Book Blog Archives - The Art of World Building
Sep 282020

The identifying marks of the military are on clothing, items, skin, buildings, and vessels. Consider the impression the group wants to make. Some example options are listed and grouped to create a brand:

  • Noble, proud, strong
  • Bold, intimidating, forceful
  • Elite, precise, elegant
  • Covert, deadly, efficient

Choosing colors for our military group can be challenging. It is therefore best to go with no explanation or with something obvious, like silver for steel if favoring blades. Black suggests stealth and nighttime operations, or those in space. Red is obviously for blood. Gold, silver, and bronze can suggest wealth and elegance. A good source of ideas is to research flags of Earth countries and find the explanation for the colors, then leverage these. Rationalizations only matter if someone’s really going to care about the color choice; few in our audience will. However, military members will be taught the significance and can think about this during a scene.


Armed forces both protect and conquer. A symbol can inspire ferocity from its members or a willingness to sacrifice themselves for an ideal. They can intimidate opponents and impact their morale. Sometimes it takes a reputation to go with these symbols. Consider their sophistication. Expert swordsmen have more refinement than those who bash people; their symbol can reflect a fighting style. Education matters, too; if ordinary people can join and find a calling, perhaps a symbol reflects a universal appeal, whereas a highly trained group might want to appear elite.

Animals and weapons of war (especially one that group is known to use) are frequent symbols. If we’ve invented animals, we can leverage their reputation. Using Earth examples, what comes to mind for a lion, snake, eagle, or horse? Symbols that require explanation are less powerful, so if we’re using an animal the audience hasn’t seen, show it and establish its reputation before revealing it’s part of a symbol.

Symbols of Acceptance

Medals, pins, clothing, armor, weapons, and transportation can also show that someone is a member of this military group. However, the purpose of medals and pins are often to denote rank, whereas clothing signifies membership. A uniform is often head-to-toe, but in fantasy, it may be less comprehensive. We sometimes show them wearing their own attire but with an item like a cloak to denote service, as if uniforms don’t exist, possibly due to limited manufacturing.

Militaries have requirements for armor and weapons, the style of which can reveal service, though this assumes mass production more likely to be found in SF but not fantasy. Either genre can cause symbols to be added. In fantasy, just as clothing might not be supplied, weapons or armor not be provided for some soldiers so that they’re using their own. In addition, a soldier might own something unique that they might not be allowed to use, whether it’s weapons, armor, or their own steed, because uniformity is encouraged. Getting special exception can be problematic if others resent it.

For transportation, if they require something to do their job, like a highly trained animal, they may be given this. It still belongs to the military, who is responsible for its stabling and care when not in use. Do they form bonds with an animal so that it’s considered theirs despite this, or are they expected to use whichever one is available? People are sometimes sentimental about ships, which have their quirks, but these almost always belong to a military, sovereign power, settlement, or wealthy privateers due to sheer cost.

Sep 172020

If we’ve done the previous work in this section, determining final testing is largely done, but we can add drama by claiming two candidates must fight to the death, for example. Maybe they must defeat a monster. Tests can be spread out over days and be an ordeal designed to test their mettle. Are these tests feared or are relatively benign? Are people tempted to cheat and can they get away with this? How strict is the governing body? In a lawful place, good oversight might exist, but a barbarian horde may allow cheating under the premise that you’d accomplish a mission no matter what must be done. Officers will have written and oral tests of knowledge.

Sep 142020

A military group without formal training makes for one that is easily defeated due to inconsistent skill levels among personnel. Knowing what weapons, steeds, machines, and knowledge they require helps determine what training they receive. Some basic ability to make minor repairs might be needed, especially in SF. Are they expected to know certain languages, and does that include reading and writing them? What about understanding some neighboring settlements or sovereign powers, whether allies or enemies?  The latter points are almost a given for officers, but the lowest ranks can be captured and find themselves trying to escape enemy territory. We might also decide that they’re expected to know or utilize whatever is handy and be generally resourceful.

Officers receive advanced training, typically, being college or something similar. We don’t need to specify details but can assume it includes superior knowledge of language, societies, customs, tactics, politics, and anything else that helps them run an organization better.

We should keep all training simple unless showing a character going through the details of becoming a member. But we may want to decide how long training lasts in months or years. Base this on their expected skill level but don’t get too specific unless you’ve researched what’s likely. We might say someone can become an expert swordsman in six months when an educated audience member knows better.

Decide where training takes place. There may be cities or universities that do much of it before people are deployed. This will impact the culture of a settlement due to the number of recruits there.

