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.
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.
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.
FTL is Possible and Fast: Travel between worlds still takes time but is not a life sentence.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Whether an attempt at revolution succeeds depends very much on who is fighting it and what their goals are. Can they convince others to follow them? Do they have the skills to lead or are they a good enough judge of character that they can choose others to lead for them? What is motivating them? Is there a limit to how far they are willing to achieve their goals? All of these are important things to think about when plotting your world’s next great uprising.
Not every revolutionary needs to be charismatic, but it certainly helps. So many uprisings come down to a single moment, a spark that sets off the rest of the powder keg. Your character either needs to be someone who can capture and channel that energy or have someone willing to take the stage on their behalf. Lot’s of people look back at George Washington as a great general but he actually didn’t win that many battles. Rather he excelled in picking good generals to advise him, getting people to work together, and keeping their moral up. The revolutionaries you design should have their own failings just like he did.
Whatever their brand of leadership may be, make your to leave room for them to make their share of mistakes. Make your character an brilliant planner, or a charismatic speaker, or maybe just someone who is too stubborn to give up. But also give them failings, bonus points if these failures are very public. Put your characters through the wringer and make them prove to the people that they deserve to lead the revolution.
Revolutions are often preceded by decades of debate, philosophizing, unrest, broken promises, and even failed revolts. Competing ideologies are bound to spring up amidst all of this disagreement. Your characters may find themselves forced to work together with opposing factions in order to bring down the current regime, leaving pesking details like who will be in charge for later.
There may also be a fair number of martyrs in your setting’s revolutionary history. To your characters these martyrs might be serve as memories to rally around of a painful part of history that people are afraid of seeing repeated. These memories of failed revolutions can range from lost battles in the field and dissolution due to infighting to overzealous investigators guillotining everyone. A lot of this may not make it into the final story, but it makes for good worldbuilding and can be useful for figuring out how your characters will interact with their world and with each other.
You’ll need to decide very early on what your character’s background is and make sure that it is consistent with the cause they are fighting for. Their past should contribute to their motivations and why they want to see the current regime brought down but that does not mean their goals at all need to be noble. Some might become revolutionaries because they want glory or riches for themselves. Your revolutionary could just as easily be an army officer who was passed over for promotion or a foreign merchant who would rather see those annoying tariffs go away.
And what about revolutions that come from the top down? Say an altruistic monarch in your setting decides its time to implement a constitution. Will the country’s elite go along with these changes or will they fight to keep business as usual? Will the populace rejoice or will they suspect ulterior motives? Most people just want to keep food on the table and their families safe. They might well distrust someone who rocks the boat to much, even if they have good intentions.
If you are writing a story about revolutionaries then it’s probably safe to assume that you have them fighting for good cause, but how far are they willing to go for this cause? Is no price too high for the sake of the revolution, or are there some lines they simply will not cross? Better yet, is there a difference between where they say the line is and what they actually do?
You may want their adherence or lack thereof to influence their success. Making a choice that goes against their normal values may alienate supporters. Otherwise, your character refusing to do something that goes ‘too far’ might cost them an important victory. Values that limit their actions may drive a wedge between them and their allies who may come to see their morals as an obstacle in the way of their goals.
Vision vs Outcome
You should keep in mind what your revolutionary thinks is their end goal. Say they succeed in toppling the old regime. What will they do then? Do they want to lead the new government and build their ideal world or would they rather retire and let others carry the torch.
A revolution’s reality often does not live up to its promise. How will your character react when other revolutionaries have other ideas, or when they find themselves contradicting their beliefs for the sake of victory. Conflict requires hard choices and those choices might not always be the most appealing to your character’s moral compass.
Finally, if the revolution prevails will your character have the skills needed to build their envisioned future?
Fantasy settings are full of oddly placed umlauts, strange hyphens, and awkward apostrophes that are often maligned online. Which is unfortunate, since coming up with names is one of the hardest parts of writing, and approaching it afraid of committing one of these cardinal sins doesn’t help. But it really isn’t something anyone should worry about, because in the end it’s just mashing syllables together until something that sounds like a noun comes out. Besides, plenty of real words sound strange if you think about them long enough or if the language is unfamiliar to you. Hyphens, umlauts, apostrophes and other unusual characters can be totally appropriate in a name so long as they are not used excessively. One of my favorite fictional names contains an asterisks, and belongs to the Gzilt ship 8*Churken in Hydrogen Sonata by Ian. M. Banks, simply because it is so alien.
