Apr 292019
 

The Art of World Building Podcast has transcripts that are now being packaged for sale as volumes 4-6 in the series. This way, you can take them with you as eBooks, print, hard back, or audio books. The latter are actually the episodes themselves with the music and interludes removed.

Since most episodes are based on a chapter from a book, they’re organized that way, too, and the artwork is being reused with the additional text added in a banner.

Volume 4 and Volume 5 should be out in May and June 2019. Volume 6 will be late 2020 and is awaiting the completion of Cultures and Beyond, which is due out later this year.

Apr 292019
 

The podcast has surpassed 20,000 downloads! I’m grateful to have a loyal listener base and should have new episodes for you by late summer or fall. I’ll resume once I’m closer to releasing Cultures and Beyond. I’m trying not to get distracted. 🙂

 

Vol 3 Update

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Jan 232019
 

The release of Cultures and Beyond (The Art of World Building, #3) has been delayed until summer 2019. I know a lot of you are waiting for it. Thanks for your patience!

Cultures and Beyond (Vol. 3)

Cultures and Beyond (Vol. 3)

WBU Launch Giveaway!

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Jan 172019
 

In celebration of the launch of World Building University (WBU) in the coming weeks, I’m doing a giveaway tailored to world builders! If you’re not such a person yourself, forward this to any fantasy or sci-fi author, screenwriter, gamer, game designer, or hobbyist who might be interested!

To enter the contest, just go to this link: http://www.artofworldbuilding.com/giveaways/wbu-launch-giveaway/

So what am I giving away? See the image! Don’t let the image fool you – there are over 25 lessons in the course! Click the link the see the rest.

If you enter the giveaway, you’ll get an email with a link that you can forward to other people. Those who enter the contest as a result of your link will get one chance to win, but YOU will get an additional three chances to win! If you get ten people to enter, you’ll have 31 chances to win.

Pretty cool, huh?

  • Rand

Podcast Episode 21 – How to Create Maps

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Nov 202018
 

Episode 21: Learn How to Create Maps

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create maps like continents, settlements, and dungeon maps, and learn whether you should create any of this and why.

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 leverage places on Earth when map making
  • When you should and shouldn’t draw a continent maps
  • Why maps of wooden ships aren’t needed
  • Why maps of space ships are a good idea
  • How to create a settlement map
  • Tricks on getting started with map making
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 21 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-one. Today’s topic is about how create maps like continents, settlements, and dungeon maps, and learn whether you should create any of this and why. This material and more is discussed in chapter 12 of Creating Places, volume 2 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.

Advantages to Map Making

There are some advantages to creating a map. One of those is that it makes it easier for our audience to visualize locations. That can, in turn, cut down on how much explanation we have to do about which direction various things lie in. That does not free us from acquiring the skill to quickly and succinctly describe the various locations of things, but, even so, it can take some of the pressure off of us. Personally, I find myself describing things in too much detail when there is not a map. But when there is, I feel comfortable just staying, “This kingdom is south of the other one, and next to this feature, like a forest or an ocean.” I know that the reader can flip to the map and just see exactly what I’m talking about. And there are various other details that I don’t need to go into if they are not relevant to the passage that I’m currently describing.

There is a tendency to try to describe a complete setting. The problem with this is that we’re just doing a paragraph of explanation. Depending on who you ask, that kind of exposition is not considered good style, but you may disagree and just go ahead and do it anyway. But it is still worth mentioning that cutting down on some of that explanation can be a good idea. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

For world builders, another really good reason to create a map is that when we have these blank areas on the page, it can help us think of things to include there. As authors, we’re all familiar with the idea of a blank page keeping us from thinking of anything, but that’s a little different when we’re talking about writing. When it comes to creating a map, it’s a little bit easier to think of things to place somewhere.

One of the general tips that I’m going to give you today is to base your maps on something that already exists on Earth, but also make alterations to that. For example, I, personally, have trouble thinking of interesting city layouts. I just draw a blank on this, if you’ll excuse the pun. So, one of the ways of getting around that is to use a program like Google Maps where you can just pull this up, focus on any given city, town or whatever, look at it and think, “Do I like the layout that I see here? Is there something that I want to borrow?”

Many people are not going to recognize it if you take that existing place and you create a map that looks very similar because most of us don’t look down on the place where we live, or even other places nearby, or ones that we’re very familiar with, from that vantage point and really pay attention to the layout and the way it looks from above. We typically know what it looks like more from the skyline, or just what it’s like to live there, not from above. But if you’re going to choose a place that’s extremely well known, like Manhattan, then yes, you probably want to switch it around a little more.

And this is very easy to do. You can just change the direction of things. So, let’s say that you have an island that is mostly north to south. You can just turn that to face a different direction. You can do the same thing with countries. If you model one on France, people are going to recognize it if it’s exactly the same. But if you turn it sideways, they may not. And, of course, the other thing that we can do, and probably should do, when we do this is to make more changes to it while we’re doing so. We can just chop off a whole section of it, add on another section, or maybe there’s something that we’d like from another region of the world and we want to add that to this continent or this region that we’ve created. It’s an easy way to alter that without having to generate something from scratch.

The same idea applies to any settlement map that we come up with. All we have to do is alter a few parts of it and no one’s going to recognize it. Many of us don’t have drawing skills, and we think of that as a negative when it comes to creating maps, but this is actually a way that this is a positive. Because if you could duplicate it exactly, well then, that’s going to be recognizable. If you can’t duplicate it anyway because you don’t have the skills like me, then that’s good because it’s going to look different and that’s what you want. So, some of us might think of taking out tracing paper to trace it exactly. I would say don’t do that. Just do it free-hand and see how close you come or what you feel like altering.

The thing about the shapes of countries and settlements is that they’re very specific. If it’s recognizable at all, there is something distinctive about it. So, all we have to do is change that. And we’re talking about even a minor amount of change can make it unrecognizable.

What I started to touch on earlier is that one of the advantages to making maps is that it can help us think of things to put there. If, for example, you draw a north to south running line and decide that one side is ocean and the other side is the continent, and then you put a city right in the middle of that continent/coast edge, now you’re going to be wondering, “Well, what else is near this? Do I have a mountain range? Do I have a forest? Is there a river right there? So, there’s a tendency to want to fill up the map.  The problem that we sometimes have is what do we put there? So, it becomes an issue of making decisions.

One easy way to get around that is to do what I was just talking about, which is basing it on something from Earth. But the other way is to understand some basics about how land regions form and things like prevailing winds and rain shadows, which we’ve talked about in a previous episode, but I’m going to briefly touch on that again here.

One of the points I want to make about this subject is that it actually makes it much easier to decide where to place vegetation once you understand it. So, rather than it being a burden to you and something like you feel like, “Now I have to get things right when I’m creating a map,” the reality is that once you understand this, this is actually going to make a lot of your decisions for you. Now, you’re still going to have artistic license, or you can kind of overrule things or play with the details to get what you want, but it solves that problem of the blank page where you’re looking at it and you go, “I have no idea what to put where and how any of this works.”

Well, once you understand how it works, it becomes really easy to think of where to place things. Since this is a podcast and I can’t show you an image, which would be worth a thousand words, I’m going to come up with a very simple explanation for you. For example, let’s say that we have a coastline that is running north to south. On the left of that is the ocean and on the right is going to be our continent. One of the things that’s likely to happen is that we could have a mountain range that is also running north to south. Or, in other words, it’s parallel to the coast. A good example of this, if you have a computer with you, is to look at a map of the west coast of the United States.

So, let’s say we’ve got our coastline and then, maybe two inches to the right of that, we’ve got this north/south mountain range. Let’s go ahead and decide that this mountain range is 10,000 feet tall. That’s the average height of the mountains. If you’re wondering why that matters, it will become more apparent in a moment. But what’s basically going to happen is that the winds, in our example, are going to be coming from the left side of this map and crossing over that mountain range. The higher that mountain range is, the higher the atmosphere is going to be pushed up and the more rain is going to fall. As you’ll see, this is going to cause some vegetation issues.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that our continent is located roughly where the United States is. That means that the prevailing winds are coming from the west, or from the left side of this image that we have in our head. In other words, all of the storms are going to be coming from the left, and they’re going to be passing over the right. This also means they’re going to pass over that mountain range. What is most likely going to happen is that we are going to have a bunch of lush vegetation, like a forest, in between this coastline and the mountain range. This is being caused by the prevailing wind and the location of this continent on our hemisphere on our planet. Basically, this is a certain number of degrees north of the equator. As a result, that’s why the winds are coming from the left or the west.

Now, once those winds pass over the top of these 10,000-foot-tall mountains that are running north to south, most of the rain has fallen out of those clouds, and, as a result, there is no rain, or very little rain, to fall on the right side of those mountains. The result is going to be a desert. This phenomenon is called a rain shadow. Now, further to the right of this desert, as the clouds continue to move, they’re going to pick up some moisture in the air because that’s just the way it works. There’s always going to be some. It’s just that most of the moisture is picked up over the ocean.