Sep 102020

A candidate may face initiation tests to verify if those prerequisites are met. The exam also allows someone to demonstrate how good they really are at a skill. If they’re already advanced, maybe they can skip some training, have a superior trainer, or be singled out for honing into a finer warrior; we can also use this to make peers resent that person. We should decide what weapons are tested and what level of skill is required for each, with some preferred over others.

Tests can also focus on how a candidate reacts to failure or challenges. Someone who whines about unfairness is likely frowned upon. Does a combatant get back up or otherwise shrug off a blow? Some of this is to be expected, but consider if a trait like unusual perseverance is required. Must members of this military stand for a day without fatigue? If so, this might be tested, but development of it might expected during training rather than being there from the start. Imagine ways we’d use this military and its members and then concoct tests to demonstrate potential.

An example of what to write for a knighthood might be: “The minimum requirements are: demonstrated skill with the sword, average proficiency with a horse, average skill with at least one missile weapon, a willing desire to learn weapons skills, and honorable conduct at all times.”

Sep 072020

In Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1), we looked at intelligence, wisdom, charisma, strength, constitution, agility, dexterity, and morale as traits to define for species like humans and others. While writing a description of each and how it manifests in a species is preferred, we can also assign a number from one to ten as a quick indicator of what is typical. We can do the same with the characteristics that a member of this military needs in order to be accepted or successful.

Officers will require higher mental traits, while enlisted troops, expected to do most of the fighting, need better physical ones. While deciding the latter, think about what weapons they prefer. It takes greater dexterity to use a sword or bow than a cudgel. Superior dexterity is a needed trait for skilled swordsmen, but a crushing weapon depends on strength. Knights aren’t known for their agility due to wearing heavy armor, at the least, but if we’re creating a group that wears less, perhaps agility is expected. Wearing heavier armor might require greater endurance, too.

For wisdom, are they skilled at battle plans, or do they make foolish mistakes? Can they learn from history, keeping and reading old plans? Do they have military and advanced training for officers in matters of running a large military? Officers must pass tests, which are designed partly for measuring intelligence, not just education.

Morale is highly prized but is not the same thing as courage. Rather, morale is partly the ability to maintain formation in the face of peril, instead of everyone running away. Militaries require this and do things like court-martial those who run, but a specialized group that doesn’t operate in formations might have less regard for it (and value courage instead). Morale is a hard trait to determine beforehand, however. We can still jot down a note about their reputation for it.

While working out the details, we may be unable to decide on everything. Returning to rework items is part of the process, so do what you can and move on for now.

Sep 032020

While most if not all military organizations will train recruits, some skill and/or aptitude is typically required before training so that less time and resources are wasted on training someone who won’t be up for the job’s rigors. If we’ve already decided the expected skillset of accepted members (or ones that have completed training), this can help us decide on the prerequisites. For example, if advanced horsemanship will be acquired during training, basic horsemanship is a prerequisite.

Some level of proficiency with various weapons is likely required, and these can be divided into broad categories: long and short bladed weapons (swords and knives), blunt force weapons, and range weapons (bows, guns). Elite groups may require more skill across a wider array of weapons. We can decide that if there are six requirements and someone only has four but shows great promise in those, that they are provisionally accepted. There are no rules except for those we invent. Some organizations will churn out elite fighters while others may only produce average warriors who are half-expected to die within two years of enlisting.

Not all prerequisites involve something physical. Knights may require noble birth. Perhaps they must show strength of character, which may either be tested or vouched for by reputable sources. There might be educational requirements or the ability to read and write certain languages. This can make characters more believable, especially if they aspire to belong to this group and must prepare for an initiation test. If they’ve failed once too often, maybe they cannot be considered anymore and have feelings about this, ones we can exploit. Remember that some underprivileged people might try to join the military precisely to gain access to things they can’t otherwise acquire, such as food, lodging, clothing, and pay.

Military Defenses

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Aug 312020

Defending against threats is a basic reason for military groups. While a settlement may have fortifications manned by this military group, what we’re looking at here are their ways to protect themselves.


Regardless of genre, a military group typically mandates a minimum requirement for armor. When was the last time we saw a knight wearing only leather? It could happen if he’s on light guard duty deep inside a well-fortified city that hasn’t been attacked in a decade. Even then, his superiors would have approved this before it happens unless he’s headed for disciplinary action. This is sort of detail brings our world to life.

In Fantasy

We don’t have to invent armor types in fantasy. Unless adding magical properties to it, everything we need probably already exists: leather (studded or not), chain mail, plate mail, plate armor, and variations on these. Understanding the differences helps us decide what they wear, including cost, how cumbersome they are to don, fight in, or wear for extended periods.