When done with a bit of thought, names can communicate aspects of your world’s history and culture without beating the reader over the head with exposition. While at the same time providing plenty of fodder for online fan theories.
Theme is something to consider when coming up with words and names for your setting. Building an entire conlang can be tempting but it is a huge sink of time and effort, and will be difficult for someone without a background in linguistics. It can still be worthwhile though, just like worldbuilding for its own sake can be worthwhile but unless you’re Tolkien designing multiple languages for your setting is probably more than you have time for. Names should still have some consistency though. Unless you are aiming for a multilingual or multicultural faction I’d recommend trying for uniformity in naming conventions to aid immersion.
My preferred method of naming is done by drawing upon real world examples. Much of worldbuilding consists of taking elements from our world that readers will be familiar with and mixing them together to create something new. Drawing on the real world has several advantages; there’s no need to redefine what a sword is or what it’s like to work in an early industrial textile mill. Most readers have some idea of what things are like already. The same can be done with names.
If you have a handful of real world cultures that you are using as inspiration you can use the languages too. Want readers to compare your country to the Holy Roman Empire? Use words like Kaiser and Diet. Want readers to imagine the grandeur and scale of your Rome-inspired faction? Then Latin and Italian may become your best friends. You can insert references and easter eggs, change spellings to make the words your own, and make mundane place names interesting by translating them into languages that are unfamiliar to your audience.
How much do you need to change? Depends.
If you want to really make the world your own then you can use real languages as a basis to create new words. Breaking real words into their component sounds and rearranging them can be a fun exercise to create convincing and easy to pronounce words for your world that will sound new and believable to your readers.
Of course, you don’t need to make your own words at all if you don’t want to. Sometimes the simplest names are the best, and lifting real-world names and placing them in your setting wont matter much to some audiences. Just look at Warhammer Fantasy, the setting is over the top and dripping with grimdark, and takes just about all of its nouns from our world. The Empire’s heavy German inspiration is immediately apparent, and the French and English influences on Bretonnia are likewise obvious. If you take this route you’ll want to be careful to avoid unfortunate implications, like making your orcs out as invaders from the eastern steppes. Don’t do that.
Finally, once you’ve decided on naming schemes you can use them to show your settings history and influence the interactions between characters. A multi-national empire will be filled with different language groups and unless a great deal of effort has been expended on suppressing local dialects characters should be able to encounter names derived from a plethora of different languages. Meanwhile, isolated mountain communities may speak dialects that seem strange to outsiders and cause miss-understandings if different implied meanings or false cognates come into play.
In the end, naming and conlangs can be fun and if making original names is your thing then it can be immensely satisfying. But like many parts of worldbuilding it can easily get out of hand and distract from the story you want to tell. Most people wont care too much anyway as long as their immersion is left intact. So have fun naming. Your readers wont mind.
For me the best part about the fantasy genre is the magic. I love reading a book with a well-designed system, one that’s believable and is full of possibilities, and by possibilities I don’t just mean those shown on the screen. In my mind a good magic systems should also be one where the audience can imagine new uses not seen “on screen” based on the mechanics they are shown.
1. Codex Alera
It’s hard to beat the appeal of a simple elemental magic system, but it’s very easy to ruin one. In the Codex Alera series Jim Butcher manages to make an elemental magic system that feels natural, is incorporated into the society seen in the books, and doesn’t fall victim to its creators desire for originality. Instead of the normal four elements, this systems has six, making it more closely resemble the chinese elemental system instead of the greek. For each of these elements there is a countless number of nature spirits called ‘furies’ of varying degrees of strength. Most human characters can manipulate all six elements to some degree, but are only particularly skilled with one or two. High Lords, the nobility of the setting, are distinguished by their power over all six.
I love this system because it is intuitive and because it has been completely integrated with Aleran society. Social status and political power are linked to a person’s magical talents and the power of furies is used in place of many technologies that we enjoy in the real world. This integration is so complete that characters have difficulty imagining ways to accomplish tasks without the use of their furies, putting characters who lack a connection to furies at a severe disadvantage in Aleran society.
