Incorporating History and Chemistry Into My Tabletop Campaign

Last year I got to run my first full tabletop campaign since before the pandemic and I had a blast. Besides being the first time I’ve run a game in years it was notable for a couple of other reasons. Not only did the campaign run to completion, the setting was one that I’ve been designing from scratch for several years. The other exciting part about this campaign was that the party consisted of a chemist, a biochemist, a biologist, and a biophysicist. Being a chemist, I decided to take advantage of those backgrounds and tried to incorporate some chemistry into the campaign as well.

I decided that the characters would all be new arrivals in a major industrial city where they had come in response to recruitment posters seeking workers for a new munitions factory. There they would have the opportunity to get involved with labor riots, political malcontents, and sorcerous scheming. More on that later.

Goals and Railroading

When I was planning the campaign I had a few limiting factors in mind. The primary one was that one of my players was going to be moving out of the country soon, and the other was that I was supposed to be working on my dissertation. With that in mind, I wanted to make sure I was planning a campaign that could be completed in a relatively short amount of time with brief sessions to best accommodate everyone’s busy schedules. So I decided on some plot points that would always happen no matter what the players did. There was always going to be some kind of labor riot, someone would definitely try to assassinate the local Duke, there would be an explosion at the factory no matter what, and the Duke’s attempts at performing a dark ancient ritual in an abandoned temple beneath the city was always going to happen. The choices the players made would instead determine how they experienced these events, which perspectives they heard, and which faction’s machinations were successful.

Finally, I decided to use Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds ruleset for a couple of reasons. Firstly because I already owned the rulebooks and was somewhat familiar with it thanks to having briefly run a Deadlands Classic campaign a few years ago and a few Powdermage RPG oneshots before that. In practice, the rules were more like guidelines.

Setting Background

The campaign took place in a country called Whalvia, an anachronistic industrialized monarchy made up of a patchwork of regions that used to be independent kingdoms at some point in their history. At home, the Emperor/Empress wields considerable power but is limited in some ways by rights and privileges guaranteed to various city councils and aristocratic families. Overseas the story is much different. Whalvia is located on the edge of a supercontinent that comprises most of the known world. Huge storms fed by the hemispheric world sea regularly buffet the continent and Whalvia is one of the lucky few to be somewhat shielded by these massive storms thanks to its position on the coast of the Inner Sea. This has allowed Whalvian rulers over the centuries to amass large merchant and naval fleets with which they could venture out to far-flung locations for trade and conquest. This empire consisted of loose trade networks, leased territory, and proxy states whose monarchs were related to the Emperor through marriage, or outright conquest. All of this is controlled or owned either directly by the monarch or indirectly through their majority ownership of the Outer Sea Trading Company and its private armies. A lot of this doesn’t come up in the campaign but I like rambling about it so there you go.

More recently, Whalvia has come under the rule of the Empress Imerelda. Her elderly father Kirstivan II ruled for about 60 years and made many reforms during his reign but married late in life. When he died his daughter rose to the throne and while she was capable she was also not ready. Only two years into her reign a war began with Whalvia’s historic enemy and landlocked neighbor Icara. This brings us to the city of Hofni where the campaign took place.

Hofni is a large industrial city in western Whalvia situated at the confluence of two rivers. In the old days, its Kings were major rivals of Whalvia and the descendants of those Kings are now reduced to mere Dukes. The current Duke of Hofni was a close friend Kirstivan II and has become an ardent supporter of Imerelda in turn. He is also very old, is living with the injuries resulting from an explosion in his laboratory, and is very aware of the fact that he isn’t getting any younger. He also has no direct heirs. So naturally, patriot that he is, when the war begins he wastes no time evicting tenants and expanding his munitions factories to supply artillery shells to the front.

While the Duke has been working on these projects he has also departed from his normal scientific and alchemical studies and has been learning to perform sorcery himself with the help of his new advisor Zora(?). His family is old and descended from the original rulers of Hofni who built a temple that is now buried deep beneath the city where his ancestors made offerings to a now-forgotten god.

Historical Inspirations

Women working inside a London munitions factory. Source.

