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Sep 222020
 

Episode 31.2: Learn How to Create Magic Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create magic systems. This includes a brief look at types of magic, the principles, creating limits, how to invent spells, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems
  • Ellefson’s Seven Laws of Magic Systems
  • Some magic types we can leverage
  • Why we need to know how common magic is
  • Principles of good magic systems
  • How and why we create limits to make more believable systems
  • How to invent spells
Coda

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Episode 31.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-one, part two. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create magic systems. This includes a brief look at types of magic, the principles, creating limits, how to invent spells, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

How Common is the Magic Type?

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The first subject we’re going to look at is types of magic. Once we decide there are different types of magic, we can start defining each of them and separating them from each other that way. For all of them, we should consider how many people can perform each type. Generally, the more rare something is, the more valuable and feared it is. It may not make sense if everyone can do magic, but everyone fears it. But we probably could find a rational for that. Then there’s the question of how easy is it to find someone who can do something if we need that, such as a necromancer. If we only have one of them every thousand miles, that’s quite a bit different than if there’s one on every street corner.

There are a number of reasons why a particular type of magic might be rare. The more dangerous it is, the less likely people will want to do it, even if it’s relatively easy to do. The magic could also be feared. This might be because it has a consequence. What if every spell makes you a month older? Or maybe you have to deal with demons. The practitioners of this could be feared, and one side effect of that is that friends and family could also shun you if you take this on. So, do you care about that or not? Do you want to take up this practice and lose all of your friends and family?

Another issue is that training might be rare or it might not even exist. Or it might be really expensive or just something that’s really hard to do. All of these would inhibit becoming better at this. Another reason for a magic type to be rare is if it requires materials to perform spells, maybe those materials are really hard to come by, or even expensive. This is the kind of scenario where you may have the talent for it, and maybe it’s even easy to do, but you simply can’t cast anything.

Another reason for rarity is that spell books could be rare or they could be poorly done. Not all spells are created equal. Some of them may just be bad spells that are inherently dangerous. Spells had to be invented by someone, in theory, so we could have different people who’ve invented a fireball spell, and some of them are safe to cast and others are not. Maybe you know that the spell you have is the bad one, but maybe you only find out the hard way. Not surprisingly, if there are people who are good at inventing these spells, their spell books are going to be more valuable.

An obvious reason for a rarity is that the talent is simply rare.

There may also be no money in it. What if you practice something where no one wants to hire you? This is not to say that all wizards require a job because, as we all know from adventuring games, you can go out and make your fortune by picking up treasure somewhere. So, there’s that, but that may not be an option for you. What if you’re not the adventuring type and you don’t want to do that or live that kind of life? So, if you’re good at something like witchcraft, but no one needs you to do it and you’re not going to go out adventuring, then it’s not going to bring in any money. So, are you really going to devote a lot of time to this?

Then there are some reasons why a magic type could be commonplace. For the most part, these are reasons that are the opposite of the ones we just talked about. For example, if it’s very safe, then more people will be willing to do this. If it’s very accepted, that’s another reason people will do it. By contrast, your family and your friends may not shun you. Maybe they’re even proud of the fact that you do this. Maybe there’s even the equivalent of a bumper sticker that says, “My kid made the honor roll at this particular wizardry school.”

If practicing this kind of magic gets you esteemed, that’s a pretty good draw because most people want to be admired for what they do, whether they admit to that or not. So, this can be a reason why there are a lot of wizards of that particular type. If training is available, easy and inexpensive, these can all make it easier for more people to do this. If any physical materials or spell books are easy to come by, that makes it easier for more people to do this as well. Then, of course, there’s the obvious reason that a lot of people have the talent for this.

Now, with all of these reasons, whether it’s a rare or common type of magic, something can outweigh another factor. For example, maybe everyone’s got the talent, but because the materials are rare, very few people actually become this type of wizard. Try to split these up. Come up with some pros for each type and some cons for it.

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Magic Types

Let’s get into our types of magic. The first one is white and black magic. Magic can be considered beneficial or harmful to others and the environment, and these are called white and black magic, respectively. We can also think of them as good and evil, and they may have a source that is also good or evil, such as a god. If that’s the case, then the attributes of the god are probably going to influence who becomes a wizard. Naturally, if the god requires something like a human sacrifice, they’re probably not a good god. That can attract people who have certainly personality traits and willingness to undertake certain kinds of actions when they’re performing magic. Similarly, the magic that’s available to such a person might be very much restricted based on who is the provider.

One thing about black magic is that it’s considered bad because people use it for selfish reasons as opposed to using it for reasons that help other people. Not surprisingly, practitioners of black magic are often feared and shunned. One issue with both of them is that practitioners of one can be confused with practitioners of the other. Misunderstanding is a great way to add tension to our stories, and we should also consider the option of grey magic — something that falls in between these two.

Alchemy is one of the more interesting variants on wizardry. This is the practice of turning one item into another, but it’s a little bit more than that in its historical context. The changing of one item into another is thought to be an analogy for personal transformation into a better and purer state. This is what alchemists on Earth were after when they wanted to change something. They thought that changing a specific material that’s physical from one to another would cause a corresponding change within a person. For example, if I turn a piece of lead into gold, then maybe I have made your spirit more noble and high-minded. So, this wasn’t simply about switching objects into something else and, for example, just making gold so that you can get rich. We can certainly use it that way if we want, but a great thing about alchemy is that this is an analogy for personal transformation, and we can use that as a metaphor in our stories.

When it comes to witchcraft, most of us know what is meant by this, but it actually is hard to define. It can be considered bad in the sense of using the supernatural to harm people, or beneficial using it for divination, for example. A long time ago, pagans were often assumed to be witches, and this has led to some associations with witchcraft. What I mean is that we sometimes think that witches are nude or partially nude, barefoot, maybe they’re wearing loose or flowing clothing, and they’re doing some sort of chanting or singing and dancing in the woods to conjure spirits. This might be at night or during specific moon phases.

All of that comes from paganism, but it’s become associated with witchcraft. Much of that was done to celebrate natural elements. That would include base needs like sex. As a result, along with fear, this led to the assumption of things like having sex with the devil or similar figures to gain supernatural powers. We don’t need any of that to be true, and we can actually do that kind of association with other types of witchcraft if we want. There is one distinction for witchcraft, and that is the use of archaic runes and symbols that are inscribed on a target, such as a person, a building, or an item that will be the focus of the spell. It’s almost as if witchcraft cannot target somebody without that. We can either use that idea, ignore it, or even apply it to another type of magic.

Now, since witches are typically dealing with spirits of some kind, we should probably define the afterlife and any other planes of existence that we might want them to be utilizing. That might also be true of necromancy. This is communication with the dead, of course, and that may mean bringing the dead to this world, or going there, or just doing the equivalent of a phone call. It kind of makes you wonder if they have FaceTime or Skype.

Since most people fear death and the afterlife, or anything like that, that’s one reason why necromancy is often assumed to be evil, and its practitioners up to no good, even if that is not the case. So, we don’t have to do that in our setting. One reason we need to work out the afterlife is that this will help us determine how these necromancers go about contacting someone, and even whether any gods allow that, or what sort of rules they place on it.

I go into more detail in the book, but I’m going to move on to Shamanism now. We can almost say that this is broader than necromancy because that’s only about contacting the dead. Shamanism is about contacting any beings that are believed to be in another plane of existence, which could include the afterlife. Shamans often use medication, trance, or even drugs to achieve an altered state. They may also do this equivalent of a phone call or bringing beings to them. One village or culture may have multiple shamans that have different specialities. One way to decide on that is if there’s a practice that’s physically demanding, that might be something a younger shaman does. This is one reason we’d want to work out how everyone’s going about their business.

One interesting aspect of Shamanism is that someone is expected to become so sick that they risk dying before returning to life in order for them to become a shaman. After all, if they can’t make the journey back to better health, then how are they going to guide anyone else in the process of doing so themselves? Naturally, this might result in some of them dying, and it could also result in someone having a demon or a physical scar. By demon, I don’t mean literally, but maybe their mind was affected by what they went through.

Let’s talk psionics. This is a group of different abilities that we’ve all heard the names of. What they all have in common is the ability to communicate or perceive beyond the five physical senses. These are usually depicted as being natural abilities, but there’s no reason we can’t have them be acquired. One of these is clairvoyance, which is the ability to see events or people beyond the range of normal sight. That can actually be broken down even further into precognition, which is the future, retrocognition, which is the past, and then remote viewing, which is the present. It can also imply clairaudience, which is hearing, but these can be mutually exclusive, such as someone who can see or someone who can hear, but someone who can’t do both.

Then there’s empathy, which is the ability to read or sense another person’s emotion, and that might even be the ability to influence their emotions. Such people are called an empath. Then there’s mind control, which is not only the ability to read someone else’s mind, but it could be removing thoughts or memories, suppressing them, or replacing them altogether. Psychometry is the talent for gaining foresight by touching objects. Sometimes these people wear gloves so that they are not constantly picking up information that they are not interested in. That would happen every time they touch something. Telekinesis is the ability to move objects with the mind, and telepathy is the ability to read thoughts or communicate directly with another person using only your mind.

The last type we’ll talk about is elemental magic. By elements, I mean the four physical elements of fire, earth, water, and air, but sometimes people include spirit in that, as well. We can also invent other elements that exist in our setting. However, most likely, they would really fall into one of those other categories. One thing we can do with this is have a practitioner be only capable of doing one of these elements, and it’s very rare for someone to be able to do all of them, and those people are, of course, more powerful. But we don’t have to divide it that way. We could have everyone capable of all of them if they have the talent, but maybe there’s low and high magic here. Low magic would be relatively simple spells, whereas high magic would be the really powerful ones.

One thing we should decide is whether someone needs that element in order to perform magic, or if they can basically conjure that element. The only element that is really restricted here that way would be fire because, unless fire is naturally occurring, or someone is carrying around a torch or something, they’re not going to have a source of fire when they need one. But earth, air, and water are plentiful, even if it’s sometimes not apparent. For example, you could be in a desert and think there’s no water, but there still is some in the atmosphere, and there may be some underground.

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Principles of Magic Systems

Let’s talk the principles of good magic systems. This is a really important section of this, and the book. We should consider these principles before and during the creation of a magic system. You may have heard of Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems, so I briefly want to cover this. His first law is that an author’s ability to solve conflicts with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands that magic. So, try not to give a character an ability unless we’ve already shown that they possess it. We should also determine how problems can be solved without magic. If we don’t do these things, then the magic can just make things seem too convenient.

His second law is that limitations are greater than powers, and what he means is that what characters can’t do forces them to stretch and make our story go in different directions. His third law is to expand what you already have before you add something new. One reason for this is that we might start adding things that can conflict with things we’ve already done. Naturally, we want to avoid this.