The differences we see in urban versus rural perceptions of magic is another facet of this system that I really enjoy. Rural inhabits more readily anthropomorphize their furies by assigning them names and personalities, whereas urban residents are more likely to see their furies as merely useful tools. In my mind different interpretations of the same system lends a does or realism to the setting. Real people have differing thoughts and approach the same situations in different ways, and this is nice to see mirrored in a fantasy setting.
2. Full Metal Alchemist
FMA’s alchemical magic, with its strict rules of equivalent exchange and lip-service to scientific principles, is a perfect system for science-enthusiasts. It’s a system with clearly defines rules and ways to break them, which is important in any high fantasy setting and keeps hand-waving to a minimum. Most importantly, it is a system where the costs are clearly shown; an important consideration in high fantasy settings.
Most of the examples of alchemy we see in the series consists of reshaping matter, but we see from the more specialized alchemists practiced by characters like Mustang and Kimblee that much more is possible. From alchestry’s practitioners in Xing we learn that this is another system that is also open to some interpretation.
Unfortunately we don’t get to see many alchemists outside of the military, but from Shou Tucker’s home and the brief glimpses of civilian alchemists attempting to repair damaged buildings we see a little of what every day life is like for an alchemist who has not been completely absorbed by the military. From the reaction of Leto cultists in Reole and the distrust for alchemy held by the Ishvalens we see that the practice of this magic is not as wide spread as the other systems listed here, but admonishments from characters who believe that alchemists should work for the people and the prominent role given to alchemists in Amestris’ military shows the importance of magic to the rest of the setting.
3. Wizard of Earthsea
The magic of true names that Ursula K. Le Guin shows us in Earthsea is a bit more philosophical than the other systems I’ve chosen to include. In this system words have power and people jealously guard their true names. Names are power in this setting, and fully trained wizards dedicate years to learning the true names of everything around them. The consequences of having this power come up several times. The balance of the world puts an inherent limit on what a wizard can do. Many spells are in fact illusions because creating something from nothing would upset the world’s equilibrium.
With the exception of the Kargish lands, magic is thoroughly integrated into the society of Earthsea. Practitioners of magic range from hedge witches, to weather control wizards on ships, to royal advisers. In the first book we are shown the importance of magic when Olgion, a sorcerer, is present for Ged’s naming.
4. Powder Mage
Brian McClellan created multiple magic systems for his Powder Mage series. Normally I am hesitant to embrace a setting with multiple distinct types of magic but these books are the exception. Privileged, Power Mages, and Blood Mages are all relatively rare and we get the sense that magic has changed over time. This sense of evolving magic makes a great fit for the themes of revolution and change often seen in gunpowder fantasy. The practitioners I’m most interested in here are Knacked; people with a single magical talent that can be anything from never needing to sleep to making crops grow in just minutes.
According to the author the Privileged make up a pseudo-aristocracy within the setting, and Powder Mages have obvious military applications, but the Knacked have the biggest influence on the every day. Knacked abilities can make a person rich, and because both men and women are equally likely to find themselves possessing magical talents the sexes are shown to have equal opportunities available to them. We regularly see female heads of state, generals, and soldiers, all of which would be rare in many other settings.
Most importantly for this list, the powers of the knacked best fit my preference for magic that is integrated into every day life. With abilities ranging from mundane to extraordinary the knacked fit into a wide range of niches whereas this setting’s other practitioners are mostly shown employed as either super soldiers or living artillery.
5. Dungeons and Dragons
On first glance this is the most rigid system that I am listing here. Each spell has specific guidelines for who can use it, what it costs, and what it does. The systems also requires players to prepare their spells ahead of time. At first this need for planning and preparation might seem limiting compared to looser systems where spells can be made up on the fly, but D&D players are (in)famous for reading the fine print and coming up with new and creative uses that stretch the limits of what is actually allowed. Go on any D&D forum and you will find users sharing and debating uses for popular spells like Prestidigitation and Thaumatugy. That this system can be interpreted so differently depending on play styles is one of this system’s strengths.
Just how integrated magic is with the rest of the setting will depend on the setting and your group’s DM. Even so, the need for spell components and the utilitarian applications of many spells allows DMs to create settings with entire magical economies with spellslingers on every corner if it suits their campaign.