If you haven’t been able to tell this setting is heavily inspired by the early 20th century with fantasy, dieselpunk, and steampunk elements mixed in. And during the First World War, there was a very real shell shortage that was quite the scandal in the UK’s Parliament known as the Shell Crisis. This wasn’t unique to Britain, no one was prepared for the intensity of industrialized war and shortages caused problems in both east and west alike. I tried to replicate some of the working environment inside the munitions factories including the wooden clogs workers had to wear to prevent sparks and included several NPCs who were suffering from the effects of TNT poisoning and other workplace hazards.

Chemical Inspirations

The munitions factory I had the players working in was synthesizing TNT and then using it to fill artillery shells while the explosive was still molten (TNT melts at 80.35 °C ). Two of the player characters worked on the filling line and two others worked with the factory’s alchemists managing heat flows and mass transport.

Lots of people know about TNT but not as many know that those letters are short for trinitrotoluene. That’s a toluene molecule with three nitro groups. TNT isn’t the only explosive that was used in the first world war but for simplicity, I decided to stick with it. Despite being an explosive it’s actually fairly stable and will only detonate under specific conditions.

TNT is made by nitrating toluene using nitric acid, a process that requires a few other chemicals like sulfuric acid as well. All three may be familiar. Toluene has a sickly sweet smell and is often used to thin or strip paint. Nitric acid and sulfuric acid are also common chemicals and are produced industrially in huge quantities. Concentrated nitric acid is especially fun, is red in color, and gives off toxic red vapors. This red color is not actually nitric acid but various compounds of nitrogen and oxygen that can act as powerful oxidizing agents. These can cause some fun (dangerous) side reactions the synthesis of TNT is not done properly which I considered as a possible cause of the factory’s explosion.

Branching Paths

Like I said before, I had a few different threads planned for the players to follow in Hofni. Here are the main three.

  • Union organizers in the munitions factory agitating for safer working conditions.
  • Evicted tenants who want revenge for being kicked out of their homes.
  • The Duke’s efforts to reach an abandoned temple beneath the city that he believes will heal his broken body.

How It Went

The players immediately took a liking to the NPCs and got mixed up in a brawl between union organizers and the Duke’s guards sent to break up the meeting. Then, in exchange for weapons, they made a deal with the proprietor of a local dive bar to steal a quantity of TNT from the factory in exchange for supplies. Later, discontents used the TNT the players stole to make a bomb that was used to blow up the chemical storage tanks outside the factory. Heavy black smoke and choking chemical fumes filled the streets, it was great in a horrifically tragic way.

I worried about finding a way to draw the players into the Duke’s search for the temple beneath the city. Two character backstories made this pretty easy. One of the characters was academically inclined and wanted to secure a job in the Duke’s research facilities so there was an immediate hook to draw them all to the palace. The other was a character who was being stalked by a lost god.

In this setting gods and other entities are mostly gone from the world. Some are dead, others forgotten, and some just…left. The Old God of Hofni (OGH) was one of the forgotten gods. So forgotten that it had almost lost its form entirely. When one of my players said that his character was on the run from a shadowy entity he had met in a cave I knew what I had to do. The player didn’t know it, but in that meeting the much diminished OGH had latched onto him and his fear of it gave it new strength. In effect, he became a sort of pseudo-worshipper for the OGH which followed him to Hofni and took on his appearance. It was a lot of fun having the OGH appear in the distance to spook the players, give its new worshipper visions, and help them win the Duke’s favor by foiling an assassination plot.

The campaign wrapped up with the players finding the temple beneath the city. In the process, they fought a group of giant spiders and some reanimated temple guardians. Once they opened the temple the OGH was able to return to its home. Then, when the players realized that the Duke planned to use arrested union members as human sacrifices they turned on him and locked him in the temple. Also, they stuffed a roast pig full of TNT as a distraction. It blew up.

Conclusion

I had a lot of fun running this campaign. Like I said it’s the first one I had run in years and the first time I had run a game in a setting entirely of my own design. That was a little nerve-wracking and I came to each session worried that I didn’t have enough planned or that the encounters wouldn’t be fun enough. I was wrong though and we had a blast. I also really liked starting a campaign with a set ending and sessions that were limited to about two hours, it kept everything moving and I didn’t have to worry too much about story bloat or any kind of mission creep. Of course, all the fun we had was really thanks to the players. They took the setting I laid out before them and ran with it creating some unexpected scenarios that were a lot of fun to play through.

A First Look at Brian McClellan’s Latest Epic Fantasy Novel

Brian McClellan’s new epic fantasy novel from Tor, In The Shadow Of Lightning, is finally out.