Something else that Sanderson proposed is the idea of soft versus hard magic. Magic that is not rigidly defined is considered soft magic. One reason we would want to do this is that it can preserve the sense of wonder in their books, according to Sanderson. By contrast, hard magic has very explicitly stated rules. The good part of doing this is that it provides structure and understanding of what can be done and what can’t be done. Therefore, we’re not surprised by the actions of characters. We know and understand that they are operating within a limit that has already been explained to us.

Now, Sanderson’s use of the word “law” led me to an interesting thought exercise that I thought added a lot of clarity to how to create a magic system. I’m going to read the definition of “law” from the 3rd New International Dictionary from Merriam-Webster.

“Law is a binding custom or practice of a community, a rule or mode of conduct or action that is prescribed or formally recognized as binding by a supreme controlling authority, or is made obligatory by a sanction. This edict or decree or ordinance is made, recognized and enforced by the controlling authority.” Laws tend to be authoritative, definitive, to the point, and the arguably avoid explanation to minimize the public arguing about them when accused of breaking one.

By calling his principles of magic systems “laws,” Sanderson has invoked a comparison to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in science fiction. He may not have done that on purpose, but that was the first thing that I thought of when I heard of Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems. But let’s take a look at this and compare them. Asimov’s Laws were invented for a specific story, or set of stories, and societies within those stories, meaning they are actual laws there. By contrast, Sanderson has proposed three laws for building magic systems, but no world builder has to follow another person’s ideas on how they go about building anything. Even Sanderson does not mean to imply that you need to follow these laws. In fact, he admits that even he breaks his own laws.

His laws don’t apply to any society, and they also don’t apply to any world builders. He can’t enforce them. However, we can choose to enforce laws on ourselves, whether those are his, some ideas that I’m going to give you in a minute, or some ideas of your own. One thing about his laws are that they are not declarative, and each of them leaves a lot of room for interpretation. In fact, he actually has an article explaining each one of them. By contrast, most laws are relatively simple and can be stated in a single sentence. Many laws are, of course, more complicated than that, but basically it’s simple because they want to be able to put this on a sign and not have you stand there reading whole paragraph after paragraph of explanation. There might actually be that much explanation if you were to look into the law book, but generally there’s a simple version of this that the public has been made aware of. Something like, “Don’t litter.” That only has two words, the way I just said it, so it’s kind of hard to confuse what that means.

Let’s compare Sanderson’s laws to some other types of laws and you’ll see where I’m going with this. His three laws, briefly stated, would be: an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the magic, limitations are greater than powers, and expand what you already have before you add something new.

Let’s compare that to some local laws that might exist in something like a city. For example, magic shall not be performed on the holy day. Magic shall not be used to inflict physical harm or death on a living person, except in defense of one’s own life or that of another. Each of these is short and to the point. They’re also enforceable due to the authority.

Those are what you might call local laws, but what about laws of magic? This would mean what is possible and what isn’t due to the equivalent of physics for magic or something like nature’s laws. Rather than people enforcing these laws, it is nature or the gods. These laws of magic would be discovered and defined by the species and races through experience and observation of what usually works and what doesn’t. Here are some example laws of magic: magic cannot be performed by virgins. Black magic and white magic cannot be performed by the same wizard. And magic can only performed by spells or by items imbued with spells.

Then there are what might be called world building laws. These are the kind that we should follow when creating a magic system, and this is the kind of thing that Sanderson intended.

Ellefson’s 7 Laws of Magic Systems

I decided to invent my own laws for building magic systems, and this is one of the results of this thought exercise about what is meant by the use of the word “laws.” So, here are my seven laws of magic systems.

My first law is that world builders shall decide what the laws of magic are. In other words, the universe, or another authority like gods, has determined what works and what doesn’t. Some examples would be:

  • Elves cannot perform elemental magic.
  • Naturally occurring places exist where magic doesn’t work.
  • There is a finite amount of magic energy, and once it is consumed it is gone.

My second law is that world builders shall define what makes someone capable of performing each magic type, and how common its practitioners are. For example:

  • The gods decide who can do magic and can change their mind, granting or revoking the ability.
  • Anyone who consumes a specific item at a specific frequency can acquire the ability as long as that item continues to be consumed.

My third law: If multiple types of magic exist, world builders shall define what is possible in each, the differences between them, and whether practitioners can perform more than one type, and under what circumstances. For example, we could say:

  • There are several types of magic.
    • Alchemists can only work with materials to affect personal change.
    • High wizardry, these people can draw on magic energy in the environment.
    • And for witchcraft, they must work with spirits or demons for power.

Now, yours would need a lot more depth than that.

My fourth law: world builders shall determine what happens when an attempt to use magic fails. We talked about that in the previous episode, but here are some examples of this law:

  • A spell either works within its parameters or fails, and there are no accidental results. Or
  • A failed spell produces an unexpected result of a different nature, but not extremely so.

My fifth law is that world builders shall decide what local laws exist in each location where a story takes place. For example:

  • Use of a magic item within the city limits is solely for those with a valid permit.
  • Wizards are killed on sight.
  • Wizards are not allowed on the city council.
  • Alchemists must register with the local guild.

My sixth law is that world builders shall follow the rules they set forth. Both fantasy and science fiction audiences tend to notice our mistakes. We need to not only decide on our rules, but abide by them. It’s a good idea to use a narrative trick for some flexibility. For example, if I narrate that most wizards cannot do something, well, that word “most” has allowed me the flexibility if I decide to change my mind later and have one or two characters do something. I have a couple other tricks like that stated in the book.

My seventh law is that world builders shall decide if magical training is available, what form it takes, what is involved, limitations imposed before graduation, testing criteria and what restrictions exist, if any, on those who graduate. I consider this one to be a little bit more of a suggestion.

With all of these principles, I believe that you can come up with better magic systems that are well-defined, and I have more examples than what I just said in the book for each of these laws that I invented. This is what I follow when I am inventing a magic system, the same way that Brandon Sanderson follows his three laws when he is doing so. You’re free to follow or ignore either mine, his or anyone else’s, but you should decide on some principles that you are going to follow. I’m calling my principles laws because Brandon did and I want mine to sound as cool as his, so that’s what I’m going with.

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Create Limits

Creating a good magic system is all about limits. There are arguably two sources of those limits: the universe or the gods, and those imposed by mortals. Part of what I mean is that it might be that a person has devised the magic system, not the gods. Let’s say we have a wizard named Kier and he has discovered and developed a series of spells that are now known as Kierzardry instead of wizardry. Maybe there’s another wizard, a woman named Taria, and she has invented Tariandry. Obviously, both of them are a little bit egotistical to name their wizardry after themselves.

Now, both of them had talent, knowledge, inventiveness, some research ability, and access to materials that they used to experiment. They also both ran into some problems creating their spells, and some of these they solved, others they didn’t, and they may have reached the conclusion that they had found a limit, even though that may not have been true.

This could result in two very different kinds of wizardry, and we should use their environment to help determine this. For example, if spell components are needed and Kier lived in somewhere that was the equivalent of the Amazon where there are tons of plants, he might have heavily used all of these in his spellcraft. But maybe Taria lived in a desert, and for her there wasn’t that much to choose from, so hers doesn’t rely on that. Maybe hers uses things like runes, gestures or words much more. This is one way to go about thinking of limits that exist in system.

Every system needs its pros and cons, and we talked a little bit earlier about some of these. One of the things that we really want to focus on are the benefits of doing this kind of magic because that’s what’s going to draw someone to it. But they may not have a choice, if they are only born with one type of talent, and talent cannot be acquired somehow, then that’s the only one they’ve got available, and either they choose to develop it or not. Some benefits of becoming a wizard, of course, would be the obvious ones like power, prestige, wealth, personal safety and maybe even gaining advantage over other people.

But there’s another reason. What if they can cause things to happen by accident, and they want to prevent that? They’re going to want training. For our story, we should think about the problems our characters can face and why and how this type of magic would be able to benefit them. We should also think about things that could go wrong. Any magic type that allows us to interact with something like the dead or beings from another plane of existence is inherently more dangerous.

Decide what can go wrong when someone loses control of those they’ve contacted. Those who are doing something like clairvoyance may hear information and get it wrong, or maybe nobody wants them around because it is believed that they’re in their head all the time. There may even just be misunderstandings as a basic problem with this type of wizardry. Someone might practice good witchcraft and be assumed to be doing black witchcraft.

The thing about these problems is that these are limits because anyone who devised a magic system may have imposed limits to avoid these problems from happening. So, spells might take into account this side effect and not allow that to happen. This is one of the things that we are after by defining these problems. It’s just like when you’re trying to decide how to invent a law. The reason a law exists is that something happened and now this law is designed to prevent that from happening by telling people they’re going to be punished if they do it.

Part of what we’re after with all of this is that we want to be organized about our magic systems. We just need to define things, and we don’t even need to explain them to the audience if we don’t really want to, such as in a soft magic system. But we should still have some understanding of what everyone can do and why.

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How to Invent Spells

Let’s talk about how to invent spells. As we all know, a spell is a combination of words, gestures and ingredients. One thing we can do here is define the role that each of these is playing in spells. For gestures, they could technically mean anything, but maybe we want to decide that they assist with determining the width of a spell, or even the distance from the caster. A more subtle gesture might be a smaller effect, and a more aggressive gesture might be a much bigger effect. We could also decide that this determines the power level of the spell. This can even help us figure out which gesture someone is making. A missile spell that’s targeting individuals might allow me to point at them, but one that’s supposed to affect a wide area, maybe I’m gesturing outward with my arm. What I mean is sweeping from left to right, for example.

When it comes to ingredients, we should look at these kind of like a recipe. This is a helpful way of deciding what is going into the spell. With any recipe, each item is there for some reason. For example, warm water and flour creates dough. Dough is typically a container of some kind for the rest of what we are putting in there. So, we would want to substitute some sort of liquid on our world and some sort of ground up plant. That’s where flour comes from. When baking, yeast makes the dough rise. We might want to do something similar with yeast. For a yeast substitute, we would do something like a ground plant that will alter or accentuate the ingredients. Water is often used to cook items, and it can be used to sanitize or breakdown or congeal the ingredient. Therefore, we might want to substitute some sort of liquid that is also doing boiling or purifying or, again, breaking down and causing the ingredients to bind together.

As we all know, spices are added to taste, so we could do small variations in the amount of power based on the amount of materials that are being added. Someone could be using any plant that has been ground up. Many recipes have some sort of meat, fruit or vegetable, and those are in there for nutrition or taste. Well, maybe any sort of meat in our spell is for strength, and the plants or other elements can be used for shaping the results. Naturally, we often use pots, pans and other containers of glass or metal, so we can do the same, sometimes with unique materials, as part of our spell-casting. This is obviously more true for something like potions or even creating a magic item.

Then, of course, there are certain tools that might be needed, such as tongs or spatulas, to handle hot items. Again, that’s going to imply more to potions and magic items. The point here is that all of these things have a purpose, and they are a tool to achieve what we are trying to achieve. So, when inventing a spell, we can look at it the same way.

