Geopolitical Conflicts: Using Geography to Add Conflict to Your Setting

The first thing I do with every setting is I decide on two or three countries that I want there to be. I imagine what their economies and governments will be like, and I decide if I want them to be naval power, a steppe empire, an isolated enclave, or whatever else. Then I get to work on the map and I design the map so that themes I want for each country are complemented by its surroundings.

I benefit greatly from hindsight here. While the future of a nation is not predetermined, its geography can play a huge role in its development, and I can draw on the events of the past to design the geography and conflicts I want for my setting. So let’s look at a few examples.

A Small Country with a Big Impact

Land mass doesn’t always correlate with influence. It can help of course. Russia for example is huge and benefits from a wealth of natural resources. But Britain is smaller than some US states and yet at one time it ruled much of the world. Give a small nation a resource or circumstance that it can exploit and it can play a huge role in world events.

Waterways are one of my favorite ways to do this, and we can look to Turkey, Panama, Egypt, and Iran for real world examples. Istanbul’s location on the Bosporus allows whoever owns the city to control the sea lanes that pass through it. This brought the Ottoman Empire into conflict with the Russian Empire on multiple ocassions. Russia was denied the warm water ports it craved for as long as it lacked control of the city, and Ottoman control of the straits allowed them to cut off Russia’s connections with the allies in WWI. The other countries meanwhile control major canals or straits vital to world trade, and their ability to constrict that trade gives countries that might otherwise be only a regional power a way to exert influence on a global scale.

Technology and political convenience can also grant influence to an otherwise small country. Imagine if Google had been founded in Cuba. More likely though, in a world where superpowers are vying for influence, a small country that happens to have something that a superpower wants can extract a lot of concessions from them.

The weakness of this later approach is that the benefits a country reaps will be be greater in the short term than the long term. Sea-lanes have been vital for centuries, but technological superiority or political priorities might shift in a matter of decades. Of course this could be a conflict as well and you could choose to focus on a country that is struggling for relevancy in a changing world.

A Big Country with a Big Impact

Big countries with lots of resources and ample space have a lot of room for population growth. The hard part is their size. With such long borders and so many people inside them there bound to be lots of neighbors to pick fights with and lots of internal dissidents. The country better have a robust communication infrastructure or it’s going to be hard for orders from the center to reach the periphery.

The type of government is going to be important here. Are the leaders able to address the needs of the people? Are they able to keep the peace between all the different regional factions that are bound to be present? A large country with a lot of resources can have a big role in world affairs, but without a strong foundation and internal stability it’s bound to fall apart if enough pressure is applied from the outside.

One of the challenges with a such a large country is that there’s a lot of detail to be fleshed out, but there are also plenty of small stories that can be told. Or you could write up a few vague descriptions and leave the Big Country as a boogyman that your characters sometimes have to deal with.

The Isolationist Island

Island nations are perhaps the only nations in the world that actually have a decent chance of keeping all foreigners out. A coastline can be fortified and defended in a way that no land-based border can.

This isolation may not be complete. There may for example be designated ports where foreigners are allowed to trade, but if the island has enough natural resources they may be able to keep their isolation going for a long time.

The problem of course is that it’s easy for the world to pass them by. Sure the citizens might be happy living on their island, safe from the problems of the world, but before long the world is going to come knocking and the island might very well find itself out-matched.

There are a lot of opportunities for story and conflict here. Perhaps the island is experiencing a civil war and trying to hide that fact from outsiders. Maybe the island regularly sends agents out into the world to gather information and new technologies and your character is one of them. Or maybe the island has suddenly been thrown open to the world and its people have to adjust to a new and possibly frightening reality.

The Island Superpower

Maybe an island nation wants to isolate itself from the rest of the world, or maybe because of its small landmass it lacks the natural resources it needs to compete in the modern world. Luckily for them both goals can be achieved through a powerful navy and an aggressive foreign policy. Why buy when you can take? And why tell everyone to stay away when you could just sink every ship that drifts to close to your shores?

The sea is a natural focus for any island nation, it’s the only way for any would-be invaders to reach the island after all. With a strong seafaring culture and a little know-how it could easily grow into a naval super power. Because it’s power depends on naval supremacy however, it may sometimes get dragged into conflicts it would otherwise stay away from. Britain in the early twentieth century entered into a naval arms race with Germany thanks to their policy of always having the biggest navy. The arms race was expensive and helped to ratchet up tensions between the two countries. For Germany building a strong navy was just part of joining the international community of major powers, for Britain making sure they outpaced everyone else in naval development was a matter of survival.

You might also write this as an isolationist island nation that has decided to become a superpower, or at least a major power like Japan did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An island superpower might grown out of a previously isolationist nation that has decided that it must grown and expand in order to be able to compete on the international scene.