I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I am so excited about this book that I decided to start with a review of the prologue. Some might consider prologues to be annoying, but I think this is an example of a prologue done right. Just to be clear, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

McClellan is one of the more prominent authors in the flintlock fantasy subgenre and helped it make it popular with his debut novel Promise of Blood. I’ve been a big fan for ten years now and for the past year, I’ve been included in McClellan’s “Street Team” group chat. I wasn’t able to beta-read the book, but it’s been fun to get a look behind the curtain at a book as it is being written. I can’t wait to read it and take about it with you all and I already think this book is worth your time.

It’s set in a world of industrial magic, where huge factories churn out magical glass called cindersand. Society runs on this vital resource, and it’s running out. But the wealthy guild families of Ossa aren’t about to let something as minor as the death of magic to stop them from scheming.

The book begins with our MC Demir accepting the surrender of a defeated city. Instead of killing its leader and decimating its population (killing 1 in 10) as is tradition, Demir declares his intention to spare the city. After all, they would not have rebelled if they didn’t have legitimate grievances. Right from the beginning we see Demir as someone with a conscience and a strong sense of right and wrong. And then the schemes of others breaks him.

While he had been busy accepting the city’s surrender someone else had been busy distributing counterfeit orders to his officers. The falsified orders in question instructed the army to raze the city. Demir was too late. His own soldiers fail to recognize him and push him aside. When they find him the next morning he is cradling the body of a young girl who was trampled by his cavalry.


If this first look at In The Shadow Of Lightning has you interested then you should definitely pick the book up or listen to it on Audible. Audiobooks are a great way to keep up with current fiction on your drive to work. You can also follow me on Twitter if you want to chat about it or be the first to know when my full review is posted.

Brandon Sanderson’s Massive Kickstarter

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, famous for completing The Wheel Of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death, his writing classes at Bringham Young University, and his massive Cosmere setting in which the majority of his books take place trolled his fans on Youtube this week.

During his weekly update on Monday, he announced to his fans that he had a big announcement regarding his career that he would be making on Tuesday. Rumors abounded online. Some fans wondered if the author was ill, others suggested he might be stepping away from his sprawling Cosmere universe or bringing in other authors to help him complete it.

The truth was far more epic, far funnier, and a masterclass in trolling. Sanderson, already known for his insane level of productivity, revealed that the lack of convention traveling during the pandemic gave him more time to work on his side projects. He revealed that he wrote not one, not two, but five novels during the pandemic. For fun. He then went on to explain that four of these novels will be released in 2023.

Fans of Sanderson will be able to sign up to receive these books quarterly by signing up for his Kickstarter. The lowest tier includes just the ebooks. Physical books are available in higher tiers, as are swag boxed, and signed copies. Set up initially with a $1 million goal, it rocketed past $10 million in the first day and will probably exceed $20 million by the time it’s done.

Commentators like Daniel Greene and others have been quick to declare that Sanderson reinvented the publishing industry in a day with his Kickstarter. While other authors such as John Scalzi and Brian McClellan were quick to point out that most authors do not have a fandom large enough to pull a similar scheme off, Sanderson’s Kickstarter is showing the rewards that authors can reap if they put time into building their community.

Unfortunately, few authors have the time, resources, or Sanderson’s dedicated social media team. However, we can hope that his work will be an example for traditional publishing houses to follow as they continue to adapt to the changing markets of the 21st century.

As of this writing, there are twenty-seven days left to sign up for Sanderson’s Kickstarter. Best get over there before time runs out!

A Declaration Of The Rights Of Magicians by H. G. Parry

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians: A Novel (The Shadow Histories Book 1) by [H. G. Parry]

If you’re like me and you spend a lot of time therapy shopping in book stores you’ve probably come across more than a few books on the shelf that you keep stopping to consider but keep walking away. This was one of those for me. Over the past few years, it’s become harder and harder for me to get invested in SFF books despite my love of the genre. So lately I’ve made a rule for myself if I keep stopping to consider a book two or three times I’m going to give it a try.

“A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians” was one of those books for me. In a word, it’s fantastic, 5/5. It’s the first in a series called The Shadow Histories and the second book, “A Radical Act Of Free Magic,” just came out. Which for me is always a plus, I love it when I can get excited about a new series or author and immediately have another book to dive into.