When it comes to words, there’s a certain mystery to magic because we don’t understand what the wizard is doing, and this includes when they are speaking in a magic language that, of course, we do not understand. We can think of words as being the thing that brings everything together. Without the words, we just have some gestures and some ingredients. The words could be what activate magic. This could be how we start the process of summoning magic power, molding the items to do what we want, and then expelling that power out towards the effect that we want. It seems that much of the major control in a spell would be the words, and things like gestures might be a kind of fine tuning of the results. We don’t have to look at it that way, but I feel like breaking it down helps us envision good magic, and even the resulting magic systems.

Getting Started

So, where does all of this lead us? There are ways to invent magic systems, and what I would do first is figure out what types of magic we want to include in the setting, and then how prevalent each of them is. We also need to know the source and whether mortals need spells to do it or not. These choices will guide everything else. We should also decide what sort of cost there is to doing magic. We need limits on each type of magic, and of course the pros and cons of why someone would want to do this or avoid it. Then we can decide on the training.

Finally, we should start crafting some specific spells, although we can start with this. And just like with many things, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. These are all different things that we need to keep in mind when inventing a magic system. The last thing that we might want to focus on is inventing laws that exist in local places, and then any crimes and punishments. Hopefully, all of this information has helped you figure out how you can go about building a magic system.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from Serenade of Strings called “The Joys of Spring.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

Sep 152020
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #2): Continents

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is continents. You can read more in Chapter 3, “Creating a Continent”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Decide How Many Continents to Create”

Even if our story only takes places on one land mass, we should at least roughly create other continents and give them names. Knowing their direction from our main one and how hard they are to reach tells us and readers how likely visitors from far off lands are. Each continent might be known for a few things, however fairly, such as slavery, rare gems or other items, strange lands, or interesting creatures. Some of these things might find their way to our main continent, which is why we ought to have some idea on this. It makes our continent seem less like an island.

Tip #2: “Decide on the Hemisphere”

If we’ve lived our life in one hemisphere, we might need to remind ourselves that the season are reversed in the other one. The visible constellations are, too, and the moon appears upside down. Most importantly, an expression like “going south for the winter” makes no sense in the southern hemisphere.

Tip #3: “Understand Plate Tectonics and Mountain Ranges”

We don’t need to be experts in plate tectonics. Just know that explosive, volcanic mountain ranges along coastlines are common due to two plates converging there. If this happens at sea, we can a chain of islands. But when it happens between two continental plates, we get the tallest mountains, none volcanic. But technically a volcano can happen anywhere if there’s a flaw in the plate below.

Tip #4: “Waterways”

Did you know a sea and ocean are the same thing? Sea is just used to denote a smaller area of an ocean. Bays, gulfs, coves, and fjord are all bays but of different sizes and configurations. They can be connected by a strait, channels, pass, or passage, which are also all the same thing!

Tip #5: “What’s an Island?”

Some islands are so big that we might be tempted to call them a continent (Australia, anyone?). The distinction is largely one of size. Use your judgement. However, actual islands are either oceanic or continental. The former are far out to see and volcanic.

Summary of Chapter 3—Creating a Continent

Which hemisphere our continent lies in affects the seasons and might impact where we place constellations. Understanding plate tectonics can help us build believable mountain ranges and place volcanoes where they might occur. This can also determine where deep areas of the sea are, giving our sea monsters somewhere to call home. We have some liberty to name bodies of water what we want, but this chapter includes details on when to use which name, including seas, bays, inlets, and more.

 

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Sep 082020
 

Episode 31.1: Learn How to Create Magic Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a magic system, including whether we need to create them, sources of magic, whether spells are needed, a look at the life of wizards, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • When we don’t need to invent a magic system
  • The difference between a source and origin of magic
  • When spells might be needed
  • Why spells might not be needed
  • The potential consequences of not using spells
  • How to imagine the life of wizards so that it’s fully realized
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 31.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-one, part one. Today’s topic is how to create magic systems. This includes whether we need to create them, sources of magic, whether spells are needed, a look at the life of wizards, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6 of Cultures and Beyond, volume 3 from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Do We Need a Magic System?

Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of these episodes from Artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon.com, and you can actually buy the episodes themselves as audiobooks.

Many people may assume that magic systems are only going to come up in fantasy, but even if you write science fiction, this can still be there right alongside the technology. One reason for this is that it’s possible for planet-hopping characters in science fiction to end up on a planet that does not have this technology, and instead they’ve got magic.

The first major thing I want to talk about is whether we need a magic system because we don’t always need one. One reason we should have a system is that we want to be consistent, and we also don’t want to suddenly give someone an ability that they need, right when they need it, when we should’ve given it to them prior to that, and possibly shown it to the audience so that the audience isn’t surprised later when they can suddenly do this.

It’s also possible, if we’re writing something like a series, to end up contradicting ourselves because a later book does something where we said earlier, in a different book, that it’s not possible for that to happen. Keeping notes is a good way to go about this, but so is creating an organized system. Another reason we might want a system is if we have more than one type of magic. This would allow us to contrast two different types. On the other hand, if we haven’t worked out a system so that we know what’s possible in one versus the other, this is harder to do.

But one reason we wouldn’t want a system is if we are only writing a short story. In that context, we’re probably not going to forget what we’ve previously done, and the story is short enough that there’s only going to be so much magic showing up anyway. If magic is very limited, that is another reason we may not need a system because so few people will be able to do it that it’s just not going to come up often. On the other hand, if magic is really prevalent, we’re definitely going to benefit from a system.

Just like with technology, we have to determine the prevalence of, in this case, magic. Anything rare is going to be more special, valuable and feared, while something that’s very common may get taken for granted much the same way that we take technology for granted. This is important for establishing people’s attitudes about magic, and we don’t really need to explain why magic is either rare or common. We can simply decide this is the way life is, and that’s the end of it. Most people are not going to question it.

The one time when we might want an explanation is if the prevalence has suddenly changed, such as everyone can do it, and then, suddenly, it’s very restricted or vice versa. In that case, we’re going to want an event of some kind, and that’s probably going to figure into our story.

So, how do we go about deciding the prevalence? Well, one way is to consider the impact on the setting and the stories, and what we really want. The more common magic is, the greater the impact is going to be. Do we want it everywhere the same way that technology is everywhere on Earth as I dictate this? We will have a sense of whether we want magic to be that common, so sometimes we don’t really need to think about this so much as make a quick decision.

When magic is common, we’re going to need to spend time thinking about how it could be used by society, and we’re talking about really mundane uses for magic. For example, if someone can simply cast a spell to make their dinner, then the entire restaurant industry might go out of business and not exist. On the other hand, maybe the wizards who can cast really good recipes are the ones who are operating these restaurants. One point I’m raising is that we can envision things in various ways. But, one way or another, it is going to have an impact on the way people go about their lives.

On the other hand, if magic is very rare, then life is basically happening without it, except for a few individuals. This is arguably easier to imagine because it’s similar to Earth a few hundred years ago. That’s not because magic showed up, but of course, technology did. And technology is one way to go about figuring out what people might be doing with magic. However, we should resist doing something like having an oven that basically works from magic instead of electricity. Ovens are a good example because if you think about what’s in your house for cooking food, you probably have a microwave, you an oven or even a double oven, a grill outside, and a stovetop. You might also have something like a crockpot.

A poor use of magic would be to decide that magic is powering each one of those devices. What may be a better idea is if there’s only one device and magic powers that and can produce food different ways in that same device. Try not to just use magic as if it’s electricity. Some of these obviously don’t depend on electricity, but you get the idea. You don’t want it to just be a power source or a replacement for an existing component of an electronics device. We need to reimagine such devices.

Now, aside from devices, if magic is really prevalent, then it’s possible that wizards are simply casting spells all the time rather than using magic items. An interesting example of this would be something like a teleporter where there are two people, two wizards, standing there operating this teleporter by casting spells in real time rather than doing the equivalent of turning on a dial or a power button, for example, that sends people from one place to another. They actually have to cast the spell. There may be people who do this for a living and employers that they work for. Imagine what kind of insurance they must carry because they might cause people to cease to exist because they don’t show up at the other side of the teleportation device. We can really have a lot of fun with this if we are so inclined.

A related subject is the social aspect of wizardry. Whether magic is rare or common, there will most likely be laws about whether it can be used. We can invent entire areas of law, crime and punishment for this. Laws often originate from problems that have already occurred, so all we really need to do is think of things that people have done wrong, and then come up with a law that tells people, “Don’t do that.” This can allow us to create laws that are either local or all the way up to the federal level, at the sovereign power level. This helps us create some history and some infamous incidents, and even perpetrators. We may also have famous victims.

Of course, one question is how can we inhibit a wizard from doing something if wizards are so powerful? There are always ways to do something like this. For example, they can be imprisoned in a place where magic doesn’t work. Or maybe there’s a kind of device that can be put on them that stops them from doing magic, or maybe even the talent can be removed from them permanently. Put on your thinking cap and imagine something.

There are bound to be laws about the use of magic. For example, if I cast a spell on myself ahead of our date, that might be considered okay, but if we’re going on a date and I cast a spell on you, that could be a crime. Generally, casting spells on other people without their permission is probably frowned upon. Another angle we can use to our advantage is the power disparity that exists between wizards and non-wizards. Not surprisingly, the people who can’t do magic will probably want to place a lot of restrictions on those who can. What if we’re playing a sport and I cast a spell to make sure that I do well? That’s not fair. Maybe sports are played in places where magic doesn’t work because people can’t be trusted.

Some communities might reject the use of magic altogether. Sometimes religious beliefs might be behind this, or maybe conservative values where people are resisting change and magic is becoming more common, or the more likely one is that magic has caused a major problem here in the past and, therefore, people are not trusted if they can do magic. That’s not really fair to people, but people, often, are not fair to each other. We certainly have words for it, like discrimination. If we like this somewhere, all we have to do is create some sort of past incident. If we want wizardry to be viewed positively by a community, then we can just have a wizard have saved the day, for example.

We can certainly have both good and bad wizards, or good and bad incidents have happened in this location and, therefore, people don’t decide that wizards are all one way or the other. If you’re doing a story with a basic battle between good and evil, you might want them to have a viewpoint one way or the other, but if you want a more realistic setting, then I would suggest having a mix of people.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

You can also join the mailing list at artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. This gets you free, reusable templates from each published volume in the series. You don’t even need to buy the books to get these. I also send out contest information, free tips, and other stuff to help with your efforts. Please note I do not share your email address with anyone as that’s against my privacy policy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Sources of Magic

Another subject we should talk about is the source of magic. Where does it come from? The case can be made that there’s a subtle difference between the origins of magic and its sources. For example, the origin of magic is the answer to the question, “Where does magic come from?” One answer would be the universe. Another one would be the gods. There really aren’t too many other options than this.