So, what’s going to happen is as these prevailing winds move further and further away to the right of this mountain range, they’re going to pick up a little bit more moisture, and more of that is going to fall. So, what’s going to happen is that desert is going to give way to a grassland on the right. At first, it’s going to be short grass and then it’s going to be taller grass. That’s going to give away to a savannah a little further to the right. A savannah is mostly grass, but more and more trees coming in. And then, even further to the right, eventually we’re going to end up with more forest because enough rain is falling that far away that this rain shadow effect has decreased.

This is a pretty simple and believable example. And, to some extent, it is based on the United States. If you look at a map of the U.S., you do see this. You see lush vegetation on the west coast, then you see the mountains to the right. Further to the right, you see some deserts, like Death Valley. Further to the right, you get the Great Plains. And then even further, you finally start getting more forest. However, this kind of process, it plays out across the Earth, and it would happen on any Earth-like planet that you have.

Let’s briefly talk about another scenario. We were already talking about this north to south running mountains. Well, what if they weren’t north to south but they were east to west? Well, basically, that’s not going to have any impact because the winds are blowing to the right and the mountains are also laid out in that direction. Therefore, the mountains are not going to be blocking anything. You could have plenty of rainfall north and south of this mountain range that is east to west.

This is something to consider. One way that you might use this when creating a map is that if you really want, let’s say, a really thick forest that stretches for 1,000 miles on this side of the continent, and you also want mountains, then don’t put the mountains facing north to south. You’re going to have to put them east to west. So, this is something you probably want to know before you draw those mountains on your map.

There are a lot more details like this that are included in the Creating Places book. So, if you really want to get into this, I recommend picking up a copy. Most of it really is not that hard. You just have to read about it. One of the goals I had in writing that book is that I collected a lot of that knowledge in one place for you when I did the research on the various scenarios that come up. Now, one thing about this is that we still have artistic license and we can still decide that things are slightly different for one reason or another, and we can also decide that there’s magic at play, or other phenomenon that don’t happen here on Earth. But, generally, we probably want to try to be realistic if we are creating a place that is roughly Earth-like.

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How to Create Continent Maps

When it comes to continent maps, one of the things that I find happens is that, as I’m drawing out these maps, I start to think of the different kingdoms that are going to be there, and reasons for conflict among them. This is a really good reason to create one, even if you don’t include it in your book. For example, I could have a forest that is capable of producing the right kind of wood needed to build ships. Perhaps this forest is inside one kingdom and, therefore, another one that is adjacent is unable to get into it without cooperation. They’re either going to have to work something out or they’re going to have to go to war. Now, you might not think that wood for ships is a good enough reason, but there could be a lot of other things. And, even when it comes to ships, that can really control who can be a seafaring power. And, as we probably know from the way the Earth is right now, one of the reasons Britain was able to get so far around the world and dominate so much, and why culture from Britain is all over the place, is that they had one of the greatest, if not the greatest, navy at the time.

But it doesn’t have to be that. It could be any kind of mineral, something like gold, or any other precious metal that is inside one kingdom but is not in the other. Or we could have decided that it is a situation where part of that mountain or forest is in two different kingdoms, and therefore it has always been in contention.

Another scenario that came up for me was that I once created a continent, that you can see on my Llurien.com site called “Llorus.” There is a sea that’s called, I think, “The Sea of Fire.” Basically, the opening to the sea is on the left side of the continent. So, if you picture this, you’ve got a coast that’s running north to south, and then there’s an opening into this sea, which is kind of like the Mediterranean if you want to use an Earth example.

One thing I decided to do, and which is fairly obvious, is that one kingdom was in control of the land to the north of that opening into the sea, and a different kingdom was in charge of the land that is to the south of that opening. Naturally, both of them want to control access to that sea. Therefore, both of them are seafaring powers and their ships are frequently spotted, both in the ocean and in that channel that leads to the sea. And, of course, in the sea itself.

Figure 2: The Sea of Fire

Figure 2: The Sea of Fire

So, this set them up as good enemies for each other. Now, as it turns out, inside that sea, there are multiple other kingdoms that have an access point to that water. They might also like to be able to sail on that sea. And, more importantly, they might like to be able to sail out of that sea and into the ocean, but doing so requires them to either get past the ships of both of those other countries, or to be an ally of one or the other so that they can get through safely.

One of the things that this allowed me to do was begin establishing friends and enemies. Now, as it turns out, I had done a lot of research into different kinds of government forms, and that’s also included in the Creating Places book. But, you know, ideologically, there are different ways of looking at the world, and different governments form as a result of that.

Sometimes, countries are opposed to each other for ideological reasons. I sometimes begin setting up the enemies partly because of that and partly because of where they were on the map. Once you have a certain amount of knowledge about various things, you can begin leveraging that knowledge when you are doing world building. That is, of course, the whole reason why I wrote The Art of World Building book series. In fact, if you really want some good examples of this, I believe the first chapter of Creating Places is called “Case Studies” or something to that affect. I basically showed you how you can use this knowledge in the act of creating a setting.

Now, as far as whether you should draw one or not, one of the reasons not to is that if your characters are not going to be traveling through the wilderness, from one place to another, like an epic quest like you would typically see in something like The Lord of the Rings, then you don’t necessarily need a map. On the other hand, the farther they’re going to go, the more helpful it is for both you and the audience to have one of these. If your characters are from a lot of different places, they’ve been brought together and there are cultural clashes and other things, and you keep referring to those various regions or kingdoms, people can become very interested in getting a better idea of where everything is in relation to each other. They might want a map.

Now, in a previous episode, Episodes 15 and 17, I talked about travel on land and on the water. In both cases, the ability to come up with believable time frames is helped by a map. But, on the other hand, the map can also constrain us a little bit if we feel like we’ve drawn it to scale, which is something that I encourage people not to do. It can help us and it can also be a hindrance, so you have to decide how much you want to worry about that. Personally, I find it to be very helpful because it helps me avoid making unrealistic estimates about how long someone’s going to take to get from one place to another. Just as importantly, it helps me avoid contradicting myself. This obviously matters more on a world that you intend to use repeatedly than one that you’re only going to use for a short story or just one novel.

One of the things I like to recommend to people is that you do create one world that you go more in-depth on and you plan to use for the rest of your career. And then, for the rest of the time you’re writing, you just create a setting for the particular story that you’re going to use. This gives you the best of both worlds as far as creating a lot of stuff that’s very detailed, for one, and then just kind of doing one-off stuff for another.

I also want to mention that you don’t have to create the entire continent map. You can just do the region that your story’s going to take place in. However, I do recommend that you have at least a rough idea of the other things that would affect that local region.

For example, figure out how far from the equator that area is. Figure out if there is a mountain range that is going to cause a rain shadow to happen. Just getting an idea for these kind of things is good. And you don’t have to draw them. You can just indicate, “Okay. There’s a mountain range off to the left. That’s where the ocean is. The equator is 400 miles to the south. Therefore, the prevailing winds are coming from the left.” Just kind of come up with some general parameters, even if you don’t draw them on the map.

One of the other pluses to map-making when it comes to continents is that if you do understand things like climate zones, as we discussed in a previous episode, it will basically decide for you where your climates are. That can help you figure out what kind of clothing people are typically wearing. Again, one of the biggest problems in world building is that you have so many decisions to make and we often can’t think of a reason to make one. Well, some of those decisions can be essentially made for us. If that sounds too restrictive, well, we still have creative latitude. That pun was actually not intended.

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Getting Started with Map Making

Now, there are a lot of programs that you can use to create maps. The process is basically the same regardless of what you use. The tool only determines some of the details of how you actually place things on the map. I happen to use a program called “Campaign Cartographer” which comes from Pro Fantasy. They have an optional add-on called “Fractal Terrains,” and I use this to generate a continent shape pretty quickly. You can just click a button and it gives you a new one. Or you can use some of the other techniques that I talked about in here, such as taking parts of existing continents and alerting them, flipping them around or even combining them with other continents. Once I have a shape that I like, I will pull that into Campaign Cartographer and then use the landmass tool, I think it’s called, to draw the shape of my continent over the top of that, and then hide the background image that I used as a source. My inability to draw is not a problem because I’m trying not to get it exactly the same anyway.

Figure 3: Erizon

Figure 3: Erizon

Once I’ve done this, I’m going to decide how far away from the equator this place is, and which hemisphere it is in if it’s only in one. This will tell me the direction of the prevailing winds. Once I do that, I can start drawing mountain ranges with an eye for what kind of affect that’s going to have on vegetation. That is the basic process that I suggest people follow.

After that, the details are a question of artistic imagination. Now, as it turns out, Campaign Cartographer comes with different color icons for different settlements, such as blue, gold or red. I tend to use that to depict all of the settlements that are in a given kingdom. This is one way that I use to indicate where one kingdom ends and another begins. One of the great things about that particular program is that you can create pretty large maps, and all you have to do is zoom out. And if you want a more regional map, you just zoom in more and you can just take a screenshot of that and use that with your book. And it does produce images that are professional quality. I have published those in many of the books, including the Creating Places book that we’re talking about here, when I made the examples for this book.

Now, if you don’t think you have the skills to do this, or maybe not the time or interest in acquiring them, you can certainly hire people to create maps for you, but you’re still going to probably need to at least describe what places look like, where they are and what life is like there to give people who are going to draw your map for you some idea of what to work from. But I would recommend learning how to do this because it’s fun and it really does spur the imagination.