Again here there are lots of opportunities for conflict. Isolationist factions might dislike the large navy and feel that it does nothing but get the country involved in foreign affairs. Traditionalists might pine for a return to the “old ways.” Some might think they country isn’t aggressive enough. Or the formerly downtrodden might see all this shipbuilding as a chance to see the world and make their fortunes…at the expense of whoever they might run into.

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The Golden Fleece Inn

First established in Rome during the reign of Augustus. For nearly two thousands years the Golden Fleece Inn has been a nexus of the supernatural community.

Located deep within the Infinite Staircase, the Inn does not actually exist on Earth, allowing Patrius to remodel every few centuries without regard for building codes or the laws of physics. There are six locations where the Inn can be accessed directly from Earth. Each of these appears as a rundown establishment at the end of an alleyway or a dilapidated part of town and is heavily warded by Patrius to make accidental discovery by mortals unlikely.

The six cities on Earth from which the Inn can be located are Rome, Istanbul, London, Kyoto, New York City, and Jerusalem. No matter which door a visitor enters through they all find themselves at the front door to the Inn next to the bouncer. Each city then has its own exit door somewhere in the Inn, while the front door also serves as the exit to the Impossible Staircase. The Inn is also accessible via a short journey through the Impossible Staircase from St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Chicago, Cairo, and Mexico City.

Some guests would prefer that the Inn accept currency other than silver denarius. The Stiltskin Trust Co moneylender in the corner is normally happy to exchange currencies, but often attempts to trick customers into making other bargains.

Both the owner of the Inn and its staff are notably eccentric and have a strong desire to look after the wellbeing of the Inn’s guests.

Patrius – a human sorcerer of indeterminant age. Patrius appears as a middle aged man with slightly greying hair and is usually wearing a purple button-down shirt. He is an extremely powerful sorcerer who uses earth magic to extend his own life. Most of his time is spent sitting in his alcove where he can listen in on conversations. If a guest attracts his interest he will normally invite them to sit with him where he will ask about them about themselves and make occasional notes in his guest book. In the early days of the Inn he was known to disappear for years at a time without explanation. Nowadays his absences have grown much rarer and last for a few days at most.

Ted – the hulky, shirtless, tattooed bouncer sitting in the broken recliner is a troll named Ted. He takes the Inn’s no fighting rule very seriously and doesn’t care about much else. A few years ago someone introduced him to Chinese food and became addicted. Now regulars often bring him offerings of egg rolls and lo mein. Ted is almost never seen without his trusty silver battle axe which stands almost as tall as he does.

Gib and Gob – the kitchens are run by a pair of scaly green imps named Gib and Gob. No one actually knows which one is which. Regulars insist that their cooking is second to none, and they are right as long as the two have had a few years to practice their new recipes.

Dan – A tall and skinny young demon with four arms and horns growing from his forehead. Dan tends the bar and is an amazingly talented mixologist. His true passion however is for coffee and he has several customs blends that he makes for guests.

Bog/Boggie – the Inn’s resident boggart who takes care of the housekeeping and serves as a messenger for Patrius. It takes the shape of a large cat with a silver collar around its neck and a chain that drags along the floor. When it’s not busy it can be found sleeping in front of the fire in Patrius’s alcove.

The staff are exceptionally loyal to Patrius and the Inn, but the place wouldn’t be the same without its regulars.

Nathan – an NYU graduate student studying creative writing and folklore. Nathan is not magical in least but wandered in by accident on day. He’s been coming to the Inn ever since and it has become his favorite study spot.

The Captain – an old mariner who always smells like fish and wont stop talking about the time he wrestled a polar bear. He appears to be some kind of ocean demigod but has never revealed who his parents are.

Doug – the president of the NYC chapter of the Black Dog Motercycle Club. He and his pack come nearly every night.

Arito Taisho – a shinto priest and talented psychic. He comes to the Inn regularly to play cards with Doug and the rest of the pack.

Belesunnu – a middle eastern woman of few words. She has a talent for wind and earth magic and mostly likes to challenge over-confident men to games of darts or archery contests.

Gerark – an elderly bugbear who works for Stiltskin Trust Co. He sits in the corner most days with his magic circle, ready to exchanger currencies and seal magic contracts.

Jasmine/James – a shapeshifting succubus/inccubus who runs a small supernatural escort business. They have helped people hide more than a few skeletons and is generally the one to go to for information about the current state of the supernatural. They are often seen smoking with Patrius in his alcove or giving Dan feedback on his newest coffee blend.

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The Best Things About Bending

Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.

Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.

There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.

Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.

Physicality

This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.

For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.

What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.

Balance

Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.

Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?

In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.

In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.

Incorporation

Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.

Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.

This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?

It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?

Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?

Conclusion

Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.

It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.

What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.

Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.

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