Now, when it comes to sources, what I’m talking about is to perform magic, where does the wizard draw that energy from? For example, the universe might have provided magic as a point of origin, but when I go to cast the spell, where am I getting the magic from? Some options might be the planet or elements in that planet, like earth, water, air and fire, or it could be coming from magnetics. Or it could be coming from another body in the solar system, like the sun, the moon, a ring system around a planet or comets. It could also be other realities like the astral plane or a parallel dimension. Maybe I’m getting the magic from beings like a god, a demon, aliens or even regular things like plants, animals and humanoids — and possibly even from souls. Or we could have something like the force from Star Wars.

Part of what I’m getting at here is that when a wizard goes to summon this magic power from somewhere, it’s got to exist already in order for him to draw it from that place into himself, and then expel it outward as a spell. This is what I mean by a source of magic rather than the origins. If you’re wondering why this matters, well, let’s say that you’re an elemental wizard and you do things with water, and that’s all that you can do, but you find yourself in the desert where, in theory, there is no water. I say in theory because there is still going to be water in the atmosphere; it just may not be apparent to normal people. If you’re this elemental wizard, you may have the ability to sense it. But there can also be water underground and it just isn’t apparent to most of us.

This wizard might be able to draw the water from there and then do something like fill up everyone’s canteens so they have water to drink. Now, technically, that’s a source of water, but this person’s ability to do magic is related to water, so it would seem plausible that without a source like that, this wizard’s power doesn’t really work. They’ve got nothing that they can do. It doesn’t have to be that way, but part of what I’m thinking is a scene from a book I read a long time ago where a character who was a novice wizard, but very powerful, drew a lot of rain down on the opponents, the people who were trying to kill them, and the problem with this was that he caused a drought that lasted for something like a month after this. The people who knew better were yelling at him that he had done this, and he was offended that they were mad because he had just saved them. And they’re trying to tell him, “Yeah, but you caused this problem, or you’re about to cause this problem,” because they knew from experience that this was going to happen.

So, this is optional, but we can decide that magic has a source and it’s got to come from somewhere or the wizard can’t do anything. If magic is being drawn from living beings, then we have the ability to inadvertently kill them. Let’s say I want to draw water from your body. Well, I could kill you, of course. That may not be my intention, but maybe I was trying to do something else. Let’s say you were poisoned and I was trying to extract that liquid from your system, but instead I pulled out a bunch of water and now you’re really dehydrated or, worse, I actually killed you.

Now, some could say that this is not really a source, it’s just the element, in this case, that you’re operating on, and that’s a perfectly valid viewpoint. It doesn’t really matter what we consider it to be. What I’m after here is getting you to think about where wizards are getting the energy from, or what’s being affected by their ability to draw this magic to them, and then expel it outward. We always think about that expelling outward part, but do we think about where people are drawing this energy from in the first place? And is that supply inexhaustible? Is it forever? Is it something like the Sun where the odds of someone drawing all the power from the Sun and extinguishing it are pretty slim, even though they basically did that in one of the more recent Star Wars movies.

A related subject, and one that you’re probably familiar with, is the idea that there is a cost to magic. This is typically done partly because it’s believable, but it’s also a way to prevent wizards from having way too much power. One of the most plausible things is for magic to be physically draining, just like any other activity. I would recommend this as your default option because we have so many things that we need to do in world building that we might as well make this one simple unless we have another idea.

But we can think of other costs. For example, what if every time you do a spell, it makes you slightly more crazy than you used to be? Another limitation I remember is that if a wizard casts a spell, they’ve got to relearn it from scratch as if they’ve never seen it before and it’s difficult for them. We can also make wizardry cause premature aging. Take some time to think of a reasonable limit for your wizards.

World Building University

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To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.

Are Spells Needed?

One of my favorite subjects about magic systems is the question of whether spells are needed or not. It may seem obvious that they are needed, but that sort of depends on our definition of the words “spell” and “magic.” Magic is considered to be powers that don’t exist on Earth, but, of course, in our fictional world magic is real. But this definition still holds up for us. The reason is that our audience is on Earth. Spells typically mean doing some combination of words, gestures and physical materials. And, of course, the point of all of it is to perform magic.

If this all seems obvious, there is a reason I am making the distinction here. In a fantasy setting, the gods are considered real and they are doing things that don’t occur on Earth. So, we could say that they are causing magic. But that raises the question, are they doing spells? We don’t usually show them using physical materials, for example. They might use words and make gestures, but it seems kind of like they’re just channeling their willpower rather than trying to summon magic from somewhere with a spell. If a spell is a kind of recipe for doing magic, it doesn’t seem like the gods are doing that, does it?

So, you may disagree with this, and that’s fine, but let’s say that there are two ways of doing magic: with a spell, like mortals, or by force of will, more like a god. Well, what if mortals can also do magic without a spell? That’s what we’re going to take a look at.

Let’s first start off talking about the option where spells are needed, since that’s what most of us are familiar with. Naturally, a spell would harness magical energy, but if the spell is performed wrong, we have two options: Either nothing happens at all, or magic still happens but in unintended ways. These are equally plausible. Failure could mean that the energy wasn’t harnessed at all, and that seems the safest bad result of a spell that didn’t work. But failure could also mean that the energy was harnessed and it is just improperly disposed of.

In a series like Harry Potter, they often go for a comedic result by having the spells doing something other than what they were intended to do. This has often bothered me because I always felt like the whole point of a spell was to achieve a specific result. If he didn’t do it right, why does something else happen? One thing to consider here is that spells were invented by somebody somewhere. It could be gods or other beings like them, but it could be more fun to decide that mortals are the ones who devised these spells, and since mortals are fallible, so are the spells. Someone who’s good at creating spells might have put in there some sort of failsafe so that energy is dispersed in a safe manner if the spell is done improperly. This would certainly make magic less dangerous.

In a setting where spells can still go off if they’re done wrong, it’s more plausible that there’s going to be a lot of law and fear about this. On the other hand, magic is going to be more respected if it is more controlled. Now, if I’m someone inventing spells, maybe I put the part of the spell that harnesses energy first, and then if someone messes up a later part of the spell, like the discharging of it, I’ve got that failsafe in there that kicks off. But maybe I’m a smarter creator of spells and I do that harnessing at the end, and the spell never even gets to that point if the earlier parts of the spell are done poorly.

We can decide that all of these options exist on the world because there’s obviously going to be more than one person who has created spells. We can also have a situation where these failsafes are considered limiting, naturally, and that some people feel like that’s a problem. They would like to cast more powerful spells, and in order to do so, they’re going to have to cast a version that doesn’t have that kind of failsafe built into it because that is taking some of the energy that could go into other parts of the spells. Naturally, it’s probably going to be the more dangerous wizards who are interested in doing such things.

Now, let’s take a look at the other scenario. The one where spells are not needed by mortals. All of those safeguards that we were just talking about are not going to exist. A wizard won’t really have this idea that, “Hey, if I do this, I’m going to get this result.” They may cause side effects each time, and one time they remember to safeguard against that, and another time they don’t, maybe because they’re distracted or they’re in a rush. So, maybe they know how to cast a fireball, but each time they do it there is something different about it, and sometimes it’s more significant than others, and that’s outside the parameters that they might be expecting.

Technically, without a spell, they’re not going to have any parameters, but you get the idea. There is a range of results that they’re expecting, and because there’s no prescribed way of going about achieving that result, the results are going to vary. And maybe more so than someone who is doing it through a spell. Naturally, this could make any magic they do more dangerous, and if they are drawing energy from beings that are around them, well, they may draw away too much because there’s no spell that limits how much is being drawn from people around them.

It would seem that doing things by a force of will is inherently more dangerous and uncontrolled. This would be one reason to reserve this only for gods or some other supernatural beings. For all of these reasons, a wizard might still use spells even if they don’t need to. In other words, the spells are optional. In this scenario, spells are placing limits on magic, not making the magic possible. Given this, does it make sense to cast a spell but have it go wrong and still do something when the whole point of that spell was to achieve a specific result? It seems like the answer would be no, and that this should be a pass/fail kind of scenario. This is certainly one option on our world. You’re going to have to decide for yourself which option makes the most sense to you.

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The Life of Wizards

The last thing I want to talk about in this episode is the life of wizards. One of the things I mean is making a decision about how the ability to do magic is gained and lost. A seeming default is that it is like talent, and either we’ve got it or we don’t. People sometimes don’t know that they have a talent, and they may not until they reach a given milestone. This could be an age or an event, such as losing your virginity or having a first period if you’re a female, or maybe the first time we kill someone or draw blood. Maybe we even need to die and be reborn first.

And what about the option to lose the ability to do magic? If a God has granted the ability, maybe they can take it away. The same kinds of events that caused us to gain the ability can also cause us to lose it. Maybe as long as you’re celibate you can do magic. That sounds like a hard choice to me.

If the ability can be gained and lost, we should decide if this is permanent or not. We all like stories of redemption, so someone losing the ability to do magic and having to do some sort of penance to get it back might be something to do.

Training is another element we should consider. This might be especially important if magic can be done without spells because training is going to be needed to control yourself and what you are causing to happen. On that note, someone without the training is going to be more dangerous, but maybe they aren’t as powerful because they have not learned how to capitalize on their strength. If magic is common, then we may have schools that teach this, or at least guilds. But if it is feared, then we are probably going to have a kind of master and apprentice scenario. There may be entire countries where magic is not allowed, but other places where it is, and as a result, people with magic talent travel to that place to gain their training.

All of this can be used to develop good character backstory. If we have the time and are interested, we can even come up with a curriculum similar to what might be studied in college. We can even use the Harry Potter books and movies as inspiration, although try not to rip off anything. Another element of training is what sort of tests are required, and what most be passed. What happens to people who have talent but can’t pass any of the tests? Are they restricted from doing magic? If that’s not possible, are they killed? Maybe people don’t want them going out into the world and doing all sorts of mischief.

Think through each of these scenarios in your setting, and what kind of life awaits those who do pass all of these tests? Are they able to practice magic lawfully? Are they respected or are they still going to be feared? Once someone graduates and goes out into the world, they are arguably at their height of power. This is not to say that they’re not going to be more powerful in 10 or 20 years, but they are in their prime now. Are they able to live in the open or are they someone who is still being shunned despite their training? Much of this is going to determine how their life is being lived.

This can certainly circle back to the social aspects we talked about before where if they are accepted, then this is a positive to becoming a wizard, but if they know that being a wizard is going to get them feared and shunned, maybe they don’t want to let on that they have this power. Maybe they’ve got the talent, but they never develop it. Imagine being really good at something, and it’s the only thing that you are good at or you have a talent for, but this will get you hated. This could certainly have an affect on your outlook in life. What if the opposite is true and you’re not good at it, but everyone else is and magic is very accepted? This could also make you very resentful that you can’t be like everyone else.

Something else to consider is that when someone gets older, in their later years, they’re not going to be as powerful, and they may have caused enemies that are now after them. This seems like it would be a good reason to have joined a guild when you were younger and made friends, some of whom can now, essentially, protect you. We often see the stereotype of the really old wizard who’s all powerful, but this isn’t really that realistic, especially if magic is physically draining. Are wizards really like wine and they just keep getting better with age, or do they eventually go bad? Which, by the way, does happen with wine.