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How to Create Settlement Maps

When it comes to settlement maps, these are included in books much less often. One problem I have found with trying to do a settlement map is that you only plan to use a few of the buildings in that settlement, and yet you’re going to have to draw so many of them. Once again, the challenge becomes how do you decide what to put where? This is one reason to base your settlement on something from Earth.

But another thing we can do is create something like an area that is considered old town. This is the area where this settlement first existed and, at one point in time, that was the entire town. Usually, this is going to form around or near the source of water. So, that’s one way to make this decision. Another way to get started is to figure out where a castle or similar fortification stands. Then we can start building outward from there.

Now, the idea of using an old town only works if this is a larger settlement, like a city, or if it’s an especially large town. If it’s a small town, then old town is the entirety of the town in most cases. Even so, you can still use the principle of starting where the water source is. I, personally, don’t usually create a settlement map, partly because I do have trouble envisioning that. But what I often do is, as I write the story, I start to have a mental image of how things are laid out, and that can actually help me. So, in that sense, I ended up doing it kind of backwards. What do I mean? Well, I start working on the story, or at least the plot of the story, and that helps me form the map in my head. I sometimes then start creating the actual map, fleshing out what I’ve pictured.

Village Map

Village Map

One reason to go ahead and draw the map, even if it’s coming after the fact, is that if you ever return to using the setting again, you won’t have to read your own book to understand where everything stands. I have this problem with a book I wrote about a decade ago where there was a pretty specific layout. I’m going to have to return to that book and my only way to know where everything is is to read my own book again. Of course, I’m going to do that anyway, but I might have to do it just to understand the layout. That particular city also had a really specific layout where it was important and it mattered to the plot where everything was. So, that is the kind of situation where you may want to create a settlement map.

Something else to keep in mind is the concept of zoning. What that means is that you’ve got commercial, industrial and, usually, residential areas. The residential areas are obviously where people live. The commercial is going to be all the stores. Those are typically near where people live and near the industrial areas. And, of course, the industrial is stuff like factories. One of the big decisions to make is that you want to keep the factories away from the living areas because factories typically smell, to keep it simple. Obviously, people don’t want that kind of pollution near where they live. This concept of zoning is something that can help you plan out a settlement on the large scale so that you have an understanding of what is where. Depending on the technological level of your settlement, it may make sense — and this often happens — where the industry is sometimes placed near the water. So, if you’ve got a river or a port, that tends to be where the industry is. If you’ve got a nice, little forest, or maybe a hill, that tends to be where residences will be. Then, of course, a hill is where something like a castle might be built upon.

I find that it’s often helpful to just have a general sense of where the rich people live and where the poor people live if they are segregated like that, and then where industry and residences are. Just kind of come up with a high-level idea before you start worrying about placing buildings.

Something you may also want to consider is whether you have multiple species there and if they are segregated at all. For example, elves tend to prefer trees, so there might be an area of your settlement that is heavily forested — maybe not heavily, but it at least has more trees, more parks, and that might be the area where the elves tend to live. If you had a species like dwarves where they often tunnel underground, you may have a castle that’s built on a cliff and the dwarves are allowed to build tunnels into those cliffs and have some of their homes there.

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How to Create Dungeon Maps

The last subject I’ll talk about briefly is dungeon and ship maps. These are something that we don’t typically see with books, but certainly come up with gaming. There is something about any sort of underground labyrinth that, for me as a reader, seems inherently confusing. I often don’t understand where the characters are in relation to where they were before. Even as an author, when I am trying to plan out what’s going to happen, once again, I often have trouble figuring out why does any corridor go this way or that way, or end up in this room, and what is that room for? In my story, the reason that room exists is that maybe I want them to be attacked there, but that room should have an actual purpose that the people who invented or created that place had for it. This can be even more difficult for us to figure out than why everything in a city is where it is.

Now, if you’ve ever worked as a janitor or a field like that where you are typically in the bowels of a building, you may have some better understanding of what’s going on with things like boiler rooms and other facilities that are required to operate that building in an efficient manner and in a comfortable manner for its occupants. Those are the kinds of functions that are most likely going to be going on in an underground area.

Of course, another one of these is the dungeon. When creating a dungeon, you may want to think about how something like a prison is laid out. I haven’t looked into this, but I would image that an abandoned prison, like Alcatraz, might have maps online where you can get a feel for how this place is laid out because it’s no longer in use, and therefore there’s not as much of a secret. When a prison is being used, obviously the inmates shouldn’t know all of the nooks and crannies of this place. So, a map of a currently used prison may not be available, but we can probably find one for an abandoned one to get some sense of the layout of such a place.

But one thing that immediately comes to mind for me is that most buildings don’t have these long hallways that go off into various tangents and there’s no rooms on either side of them. Every time there’s a hallway, there’s always a room immediately on each side of every square feet of these hallways. By contrast, it so often seems that in fantasy in particular there is some sort of underground hallway that’s going for a certain distance, and then it just branches, seemingly at random, at some location. And then that hallway also branches again. Eventually, here and there, they find little rooms. This sort of thing seems to be based on something like the Pyramids from Egypt where the impression is that these hallways do this kind of thing. But, even then, I don’t think that’s accurate because if you look at the schematics for some of these pyramids, there are very few passages inside them.

The point I’m trying to get at with any sort of underground area or dungeon map is to make it a believable space that was once used and which is now abandoned. Try not to create hallways that go off in seemingly random directions and there’s no rhyme or reason for them.

How to Create Ship Maps
Figure 58 Corvette

Figure 58 Corvette

Now, when it comes to ship maps, there are kind of two kinds here. There’s the wooden ships, like the man-o-war, and then there’s the space ship. For a wooden ship, there are pictures online, and even on artofworldbuilding.com where I have some links to this, where you can see the internal structure of a wooden ship. While it’s not a map, it does show you where everything is located. It can be a good idea, if you’re going to really use the interior of a ship, to take a look at one of these maps and just use that as your source. The average person has not seen one of these and they really don’t understand it, so you don’t have to make up something so much as you can leverage the way ships are actually built.

When it comes to spaceships that you are inventing, I think it’s a good idea to have at least a rough understanding of each deck of that ship and what is there on the port side, on the aft side, on the starboard side and at the front of the ship. One reason for this is that you’re going to want to be consistent when you have your characters travel from one area of that ship to another for a specific purpose, such as going from the bridge to engineering because something is going on in engineering. You don’t want to say it takes 10 minutes at one part of your book, and then, in another book you’re using that same ship in, now it takes 15 minutes to get there.

Having a map can also make it easier to decide that one side of the ship was impacted during a battle and, as a result, there are certain functions of that ship that have been compromised. You can, of course, make up that sort of thing on the fly, but that can lead us to doing things that are too convenient, such as deciding that all the food replicators have gone offline because that’s what your story needs. Well, if you’ve already decided that those are on the right side of the ship, and engineering was also on the right side of the ship, you can also decide that there was some sort of damage to engineering. But if we haven’t already decided that, we’re not going to think of collateral damage that might make it more believable.

In other words, when planning damage to a ship, try not to have the damage only cause the exact impact that you need for your story. There could be other impacts that don’t really drive the plot, but which are believable.

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 same album called “A Trill A Minute.” 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!

Podcast Episode 20 – How to Places of Interest

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Nov 062018
 

Episode 20: Learn How to Create Places of Interest

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create places of interest, including catacombs, interstellar sites, ruins, monuments, and more. Learn how easy these are to create and how they can improve interest in your setting and story.

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:
  • Concerns about creating floating settlements, whether on water or in the sky
  • How ruins can add tension to a story
  • What step wells in India are like and how they can be leveraged
  • How to make monuments and tie them to world events
  • How you can use asteroids and meteors from the past or present to add intrigue
  • How to quickly create event sites and what sorts of events you can leverage
Coda

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Episode 20 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty. Today’s topic is about how to create places of interest, including catacombs, interstellar sites, ruins, monuments, and more. Learn how easy these are to create and how they can improve interest in your setting and story. This material and more is discussed in chapter 11 of Creating Places, volume 2 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.

Ordinary Places

By “places of interest,” I of course, mean somewhere that your characters are going to visit or hear about, and where something interesting has already happened or is going to happen to them while they are there. They may know that something interesting is going on there or they may be en route from one place to another and they run across this place and something is going on. For anyone doing a story that’s action and adventure, this is something that we often need. If our characters are not traveling and they’re not in an interesting location to begin with, then maybe we don’t need to worry about this. But, for many of us, we’re going to need this. So, let’s look at some of these, and I want to start with some of the more ordinary places, for lack of a better word.

The first one I’ll mention is catacombs and hidden passages. This can also include things like bomb shelters, sewer lines, tunnels and subway lines. Hidden passages can also be anywhere in a city or even in just a building. These places by themselves may not be that spectacular, which is why I said they’re kind of ordinary, but sometimes we can place something spectacular inside them, such as a creature or a monster of some kind. They can also be used to interesting effect if a character is able to access one of these and get from one place to another without anyone realizing that they are doing so. We have all seen that kind of thing done in various stories.