For example, chainmail is heavy but can be donned by one person, so a character prone to solo travel might prefer this. By contrast, full plate armor generally requires help, which is one reason knights have squires. Plate mail, which can be light and easier to put on, is a compromise. Since we’re talking military groups, it can be surmised that they often work with others, but perhaps not. Form an opinion about their likelihood of working alone as part of deciding that they use plate armor. Similarly, if they go many successive hours on duty, perhaps chainmail isn’t their usual garb due to the fatigue it causes.

We may want to decide that those of a given rank have superior armor; after all, commanders are more valuable. Consider the chart as an example, using army ranks to demonstrate.

RankTypical Armor
Warrant officerStudded leather
LieutenantChain mail
CaptainPlate armor
Colonel-GeneralsPlate mail

Figure 3 Armor and Rank

If you’re wondering why a captain would wear the heavier plate armor and the more senior generals would only wear plate mail (arguably less protection), captains are the highest rank that’s in the field and expected to fight. Plate armor is unwieldly and impractical, so there’s little reason to believe a general would wear it; plate mail is easier to deal with while also conveying supremacy due to an appearance like that of plate armor. Throw in an elegant cloak or sash and the generals can look more regal.


In SF, ranged weapons like guns (regardless of what sort of projectile they fire) reduce the need for the sorts of armor we expect in fantasy. Even so, body armor does exist. The mundane Kevlar and similar materials found in real life can be used, but we can invent armor that deflects or lessens the damage of our invented SF weapons. World builders should think about protective clothing so that everyone isn’t only wearing their uniform. Some range weapons will work on the principle of a projectile, meaning the force of it striking causes damage. Other weapons like a laser can cause burning wounds, so heat resistant armor is more effective. Another beamlike weapon may emit radiation, whether a known kind or something of our invention. Either way, just like real world clothing offers limited protection against radiation, we can decide that some protection is incorporated into body armor but that it has limits.


Our military members might be trained in hand-to-hand combat with and without weapons. Is boxing part of training or do they only brawl? Our sense of their refinement and dignity can help us decide. The kinds of missions they go on can, too. Covert work often leads to close fighting – so close that swords (and longer) aren’t feasible. If such work is reserved for special forces like Marines, then perhaps the special skills are, too, with only basic fist fighting practiced elsewhere. Never being disarmed is unlikely.

There are various forms of martial arts on Earth and we can invent hybrids or our own. We’ll want a new name regardless of how much we borrow from one either in philosophy or form. It’s okay to describe one in such a way that people recognize what it is but realize we’ve changed the name, because most people won’t identify it anyway and the names of many are specific to Asian countries that don’t exist in our fictional world.

Armed Forces and Weapons

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Aug 272020

Military groups and their members are often known for their weapons, skill using them, or both. A distinctive choice makes them more memorable and entertaining. Think of the light sabers Jedi wield in Star Wars, or the phasers from Star Trek. There are special weapons in fantasy, too, though seldom by an entire military, presumably due to manufacturing limitations, but we don’t have to abide by that. And weapons don’t have to be spectacular to be associated with the military.

Do they all have a two-handed sword because they specialize in fighting something like giants? If they’re archers, we can decide whether bows are always made the same way, using wood from one type of tree or another. It sounds better when we’ve invented the tree and can write something like, “Kier lowered his solanaen bow as the loosed arrow slammed into his nemesis.” With repetition, naming the type of material helps associate it with a mythic quality. Audiences begin to wonder why we mention it and how such an item is special, even if it’s really nothing.

At a minimum, we should decide what weapons are required and bestowed by the military (and replaced by it if broken or lost in the line of duty). On Earth, members were sometimes required to supply their own weapons and armor; not having them would prevent inclusion.

We can also determine their preferred weapons, such as a long bow instead of crossbow despite having proficiency in both. Do they prefer a short sword to a long sword? What weapons do they rarely use? Are there any for which they have contempt? Snobbery exists in all things and a master swordsman might find a bashing weapon crude. A sense of their outlook and missions help us determine these. If we can’t decide now, return to it later when we understand this military group better.

How Do Armed Forces Travel?

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Aug 242020

In this section, we look at what the military group provides or is expected of members. They may not provide steeds, machines, or training in anything, though that doesn’t mean our members cannot acquire and use them. How members of this military group get around might not seem important, but it can generate decisions. This is especially true in fantasy, where riding animals on the ground or in the air can impact where this military group can operate and how they’re used for scouting or in battle. In SF, this aspect of transportation might matter less if everyone is getting around on flying craft. Everyone must disembark eventually, but in such cases, we typically see people on foot or in another vehicle. When was the last time you saw someone exit a spaceship on a horse, for example? This could be plausible, however, if they know the terrain they’ll find and think this is superior; perhaps machines scare local people or wildlife, or cause harm they wish to avoid.


