I’ve made a few posts about a one-page roleplaying game that I’ve been working on called The Final Frontier. It’s a simple tabletop roleplaying game perfect for any tired game master who just wants to run a quick oneshot with their players.
While I was designing the game I tried very hard to imagine scenarios that could be solved without violence. The game is meant to put players in control of characters not used to daring adventures and life threatening situations. Instead, players are challenged to use mundane skills to solve the problems before them.
I like to think that I succeeded. In the past few weeks I played several encounters with my players.
In the first one, players encountered a cult worshipping an alien hiding under the ice of Europa. The alien was infecting members of its cult with a psychic virus that allowed it to control them. Its goal was to get enough cult members to build a ship capable to taking it back home. My players didn’t care about any of this. They got back on their ship and left the inhabitants of the Europa colony to their fate.
In the second, my players encountered a strange alien object passing through the solar system. Though they didn’t know it at first, the object was an alien probe designed to test any species it encountered. After years of intercepting transmissions from Earth the object used the harvested data to present puzzles to the characters to help its algorithms ensure that it has been interpreting the data correctly. By the end of it only player character achieved their desired surge in internet popularity and another experienced what he believed to be a revelation and left ready to found a whole new religion.
Why am I telling you all this? Because the game is finally posted on itch.io! You are free to name your own price for the game so please, go check it out be sure to tell your friends about it.
If you have ever taken music lessons you know what failure is like. For an hour each week you’re stuck in a room alone with your teacher while they constantly interrupt your playing, make you repeat the same few measures over and over again, and tell you that you haven’t made enough progress that week. None of it’s personal, or at least it shouldn’t be, they’re hard on you because it’s their job to help you identify your weak points and help you get better.
Ideally, the same is true for group meetings in graduate school. Though many PI’s like to make their criticisms personal, the real purpose of group meeting is to identify what needs to be fixed and where to go next.
The same is true for writing. Now, I am not a published author, but I do write a lot. Short stories, blog posts, research papers, research proposals, fellowship applications. I like to think I’m reasonably good at it.
The most important thing about writing, just like music and research, is to accept that you might have made mistakes at it and work to fix them. Mistakes, poor word choices, terrible plots, all of them can be fixed as long as you actually write it down first. Don’t worry about how it sounds or reads in the moment, just write and plan to fix it later. If you never write, you’ll never finish.
It’s also important to realize that everyone needs an editor. It can be easy to take edits personally, but remember that an editor is just trying to help you. The meaning of your writing might seem obvious to you but that is because you wrote it. A saying or turn of phrase might make perfect sense to you but might not be as commonly understood as you thought. Other edits might be because you and your editor just have a different style.
Most importantly, the project you’re working on now doesn’t need to be your magnum opus. It’s enough to finish the project and take what you learned from it and apply it to your next one. The longer you work at something the better you will get, and you will always look back on your past work and think of how much better you could have made it. Doing the best you can now will allow you to do even better late.
So rather than worrying about perfection, worry about done.
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“Stupid,” Sarah mumbled to herself as she trudged along. “That was stupid.”
She shouldn’t have gotten involved, should have done a better job of hiding those papers. Now all her accounts were gone, and she was alone and cold. She touched her hand gingerly to the side of her face. It was still tender. Would it bruise? Probably.
Where was she?
She looked around. She had taken off running from her apartment and how she was on a street she didn’t recognize, and she was severely underdressed for the weather. Her watch said it was nearly midnight…
This is the first story in a series set in The Golden Fleece Inn, an ancient establishment located outside of the material plane. Continue reading on Wattpad.
The best thing about Star Wars is that there is a backstory for every background character, every ship, practically every grain of sand. In the movies, books, and comics we get to see so much more than the lightsabers and the big shiny battleships, and its the inclusion of all these mundane elements that helps make the Star Wars universe feel so lived in. So here in no particular order are the five best mundane pieces of Star Wars lore.