Spend some time of r/worldbuiling and you will see that many posts are from new users asking how to start worldbuilding. The short answer to this is simple-however you want! But since it seems to be such a common question I decided that I would outline my worldbuilding process here for anyone who wants to start but isn’t sure how.
1. Pick a Medium
There are a lot of ways to organize your worldbuilding. For most of my projects I like to start with a nice notebook. This comes with a few limitations, it can be hard to keep topics organized and it can be hard to go back and change major details and keep everything looking neat, but if you are as fanatical about writing implements as I am then it’s a fun way to worldbuild and use your favorite pens at the same time.
Other people use OneNote, word documents, personal wikis, or services like WorldAnvil. In the end it doesn’t matter what medium you use as long as it suits your needs or preferences.
2. Have an Idea
A lot of career advice talks about having an “elevator pitch” ready and you should have the same for your setting. If you’re making a world to run a table top campaign then this pitch might come from your players. Maybe your players want to run a wizard mafia, or find an abandoned city in the far north surrounded by frozen tundra. If you’re worldbuilding for fun or for a story you plan to write you might ask yourself what would happen in a world where the industrial revolution happened a few centuries early or Rome never fell. Once you have a theme to explore or a specific scene in mind you’ll find it much easier to make a setting where those themes or scenes are possible.
3. Pick an Era
Deciding on the level of technology found in your setting is important. It establishes the tools available to your characters, the capabilities of governments, and the resources that countries are willing to go to war over. In a world where everything runs on steam coal will be a much more valuable resource than oil, but if you’re writing diesel-punk this dynamic will be reversed.
When I pick a technology level for a setting I tend to think in terms of centuries. This is just to help visualize the kind of technology and tools available in your setting and should not feel like a limitation. In the end this is your world, if you want to introduce a new technology or put a new spin on historical inventions then do it!
Easily accessible magic will drastically change the dynamics of your world, so deciding if magic is common, or if it exists at all, should happen early on. You should also consider outlining the limits of your world’s magic and whether it can be classified as “hard” or “soft” magic.
If you are considering a world in which divine intervention is a regular occurrence, this would be the time to do it.
5. Make a Map
Our culture is shaped by our environment and who we come in contact with, our economies are shaped by the resources available to us, and these along with other considerations shape the conflicts we engage in. Since you are probably not going to start from the creation of your world and move forward, you’re going to need to picture the “current” state of your world and work backwards to decide what geographic features might have contributed to its current predicament. Mountains, rivers, and oceans can form natural barriers and help explain why a certain culture has stayed relatively isolated, the positions of trade routes, harbors, and rivers will decide where your major cities go.
Scale is important to think about here. You might be tempted to create an entire world map on your first go, but you should consider how much of the world you need to show for your story. Mapping an entire world is fun, but you might find yourself biting off more than you can chew. To combat this I now only map out the region that I plan to focus on and wait to flesh out others areas until I need them.
6. Fill in the Rest
This is the part where you let your imagination run wild. Outline character bios, write the histories of obscure locations or the stories of empires. There’s not really any wrong way to do this. It’s your setting, do what you want with it.
Revolutions can be an essential part of your narrative. Your story could begin with a coup, as happens in Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, or the story could lead into it with factions coming together and tension rising as the plot progresses. The revolution may also be in the distant or recent past, and can be the reason your setting is on the path that it is. Revolutionary rhetoric can shape your the worldview of your characters and their motivations. Fears of another rebellion or factions who feel like the last one didn’t go far enough can be great sources on conflict within a setting.
One thing that you will have to decide quickly is what circumstances provided that catalyst for your revolt. At what point did things get so bad that the people decided that they had no choice but to rise up? Were there negotiations leading up to the revolt, and did one side not agree to terms or did someone decide that the terms agreed upon were not enough? Finally, was the revolt planned? A well-coordinated coup might be planned over months or years, or fighting might break out almost spontaneously and force both sides to prepare for a conflict they hadn’t yet prepared for.
This breaking point should also tie into the demographics of the rebellion and its scope. Coal miners rioting against decreased wages or worsening conditions will have a very different set of concerns than noble landowners trying to get out of paying the taxes they owe to the king. This sets up different ends goals for the conflict and the scope of change they want to see. The coal miners want a change in working conditions, while the nobles want a change in leadership.