Walking, running, or even rolling along the ground (for our ball-shaped humanoids, should they exist) requires little invention. However, the number of legs impacts both speed and endurance. For anything humanoid, we can decide they’re not much different from us unless we’re altering a characteristic by at least 10%. Maybe they can reach somewhere in 9 or 11 hours instead of our 10, or travel 9 or 11 miles or kilometers in a given time frame instead of 10. For anything with four or more legs, we should base its capabilities partly on a similar animal, so if the species is essentially a large feline, base its speed and endurance on lions, tigers, and similar cats. Quick research will turn up numbers, which we can modify. The goal is believability. Reasons they use their own locomotion include terrain that inhibits other options, they only operate within a settlement, or a lack of alternatives. The latter may mean not enough horses or equipment (like saddles) to equip them, for example.

Riding Animals

Especially in fantasy, riding animals is an option that facilitates speed of scouting, spreading information, and maneuvers, the latter being especially advantageous in combat against unmounted forces. This is so decisive that wars have been won this way. Riding animals may be expected if the military group operates outside a settlement’s walls; it speeds travel, scouting, and other acts in emergencies. However, terrain may inhibit this, from trees to steep, rocky inclines; specialized groups might be needed and operate primarily by foot.

Think about why we’re inventing this group. If their role is to protect a settlement, they’ll bear resemblance to cavalry or knights and invention can leverage these. If they’re messengers or patrollers who must be able to fight their way out of trouble, then they’ll act alone or in small groups and require self-sufficiency and light encumbrance; they’ll have a known response to encountered trouble, such as calling for reinforcements that will take the form of more serious military might. If creating knights or cavalry, they fight from horseback (or a similar animal) in an organized manner. The existence of both groups is horse-centric, but other military groups may mostly use the same animals for transportation or hauling supplies. In these cases, decide how prevalent the riding skill is and what degree of mastery is expected.

A flying animal poses a similar problem as a ground-based one: encumbrance. Loading them down with supplies, plus our rider, limits speed, endurance, and maneuverability, all placing the rider at increased risk of defeat by opposing forces. If problems with that are avoided, the great advantages are speed, perspective from above, escape from all land-based threats (unless flying low), and the ability to bypass difficult terrain.

Any military group typically furnishes animals that are required, but if not required, members may still be expected to have a fundamental skill. Consider a town guard that operates primarily on foot, but which occasionally needs to guide riders through town, or escort them to somewhere out of town. Would their leaders want the limitation of knowing some of their guards can’t ride a horse? Probably not. Decide which animals they’re expected to master and to what level; basic proficiency is the bare minimum. Perhaps they can ride but not fight particularly well from atop this animal.

Riding Machinery

Whether cars, motorcycles, tanks, planes, space craft and more, SF worlds are more prone to ridden machinery than fantasy ones, where it is mostly wagons that might be used to haul supplies. We can invent machines, including their pros and cons. The limits we create for a machines can give us ideas for other machines that were developed to compensate for that weakness. Variety makes settings more believable and creates chances for the characters to settle for less than ideal equipment, with consequences we control. As with other transportation that can be used for making war, decide what vehicles are typically available to members of this armed forces, what they’re trained in and to what degree, and what they are given and expected to have.

Special Armed Forces Sites

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Aug 202020

Our military group may have special sites, such as training facilities with unique instruction in weapons or even withstanding types of pain. Members may be sent to areas where a foe they’re expected to specialize in are found in high numbers to gain practical skill fighting. Giving these places names, like “The Citadel” or “The Dark Abyss” adds mystique. Characters can remark on their time spent there, inspiring audience curiosity. More mundane training centers will exist, typically at major settlements. The best teachers can impact the most people there.

If they are religious or highly ceremonial, sacred places that come under threat can upset the military group or cause periodic pilgrimages. Destroyed or damaged places help us create history even if we don’t comment much or at all on what happened. Who doesn’t love a ruined or abandoned site? Traditions can impact reverence and trigger long-standing animosity toward whatever creatures or sovereign power was responsible. Sites of great battles can also achieve relevance. We’re looking to invent some lore for our group.

Are there places where they store weapons, defenses, ships, or other equipment? Some of this could be ordinary, some unique or magical and rare, and others acquired in battles, as gifts, or from deceased members. All may be guarded by various means, physically, magically, or technologically. The more valuable, the less likely they openly admit to the locations or types of defenses.

We may need to solve practical problems for our group with special sites. For example, a group which specializes in riding flying animals embarks on a journey too long for a single flight, requiring an overnight stay. Maybe they’ve planned ahead and built a series of towers in the wilderness, each inaccessible from the ground. This aids with keeping the rides (and animals) safe while asleep. Try to think of realistic problems and their solutions.