The last thing I want to mention about all of this is that this idea of being viewed poorly or well might be reflected in the attire that people wear. This is obvious, but if wizards are hated and they’re required to wear a robe and carry the cliched staff, then this is a bit of a problem. On the other hand, if they don’t have to do this, then why would they? We can decide that such attire is something that is worn for formal occasions, but when they’re out in the world and they’re trying to do something like ride a horse, a robe is not exactly the most comfortable thing to be wearing.

Try to find more practical clothing for your wizards to wear. Now, when we do this, we may lose the ability to immediately identify someone as a wizard, but that might be something they want, especially if they’re going to travel somewhere where wizards are feared and maybe killed on sight. But there are other ways to give them a distinctive outfit, especially in a visual medium. For example, in Star Wars, everyone can tell what a Jedi is just that from their clothing. Despite this, some of their clothing is much more functional than in the original Star Wars Episode IV. In that, we see Obi-Wan Kenobi wearing a robe. That appears to fit with the lifestyle he’s living where all he does is walk around. He’s not doing something like riding a horse. But it still does evoke the cliche of someone who is kind of a wizard, an old man and wearing a robe. In some of the movies, like Episodes I, II and III, the Jedi are shown wearing much more functional clothing. They are also shown doing much more active scenes, flipping around and all sorts of stuff.

There’s an old cliche that we should probably try to avoid, and that is that wizards cannot wear armor for reasons that are usually not very specified. I think the primary reason people do this is that it’s one way to make a wizard more vulnerable. But one excuse that I have seen is that the metal somehow interferes with the ability to perform magic. That’s fine, but it would seem like wizards would go out of their way to have some sort of armor fashioned that does not have that side effect. Regardless of your decision, try to find a way that wizards can alternate between being recognized on sight as a wizard, and easily obscuring the fact that they are one.

Now that we’ve covered some of these basics to keep in mind with wizardry and systems of magic, we’re going to get into a lot more interesting detail in the next episode.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from Serenade of Strings called “Sun Shower.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

Sep 072020
 
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #5): Monsters

This is the fifth in a series of world building articles! Today’s theme is monsters. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 5, “Creating Monsters”, from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Do You Need Monsters?”

Our story might not need monsters, but in games, what else is there to kill but species and animals? Adventuring characters need threats to worry about, but a species/animal can suffice. The best reason to invent a monster is the reason they’ve historically been created: to instruct us in morality and other concerns about how to live. Find your theme and invent your monster.

Tip #2: “Determine What It Can Do”

A monster’s skills are often the reason it’s terrifying. Decide on one or two traits it uses to kill, hide, or terrify people (even if on accident). This should coincide with your purpose. Get started by fantasizing scenes of people hunting it, being hunted, or fighting it, and what signs of its existence it leaves behind.

Tip #3: “Understand the Difference between Monsters, Species, and Animals”

A species is a lot smarter than a monster, usually, a villain like Dracula being an exception, partly because he was once human and not dead for long. Animals differ in being numerous, whereas a monster is typically the only one of its kind. But we can break these “rules” once we think about them. Read Creating Life to learn more.

Tip #4: “Decide Where Your Monster Originated”

Accidents are an easy way to create monsters, especially in SF, where imaginary technology can wreak havoc. But magic and other supernatural forces can do the same. Consider whether someone created your monster on purpose, too, and for what reason? This can give us a world figure. Evolution might also have led to this creature’s existence. Determine its origins to create a well-formed monster.

Tip #5: “Decide What the Monster Wants”

Whether it’s food, revenge, security, peace and quiet, or to hoard treasure, knowing what the monster wants will determine its behavior and lair. Treasure is actually a silly thing to desire, given that money is only useful when we’re part of society, and a monster isn’t, by definition. Read Creating Life to consider other factors.

Summary of Chapter 5—Creating Monsters

The difference between monsters, species, and animals is largely sophistication and numbers. Many monsters are created by accidents that turn an existing species or animal into something else, but sometimes monsters are created on purpose. In the latter case it’s especially important to decide who caused this. A monster’s habitat has an impact on its usefulness and sets the stage for creating atmosphere and characterization that will largely define our audience’s experience with it before the terrifying reveal. Its motivation in life, or in our work, also determines what it does and the sort of trouble it’s causing for our species.

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Sep 022020
 
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #5): The Supernatural

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is the supernatural. You can read more in Chapter 5, “Creating The Supernatural,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Origins Aren’t Needed”

Even scientists sometimes don’t understand where various energies they’ve detected originate, so we don’t need to state this either. That said, an interesting idea that creates even more mystery is never a bad thing. In fantasy, there’s a tendency to decide the gods did it, so SF seems to offer more opportunity for mystery.

Tip #2: “Determine Prevalence”

How often is a phenomenon encountered? It may always exist but only flare up at certain times, maybe even regularly, like the “Old Faithful” geyser. Or supernatural elements might be common, which tends to reduce reactions to them. Decide how often the event occurs and whether rarity is something the story needs.

Tip #3: “Determine Impact”

If the supernatural is very common, such as everyone being able to cast minor spells, then this could greatly impact society. Unless we intend to think our way through every detail, it’s sensible to decide that magic, for example, is quite limited, as is often shown in fantasy. Thinking our way through every detail can lead to many unique revelations which set our world apart.

Tip #4: “Do Supernatural Creatures Exist?”

If so, they often take the form of extensions to their abilities, such as a horse that runs faster or can cross into other realities. Decide what problems the story has and how something like this can help, but be careful not to make the solution perfect. For example, make the faster horse unable to go all the way to their destination.

Tip #5: “Are There Demi-Gods?”

A figure like Cupid is a lesser god with a specific function. We can create such individuals if we need them, or if they can affect our characters’ lives. We can also create half-gods like Hercules. Decide on their abilities, origins, function, and reputation. A few infamous past deeds round them out.

Summary of Chapter 5—Creating the Supernatural

Supernatural elements exist in both fantasy and SF and can be used to add to the unexpected. The audience may expect magic, for example, but not our version of it, so there’s room for originality here. We can also create energies that give rise to phenomena, beings, or places like magic pathways or alternate worlds and realities that impact our setting and stories. How much impact and prevalence these supernatural elements have, and how to determine this, are an important focus of this chapter.

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Aug 312020
 
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #2): Creating Gods

This is the next installment in my series of world building articles! Today’s theme is deities. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 2, “Creating Gods,” from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Decide Whether to Create Them”

A story that doesn’t need gods frees us from inventing them. That might change if the setting is a world we’ll use often, as a religious character would crop up sooner or later. But single-use worlds can get away without deities, though it’s arguably better to just create a lone god and skimp on details or a pantheon. If you don’t have a feel for what to do, skip this…or read Creating Life to gain ideas.

Tip #2: “Science Doesn’t Eliminate Religion”

A popular theory states that with more science we have less religion, but look at our own world to see how much of it still exists despite all of our accomplishments. Science may explain things that were once held to be of divine origin, but beliefs persist. Your world’s inhabitants will still believe in a higher being, most likely, even if you decide not to comment on it.

Tip #3: “Are the Gods Real?”

In fantasy, deities are typically real and sometimes put in an appearance. SF often doesn’t mention the gods, but if so, they seldom show up. Decide if the world’s gods are real and whether they interfere in events. What are some famous incidents and consequences? Read Creating Life for ideas.

Tip #4: “Mix and Match Analogues”

If we create a detailed setting we repeatedly use, gods are one of the subjects we need to invent only once because they exist outside the scope of our current story and can be reused. This is one reason to create one more highly developed world. One detailed pantheon can be more entertaining and be a common theme across stories. Why create pantheon over and over?

Tip #5: “Use Analogues”

We can borrow gods of various Earth pantheons and alter them to fit our setting. This helps us get started. At the least, we can create a list of gods and their attributes and then start mixing and matching what we like to create our versions, like Dr. Frankenstein creating gods.

Summary of Chapter 1—Creating Gods

Our species will invent gods to believe in even if we don’t invent them, so we may need some deities for people to reference in dialogue, whether praying or swearing. In SF, belief in gods may still exist despite, or even because of, advances in science. In fantasy, priests often call on a god to heal someone, and this requires having invented the gods. Pantheons offer advantages over a lone god, including dynamic relationships between them and the species. Half gods and demigods are other options that help us create myths and legends to enrich our world, especially if gods can be born, die, or be visited in their realm.

Myths about how the gods or species came to exist help people understand the purpose of their lives and what awaits them in death. Symbols, appearance, patronage, and willingness to impact the lives of their species all color a pantheon and world. Gods also create places people can visit or items that can fall into the wrong hands, offering possibilities for stories.

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Podcast Episode 30 – Creating Items

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Aug 252020
 

Episode 30: Learn How to Create Items

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create items, including regular ones, supernatural ones, and technological elements like an A.I.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to create an A.I.
  • Why we should create regular items
  • What to consider when creating magic and technological items
  • Why form and function may or may not matter
  • How to create imperfect items
  • Why manufacturers need a reputation
  • How to use story to decide what items do
Coda

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Episode 30 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty. Today’s topic is how to create items. This includes regular ones, supernatural ones, and technological elements like an AI. This material and more is discussed in chapter 7 from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Ownership

Just a quick reminder that you can buy transcripts of all of these podcast episodes at artofworldbuilding.com and Amazon.com.

One of the things we need to decide when it comes to items is who is the owner? Not only now, but who is supposed to be the owner if it’s not the rightful owner? Lost items, or ones that are in the wrong hands, are a good way to add some interest to our stories and our setting. It’s possible that somebody wants it back and is hunting for it, and if our main character has it, then this is a complication. Our character may or may not know that is really belongs to someone else, and this is especially true if they found it somewhere. And there’s the old idea: finders keepers.

That’s something that we say here in the United States, but the attitude might be quite different in another culture, especially among another species or race. You’ll have to decide what their attitude is. Do you want them to be the same or not? I think it would surprise American readers if a character found out the item really belongs to someone else and they just hand it over even though they found it somewhere. The more valuable or special that item is, the more surprising that would be. But it’s certainly one way to show a different attitude among another species or a culture.

If the item is in the wrong hands now, we may want to stop and think about how this came to be. We don’t have to write an actual short story, but create an owner and something simple about what happened to it. Was it stolen or lost, and when did this happen? Is that person even alive anymore? That obviously simplifies things, and if we don’t need that character showing up and being a hassle for our main characters, then that’s a good way to go. However, some items are famous and there might be other people who are interested in acquiring that.

We don’t have to create an origin story for every item, but it is a good idea because it’s too easy to just throw items out there and have our characters finding them all the time. This is something that audiences are used to from playing something like Dungeons and Dragons, or other games on computers, where you just find items and you go, “Hey, great. Now I’ve got this. In that context, we don’t have to worry about it. But for storytellers, it’s a good idea to decide where the item came from and to not have so many of these lying around.