There can also be lost items or items that were purposefully placed there, hidden there, and then, of course, somebody finds them and makes use of it, and havoc ensues. Another idea we’ve probably all seen is some sort of creature inhabiting these places and it uses it as a home or a base from which it emerges and then does unspeakable things that have been capturing people’s attention, and maybe the authorities are looking into this. They eventually track this creature back to this lair. This has been done so often that it’s something of a cliché, but if it’s done well it can be really cool.

Another thing we can do is a map that shows these places, and people didn’t realize that something was there, or the extent of them. Or maybe there’s a room that’s not on the map and this causes some intrigue.

When inventing such places, it’s usually a good idea to have some idea why they exist. This is something that we will want to reveal to the audience at some point. Even early on in the story, if we have approached it in such a way that this place is supposedly ordinary, as I’ve said, but then, as it turns out, other things are going on there that had made it extraordinary. In other words, sometimes it starts off ordinary, and then something else happens that makes it more interesting. Of course, we don’t need an elaborate reason for something like a bomb shelter, sewer lines or subway lines because it’s kind of obvious. And even catacombs, where the dead are buried, have a certain purpose to it.

Where we need to think of a reason is something like a tunnel or a secret passageway. And we can keep that reason relatively simple if we just decide that maybe the occupant of that home, if that’s where the tunnel is, was someone who is paranoid, or maybe they were, at some point, a robber baron or something where they were trying to smuggle stuff, hide it and not get caught. And, of course, we could decide that there is a nefarious reason for it all along, such as this is someone who wanted to murder people or kidnap them, and this is the place where they held those people.

Some locations may be military in origin, such as a place where some sort of secret research was being done. This is especially useful in science fiction. We can invent all sorts of phenomena that may not be supernatural but are something we don’t typically see here on Earth, or are something that we just made up, and where that was being used for experiments, or maybe it was something that needed to be dug out of the ground and processed somewhere, and that’s what the facility’s origin is.

A mundane reason for tunnels could be something like excessive heat in tropical locations where people have created tunnels so that they can cool off during the day. This is obviously something for a less advance civilization because, even our civilization, we have air conditioning, so we don’t need to do something like that. Now, such tunnels for that purpose could still exist because that could’ve been from 1,000 years ago when air conditioning, for example, did not exist. The idea of ancient tunnels and some sort of ancient evil within them is a fairly standard cliché, but again, if we use it well, it can turn out good.

If we have a world with dwarves or another species that is known for tunneling underground, then we don’t need any special explanation unless we want to figure out why they tunneled into this particular location. The obvious answer would be to access something underground such as gold.

The last point I’ll make about this is that sometimes these underground places are not known because they were created so long ago and, over the years, civilization has been built on top of them. And, as a result, modern people may not know, or at least very few people in the settlement may actually know that these are there. So, only a few people might be making use of them, whether that is for good or evil.

Step Wells

Now, I want to switch topics to something known as a stepwell. If you’ve never heard of these, I would Google the phrase, “Step wells in India,” and you will see some really interesting pictures. Basically, what these are, instead of the typical well that we might see in the United States where it’s just a kind of circular hole in the ground with a certain amount of brick wall around it on the surface, these are wells that are really large. I mean, they could be as big as a building. The reason they’re called stepwells is that you can literally walk your way down the steps into the deep recesses of this well. This is something that can not only be used for drinking water, but sometimes people used to do their laundry in such a place. These were so big that people would often gather in it. Some of them look like an amphitheater, almost, the way they steps are all around in concentric circles, or usually in a square or rectangular configuration.

Figure 61 Step Well

Figure 61 Step Well

When I first saw some of these pictures, I noticed that, sometimes, a certain number of feet down into this stepwell there would be an opening that led into an underground area. And, of course, that immediately sparks the imagination about what could be in there. Another good use for this is that if you have a water-dwelling species, that species might actually be found there and, in fact, this could be the opening to a home of theirs or a place where the underground species and those on land get together and meet because that’s the easiest way to get to these guys if they live in underground rivers, for example. I would take a look at some of these pictures, and maybe they will inspire your imagination the same way they inspired mine.

Monuments

Another area that we just touched on that we should also talk about are monuments like statues, buildings and monoliths. Some of these are going to be kind of ordinary, but some of them will be kind of spectacular. One of the reasons for that could be the size. If most statues are about 10-20 feet tall, and then there’s one that’s 500 feet tall, naturally, people are going to think that this is amazing. Sometimes it’s the person who is depicted in something like a statue that makes it famous. We already talked about creating world figures in a previous episode, so this is one of the ways you can use these guys.

Now, if we’re creating a monument, sometimes these are celebrating an occasion like the end of a war, for example. So, we might want to think about why this thing exists. We can keep it simple. Another good reason is the foundation of the kingdom, for example. In another episode, we had also talked about creating history and events, and this is one way that we can use those again. We should also consider what condition these monuments are currently in, and how old they are because that will help us determine that. There’s a long tradition of badly worn and somewhat forgotten relics of a previous age. Sometimes these are overgrown and being reclaimed by nature. This can add a certain spookiness to them. Monuments that are buildings might house things that are considered valuable, and therefore they may be prone to people trying to steal things or to desecrating them if they are also religious in nature.

Now, why would someone desecrate a religious place? Well, if they are someone who worships in another religion or if that place has been conquered by a foreign power. Sometimes these monuments are still standing, despite the fact that they are somewhat ruined. Any discussion of this sort of thing would be incomplete if we didn’t talk about something like Egypt’s Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, or even the Seven Wonders of the World. Well, those are really the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and they included a temple, two statues, the pyramids, of course, and then a mausoleum, garden and a lighthouse.

Many of these were considered amazing architectural feats, so that’s one of the reasons why they were considered amazing. In a world with a lot of technology, like in scientific fiction, it might be a little harder to think of something like this. After all, the most advanced technologies are usually something that we are featuring in our story, such as a spaceship, for example. So, something that’s amazing on an architectural level may be simply dwarfed in coolness by something like a spaceship. Unless, of course, the spaceship is that thing, but then we’re not really talking about a monument, are we?

By the way, if you’re wondering why there are considered to be seven ancient wonders, that’s because, back then, there were seven bodies up in the sky. That included the sun, the moon and then the five planets that had been discovered at that time. This is actually the same reason why we have seven days in a week. So, if you’re looking for a different number of wonders in your world, well, you can do the same thing. If you decide there are six or eight heavenly bodies, then you can have six or eight wonders of your world. In science fiction, maybe it’s something like galaxies or nebula that we are counting.

Graves

The last relatively ordinary place I’ll mention is graves. Sometimes we have a mausoleum which can be enormous or uniquely decorated, or it could have someone famous buried inside it. Of course, this offers a good opportunity for grave robbing. Some of these might have guards, which could be ordinary or extraordinary, such as a ferocious animal, a monster, maybe a demon, something technological or even magical. So, if we have characters who are trying to rob this place, there’s a lot of pretty cool stuff that we could put in their way.

More Resources

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Extraordinary Places

Let’s talk about a few more extraordinary places. The first on my list is underwater settlements. This makes a lot of sense if you have a species that, of course, lives underwater. Why treat them like fish who are seemingly just migrating all the time, or who might use a coral reef as somewhere to hover around? We could actually have them building actual homes and settlements underwater. And these could be in various places. They could be actually at a coral reef or they could be created out of a cliff or something like an underwater mountain. In a setting with magic or technology, we could also decide that they have created this using that magic or technology so that there are places that have even pockets of no water inside the settlement so that visitors like humans can visit and be comfortable in a space that has been carved out for just them.

We could also use magic or technological portals that allow people to simply appear there and then leave. In other words, maybe they don’t actually have to swim there or use a submarine or something to that effect.

A similar idea is the floating settlement. Now, there are really two versions of this. One is floating on water, and then the other one is floating in the sky. Unless the physics of your world are different, such as in the Avatar films where there are actually things floating for whatever reason, we’re going to need magic or technology to achieve the effect of something floating in the sky. The great thing about that not being natural is that this can, of course, be sabotaged by someone and cause a major problem. As you might expect, whatever is holding it aloft is going to be under heavy guard to prevent exactly that kind of catastrophe.

Aside from the fact that this place is floating in the air, it may not differ from other places by that much. However, there are a few ways in which it is different. Obviously, you can’t just go wherever you want by walking off the edge of this, unless falling to your death is something that you really want. All kidding aside, that does suggest that the ends of this place are not only heavily guarded, but it might actually be impossible for you to walk off the edge. Of course, you don’t really need the edge. You could fall down something like that famous scene from one of the Star Wars films where, right when Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker, “I am your father,” he falls through that chute. The next thing you know, he’s hanging on the bottom of this floating city and he’s about to fall to his death. Except, of course, somebody comes by and rescues him. So, there could be other ways within the city that you could end up falling through the bottom.