From the title of both the book and the series, I think you can probably guess what it’s about. It’s a magical alternative history of our world that takes place during the French Revolution and follows the characters of William Pit, Robespierre, and others. The progression of events, so far, seems to closely mirror the events of our own history with some exceptions. The main difference is that there are millions of people all over the world who have some kind of inherited magical ability.

How is society not radically changed? Simple. A few centuries before we dive in, the Templar Church fought a war to eliminate Europe’s vampire rulers. Magic, after this was heavily restricted in most countries and commoners, were forbidden from using magic. Only the aristocracy was allowed to use their powers and an old agreement called The Concord forbids the use of magic in warfare.

But this is an age of revolution and the common folk of Europe of tired of not having their voices heard. With talk of freedom and liberty comes also freedom of magic. And there are forces fighting in the background, manipulating events as they happen. This leads to one of our protagonists, Prime Minister William Pitt, working to not only lead his nation through the horrors of the Napoleonic War but also to fight a smaller and more personal conflict in the background.

Like I said. 5/5, 10/10, A+. Go give it a read! You can purchase the book in physical format or on kindle here.

Page Break with Brian McClellan: The Perfect Podcast for Creatives?

In short. Yes.

Brian McClellan is the author of The Powder Mage Trilogy and Uncanny Collateral. Now he’s a podcaster as well.

Page Break is an interview-style podcast where Brian sits down with other creatives and talks to them about their work. But don’t worry, you won’t need to be familiar with the person’s work to understand the conversation. Instead of focusing on any specific work by that episode’s guest, Brian talks to them about their career path, their creative styles, what their segment of the industry is like, and their recent meals.

The best part of all this is how relatable it all is, and affirming too.

It’s easy to see a name on a book cover or in end credits and forget that there is a real person behind the name. It’s also hard to convince yourself that you might be able to be the person behind the name one day. Page Break brings the people behind the names into the light in an incredibly relatable way. A way that makes you think that you could do it too.

Each of them has a different path that brought them to where they are. A great reminder that there is no one right way to create, you just have to keep working at it.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I admit I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until about a week ago. I didn’t even realize that she was the author of Temeraire, a series that has been on my radar for a while, but I just hadn’t gotten around to picking up yet. That will be changing shortly because I was blown away by how well done A Deadly Education is. Stop reading this review now and come back after you’ve bought a copy.

Done? Good. On with the review.

Like I said, I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until a week ago. I had seen A Deadly Education in bookstores several times and read reviews about it, but the tipping point for me was when I saw a Twitter mutual (Bryanna Gary go follow her) post about how great the book is. So I bought it during one of my monthly therapy shopping sessions at the local book store.

The premise of the book is that it takes place in a somewhat evil magical school. A place with no teachers where students are left on their own for four years, forced to fend for themselves and survive near-constant attacks from monsters intent on devouring them in a myriad of horrific ways. The moment that everyone dreads is graduation when the senior class will be forced to fight their way through the worst of the monsters that couldn’t squeeze their way into the cracks in the school’s wards.

And all that is the best solution the magical community could come up with to protect their children from being preyed upon by the monsters in their closest.

At first glance, the book seems to promise a grimdark setting with a protagonist who is something of an antihero. Don’t get me wrong; this school seems to be a terrible place to live. But the protagonist Galadriel, rather than being an antihero, is someone who has been given every reason to believe that she will become one. Everyone around her seems to dislike her instantly, and she has an unwanted gift for casting spells of mass destruction.

All this has made her bitter and angry, and she tends to lash out at those around her, even on the rare occasions that they do try to be friends. The book is also written in first person, so we get to see that she is fully aware that she is making these mistakes as she makes them. By the end of the book, she finally begins to make friends and even seems to force some of her classmates to become better people in the process or at least try. We also get a look into a deeply fascinating new fantasy setting that includes a school that seems determined to torture its students in an almost loving way.

It’s a good book. Go buy it.

Animals That Should Have Been Domesticated

Creating fictional animals is hard, but there is another way. Instead of inventing your own animals, just use animals that are dead.

And no, I don’t mean the dead cat that you saw run over in the road. I’m talking about the world’s megafauna. The massive animals that once roamed this world and are now long gone. I know I’m not the only one who has ever looked at a picture of one of those beasts and thought “I wish I could pet that.”