I would go so far as to say that in a single, novel-length story, there might be one, at most two items that are found that end up positively or even negatively impacting the course of the story. And plenty of stories should have no such items. I’m specifically talking about ones that are lost or have come into the wrong hands. It’s okay to have more items that were not exchanged that way, but this whole thing of lost items and then being found, it’s a little too convenient. I’m not the only one who thinks that, so your audience may raise an eyebrow if too many of these start showing up. But in gaming, you don’t have to worry about any of this. You can just have tons of items everywhere and your players will love you for this.

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Regular Items

Let’s talk about regular items. What I mean are ones that are not technological or supernatural. Sometimes people associate supernatural properties with items that do not have this. A good example of this would be in religion. Any item that was used by a prophet can be seen this way, and we have a couple other items from Christianity, like the Shroud of Turin, the Holy Grail, or even John the Baptist’s head is consider a holy and interesting item. I forget the name of the spear, but the spear that supposedly was used to kill Christ on the cross to ease his suffering is also considered to be an item that acquired supernatural relevance as a result of that act. Even if it doesn’t have that supernatural element, people still revere it and it’s considered a highly prized item.

If we’re writing science fiction or fantasy, we can decide whether these items are only believed to be special in that way, or they actually are. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that they are not. Why would we want to create items that don’t have any supernatural or technological significance? One reason is that if every item in our setting does have that, it can be a little overwhelming so we might want to just have some simpler items around — ones that people still covet or think of.

One advantage to creating regular items is that they’re not going to have really unique properties, like a supernatural or technological one, so these are easier to invent. Some of these items could be ordinary in appearance, but we could add something unique to them, especially in a visual medium, so that they are more easily recognized. One way to create these items is to think of them in a mythological sort of way. What I mean is that an item could be ordinary until it did something extraordinary, not because there’s anything extraordinary about it, but simply because something very important happened and this item was involved.

An example of this would be the broken sword, I think it’s called Narsil, from The Lord of the Rings. This is the sword that cut the ring off of Sauron’s hand. There may or may not have been anything special about this sword, but once it did this, it became special, not because it acquired properties, but simply because of the significance of being involved in this incredible moment. We can do this with anything. I could smash a teapot over the head of a really bad villain and kill him, and the shards of that teapot are now famous. That’s a silly example, but you get the idea.

Along those lines, I remember reading a book where a character who was believed to be a murderer was executed, and right when he was beheaded, these women ran forward with bowls to collect the blood that was spurting out of his neck. It’s obviously a gruesome scene, but the reason they were doing this was that the blood of a murderer was considered to be powerful in witchcraft. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. As it turns out, that guy was actually innocent. It kind of makes you wonder if any spell they cast with his blood went awry because it wasn’t the right kind of blood. That story was set on Earth, by the way, and it didn’t involve magic in any way. It was just a myth that characters had. I believe it was set in the early 1800s in Norway.

This brings up a point that we don’t necessarily need these things to be true in order to assign something like that to an item. Going back to this idea of a sword that is special, what if the blacksmith who made that acquires a reputation for having made great swords just because one of his swords was used in a significant way? This is a way that that character can end up having, let’s say, a better business. Or we’ve got a main character who really wants to go get a sword made by that guy because of this association, even though it’s a bunch of bologna. This is a good way to take even regular items and make some of them seem like they’re more special, even when they’re not.

Something we’ll talk about with all of these kinds of items is whether the form and the function matter. For example, if we need a bludgeoning weapon, then obviously we need something like a mace or a hammer or a staff. If we need a slicing weapon, then it’s going to be a blade of some kind. But if it’s not something that people are going to use in that manner, like striking somebody, then the form doesn’t matter quite as much. This will make a little bit more sense when we talk about magic items because those often don’t matter what the form is based on the function.

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Magic Items

Let’s talk magic items. We have some standards that we can choose from, like rings, bracelets or other jewelry, and of course the wizard staff. A wand is one of the few things that someone’s only going to have if they are a wizard, or maybe a classical music conductor. That is arguably where that idea originated. But we can also give any other item in our setting magical properties if we desire. For any magic item, we of course have to decide on its properties. When doing this, we need to create limits.

One way to do this and be realistic is to create an item that has some problems with it. I don’t mean that there’s something defective, but an example would be something like a cloak that every time you put it on, it automatically makes you invisible. Well, sometimes you don’t want that to happen, right? If you’re going somewhere and you want to become invisible at a point in your trip, but not other times, you can’t just wear the cloak the entire time. You’re going to have to stash it somewhere, pull it out and then put it back later. In other words, this item is a little bit inconvenient as opposed to, for example, a ring of invisibility where, with a touch or a word, you can flip it back and forth and you’re not having to hide it or take it off.

So, sometimes we can make the item be less useful by giving it a form that is a little bit problematic. Another problem with that cloak is that if we’re not carrying it around with us, then where are we going to hide this? Maybe the cloak itself is always invisible, so it’s less of an issue, but if it’s not, then when we put it somewhere, there’s always the risk that someone else is going to take it.

One of the things that we often see in stories is that characters are not allowed to bring a certain kind of item, like a gun or a sword, into an establishment or an entire settlement, like a city, so they have to leave it somewhere. I always look at this and think, “There’s no way I’m going to do that.” I mean, I’m a musician and I’ve built my own guitars with a little bit of help, and I would never want to leave my guitar somewhere in the care of other people if I couldn’t trust them. When I move from one house to another, I actually take all of my guitars personally because I don’t want the movers to accidentally break anything. So, imagine that you’ve got a magic item, like a sword, and you’re told you’re not allowed to bring it into this settlement. This could be a pretty serious problem. In fact, this is such a problem that you might really want to consider not doing that in too many locations because it’s just something that your characters are going to have to work around a lot. In other words, this might take over your story a little bit more than you want it to. This doesn’t just apply to magic weapons, for example, but any of them. It just becomes a little more important to you to not leave it behind because you’re probably not going to be able to replace that as easily.

A minute ago, I mentioned the idea of a defective item. This is something that happens all the time with regular items, and certainly technological ones here on Earth, so why not with a magic item? I think the difference is that usually when something breaks, it’s because of a mechanical reason, and this isn’t necessarily true of a magic item. But there’s no reason we can’t have magic items that were poorly made. So, for example, with that cloak of invisibility, what if it only hides your body, but it doesn’t do anything about your shadow? This doesn’t matter if you’re skulking about at night, or at least it matters less, but during the day it’s certainly going to cause a problem when people see the silhouette of a person moving somewhere but there’s no actual person standing there.

We can have a lot of fun with this kind of thing, and we might even have a character who doesn’t realize their item is defective until they eventually discover that there’s one that works a lot better than the one they’ve been using. Feel free to invent magic items that have something wrong with them. And it might not even be obviously bad. It might just have something like a time limit. Maybe a spell that makes you invisible from a ring will only last for about 10 minutes, but better ones usually last indefinitely. Just take any element of this item and imagine the ideal state, and then figure out a way that it could be working poorly. Not all magic users are going to be good at creating magic items. Some of those might just get discarded, and they think it’s going to end up in the trash, but some guy goes through the trash and takes it, and now this item is out there in the world and people are using it.

Another property we should consider is the coveted on/off property. Can this thing be turned on and off? That cloak I’ve been talking about would be less problematic if you could make it go off, but you could still be wearing it. The version that I was alluding to earlier implied that it was always on. By on, of course, I mean that it was always going to make you invisible. You couldn’t be wearing it and have it not have that effect. By on, I didn’t mean that you were always wearing it.

This on/off property is another way to make items more valuable than other versions of that. So, for example, two cloaks, one that can be turned on and off, and the other one that can’t be. One of them is going to be more valuable than the other. The wealthier people in our setting might insist on such a property, but a lower level wizard might only create the other kind. Or even a better wizard might create both kinds and sell them to different classes of people for the requisite amount of money. On that note, would our character who was poor have the best version? The answer is probably not. Not unless they found it or stole it.

For most items, we should also limit the number of powers it has. An exception would be the wizard’s staff or wand. The reason we want a limit is that they can cause too much trouble if the item has too much power. Usually, it’s only the wizards who have items that have that many functions or that much power. After all, a wizard doesn’t necessarily need those items to be doing magic anyway, so they’ve already got a lot of power. So, having an item that has a lot of power seems to fit within that idea.

On that note, usually you must be a wizard in order to use a staff or a wand. All of this seems to suggest that other items only have one or two magical properties and that you don’t need to be a wizard to use them. This is not a rule, but it does make sense. If we think of these magic items as being like a tool, well, most tools only have one or two functions. So, for example, a hammer. You can either pound something in or you can use the other end of it to pry something, that you’ve already pounded in, out.

In most magic items, if they’ve got a magical property, it is usually accentuating something about the item. An obvious example would be a sword that does more damage. If you compare a hammer to the Swiss Army knife that has all these functions it can do, that knife is great, but it’s not going to do all of those functions as well as a dedicated item will. This is another way to think of these magic items and the properties we’ve assigned them.

Another important element is the form of that magic item. Something like a wand, a staff or a ring doesn’t seem to impact how that is being used, but a weapon does. One of the things we can do is take an item like a broom and use it for something like flying, even though that has nothing to do with its original form. These can be harder to come up with.

Another big thing about the form is that wearable items are much less likely to be left behind, and we can also be wearing it when we suddenly need it. But that does depend on whether it’s got that on/off property. It also depends on what it does. A ring of invisibility is kind of different from one that makes us less likely to suffer damage from an attack. Maybe it is making our skin harder. This is something that we could presumably wear all the time, unless, of course, maybe we were about to have intimate relations with someone who doesn’t like how rough our skin is.

One great thing about jewelry items is that even regular jewelry serves no real purpose other than dressing ourselves up a little bit. So, if a character is wearing jewelry that happens to be magic, it’s likely that no one’s really going to pay that much attention to it unless doing so is unusual. This is why it’s a good idea to use something like a ring, even though that is a cliche. It’s just such an obvious one that why wouldn’t you have a ring that has the magical property as opposed to something else, unless the form of it really mattered. For example, if I need a magic box that you can only open with a certain word, well then, obviously, a ring isn’t going to help me with that. So, if we want a magic item that’s going to have an effect on the person who has it, an item like a ring is a good idea. If it’s an item that’s going to have an effect on other people, we might want to go with something that’s more shaped like a sword or some other kind of weapon, or even a wand is the one that casts that spell on other people.

Typically, we assume that an item that’s being worn is going to affect the person that’s wearing it, not someone else. But there’s no reason it can’t. But it also seems like if it’s going to do that, then it’s going to do so within a certain radius or a certain direction from the wearer. But theres’ really no reason that we can’t decide that a specific person can be targeted by a ring that we are the one wearing. Maybe we have to make a certain motion with our hand or point a certain way and that’s how we’re signaling to the ring which person to do it to. Of course, anyone who knows about this is also going to realize that we’re doing this, so that’s a problem, but sometimes giving a problem is a good way to make something not be too convenient.