On that note, that scene may not be particularly realistic because you would think that they would have some way to detect that there’s a heat signature on something, and maybe they should try to rescue whatever’s down there. Another issue that we should think about is that most likely the only danger to this place, aside from a malfunction that would cause it to crash to the ground, is going to be being attacked by something that can fly. In SF, we have ships that can attack this place, but there may be natural creatures like dragons that would exist in a fantasy setting, where they can also pose a threat. But all of those threats that might be on the ground, they’re not going to be able to do much. One of the problems that we might have is that doing any sort of trade with this place could be an issue. In fact, any sort of farming is typically done outside the confines of a settlement, but if it’s up in the clouds, what you going to do for food? You’re probably going to have to get it from somewhere else. Then the question becomes, how do you get it here? There are some logistical things that you may want to think about. These can add some interest to your setting.

Another concern is, what do you do when there are hurricanes or other strong storms? What kind of protection does such a place have from these? When it comes to realism, this is the single most realistic reason not to do floating settlements at all, unless we’re talking about a world where the weather is pretty much always calm.

Now when it comes to settlements that are floating on the water, we actually do have one of those called Venice here on Earth. However, it’s kind of an illusion. Most of the city I actually on stilts, but it gives the impression of floating on water. But since we are writing fantasy or SF, we can get away with one that actually is floating on the water. Once again, a water-dwelling species is the likely culprit behind creating such a place, or being very prominent there.

But as we were just talking about a minute ago, what happens where there’s a storm? Something that’s built underwater doesn’t experience this that much because it’s insulated from the effect of even a hurricane, especially if it’s deep enough, like a hundred feet down. But anything on the surface is obviously going to be pretty affected by waves. Now when it comes to Venice, it’s protected for the most part by a lagoon. If you’re thinking about creating such a place, you might want to think about putting a natural protection around it like that. Or it can be artificial, and once again, something can go wrong with that protection.

Another issue is, of course, the sea monster. This could affect both floating settlements and those underwater. If those monsters are known to be around, maybe these settlements don’t exist at all. They may provide too easy a target for something like this.

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Strange Phenomena

Another kind of place of interest that we can create is one where there are strange phenomena. This is something of a staple in both fantasy and science fiction. Space offers the possibility for nebulas, radiation and even alien planet environments. Strange planets offer all sorts of possibilities that we can make up or base on something that NASA has discovered. One of the great things about space phenomena is that we can basically have them be wherever we decide to put one.

Figure 13 A Dark Constellation

Figure 13 A Dark Constellation

By contrast, any sort of weird phenomena that’s on a planet or another body, like a moon or an asteroid, is typically associated with a given location and it isn’t going anywhere. This means that while it can be discovered, it also could’ve previously been discovered and it is already known to be in that location. This, in turn, could mean that people are going there on purpose to make use of it in some way. How will, of course, depend on what the phenomena is. Making it something dangerous is often particularly attractive to us. This can be true, even if the phenomena could have a positive result such as being able to harvest something from it that can be used in a positive way, such as powering a space engine or, possibly, providing a cure for something. Just because it can be used for good doesn’t mean that something bad cannot happen when people are trying to collect it, or if they just encounter it by accident.

Speaking of accidents, that’s a really good way to create phenomena. We can have either magical disasters or technological ones. Having an explanation for a phenomenon is optional. Sometimes it will improve things, and other times we might want to just leave it a mystery. Sometimes we can actually do both and just leave it undecided for a long time, and then, eventually, someone figures out where this phenomenon originated. Experiments gone wrong, or especially a battle where something has happened, such as a ship being destroyed, are good sources of such phenomena. We can also use these phenomena to create monsters or other creatures who have come in contact with it, and possibly been transformed in some way. This is where superheroes in comics often originate.

While we’re on the subject of space, let’s talk a little bit about meteors. These can, of course, impact a planet and leave a crater that a less technologically advanced people might wonder what caused this, and they may assume that one of the gods did something. People can also attribute something supernatural to a meteor that is seen passing through the sky. This can be true if that meteor comes by at regular intervals, such as every 25 years, or if it’s only a one-time occurrence. Now, in science fiction, people probably realize more what’s going on, and they may not have this kind of myth anymore. But, even so, such an advanced civilization, or people from that, could be traveling around and come upon a planet where the technology is much less advanced. And, as a result, the people there do see this as something spectacular.

Event Sites

While we’re on the subject, we also have event sites. And the meteor crash could be one of these, but there are others such as a famous battle happening somewhere, or maybe the tide of war turning. Or there could be something like a species that was massacred somewhere, or maybe there was just a really high body count. Now, all of the examples I just gave are kind of gruesome, but we can create other positive ones as well. For example, there could be a place where a prophet revealed something, such as the way Moses is believed to have brought down the Ten Commandments. We also have things like a shrine, a church or a monument that may mark a special site that has a positive association. The monument could be somewhere where something happened for the first time, such as magic being discovered, or a type of magic, or something like the first contact with an alien species, or the first launch of a technology.

There are also natural phenomena like the Aurora Borealis, geysers or even sinkholes that sometimes gain special significance. Some of these places are a little bit more ordinary than some of the others we’ve been talking about, but we can make them more interesting by associating them with a cool story.

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Ruins

Another type of area that we’ve touched on before is the ruin. These can be a bit of cliché, especially in fantasy, but these are places that are ripe for death by misadventure. We can have monsters there, treasure and other items that can lure people there, for one reason or another, including something like a distress call that is going out. Some ruins will be legendary, and some of them will be unknown and discovered by accident by our characters. Danger is often assumed to be in these places, at least if we are setting a story there, because otherwise what’s the point of having our characters run across it?

Audiences tend to enjoy watching people explore a place and wonder what’s going to happen next. One twist we can do is having our characters not be the first ones who have run across it, but maybe someone else just did so the day before and they are still present. And now we’ve got a bit of an issue going on between these two different groups of characters.

A good ruin is like a mystery where, as a storyteller, we slowly unfold the story of what’s going on now, and maybe where this ruin came from before. And one of the ways to do that is to place interesting places within this. You know, we’re talking about creating places of interest. Well, the overall ruin can be a place of interest, but within there we can create some of the things that we’ve already talked about, such as monuments. The trick is to figure out how we can have our characters discover multiple things of interest where the general interest of this place is continuing to rise as they interact with it. We may also want to figure out what happened to the people who used to live here. One of the obvious examples is simply that they were attacked, they were conquered, and then this place became abandoned. A more mundane reason is something like trade routes drying up or the local economy falling apart.

Now, no one typically does that kind of thing in stories because it’s not that interesting, even though that is a major reason why some places become ruins. It’s arguably better to have an interesting reason behind it being discovered than something kind of boring like this. We should also figure out how overgrown this location is. A rainforest or a swamp is going to quickly consume a place so that it’s almost impossible to find. On the other hand, a desert is only going to slightly bury the place.

Last Thoughts

Now, one of the subjects that I’m not going to cover today is shipwrecks and what we can do with these to make them interesting, and that includes the reasons they are famous. I’m also not going to talk too much about where to start with creating places of interest because they are relatively easy to do and it’s one of the things that we can create kind of on the spur of the moment when we are not in the midst of creating a story or something that’s more involved like a species. This is a kind of lightweight thing that we can just create, and we might even create some things that we don’t use in a particular setting any time soon, or we just create it in general and then, maybe one day, we’re creating a setting and we go, “Oh, I had this idea. Let me take that and put it in this setting because I now know how I can use that.”

So, this is a great way to just invent stuff on the fly. Spend 10 minutes here, a week later you do another maybe 30 minutes of working on an idea, and you can just accumulate really interesting things that you can eventually find a use for.

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 called “The Waltz.” 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!

Podcast Episode 19 – How to Create Time and History

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Oct 232018
 

Episode 19: Learn How to Create Time and History

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create time and history, including why we should usually keep timekeeping like minutes, hours, weeks, and more similar to Earth, and how to create historical events.

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:
  • Why you should keep some timekeeping measurements similar to those on Earth while others are better for changing, and by how much
  • How to create historical entries in your history file
  • What sorts of events to create
  • How long and detailed a history event needs to be
  • Why we should create history
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 19 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number nineteen. Today’s topic is about how to create time and history, including why we should usually keep timekeeping like minutes, hours, weeks, and more similar to Earth, and how to create historical events. This material and more is discussed in chapter 10 of Creating Places, volume 2 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.

Why Create History?

The first subject I want to address is why we should create history. The short answer is that it adds a certain believability and realism to our setting. And we don’t have to go crazy with this. For a short story, we might not do any history. For something like an epic trilogy, we’re almost certainly going to want to. Regardless, we don’t have to do what Tolkien did and create an elaborate history. So, what are we really looking at?

Well, most of our stories are going to happen in a sovereign power, such as a kingdom. No kingdom stands alone. It’s going to have other kingdoms that are friends and that are enemies, and these are going to have some history with each other. Our story might not take place in just one sovereign power, but in multiple ones as the characters move from one to another to do their quest, for example.

Some of this history is going to be relatively recent, like a war that happened in the last 100 years, and some of it’s going to stretch back maybe 1,000 years. On a similar note, even within a single sovereign power, that form of government, as we’ve talked about in a previous episode, is not going to stay the same over the course of 1,000 years. It may, at one point, be a dictatorship which falls and then becomes a democracy, which also then falls later and becomes a federal republic. So, these things are always changing and each one of them leaves a mark on the sovereign power.