When I see one of those pictures I see a lost opportunity. I see a creature that could have lived alongside humans. Horses and dogs and cats are great, I love them. They have their place in fantasy and I don’t think that they can be replaces. At the same time, why create new fantastic creatures when we can draw on Earth’s past? So here are three extinct animals that I think would have been really cool to have as pets.

Ground Sloths

Modern sloths are cool but I am not sure what they could be used for

Listen, I know that sloths seem useless now. Cute, but useless. But I really think that they are capable of great things. Imagine those claws! Imagine that size! I’m not imagining these things as a mount (but they could be) but imagine how useful those claws would be for diggin or pulling our tree stumps, or how the giant sloths could help to carry heavy loads. A traveling merchant with a ground sloth would be really cool.

Saber Tooth Tigers

I wonder if those teeth could be turned into knives…. Photo from Wikipedia

The decline of megafauna is often linked to the spread of humanity because we tend to kill everything. One thing that may have suffered from the decline of megafauna is the the saber tooth tiger that hunted them.

Now I know, a big cat with teeth that big can be scary, but imagine if we befriended them. They were suited to hunting big things, we were (are) suited to hunting everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t need help. Sure, dogs are great, maybe the greatest, but imagine a giant house cat with giant fangs charging towards your enemy. That beats any dog.

Woolly Rhinos

I’m just saying, one of these would be way scarier than a horse.

Everyone loves a rhino. If you’re like me as a child you only got to learn about the rhinoceroses that are native to far off lands. You might also have been upset to learn that we used to have an animal as ubiquitous as the woolly rhino right here in North America.

If bread in sufficient numbers these animals would have been so much better than horses. They come with horns! Just imagine for a second the rohirrim mounted on rhinos charging into ranks of unprepared orcs.

What extinct animals do you wish were still around today? Let me know in the comments!

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Magic Systems: Soft Versus Hard

crop female future teller with tarot cards on table
Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

Everyone wants to be a wizard, right? You know, the squishy caster who cowers at the back of the party and throws fireballs through every open door?

Magic is at the heart of the fantasy genre, so it’s no surprise that writers and worldbuilders spent a lot of time designing their magic systems. It’s hard.

Designing a magic system is all about finding a balance between power and plot. The magic should empower characters and in some cases it may even resolve conflicts, or cause them.

The hardest part of designing a magic system is making it feel like it’s an integral part of the world. Magic is more than just a tool, in a world where magic exists it would become an integral part of religion, culture, maybe even science.

There are many, many varieties of magic you could make for your world. But one of the first things you should decide is whether you want a soft magic system or a hard magic system.

Soft Magic Systems

Soft magic is, well, magical. Soft magic systems have few defined rules and may not have formal spells. A practitioner of soft magic might be Gandalf for example. We know Gandalf is incredibly powerful, but we don’t really know what his limits are. Much of this is because he uses magic rarely, but you get the idea.

A soft magic system might draw power from creativity, psychic energy, or feelings. The limits of the caster may be defined by their physical or mental stamina. Soft magic systems are best for settings where the magic may be rare. In order to preserve the suspension of disbelief, a small number of practitioners who appear rarely or use their power sparingly. Otherwise the magic becomes a crutch and the audience will begin to lose interest.

Hard Magic Systems

Hard magic is hard because it has hard, defined rules. You could think of these magic systems as a bunch of “if then statements.” For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn features practitioners who know that if they consume x metal they will gain y power.

Hard magic systems are great for settings where magic is common and will be used frequently. Set rules let your audience know what to expect, but they don’t have to be boring. Let’s say you magic has five core rules and each of these rules is used by most characters in just one way. This doesn’t mean your characters are limited to just five spells. New uses for magic can be interest by new combinations or applications of these five rules.

Which One Is Better?

I tend to prefer soft magic systems myself. I’m a big fan of The Force and of the magic of the Farsala Trilogy. But that doesn’t mean soft magic systems are the best. Hard magic can also be incredibly interesting. Just because magic has defined rules does not mean that it can’t be “mystical.” Rules don’t have to be explicitely shown to your audience. If your magic is consistent your audience will begin to pickup on what the rules are. In this case the rules are more for your own use to make sure that you do not get carried out.

In the end, whether you should go with a hard or soft system depends on your story and your story’s needs. How common do you want magic to be? How powerful? Who uses it? What is it good for?

What’s the best magic system you’ve seen? What was so great about it? Let me know in the comments below!

The Final Frontier

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.

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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