1. GR-75 Medium Transport
I just love these ships. Science fiction needs more purpose-built ships that do just one thing well. The GR-75 has a simple design that suits its purpose well, and the visible cargo pods inside its hull are a great feature that draws comparisons to the container ships of Earth while also giving it some measure of modularity. I especially like their use by the rebel alliance as troop transports and support ships. It helps to show how desperate their situation is. I can’t help but think the modularity afforded by the GR-75’s cargo pods could lead to one being made into a capable commerce raider.
Broken down and malfunctioning technology is a common feature of all science fiction. No point in having all those big shiny ships in your setting if they don’t break. The Hydrospanner is a small but vital bit of fluff included in both Star Wars Legends and Canon to explain how spacers manage to loosen and tighten bolts on their ships. Why? Because bringing a wrench into space would just be silly! But seriously, I love that so much detail has been provided on such a tiny tool, so much so that besides an article on Hydrospanners, Wookiepedia has an entire article on a specific model of Hydrospanner. Because of course we need to know the entire history of the tool in the hero’s hand.
3. Moisture Vaporators
Not only do they explain how humans and other species are able to survive on Tatooine, moisture vaporators explains why anyone would bother to try farming in the first place. With all the sand people, sarlacs, and krayt dragons about there needs to be something valuable in the desert to make people live so far away from the cities and it turns that thing is water.
The iconic mounts of the Tusken Raiders are such a great part of the Star Wars universe. In Legends the Banthas were found throughout the galaxy. In the current canon (at least as far as I know) Bathas are found only on Tatooine. They’re a wonderfully mundane way to explain how the planet’s natives get from one place to the other and they’re so believable in their design.
Myself and probably everyone else who is going to be browsing Wookiepedia already knows what pajamas are, but I love that the good folks who update the site included a page on them just in case.
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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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I made this one page rpg back in June. Now that I’ve finally had a chance to playtest it I’ve made a few changes. Mainly I got rid of the luck score and made each character’s health its own dice pool.
The aim of this game is to create low-combat, exploration based encounters, although combat is certainly possible. This does however require a lot of effort on the Game Master’s part to prep all the worldbuilding before the session. I’ll probably tweak this version of the game and then write a few scenarios to go along with it.
This is a weird topic to write about. Here I am starting the third year of my PhD and I still feel like I know nothing. It’s a fun combination of Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning Kruger Effect. Still, I would like to think I’ve learned a few things about surviving grad school at this point.
Now, to be fair to my imposter syndrome, I am in no way an authority on these topics. But as someone who has several labor-intensive hobbies and doesn’t want the degree to consume their entire life, I’ve learned a few tricks that have helped me make time for my hobbies and still make progress towards my degree.
Get Some Sleep
This is one that I am REALLY bad at. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. Left to my own devices I’ll stay up all night and sleep until noon. It’s hard, especially if you’re like me and a burst of motivation always hits you right before bed time. But it’s worth it to develop good sleep habits. As hard as it is, if you start going to bed earlier you’ll feel more rested and you’ll be able to wake up earlier. This last bit is important because it makes you feel like you have more time in the day and you wont catch yourself staying up late trying to squeeze out a few more drops of productivity. An all-nighter wont make you more productive, it will just make more tired.
Make Time for Other Things
I have a lot of hobbies that work often gets into the way of. Some semesters are going to feel more hectic than others, but you should still make time for your hobbies. Even if it’s just a few minutes before bed you’ll be glad you did. What’s even better is if you try and make time every evening and on the weekends for the things you enjoy. It’s really hard to feel good about your work if it’s consuming your life. Plus the things you work on outside of work can make your work better. Reading and writing as hobbies have made me feel much more prepared for presentations and research papers. But don’t think your hobbies need to also make you better at work.
Be Realistic About How Long Something Will Take
When I first joined the lab I’m in now I constantly felt unproductive. No matter what goals I set for the day I never met all of them and I felt terrible about it. That changed when I realized that it wasn’t that I was doing poorly in lab, it was that I wasn’t blocking out my time effectively. I wasn’t giving myself enough time to complete each task and the result was that I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done.