More specifically, it leaves a mark on the settlements there as far as building styles and other things that are left over from the past. It’s also going to affect the minds of the people who live there and their attitudes about their own power and others. Some of that will depend on how recent this event was and how good the technology is. In a medieval-like society, people probably don’t remember too much about what happened 1,000 years ago due to education. This is something to keep in mind. If we’re going to create an event that happened 1,000 years ago in a medieval society, then people are only going to know the very basics of this, like there was a war, who won and maybe what it was fought over. They may know where it happened, partly because we sometimes name areas after a battle, and they might know a villain or a hero from that. And that’s all they’re really going to know.

So, when we’re creating such an event, that’s all we have to create. The great part about this is that this is relatively easy to do. Even so, we should only do it if it’s going to somehow have an impact on the story that we’re telling now.

One of the clichés that often comes up in fantasy is that there is a long-vanished civilization that has left a number of relics that our characters will discover and use. If we want to do such a thing, then we’re going to have to think of at least a few events about the formation, demise and then what happened while that sovereign power existed. One of the ways we can use this is that we often have a quest or some sort of journey that our characters are taking through the wilderness, for example, and along the way they run into an overgrown civilization; a city that has been reclaimed by the weeds. This kind of thing is fairly common in Conan stories, for example. This is the sort of setting where some sort of monster or an artifact of some kind is lying around and ends up being picked up by our characters, and that unleashes some sort of problem or reawakens some ancient evil.

Now, we don’t necessarily have to create the history for that, but it can be a good idea. This also depends on whether you’re going to use that setting more than once. I have a planet called Llurien that I’ve been building for 30 years, and I plan on using for the rest of my career in addition to other worlds that I make up for whatever one-time use. So, if I do something like that in that setting, I need to know where that civilization came from and what was going on. I also need to know why it disappeared.

The reason for this is that if I don’t work those things out and I later do something else in that general area of the map, for example, I may contradict myself. By the way, I think that doing this sort of thing is one of the advantages to having a main setting that you intend to use for a long time. I can create all sorts of backstory that I use repeatedly.

Earlier, I mentioned that in a fantasy setting people often don’t know history, but if you think about it today, even with all the technology and information that we have, a lot of people don’t know that much about recent history, or certainly ancient history. We will have heard of things, of course. Like, we all know who Napoleon was, but most of us don’t know the details of this. This is something to consider. If you only know a little bit about Napoleon, like that he was the king and then emperor of France, and that he was involved in a certain number of wars, he was supposedly really short – which is actually a myth. He was basically the same height as everyone else around that time, but he was short compared to us today. You know, you only know a few basics about him.

So, do you need to create much more than that when you’re creating a fictional history for some sovereign power of yours or a character from that sovereign power? I would say that the answer is usually no. The reason for this is that your characters are not going to know. You shouldn’t be launching into a long exposition about somebody anyway.

What I’m getting at with a lot of this is that it is a good idea to quickly create some history. This is one of the easier and less in-depth things that we need to create as world builders. And yet, it can make our world seem like it goes far back in time. Which, of course, if it was a real world, it would. In post-apocalyptic fiction, we definitely need at least one major event – the one that caused that apocalypse. But, once again, people may have no real understanding of what actually happened, or any of the details leading up to this. One reason this is true is that it is the nature of an apocalypse that the technology tends to be wiped out. With it goes much of that written history.

I’m going to finish off this section with an example of a historical entry that I made up for the Creating Places book just to show you how short these entries can really be. The great thing about these is that they’re so easy to create that we don’t need to spend a lot of time on them and we can do them at any moment, really, and just insert them into our history file. So, here’s the sample.

Hessian 124. The Horn of Killian Lost. Legendary necromancer, Killian of the Lorefrost, suffers an ignoble defeat at the hands of Lord Sinius of the Kingdom Norin when Sinius kills a spectral knight who is in the act of blowing the Horn of Killian. The resulting vortex pulls all the souls into the horn, killing that of Killian, who briefly disappears from the world. By the time he returns weeks later, destroying Sinius, the horn has fallen into unknown hands.”

So, what this gives me is a couple characters and an artifact that is lying around on my world that I could use. This can almost seem like a writing prompt in the sense that by writing one of these I can give myself a story idea, either about the past of those events I just described, or the present story where that horn is found and something bad starts to happen. But do you know something? This is a great way to generate ideas for stories. Even if you never write one, so what? You created a good historical entry. I sometimes just make up stuff like this and then, later, I find a way to incorporate that into a story.

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Should You Change Time Measurements?

Let’s talk about how time is measured on our invented world. If everything is Earthlike, we can basically ignore this subject, but if we want to do something a little bit different, then we need to think about how far we are going to go with that when it comes to making it different from Earth. Generally, I urge caution on this. If we alter the measurements too much, such as a day has 40 hours in it, and then we say 3 days has passed, that’s a lot more time that’s really passed on that world than what our reader is going to understand has passed. Even if we tell the reader that the days are 40 hours long, we might have to remind them because they’re going to forget. There’s this kind of mental inertia that takes over. People just assume that things are like here.

So, a general piece of advice is to keep things relatively close to the same. So, maybe a week that has six or eight days instead of seven, but not making a week have twelve days. But, of course, it really depends on how often you’re going to mention how many weeks are passing. Weeks and months are arguably mentioned a little bit less than years, days or hours. In other words, we often talk about how old something is in number of years, and we often talk about how many minutes, hours or even days has passed since one event or another.

For whatever reason, at least in my experience as a reader and as a storyteller, I don’t mention the number of weeks or months that have passed quite as often. The likely reason for this is that the story is taking place over weeks and months, and we’re actually showing all of that time passing in smaller increments of minutes, hours and days. More to the point, we don’t usually have nothing happen for weeks or months and then just pick up several weeks or months later and have to tell the audience how much time has passed. On the other hand, we do often mention how many minutes, hours and days have passed because it’s more common for us to skip that amount of time and then have to inform the reader. So, let’s focus a little bit here on minutes and hours.

I recommend leaving both minutes and hours basically the same. There are other ways to make our world different without messing with our audience’s sense of how much time is passing. Now, it is true that on another planet, time will likely be measured differently, but the fact is our audience is here on Earth and they need to quickly understand time references in Earth terms.

Certainly, in science fiction, if the characters are from Earth and they’re arriving somewhere else, even if time is measured differently on that place, they’re still going to think of it in Earth terms. So, someone from that planet might say it’s going to be an hour from now, and one of our Earth characters says, “Well, that’s an hour and a half in our terms.” The big question here is what do we really gain by doing something like that? I would say that we’re only trying to create the sense of a different place. But there are many other ways to do this that don’t mess with something so basic. Does our audience really care that time is being measured differently somewhere? I would say no.

Let’s talk about the days in the week. Of course, here on Earth, we have seven. Most of us don’t know why. The reason for it is that ancient civilizations were only able to observe seven bodies in the sky, and that includes the Sun and Moon. For whatever reason, they decided that that would be a good way of dividing up the weeks. That’s where we get Sunday from, obviously. And, of course, Monday is really Moon day. Now, many of the planets are named after gods, and that’s where we get Thursday from, which is actually named after Thor. So, that’s really Thor’s day.

We could choose to do the same thing on our invented world, or we could choose a different rationalization for naming the days and, of course, choosing how many days there are in a week. But I would still recommend going with something that’s only off from Earth by a day, such as six days or eight days in a week. This achieves our goal of making it seem like a different place from Earth, but it keeps it relatively similar. In other words, it doesn’t have the side effect of messing with our audience’s sense of time passing.

Bear in mind that people would have names for the days in your setting, and this is something that we should invent and occasionally have our characters use. The same way that if we were writing a story here on Earth and we had a character thinking about something that’s going to happen next week, he might say, “Hey, next Thursday I’m going to do so-and-so.” Well, that kind of commentary is usually omitted from science fiction and fantasy books precisely because the world builder has not taken the time to name the days. One problem that this causes, though, is that people have no idea what those days mean. If Thursday is called “Lienday,” and I have a character mention that, the reader here on Earth is going to have no idea how far in the future that is. So, we’re going to have to do a little bit of explanation. I talk about that more in the book, and there are some simple tricks we can use to make that easier.

We can also determine the number of weeks in a month. As it turns out here on Earth, this is not set. Instead, it is the number of days in a month that determines how the weeks are laid out. We often have four full weeks, but we seldom have five full weeks. We often have a four-and-a-half week situation going on in a month. We could choose to standardize this, and that might be a good approach because it keeps things consistent for our audience so we only have to say it once and it’s probably going to be a little easier to remember. On the other hand, if we do something like we’ve done here on Earth where it keeps changing every month, that’s actually pretty confusing. The only reason we understand that is that we live here. This is one of the things that we probably do want to change.

When it comes to the months in a year, we once again want to stay to something in the range of 11 to 13 so that it’s only 1 month off from here on Earth. We should, once again, name these months because our characters are going to refer to them. Our naming convention may want to follow something similar to Earth where we use the suffix “-ber” or “-uary,” – such as January, February, December, November – to add this to the month’s names. Now, we don’t want to be completely consistent, just like we are not completely consistent here on Earth, but by having two, maybe three of these, and using those two or three consistently, we get a certain amount of inconsistent and consistency that it gives people the impression that we’ve put some thought into this, and so have the people of the world. One point I’m making is that too much uniformity can seem too much like we planned it out.