While protesting increased bread prices, someone throws a rock at the troops called in to keep the crowds under control. The troops respond by attempting to disperse the crowds and several people die. The rioters now shift their focus to occupying neighborhoods and government buildings.
After losing yet another election, the leader of the opposition realizes that the ruling party never meant for fair elections in the first place.
Not wanting to risk their lives in what they see as another pointless attack, soldiers at the front stage a mutiny. The war-effort is now at risk of failing if the government cannot reach an agreement with the mutineers.
In order to pay his debts, the local lord raised the tithes owed to him by his estate’s serfs. Life is already hard on these serfs and they know that this increase will leave them close to starvation.
Wanting expanded civil rights and a constitution to limit the powers of the king, the people go out to the streets to protest, effectively shutting down the capital and trapping the king in his palace.
Leadership of an uprising is important because it determines the public face of the movement and its objectives. Establishing clear lines of communication and being able to efficiently utilize resources in the face of what is likely a much better equipped adversary will have a huge role to play in a rebellion’s success or failure. A charismatic leader can attract more recruits and convince potential allies to take the movement seriously.
Forming coalitions that result in multiple leaders may give the rebellion the strength it needs to be successful, but several factions united only in their desire to see the old king overthrown will likely cause problems down the line if the leadership is divided between moderate and radical ideologies.
After deciding that the kingdom needs a new ruler, the rebellious nobles gather to elect one of their own to lead. They pick one who had blood ties to the throne, giving their movement some appearance of legitimacy.
Hearing of riots in the capital, the leader of opposition returns from their years of exile to lead the revolution. They find that new rivals for control of the movement have risen to prominence in their absence.
Realizing that they lack the resources to win the war on their own, the leaders of the opposition make an alliance with a group of disgruntled army officers who bring their troops and expertise to the side of the rebels.
The rioters succeeded in overwhelming the local garrisons and now have control over the city but lack a clear path forward. Several prominent citizens step forward with competing visions for the revolution.
Deciding that victory now is more important than ideals, the leaders of the rebellion invite a foreign ruler to join the conflict. Some in the movement worry that this new player is not as sympathetic to their cause as they claim to be.
Once the rebellion begins, the existing government will have to decide on its response. For a monarch there are essentially four basic actions they can take; concede, abdicate, suppress, or do nothing and hope it goes away. There are pros and cons to each of these responses and what action the monarch takes will depend on how secure they feel in their position.
Unsure of the army’s loyalty, the king’s advisers convince him to abdicate in favor of a relative who they believe will be able to rule more effectively.
After several weeks of protest, the king relents and agrees to grant the people a constitution and a representative legislature.
Realizing that the rioting is confined only to the capital, the king calls in the army to put down the uprising. After several days of fighting in the streets the city is left in ruins and rebels are either captured or scattered.
Not wanting to shed his own people’s blood, but also not willing to give up his authority, the king gives contradictory orders to his troops and his stance on the matter seems to change from one day to the next. This allows the protesters time to coordinator their efforts and strengthen their position.
Unable to rally a force large enough to put down the rebellion, the king looks for foreign allies willing to lend their armies to the defense of the regime.
So the war has been won, or the riots put down, or a constitution granted…what next? If the rebels win they’ll have to form a new government and prove its legitimacy, if the king granted a constitution they will have to grow accustomed to the new limits on their authority. Have the results of the uprising led to a bright future for the country, or set it up for another crisis in a few years?
Although they have been granted a constitution and a legislative body, reformers soon realize that the assembly has been designed to serve in an advisory role and its actual powers have been limited. Discontent begins to build again.
After brutally suppressing the rebellion the government cracks down on the underground newspapers and secret meetings that led to the revolts in the first place.
After several weeks of fighting the leaders of the peasant rebellion have all been killed or captured. For the rest its a return to life as normal, although the lord now realizes the danger to himself that comes with raising taxes and lowers them to their pre-revolt levels.
With the help of several nobles the rebellion was won, now the elites who assisted in this victory expect to receive their rewards. As titles and lands are handed out to them, the people begin to wonder what exactly they had been fighting for.
The opposition party has overthrown the king and seized power. They come into government expecting to make broad reforms but soon realize that the country is deeply in debt to foreign creditors. Lacking confidence in the new government’s ability make payments, these creditors attempt to collect what they are owed before the new regime goes bankrupt.