I fixed this by setting one big goal for each day in the lab and a few of what I like to think of as stretch goals. When I go into lab I normally have one experiment planned. I go in thinking “today I will complete this reaction” or “I will do x number of titrations.” Those are my main objectives for the day and I devote most of my energy to those. If I find myself finishing these early or having to wait for a reaction to finish I work on my stretch goals. These are things that are nice to get to in a given day but don’t need to be done right then. Stretch goals might be cleaning glassware, doing a literature search, or processing data.
Once I started doing this I instantly felt more productive. I was being more honest with myself about how long something would take me to do and I didn’t feel like I needed to do more once I got home. You will also find that you get faster at a lot of these tasks as you gain more experience.
Make Your Laziness Work
Some mornings when I get into the office the last thing I want to do start work in the lab. All I want to do is sit at my desk and sip my coffee. So that’s what I do. I sit down, turn on my computer, sip my coffee, and use that time to see what’s new in the world of science. For me that normally means looking at few American Chemical Society publications. Specifically Inorganic Chemistry, Organometallics, Chemical Reviews, and Accounts of Chemistry Research. I normally have a few keywords I’m looking for in the titles. Anything with the words cobalt, iron, or spin crossover get at least a quick glance. Or a quick download to the folder of files I tell myself I’ll read eventually. I have found a lot of great references that I’ve ended up citing later this way and learned about new fields that I hadn’t heard of before. Not only will doing this help you stay up to date on the latest research, the more time you take to read and review material in your field the more comfortable you’ll feel talking about your own work. It always feels great to whip out a relevant paper in the middle of group meeting that no one else has seen yet.
Listen to Your Undergrads
Universities have tons of social events, clubs, and resources to be taken advantage of. You probably don’t realize a lot of them are there. Talk to and listen to not just your fellow graduate students, but undergrads and staff too. Even if the undergrads in the section you’re a teaching assistant make you pull your hair out its worth listening to them talk. Remember, many of them are on campus 24/7 while you may only be there for a few hours. You can learn a lot about other departments and the resources available on campus if you listen to them while giving them zeros on their lab reports.
Oh yeah, sometimes they have some good research ideas too.
Cultivate Your Social Skills
You don’t need to become a complete extrovert, but it pays to talk to other people around campus. After spending all day on experiments it helps to know a few people down the hall who might want to grab pizza with you. Or they might call you up if they have an extra concert ticket. More practically, it helps to have people you can go to for help whether it’s help studying or getting access to an instrument in their lab. Science is collaborative and in most jobs you’ll have to work together with other people so it pays to get started now.
Remember That You Know More Thank You Think You Know
In graduate school you’re surrounded by competent people. So much so that it’s easy to think that they know more than you or know their project better than you will ever know yours. It’s important to remember that if you are in a graduate program you already have a bachelors. You knew enough to get one degree in your field and now you’re working on another. You know your project better than anyone and you know a lot more in general than you think. The more you talk about your work and your field the more confident you’ll feel. Even if it’s hard at first.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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I began watching (several years late) knowing that fans have a love/hate relationship with the show. Nevertheless, I tried to keep an open mind and managed to make it through to the end. And I have a lot of thoughts. I struggled writing this post, I tried to write a coherent essay about the Legend of Korra. Instead have this listicle.
If I had to sum up my thoughts about what was wrong with the series it would be this. It had a lot of potential, multiple good moments, and a lot of missed chances.
If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know by now that I love magic systems and bending is no exception. The world of Avatar is one of the few examples of a fantasy world where elemental magic doesn’t feel like the cliche. It feels real and it’s an integral part of the setting and culture. Getting to see subsets of bending reach maturity, especially metal bending, is just great.
It was also great to see an airbending master let loose. Don’t get me wrong, Aang is great, but he never really put his airbending on full display like Tenzin does in this series.