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Universal Calendars

The next subject I want to touch on is the universal calendar. In our modern world, the Gregorian calendar is accepted worldwide, but this wasn’t always true. In many countries, they still have their own calendar and they only use ours when they’re working on things that are worldwide. There are pros and cons to doing a universal calendar, so let’s talk about some of the benefits first.

A universal calendar helps us reconcile differences between two dates. So, if we say that it’s 734 D.C. in Kingdom X, and that’s 30 years later than 343 O.E. in Kingdom Y, well, that’s kind of hard to figure out what’s going on. We need a way to reconcile this, at least in our notes. Especially in fantasy, each sovereign power may have its own time measurement. Year 1 is going to be something important, like the year that the kingdom formed. Here on Earth, the birth of Christ is what’s used, but this was not recognized for hundreds of years, and didn’t become standard for several hundred years after that. So, if we’re trying to find a universal date for the whole world, this can be a little bit difficult. We would need to have an event that impacted everyone, or was at least recognized by everyone. A mass exodus from a planet in science fiction is one way to do that, and some sort of cataclysm is another way.

Now, there are some challenges that come with a universal calendar. If we decide to use month names that have something to do with a season, we have to remember that in the northern hemisphere, when it’s winter, it’s going to be summer in the southern hemisphere. So, something like that needs to be avoided. In addition, if we call it something like “Snowtime,” obviously that’s going to be different in each hemisphere. But at the equator, there isn’t any snow. This is a mistake I made a long time ago. So, learn from my mistake. Don’t do this. That’s really the only major challenge to this is coming up with the month names. So, this is a pretty easy subject.

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World History and Event Types

Now, when we’re trying to fill out our world’s history, there are some categories for these historical events. So, let’s just go through some of these one by one. The first category are events involving the gods, which of course is only going to come up if we have them in our setting. In some story worlds, the gods keep to themselves, but in others they interfere with life and cause events to take place.

For example, they could father children that are members of species or just monsters, demigods or whatever we want to call them. There might be sacred places that were built and then later destroyed and these could be significant events. They might also have magic items, like Cupid’s bow or Thor’s hammer, and these could fall into the wrong hands at some point in history. Using Cupid’s bow as an example, maybe a mortal got a hold of this and shot somebody with it and that person fell in love with another person and this caused some sort of event to happen. If you’ve created magic items for the gods, this is one of the great uses we have for those. It’s arguably no fun if the gods never lose their items.

And then there’s one of the biggest events, which is a god being killed or somehow incapacitated so he cannot influence the world anymore. As with all events in history, these may have anniversaries associated with them. Then there are technological events which is especially useful in science fiction. These can include missions that either failed or succeeded, and then there are launches of rockets, satellites or new ships. There could be discoveries. There could be weapons tests. A big one is first contact with other species and aliens. As usual, we don’t have to say too much about these. Just note when it happened, how long ago, what month of the year, and what took place. This is true of all of the events we’re talking about, not just the technological ones.

Then there are the supernatural events, which certainly comes up in fantasy, but also in science fiction. There can be phenomena that spring into existence or which are discovered. There can also be magic that can be discovered or expanded upon, or maybe it’s squashed in one area of a sovereign power, whereas in another one it proliferates and becomes more popular and more used. Some of this can be the result of an event. It could be caused by a character of ours. There can be famous practitioners of magic, and there can also be famous victims of it.

Then, of course, there are the magic items that can be invented, lost or used in some dramatic way. Then there’s the rise and fall of sovereign powers. Since this shapes not only the world, but history, this is certainly something that we should spend time inventing. Many of these kingdoms will collapse due to war, and this is another major event category. One thing we should think about this is what goal are we hoping to achieve? For example, maybe we want two characters from different sovereign powers to have animosity toward each other, and a war is one way to do this.

Now, there are usually things that lead to war, such as cultural differences, and that can also be a reason why they have an attitude towards each other. But there’s no reason not to have that boil over into war either recently or farther in the past. It’s especially easy to create wars between something like a dictatorship and a democracy because the ideology is so different. Another thing to consider is that two kingdoms that are friends today could’ve been enemies 100 or 500 years ago. Some other reasons for wars are things like taking back territory or trying to acquire resources that are in another sovereign power’s territory.

Another category of events is groups forming, such as the Justice League from comics. When did this occur? There may be a special naval force, group of knights, spectral groups, or any elite guards, horsemen, archers or whatever other groups we’ve created. We should figure out how old these groups are. Sometimes there is prestige in being the oldest knighthood, for example.

Another category is missions undertaken to do something like explore, rescue, maybe kill or kidnap someone or something, or maybe to investigate a strange phenomenon. For all of these, we can decide when it happened and exactly what happened and what the result of this was. Especially doing this with a mind toward how does this impact our current setting or story? Some of the people who undertook such missions might be famous, either because they succeeded or because they failed, maybe in spectacular fashion. Such a person could be a cautionary tale and result in a world figure. We talked about creating those in a previous episode.

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Where to Start

We’re going to end here with a short section on where to start. History is great because it can be created at random. The short entries that we’re going to write into a history file can be made up at any time. That said, we will sometimes want to focus on a specific subject and create multiple entries, such as the rise and fall of one kingdom. This allows us to get into a frame of mind about that subject. For example, earlier in this episode, I was talking about this fiction Horn of Killian that I made up. I could do other entries about that, such as when it gets found, then when it gets used in some dramatic way, and then figure out what its current status is. Maybe it’s currently under guard somewhere.

So, we can create multiple entries about this, three or four of them, at the same time. We should spread out these events throughout our history so that we don’t have four about, let’s say, the Horn of Killian in a row. But in between each of those entries, we have other entries about other things. With so many things that we create, we try to do things in an order. But the great thing about history is that we can make it up in random order.

For something like that Horn of Killian, we can start with an event for when it was used, but then we can just go back and later create something about when it was created. It’s less like writing a story and more like outlining one where we have freedom to go back and forth. Start with whatever you have an idea for and what you think you can use in your story. And if you make up things that don’t end up being used, that’s fine. You’ve still helped flesh out your world.

Creating historical events is one of my favorite things to do because there’s so little overhead and weight to this in the sense that it doesn’t really matter too much if we create something we don’t use or if we change our minds later. This is one of those things that we could spend five minutes on here, and then not do anything with it for three months, and then spend another five minutes on it. I consider this one of the more lightweight and fun things to invent in world building.

Closing

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Podcast Episode 18 – Travel in Space

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Oct 092018
 

Episode 18: Learn About Travel in Space

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about travel in space. This includes the different types of engines, what to include inside a ship, and why we have a lot of freedom to decide how long it really takes to get anywhere.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • The different engine types we can use, how they differ, and consequences of each
  • How the distance between locations impacts travel in space in ways unique to space
  • What we must consider about the external structure of our ships
  • What to include on the inside of ships and pitfalls to watch out for
Coda

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Episode 18 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number eighteen. Today’s topic is travel in space. This includes the different types of engines, what to include inside a ship, and why we have a lot of freedom to decide how long it really takes to get anywhere This material and more is discussed in chapter 5 of Creating Places, volume 2 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.

Engine Types

It’s fair to say that most of us have no experience traveling in space. The result is a need to do research on what this is really like. We can also rely on TV shows that we’ve seen, whether those are fictional in nature – and movies – or we can rely on TV shows that are more informational. Now, as it turns out, I work at NASA, but I am not a rocket scientist. But I do have access to people who are rocket scientists and I have run some of what I’m going to tell you by them to get their buy-off on this.

The first thing we want to talk about is propulsion because there are different kinds of engines that are used in space or in an atmosphere. Some of these are real and some are fictional. One thing I’ve noticed that’s interesting is that if an engine type is real, authors don’t typically spend the time explaining how it works, but if it’s fictional, we do.

However, we don’t really need to do that if we don’t want to. I suspect one reason this happens is that authors have as little interest as the average person in explaining how an actual technology works, but when we’ve made up something interesting, we’re trying to attract the attention of the audience as well and say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if this thing existed and it could do this? Here are some ideas on how that might work.” And it’s all speculative. Some science fiction makes a lot of mention of this, like in Star Trek, but others don’t make any mention of it at all. So, you have a choice here. If you don’t want to write a bunch of techno babble that you typically hear in Star Trek, then don’t.

Air-breathing Engines

So, the first kind of engine we’ll talk about are the air-breathing ones. These are obviously designed for when there is an atmosphere. In other words, this is not in space where, obviously, there is no atmosphere. So, in an episode about travel in space, why am I talking about this? Well, because your ships might still have such engines. Now, with real technology, I don’t explain in this podcast any more than in a story of mine how it actually works for the reasons I just mentioned. So, I’m not going to cover all the different types of air-breathing engines. We just need to decide if our spaceship has these.

Why would they? Well, arguably, space engines are designed for space. Therefore, they may have attributes that don’t make them work quite as well in an atmosphere. Therefore, our ship may be able to alternate between these. When I watch certain science fiction shows and movies, I sometimes hear the pilot say something like, “Switching to so-and-so power,” as they are changing from one type of maneuvering to another. Sometimes that means when they’re going from space to an atmosphere or the opposite. This is a detail we can add to our ship to make it more believable.