All of this brings up the idea of who the user of this item is intended to be in our story. We should always decide if someone who has no magic talent can use an item. As I mentioned a minute ago, it seems obvious that only wizards can use items specifically designed for them, like a staff or a wand, but most other items don’t usually require someone with magical talent to use them. Some of them we can just use automatically because they don’t have that on/off property like that invisible cloak, but others will need some sort of magic word that must be known to turn them on or off.

If we have different types of magic in our world, we could decide that these items only work in the hands of someone who is able to use that kind of magic. We could even decide that some people can be much affected by that type of magic, therefore if they’re wearing the item, it doesn’t act as a magic item. The likelihood of an item being used by someone else when we don’t want this is one reason why the manufacturer of that item might decide to place limits on who can use it. A worn item is much less likely to be lost, depending on what it is, than something like a freestanding chest that could be anywhere. The chest is going to be large and heavy, and not something we’re just carrying around all the time, so we’re going to have to leave it somewhere. As a result of that, it could always be stolen by somebody. Thinking of items this way is one way to decide on whether anyone can use them or not, and if the manufacturer has placed a limit on it.

The last thing I want to talk about with magic items is the subject of origins. We’ve touched on this a little bit in this section, but it’s always wise to have figured out who made this item. We don’t necessarily need a name, but we need to know what kind of purpose it was designed for, and the skill level of the person who created it. In some cases, these items will have been created for another person to use. In that sense, it sort of has two origins. The manufacturer and the original owner.

The more unique an item is, the more we should work out the origins. For example, Thor’s hammer is, well, one-of-a-kind. Therefore, people are more curious about this. But if everyone has a hammer like this, then nobody really cares. We can presumably go to the store, for example, and buy one. Even if we don’t explicitly state that, a run-of-the-mill magic item doesn’t need as much explanation as a one-of-a-kind one.

Our setting may have people who specialize in creating magic items and, if so, there are presumably stores where one can purchase these. Or, if not, we can track down this person and acquire one directly from them. Naturally, these people are going to have their own personalities that allow us to develop more interest in our story. Maybe they won’t sell an item to someone they believe is a bad character. Or maybe they really don’t care about this and will give it to anyone who pays a good price. They may even accept a commission for an item from one person, but then someone else learns about it, then comes along and outbids that person.

We can envision all sorts of personality flaws or attributes about the inventor that add more dimension to our story. We can certainly imagine that this person has considerable protection around them, whether it’s magical, supernatural or in the form of physical protection. If such people are really common, so much so that there’s a real profession of them, they may have banded together and formed a union of some kind. They may have something like a bank, essentially, where all of their magic items are collectively stored. Maybe even laboratories where they create these are located in that one place, and there is over-the-top magical protection and physical protection around this place. Take a minute to decide how much of this is going on in the world, and whether these people are really known and their identities, because this is going to be an issue.

Think about it like this: If there was somewhere on Earth where you could get magic items, wouldn’t you want to know where that is and how you can get in there? If you’re ethical, maybe you’re interested in buying one, but maybe they’re so expensive that you can’t. And if you’re unethical, you would certainly think nothing of going there and trying to steal something. Unless, of course, it’s so incredibly dangerous to do so. But then, maybe, you’re desperate.

Another source of items would be the gods. They could not only create items that are intended for mortals, but they could have their own items that they sometimes lose, at least temporarily. Truly powerful items that have fallen into the wrong hands is a good way to create mischief and even have one-of-a-kind events happen in the past. I don’t remember which story it is, but I believe there’s a story where this happens and the result is a whole race of creatures that are created.

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Tech Items

Let’s talk about technological items. Unlike magic items, technological ones tend to be created specifically for a purpose rather than repurposing an existing item. But both can be done. So, for example, we have a smart watch which is a lot more than just a regular watch. However, it was still designed to be like that from the beginning. It wasn’t a regular watch that had this property added to it.

Technological items often have the on/off property, too. It’s unusual that they are always on unless it’s something that can be plugged in or has some sort of battery that is indefinite. Something we should always decide on is whether this item is a good one or a bad one. What I mean is that we’ve all used items that we think stink because there’s something buggy about it. Manufacturers also have their reputations. Some of us might think that Apple is great while another guy thinks it’s terrible. We should try to do this kind of thing in our setting because characters will covet one item more than another, and they will sometimes complain about something because it’s not, for example, an Apple product because that’s what they love. I know that I frequently complain about software based on the manufacturer.  This sort of things adds believability.

Something we should also consider is the technological prevalence in the setting. Many items are taken for granted and we should have a sense of which ones are considered to be this way. This will form expectations and attitudes, especially when something stops working. Are people used to going without it? How would you feel if your smartphone stopped working or you had no internet connection for, let’s say, an entire week?

Technological problems are almost a given in any science fiction story. In fact, if we’re not careful, we can actually bog down our story with too many of these. It can almost become a cliche if we’re doing something like a TV series, because we have so many episodes, and we could have a formula cropping up where there’s some sort of technology problem. Do it too often and people accuse us of using a formula.

Another area to consider is usability because all of us have used an item that we thought was poorly made. This is another thing that manufacturers should be known for. In fact, we really should create several manufacturers that we have named in our setting. Try to think of at least three for pretty much every class of things, whether it’s ships, weapons, or even household items. The characters will certainly be noticing these things. The occasional gripe or pleasure expressed about them is something that is more believable.

When it comes to this usability, this is something that can be a con. So, we have an item that’s really powerful, but it’s a really difficult item to use, and therefore people avoid it despite the power it has.

Durability is a similar issue. Maybe people really like something but it breaks down all the time. There’s also the connectivity issue. I know that a long time ago I stopped using one phone service provider because their service was terrible. And I’ve done the same thing with my TV provider several times. Right now, I have one that I’ve had for years and I never have problems with it. So, I basically swear by it.

We should take a minute to think about how connectivity issues can positively or negatively impact any story that we create, and the characters and the items that are in there. A related issue is the power adapter issue. If we live in the United States and we go to Europe, we need to buy an adapter or our items will not be able to be plugged in. This is, obviously, a mundane concern, but this is another way that we can make things go wrong for our characters, especially when they arrive on other planets. It always seems like characters are walking around with fully charged items, and one reason people do this — you know, the storytellers do this because they don’t want to make that an issue in the story that they’re telling. They’ve got other things on our mind.

That’s good, but a realistic option would be for only one of the characters to have run out of battery, for example, so that the other characters in the story can still move forward despite this. But it adds a humanizing touch to our story. Or, in this case, it makes an item more believable because it has failed.

When it comes to the origins of our technological items, we are pretty much going to assume that these are coming from a manufacturer somewhere, and we almost don’t have to specify this unless we want to do this thing of giving reputations. In other words, people aren’t going to wonder where a character got something. They’re going to assume they either bought it from someone, stole it, found it or whatever. But it’s not usually something that’s so rare that there’s only one of them.

But this is not to say that we can’t have one-of-a-kind items in our science fiction stories. In those cases, yes, we will still have to think of this as far as who is the point of origin or what company did it? And is this, for example, a prototype? Or maybe it’s a really old item that is no longer being manufactured. As a result, there might be very few of them. Another important issue with origins is to figure out which species is responsible for inventing this item. Once again, one species could have a reputation for powerful items, or ones that have a lot of durability, or maybe they’ve got reliability issues, or connectivity issues or any of these problems. They might actually think their own items are great until they start using ones made by another species and realize their own kind of stink by comparison.

Every item in your setting should have a reputation. We can also decide that an entire species is only capable of producing, for example, unreliable items. Or we can decide that it’s only their plasma guns that are unreliable because they don’t seem able to harness plasma energy in a way that is reliable.

When it comes to form and function with technological items, they usually go together. But this is not always true. For example, your smartphone has so many functions in it that no one would realize unless they are familiar with such devices. Weapons are the obvious thing where the function will matter, but this will depend. A weapon that is shaped like a gun only makes sense when the projectile is a physical object. If it’s something like a beam of light, then why does the item have to be in that shape of a gun with a barrel? Try to think outside the box with these.

When it comes to users, it often doesn’t really matter who the user is. But many times it does, especially if some sort of specialized knowledge is required to use the item. But something else that we can do is decide that a species has input biological markers into their devices so that only their species can use those items. This can cause disputes where maybe they’re considered to be unfriendly towards other species in the sense that others will share their technology, but that species won’t. So, this kind of thing can be used to cause attitudes to come up in between multiple species.

Review

if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again, that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review.

Creating A.I.

The last item I want to touch on is the creation of an artificial intelligence, or A.I. One thing to think about is whether the gender is fixed or whether this can be changed. In fact, maybe we want the species to be capable of change. This is not only the voice, but some A.I. are capable of projecting a 3D image or even a 2D image on a TV, and we may want them to be able to physically appear different. This matters a little bit less in a book because we can’t hear the voice of the character. We certainly can’t see them. Another question is if this character can change, then do they have the ability to impersonate other people?

We should decide where this A.I. lives. It could be part of a vessel, or a structure like a house, but it could also be portable. If the A.I. can manifest physically, does it look like a real person or is it obvious that it’s some sort of light projection? The way to decide this is really to determine what sort of uses you have for this character. Do you want someone to confuse them for a living person? We can also put this A.I. inside a physical body, such as a cyborg. And, of course, we can make a decision as to how realistic they look. Is it obvious that they’re a machine? And is it obvious because of things like skin texture or is it because of the way they act? We should also decide if all of the A.I.’s data store is local to them or if there is something that they are connecting to to gain more information. If they are portable, perhaps most of the information is on a ship because that’s where they normally are, but when they go elsewhere, they only have a subset of information available to them and must reconnect to the ship.

Personality is another major area to invent, but we can approach this just like any other character in our story. One caveat is to give them a reduced sense of human interaction, or other species, where they just don’t quite understand some of the things that we are saying to each other. There’s nothing original in this, and you have probably seen this portrayed in a variety of shows. It’s almost like the comedy of manners thing where people don’t quite understand each other. We should also decide if this A.I. has the ability to appear at pretty much any location in a ship, for example, because this could produce some awkward moments where you’re undressed and, next thing you know, the A.I. is on your screen and looking at you. Now, maybe you don’t care, but maybe you do and you might find this awkward. Maybe the A.I. has been programmed not to do this kind of thing or can be taught why this is considered an issue.

Basically, what you want to do is decide how you want this A.I. to be used, and then think of ways it can cause problems or be beneficial to the crew and their interactions with each other. We should also consider if this A.I. can be modified. Now, as someone who does software development for a living, I can tell you that bugs get introduced all the time. So, if there is a crew member, or several crew members, who have the ability to modify this artificial intelligence, they may do things that don’t work out as they intended. Imagine if this A.I. is responsible for maintaining all of the life support systems, for example, and then you’ve got crew who are able to modify this. They may really screw up and effectively kill everybody on board. I would imagine that in such a scenario, the testing that goes into something being launched is considerable.