Finally, I was glad to see the creators stick with giving each style of bending a distinctive visual. Pro Benders, the professional athletes of the Avatar world. have a very distinctive style regardless of element that shows a focus on quick attacks and agile dodges. That this style of bending rarely holds up outside of the confines of the arena is a nice touch.
The main issue with the bending in this series is Korra’s weakness. Already at the beginning of season one it’s implied that she has already mastered three of the four elements. Yet throughout the series she repeatedly get’s brushed aside by her opponents. This is especially apparant in season one when she starts Pro Bending and apparently forgets everything she knows about bending in the process. Her fights with the Equalists are filled with quick jabs like those used in the arena when she could have just brought the building down. By the end of his first season Aang was sinking entire fleets on his own. With the exception of an incredibly cartoonish fight in season 2 we never get that from Korra.
None of the villains were bad exactly, at least the ideas for them weren’t. It makes sense that non-benders would begin demanding equal treatment or that established forms of government would be overthrown or forced to change. Or that people would forget to honor the spirits and cause backlash by doing so.
The problem with these villains is that we never really get to explore their motives. In her role as avatar Korra takes for granted that the world is already the way it should be. In season 4 it’s finally said that Korra helped get better treatment for non-benders but that’s not something we ever see her caring about in the first season while she is fighting Amon.
In Avatar the Last Airbender the protagonists dealt with concepts like imperialism, war , refugees, gender roles, and disabilities to name just a few. Legend of Korra introduces its own ideas, but never really deals with them in the same way. Time and time again Korra sees the problems that gave rise to the villains she has to face and each time she turns the other way.
Not Doing the Thing
So conflicts could have been resolved if the characters had done the sensible thing. I realize that if characters never made mistakes we’d never have story, but LoK has some really spectacular mistakes.
Why for example did Suyin Beifong refuse to restore order in Ba Sing Sei after the Earth Queen’s death? Morals aside, she at the time ruled one of the most advanced cities in the world with dedicated cadre of trained fighters. She had at this point already took her forces out of the city to help the avatar and the fledgling air nomads. Her refusal to help led directly to Kuvira’s rise to power.
While we’re on the topic of inaction. Why in season four was the Fire Lady so unwilling to take action against Kuvira? Given all the work Zuko put into rehabilitating the nation’s image after the war this attitude makes sense to a point. Did she really forget that her son is a part of the army that would very likely have to fight Kuvira on its own if the Fire Nation refused to help?
And why didn’t General Iroh just order his troops to fight Kuvira? I understand that the president had ordered him to surrender but it’s not like he wouldn’t have been able to see what a terrible idea surrender was. Plus as a member of the Fire Nation’s royal family he isn’t lacking in career options. After the role he played in season one, his part in season four was just disappointing.
I actually enjoyed Avatar Wan’s story. I know a lot of people did not. But it didn’t actually contradict any of the existing lore, if anything it gave it greater context, and the different art style made it clear that the story was being told with some embellishments.
The problem I have is with how the spirits were portrayed in the rest of the series. in the Last Airbender the spirits had gravitas. They were forces of nature or strange creatures bordering on being eldrich horrors. LoK’s spirits are essentially neopets that get angry sometimes. It’s no wonder the people of the Avatar World stopped listening to them.
I do however like that Iroh was able to live on in the spirit world. It made sense for his character and as a big fan of Iroh I was glad to see him come back.
At first the huge jump in technological progress that happened between ATLA and LoK was jarring, but it grew on me. The series has a wonderful steampunk/magitech aesthetic and the ways that we see bending and technology intermingle is just great.
With all the advances in technology I don’t quite understand why we don’t see as many non-benders taking part in conflicts as we did the ATLA.
The Legend of Korra had some good moments and a lot of bad moments, but it’s still a fun watch. If you want to see powerful benders driving around in shiny cars then this is the show for you. Like most things, it helps if you watch it for fun and don’t question it too much.
If you liked the first series then you should definitely watch this one, as long as you don’t raise your expectations too high you should still be able to enjoy it. I still don’t think it at all measured up to the first series, but at least I had fun watching it.
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