Fearing a disruption to the established balance of power, neighboring nations move to contain the rebellion, putting forth a distant cousin of the deposed king as the new heir. Worn out from the fighting, the revolutionaries are now forced to prepare for a new conflict.
Now that the war is over the provisional government must decide when to hold elections. Some within the council want to hold elections immediately before their rivals have a chance to gather support. Opposition to this results in a deadlock, and some begin to lose faith in the new government.
Monarchs are a central feature of nearly all fantasy. No matter what there is bound to be a king or queen found running around somewhere. Monarchs may occupy the role as both hero and villain in fantasy, and in flintlock fantasy their overthrow may be a central theme. Knowing which form of government your monarch functions in will give you more options to flesh out your setting and create conflicts to move the story forward.
Since many stories take place in their world’s version of the Middle Ages we might as well start with the system of governance that was popular in Western Europe during that time. In these systems the king wont be much more then a wealthy landowner. It’s important here to remember that being king doesn’t necessarily mean anything. What the king is able to do will be limited by their ability to raise funds and convince noble landholders to follow them. You might also see a lack of well-defined borders, and lords of one country may be free to make their own treaties with lords of another.
Robb Stark struggling to keep the support of the Karstarks is a good example there being no guarantee that the king’s orders will be followed.
More powerful than a simple feudal king. An autocrat, at least in theory, wields absolute power. Nobles serve at their pleasure and their authority is backed up by the strength of their armies. All monarchies are beholden to the whims of the ruler, but in an autocratic regime where there are even fewer limits on the ruler’s power, the government will be especially vulnerable to the mood swings and fancies of its ruler.
We can expect these upheavals to be most evident shortly after a new ruler has come to throne and begins replacing their predecessors advisers with their own. If they had any ill-will towards their parents, this would become obvious as they begin to do away with the institutions built by their parents.
For a real life example you can look to the Russian Tsars. They were autocrats with many different styles of rule. Some even believe in enlightenment principles but excused their failure to enact them by claiming that they would never work in Russia.
The election may be a one time occurrence or a regular affair. A one-time election may happen following the death of the previous monarch. If no satisfactory heir is available to nobility may opt to chose one for themselves. This happens in Adalbert Stiftler’s Witiko and is also how the Romanov dynasty came to power in Russia. In other lands such as the Holy Roman Empire, electing a ruler was more routine. Elections could be bought by paying off electors or otherwise convincing them to vote for a particular candidate. By manipulating this system a single family can stay in power for generations even if the position in not actually hereditary.
At one point these rulers were likely autocrats or feudal lords, but since then their power has been greatly diminished. Constitutional monarchs have had their power limited by the imposition of constitution which outlines their rights and those of their subjects. Who wrote this constitution and the conditions under which it was written will ultimately determine the content. A constitution written to preempt an uprising will be far less generous than one pried from the king. What’s most important about these types of monarchies is not necessarily who the government gives a voice to, but who it does not.
Suffrage may be extended to the entire population or only select parts of it, but for our uses it easiest to assume that voting power lies in the hands of the wealthy landowners, nobility, or possibly members of the priesthood. At first the power of these voters and the limitations placed on the monarch may be relatively small. Parliament for example began as a way for the king to raise taxed from the nobility. But what this does is force the monarch to negotiate with the nobility when they need funds, and may be forced to make concessions in order to get their support.
Many rulers in our own history have claimed that their power is granted to them by gods, claimed relation to a god, or claimed to be a god. But in many fantasy settings it’s not out of the realm of possibly that you’ll find deities walking alongside your characters. A civilization ruled by an immortal demigod or an actual deity is going to have a very different political structure than any we’ve seen. How well will a revolution go if the monarch can call down hellfire to smite their rivals?
Every so often someone comes along and decides that they would make a better king than whoever currently sits on the throne. This person may or may not have a strong claim to the throne through family ties and will have come to power by exploiting a succession crisis or and incidence of weak leadership on the part of their predecessor. Once they’ve seized the throne the big question is whether they will be able to keep it. An usurper may seek to marry someone related to the previous ruler in order to legitimize their claim to the throne and generally look for ways to assert their legitimacy. Upon their death the legitimacy of their heir’s claim to power may also be in question.