it might be in the Church’s best interest to settle for imagined rather than actual conversion. Getting subjects to play the part of good Catholics in public would give the Church the numbers it needs to keep bargaining with secular authorities.

What I think this will end up creating is a world where the Church cares more about the appearance of faith rather than actual piety. We have already established that making the Church into a political power will mean that the clergy will be split between those who joined out of faith and those who want power for themselves. We also see that mixing religion and politics will force one half to compromise at times to appease the other.

In this scenario I believe that political convenience and the inherent challenges that come with attempting to replace all native religions would lead to a world dominated by the Church and its allies where practicing one religion in public and another at home is normal and maybe even expect in some places. Even in areas where large segments of the population converts the new christians are likely to bring many of their former religious practices and customs with them.

We now have a world that began much like our own, where the Catholic Church was able to place itself at the head of a coalition of European powers before these same powers began colonizing the rest of the world in earnest. This marriage of religion and the state will force compromises on the Church.

Finally, let’s imagine what living in this world would look like.

If you live in this world, your town will either be under the direct control of the Church or controlled by a ruler who has some sort of allegiance to them. Church attendance will likely be expected and if not required by law there will certainly be a great deal of social pressure to attend. That said, how seriously the priests take their sermons may vary. Some are bound to be truly pious, but once priesthood is bound to politic authority there will be no shortage of those who join for the sake of social advancement.

The Church will claim universal authority and try to appear as if the clergy is completely unified, but there will always be areas where control is weaker than others. There might even be countries which do not fall under the Church’s direct influence and survive this way through political arrangements or simple geographic isolation. Island nations like Britain, Iceland, and Japan come to mind as ideal candidates for independent entities.

Competing factions within the Church, each with their own interpretation of scripture, are also likely. Human and civil rights, ethnic and national concerns, and alternate modes of worship might all come into play as this Church-led world advances in the modern age. Isolated Bishops may begin to run their diocese as miniature kingdoms if left alone or may start to prioritize local concerns over the greater needs and goals of the Church.

How will the Church handle dissent? The larger it grows the more likely a schism will occur. New believers and new discoveries will bring no shortage of new ideas to the Church. If the Church is willing to allow changes or accommodate different sects under the Catholic umbrella then I think the status quo could be preserved for some time in this scenario.

Feel free to reach out on twitter to talk about how you would design this world or what stories it might be filled with.

Disclaimer: I may earn money from the affiliate links on this page.

Riots & Rebellions Part 3: Loyalists

When revolution comes the powers that be will have to decide how to respond, and their response can reveal much about the reasons the revolutionaries have taken up arms in the first place. Supporters of the regime are as important to the course of the revolution as the revolutionaries are. An officer who feels they need to make an example can easily make martyrs out of protesters. On the other hand, it’s easy to storm the palace when conscripted soldiers realize that they would rather not shoot at their friends and family.

First, why do they care? There doesn’t have to be just one reason, since they may be just as divided in their aims as the rebels. But generally the people propping up the government should have some reason for doing so. Are they part of the ruling elite? Do their businesses benefit from tax incentives or kick backs? Is there salary paid by the regime? Are they common people who just want to continue on with their lives and don’t like the disruption the hooligan rebels have caused?

Supporters may not even be from the same country in which the revolution is taking place. A neighboring autocratic regime may fear that a revolution in their region will encourage revolutionaries at home and step in to ensure that the rebels fail. Foreign commercial interests may also see the rebels as intolerable disruptions to their operations. Even opponents of the regime’s actions might be against the revolution if they see the regime as a necessary evil, or a bulwark against something worse. This ends justifying means attitude might be found in settings like Warhammer 40k. The Imperium’s treatment of its subjects is detestable but also far better than what life would be like under the xenos threats that constantly test its strength. Assuming the xenos would allow human life to exist at all.

Responses to rebellion might be inconsistent and lack the force of conviction even in autocratic regimes. Rulers can find themselves torn between advisers and political interests who each have their own pet method for rule. They might offer concessions one day and dismiss parliament the next. But this seesaw behavior will only erode trust in the government and make the regime’s instability even more obvious.