Another issue here is whether or not this A.I. can be hacked. This is another idea that others have used effectively. This is one reason not to make the A.I. be all-powerful.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from Serenade of Strings called “The Gift” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

Disposition Course Video

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Aug 152020
 

Ever wanted to create your own undead? This lesson from the Accelerated World Building course by World Building University walks you through whether it’s a good idea or not. Maybe just modifying the usual ones is better.

Topics include:

  • Scenarios that influence whether we should do it
  • Specific reasons to invent them – and reasons NOT to
  • What inventing them involves
  • What details we can skip to speed it up and why
  • My recommendations

Course details and curriculum can be found at https://www.worldbuilding.university/courses/accelerated-world-building/

Podcast Episode 29 – Creating the Supernatural

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Aug 112020
 

Episode 29: Learn How to Create Languages

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create the supernatural, including supernatural energy, magic paths, alternate realities, supernatural beings, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What energy types might be available to us and how to decide on their properties
  • How to invent magical paths and what to populate them with
  • How to create an alternate reality and what goals they can serve in our story
  • How to decide how common each supernatural element is and the impact it may have on setting and story
  • What supernatural beings we might want to create, using analogues from Earth as inspiration
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 29 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven. Today’s topic is how to create the supernatural. This includes supernatural energy, magic paths, alternate realities, supernatural beings, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 5 of Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Energy Types

Before we get started, I do want to remind you that you can now purchase the transcripts of all of these episodes from artofworldbuilding.com and Amazon.com.

The most obvious type of supernatural energy that we’re going to have is, of course, magic. But we do have other sources, such as radiation, dark matter or things that we invent in science fiction. There can even be energies that are not supernatural in nature, but due to general ignorance, such as in a fantasy setting, we may have characters thinking that it is supernatural when it’s just something like X-ray radiation. But even when something like gamma ray radiation exists, most of us have not been exposed to something like this in high enough doses to know what it really does to the human body, or another species. Therefore, we can invent side effects of being exposed to this. I believe something of that nature has been done with the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Spider Man. Regardless of what the source is, what really matters is that we want to figure out a number of things about it.

For example, what is the origin? What are the properties? Where does it occur? Can it be controlled, and if so, how? And what protection against it exists? And then, of course, it’s always helpful to have thought of past incidents that people have had with this energy.

When it comes to origins, we can sometimes skip this because, even here on Earth, scientists have sometimes not figured out what the source of an energy is. This means our characters may not know either. We can even invent an energy because there have been times in Earth history where we did not know about an energy. And, of course, later on, it was discovered. So, if our story takes place 1,000 years into Earth’s future, then maybe we have discovered more types of energy.

But something we do want to decide on is where this energy can be found because, of course, our characters are going to encounter it. Otherwise, there’s really no point in us inventing it. One reason to do this is that this energy might be in certain locations where a given species tends to live. For example, let’s say it’s a fantasy setting and it tends to happen in forests. Well, the elves are typically forest-dwelling, so, therefore, they may be more likely to be experts with this type of energy. This can easily result in a cast member who is an expert because of their race.

A fun area to invent are the properties. This can also result in a nickname for it. For example, if it looks like blue fire, then that’s maybe what people call it. We should decide if it gives off any heat or cold, and if it feels like anything in particular and if we are capable of touching it. We know that something like an electrical field will cause the hairs on our arms to stand up, so is this kind of effect something that happens? This can be good to work out because maybe some of our species have more developed senses than others, and, as a result, they’re the first ones to detect that this is happening somewhere nearby.

When it comes to controlling an energy, this is something that people pretty much always want to know if it has been discovered. This is especially true if it is dangerous. So, decide if it can be controlled and how, and who is capable of doing this? Do they need a technology? Do they need to be a wizard? What is it about them that allows them to control this? It’s possible that anyone who has a certain device will be able to do so. This is true in both science fiction and fantasy. With any energy, we’re going to have past incidents because people have most likely encountered it before, unless we are writing the story of the first time they do so. We can sort of do both where our current characters are first running into it, but other people have run into it, and maybe some of them don’t realize what it is, but one of them in the group does. That discovery could happen too late after some of them have already experienced it, possibly because the group has separated from each other.

As with any past incident, we can just make up a short story about who was involved, where it happened and what happened. Did people survive? What happened to their bodies when they encountered this? This can not only give us a famous incident, but give us a famous character.

More Resources

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Magic Paths

Another area that comes up, especially with fantasy, is what I think of as magic pathways. While not original if we do the same, we can certainly make it original by adding our own stamp. These are typically presented as an alternate way of getting from one place to another, usually more quickly. But, of course, this comes at a price because there’s something inherently dangerous about this place. Those dangers are some of the most fun things for us to invent.

If you’ve read my free novella that you can get from my fantasy mailing list, called The Ever Fiend, that figure is someone who inhabits one of these alternate pathways and the land therein. I was able to think of all sorts of strange places, phenomenon, and items that people can create in there, or side effects of things that happen to items once they’re in there for too long, especially if they have been left behind. While working on that, I realized that sometimes a wizard might want to go in there and get some of these peculiar places because there are ingredients for spells that don’t exist anywhere else. In fact, this is what led to the story of The Ever Friend where the main character, Talon Stormbringer, is the person who was hired by a wizard to go in there and get it.

One of the other dangers that can be in these paths is that other people might be in there. They could be in there voluntarily because they’re after something, or maybe they have gotten lost. As a result, they might be someone who preys on anyone else who enters this place. In the real world, a path always leads to a physical place, but with these magical paths, they don’t have to. This could be the only way to reach the afterlife or the place where the gods dwell, for example.

We can pretty much do whatever we want, and one of the things we need to figure out is what do people need to do to enter these pathways? Can they do it anywhere with something like a spell, or do they need to go to a specific location, or one of maybe a few dozen that exist, and enter the pathways that way by doing something at the doorway? If they do, then, most likely, some of these paths are guarded, either by something like a monster or it’s in the control of an evil kingdom somewhere, and they don’t want anyone else to go in there because they’re going in there and doing all sorts of bad things while they’re in there, or harvesting items like I talked about a minute ago.

There’s a lot of fun that can be had with these. In Cultures and Beyond, I have a template that can be downloaded to help with the creation of a supernatural land, and anyone who joins The Art of World Building mailing list can download this once they do because it will be sent to you in an email.

World Building University

If you’d like to learn world building skills through instruction, I’ve launched World Building University. There you can find one free course you can take just by signing up, which has no obligation. Other courses are in development and available now. You can preview parts of every course, all of which include video lessons, quizzes, assignments, and sometimes downloadable templates that are even better than those found in the books.

To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.

Alternate Realities

Alternate realities don’t really need any explanation because all of us have seen these, especially in science fiction. If we want to create one, all we really need to do is have several historical events that are very significant, and then change the outcome of these. Just as we imagined the existing event caused a certain timeline that is our normal reality, the alternate event will cause another one and we just have to think through what would happen if this event occurred.

In that sense, there’s not really a mystery to how to create one, but the thing we want to keep in mind is what point are we trying to get across to the audience or the characters by doing an alternate reality? For example, maybe our main character had a traumatic event and this has changed him in a certain way, but the version of him from another reality has not had that and our character sees how he could’ve been, how he could’ve turned out, and how he might actually turn out in the future if he is somehow able to let go of the demons that are driving him based on the event that happened in his own timeline.

The point I’m making is that a character can end up reflecting on their life and their choices based on seeing how things have turned out differently in another reality. So, what we’re after here is some sort of character transformation, and one that we couldn’t think of happening to this character in another way. But it doesn’t have to be about a specific character. There used to be a show in the 1990s called Sliders where every episode, they were in another reality. They would slide to that through a kind of portal. Always, something had happened that was different from their own reality. This was an interesting premise and it allowed them to comment on all sorts of social phenomenon, and even historical events.

Subscribe

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For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

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This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

Supernatural Beings

Another subject to discuss is that of supernatural beings, like gods. However, I already discussed that in other episodes of this podcast, so I’m not going to go over that again. What we’re really talking about this time is lesser beings, such as demigods, or maybe a human who is half god, half mortal. We could also include figures like demons, angels or someone like Cupid. If we have a setting with gods, then it is possible for some of these to exist, and it would be a mistake, possibly, not to include them. If we were to look at any mythology, we would see that, typically, a lesser being, like a demigod, is serving a specific purpose, such as Cupid or a messenger. When we go to invent someone like this, we should decide whether we have a need for them rather than just doing it for no particular reason.

On the other hand, a messenger character is fairly universal and could exist in any mythology, including the one that we are inventing. But a figure like Cupid is a little bit more specific, so maybe if we were writing a romance fantasy, then this character might actually come up. This is not to say that Cupid, or a character like that, couldn’t come up in a story that has nothing to do with romance. But, generally, we want to think of someone that we’re actually going to use.

Another type of supernatural being would be a creature, for a lack of a better word. An example might be something like Medusa. Not only does she have the really weird snakes for hair, but, of course, she has the ability to turn someone to stone if they look in her eyes. Such characters could be considered a monster, and, in fact, that’s often how they were used, and I already discussed this in a previous episode. But we still want to consider creating these characters. However, you may remember that a monster is typically just a one-off. There’s only one of them. So, if we want a whole group of creatures, then that’s something that would fall into this category. That makes them something of a cross between a species and a monster, or even an animal.

There are other figures of note that we might want to create. An example of these would be Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek mythology, or maybe even Charon, the guy who ferries lost souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron. As I mentioned before, in my book, The Ever Fiend, there’s a character with that name who rules over a specific land. So, he’s another figure of note. If we have created any supernatural locations, including in the afterlife, these figures might be inhabitants there. To create these, just decide on a purpose for them.

Review

if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again, that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review.

Prevalence

Something else we need to consider is how prevalent supernatural items are in our setting, whether it’s energies, beings or anything else. Anything more common will be more easily accepted, and something that is rarer is more likely to be something that people don’t understand, and therefore fear. When it comes to energies and beings, we need to know how frequent they are so that we know how often our characters might run into these, or how difficult it is to escape from somewhere or just have any sort of interaction with something, and if the people know what to do when they are face to face with this phenomenon or being.

Most of us are probably going to opt for having these items be rare unless our story is intended to heavily feature them. If that is the case, then we may have to do a mental deep dive into how this thing existing has a big impact on our setting because it might be really pervasive. For example, if magic is really easy and everyone can do it, then it’s probably really imbued into daily life. Therefore, we’re going to have to seriously think about what life is like. On the other hand, if it’s very rare and few people can do it, then life is mostly going on without it. The same thing is going to happen with any sort of supernatural energy or being. We want to make a decision how prevalent this is while we are inventing it. This is especially important when we get to the moment where we start thinking about how other people are relating to this.

A final word on creating the supernatural is that this is one of those elements we can just create one of them at a time and then move on. On the other hand, creating something like a species could take months of working on it and refinement. So, this is one of the easier and more lighthearted ones to go about creating. I think the most important thing for you to do first is to decide on the prevalence of the supernatural in your setting. After that, it’s really going to come down to what you need for each story.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from the album Now Weaponized! called “Ostinato.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!