A forward thinking ruler will likely offer concessions. Better to keep some power and grant the people more rights than find your head on a chopping block later on. That said, plenty of autocrats will stubbornly hold on to power out of a sense of arrogance or may be convinced that foreign support is coming. Some may not realize how widely disliked they are or believe that ruling is a job that they were appointed to by God and thus must uphold it. In some cases an autocrat who sincerely believes this might actually be less willing to use force, and have to be convinced by advisers that it is time to finally call in the army.

Adding to this is how many of the autocrat’s subjects also believe in this divine purpose. Rebels with backing and strong leadership can attract support through the promise of future legal and financial incentives. But religious incentives are harder to overcome. Someone who believes God is on the side of the autocrat and against the rebels is going to be harder to convince than someone who has picked a side simply for personal gain.

The darker motives of the rebels should also be considered. Few things make loyalists out of people than a belief that they will face retaliation following a revolution. An local group rebelling against a distant empire is all well and good, but how will they treat other native groups that are not them? Do the rebels fight for rights for everyone or only for people like them? One group wanting representation for themselves does not always mean that they want representation for others.

Above all, the most important part to coming up with regime supporters is deciding on their motivations. Few people are actually truly evil, they just want to survive, do good by their families, and may have different ideas of what government should look like. You can make a character sympathetic but still do bad things. You can also make them not entirely wrong. Make your reader grapple with these concepts, and make your revolutionaries prove to the audience that they are in the right.

Everyday Carry: My Five Favorite Pens

1. Jotter XL

I love Jotters. I love the simple design, the refill options, the affordable price, and the history. Parker has been making Jotters since 1954, meaning there are plenty of variations on the classic design for anyone who just isn’t happy with the standard. But despite my great love for these pens they sometimes feel a tad small in my hands, so when the Jotter XL came out I was ecstatic. The XL takes the same refills as a standard jotter and shares the same design language, but according to Parker’s website the pen is 7% larger than the standard model. This may seem like only a small change but makes a huge difference in how it feels to hold. For me it creates the perfect ergonomics for what was already an almost perfect pen.

2. Rotring 800 Ballpoint Pen

Rotring’s ballpoint version of their 800 mechanical pencil was something I waited awhile for. Their industrial aesthetic and sturdy build quality make them easy favorites, even if the price can be a little eye-watering. Even the box has a great design. All the writing utensils in this series come in a slim triangular box that immediately sets it apart from other pens. My one complaint is that sometimes the barrel feels a little too small in my hands, but the knurled grip greatly offsets this.

3. Lamy 2000

In some ways Lamy seems to me like the Apple of pens. Their products are well built, fun to use, but sadly proprietary. Lamy ballpoint cartridges are a pleasure to write with but are not the parker-style refills that come in most of the pens I have. That said, Lamy makes some of my favorite pens like the Lamy 2000. It’s got a simple design and hefty feel and comes in several variants if you’re someone who needs a multipen or just likes having the complete set.

4. Cross Tech2

A lot of pens nowadays come with a built in stylus that I’ve never found much use for. But I am a sucker for finishes that Cross puts on their pens and the stylus point on the end looks good aesthetically. It’s just a good, quality pen with a nice feel and a great finish.

5. Pentel Energel

I love to see variety within a product line, it helps to satisfy my urge to collect. And Pentel’s Energel line does the job splendidly. The pens come in multiple colors, nib sizes, and price points. You want to just spend a few bucks on a pen to take notes with in class? Energel has got it. You want a fine point for scribbling in the margins? They’ve got that too. They even have a more upscale model with the same refill if you need something that works as a gift or looks good in meetings. Like the Pilot G2s or parker-style refills, this is a line that has a lot of versatility, with a well-made cartridge that can be used in a wide number of formats to suit your use-case and preferences.

I may earn money from qualifying purchases made through amazon affiliate links.