Now, if we like the idea that we have ships that don’t need this, we can still do that because, in any science fiction setting, just as today, we have different technology. Some of it is old and some of it is newer. So, we could have our characters on a ship that is old and, therefore, they have to do this kind of switching back and forth between air-breathing engines and space engines. We can have a character remark that he’s making this change and say that this spaceship is a bit of a clunker because they still have to do this, and he prefers the one he doesn’t have to make this kind of switch. Obviously, this is just subtle detail and not something critical to the plot, but such little details can make things more believable.

Besides, why have all of your ships be the same? This and other issues with their vessel could be the reason why they’re on the lookout to acquire something better, which is certainly something that would add to your plot. They might want to steal something or buy something and not have the funds to do so, or someone might have stolen their ship and now the best they can do is afford this clunker. This issue of having to switch back and forth between engine types could be one of the things that this adds. Another issue with multiple types of engines is that they’re probably going to have different fuel sources and, therefore, they could run out of fuel for one type of engine but not the other.

Space Engines

Let’s talk about space engines. Space engines are divided into two categories: Those that allow faster-than-light speeds (or FTL) and those that do not, which are known as slower-than-light (or STL). Only the slower-than-light ones are real. Everything else is fictional. For slower-than-light engines, the propulsion is at least a little bit similar to atmospheric engines in that something is being ejected, usually from the rear of the vessel. This is, of course, what propels the ship forward. This is one reason why these types of engines could be used in atmospheric conditions instead of something that is specifically designed for atmospheric conditions.

Some STL engines could propel the ship fast enough that this can cause time dilation. This is when two observers experience a difference in how much time has passed. We sometimes see this in science fiction where the captain tells the pilot to travel at a certain speed but not to go beyond a certain threshold because that’s going to cause this time dilation. They may say, “Go up to speed eight, but no faster.” Sometimes the captain will explain why, but really the pilot’s going to understand already. So, sometimes, that kind of exposition is only being said for the sake of the audience.

One solution to that sort of scenario is to have an ignorant character standing there and ask the question, “Captain, if we’re in such a hurry, why don’t we go up to speed nine or ten when the ship can do that?” And have the captain explain why. We’re so used to that kind of thing that we accept it, but if you stop and think about it, it’s not that believable because anyone who lives in a society that has space travel is going to understand time dilation.

Here on Earth we do have space travel, but so few of us do that that most of us are only dimly aware of this. The only reason we’ve heard of it at all is from watching science fiction. But using the Star Trek example, in that sort of future where there is so much space travel going on, people are going to know this. We may need another solution, such as instead of the ignorant character, have someone else say, “Not in the mood for any time dilation today, Captain?” or something to that effect.

Let’s take a look at some fictional faster-than-light drives, all of which are public domain, which means we can use these ideas.

Jump Drive

One of them is called “jump drive.” As the name implies, the ship can simply jump from one place to another one like it’s being teleported there. As you can imagine, this is pretty convenient. What if you had a personal version of this right now and you could simply jump from home to work and back? While this is pretty cool, the problem that this creates for us as storytellers is that it pretty much eliminates all drama, tensions and problems that come with having to travel from one place to another. We’re not going to run into enemy ships that are going to bother us unless we run into them when we arrive. We’re not going to run across a distressed ship that needs help. In space, we don’t really deal with monsters typically, but there’s this issue of when you’re traveling, stuff happens. Well, that’s not going to happen in this scenario.

In that sense, there could be a lack of tension and, therefore, a lack of drama. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. If you have this sort of drive, I would suggest using it sparingly in your setting so that this is something rare. It’s also a little too easy for characters to get out of trouble with this if they’re doing something and then enemy ships show up, they can simply jump right out of there. They’re not going to have to fight unless the jump drive is malfunctioning or something. As you might expect, since there is no actual travel, a ship that has a jump drive is not going to experience time dilation when they use it.

Hyperdrive

Another type of drive is the hyperdrive, which is a drive that moves a ship into hyperspace. This is a fictional, separate dimension that is adjacent to normal space. Storytellers often use this idea that a ship that’s in hyperspace has difficulty or it’s not even possible to interact with a ship that’s in normal space. One reason we do this is that hyperspace has some advantages and, therefore, we should also give it some disadvantages. The greatest advantage is the speed with which it allows a ship to travel great distances. This type of drive also experiences no time dilation when people return to normal space.

Warp Drive

That brings us to the last space engine, and that is warp drive. This is probably associated with Star Trek for many of us, but this is a public domain idea. There’s this idea that there are different levels of warp, such as warp five being slower than warp six. The instantaneous travel, like jump drive, is not possible with warp. There is also no time dilation, but one of the issues here is that the ship is remaining in normal space. One thing that I don’t see mentioned typically is that there are plenty of objects with which a ship can collide. Despite the word “space,” there is a lot of stuff out there. It’s just that it is fairly well spaced out.

My big point here is that a ship is not going to be traveling this fast unless it has some sort of shield to protect itself from that kind of debris. So, a believable detail we can add is that there’s been some sort of battle and, as a result, the ship’s shields are down and someone says, “Hey, we need to get out of here at warp drive,” and someone else says, “Well, no. We can’t do that because we could hit something.” Having to leave that scene of the battle at a slower speed could also pose problems for them.

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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Distance Issues

Now we’re going to look at distance. One of the realities of space is that any two locations are not going to be a fixed distance from each other. Everything is orbiting something. Moons orbit planets, planets orbit suns, and even the sun orbits the galaxy. All of that this means is that the distance between two places is always changing. In a previous episode about land travel, I talked about writing the words “not drawn to scale” on our map. Well, if we’ve created a map of a star system, we don’t even need to do that because it’s not going to be relevant. There’s also the caveat that no one can show up and tell us that our fictional star system has things that are a different distance from each other than they really are. One impact of all of this is that two objects, like two planets, might be on the same side of the sun, or on opposite sides, or somewhere in between.

As you can imagine, this could significantly change the amount of time it takes to travel from one to the other. In some science fiction, authors make no mention of this, but in other stories, they do. The way we would typically want to do this is to basically say that the characters need to get from where they are now to another place, but maybe they don’t have enough fuel to make the journey, given how far away that other location is at the moment. Maybe they have to wait a week or a month to do this. Or they could leave right now, but one of the issues is that it’s going to take a month to get there when they need to get there in only two weeks, maybe because there is an event taking place on that location in two weeks. Someone could remark, “It’s too bad that this didn’t happen several months ago when the planets were closer.”

This is also the sort of situation where if someone had a jump drive, it would be very advantageous because it wouldn’t really matter. On the other hand, if they don’t have it, then maybe they have to use hyperspace. Maybe they need to use slower-than-light travel, but they need to go beyond that threshold that’s going to avoid time dilation. They’re going to go so fast that they will cause time dilation and there’s just no choice. They’ve got to do it. Mentioning this sort of detail or putting it into your storyline is one way to make things more believable. One good thing about all of this is that it gives us flexibility to inject this sort of problem into our story.

At times, we might want to make it suddenly very easy for the characters. Like two planets or locations happen to be relatively close and they’re happy about that. Other times, we may want to make it more difficult. Try not to imagine that everything just works out magically and that there is no problem, ever.

Also bear in mind that when a ship is traveling to meet a planet, for example, it’s not traveling to where that planet is now, but where that planet is going to be. Naturally, this sort of thing involves computers figuring out some of this math for us, but what if the computers are down? Can we have a character who is pretty good at this sort of thing doing it manually? They can at least start their journey based on the manual calculation. Then, if someone gets the computer working, they can input the fixes later. This is another way to be more believable.

One of the problems we could face is trying to figure out should we first create engines that can travel a certain speed and, therefore, cover a certain distance in a certain amount of time, and then base our story around that, or should we create our story idea first and then figure out what kind of engines we want to make available? That includes coming up with engines that don’t quite do everything that our characters need. This is also one way to force them into a situation where they have a ship that doesn’t do the job, but if they had a different ship, well, then that would take care of the problem, such as a ship that has jump drive. I would say that we should invent a propulsion system first and then alter how far away locations in our story are based on the needs.

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External Ship Structure

One question we may face as world builders is what is the internal structure of our spacecraft? In a visual medium like television and film, we’re also going to worry about the external view because we’re going to have depictions of this on-screen. Now, most likely, if we are working in that sort of medium, we are going to have somebody who has designed that spacecraft for us, but for all I know you are the sort of person who depicts that spacecraft.

When it comes to the exterior of a ship, there is a tendency to draw something that is aerodynamic looking, even if it’s designed to be in space. One notable exception to that is the Borg Cube from Star Trek. When it comes to these more aerodynamic ships, one of the reasons we do this is that this ship may have to operate within an atmosphere. Now, we may decide that the ship is never, under any circumstances, going to operate within an atmosphere, and therefore we can get away with something that is not aerodynamic. Otherwise, if we think there’s any possibility it can enter an atmosphere and operate there, then we should make it aerodynamic. Any character who sees such a non-aerodynamic vessel is going to automatically assume it can’t operate in an atmosphere.

But just because something is aerodynamic looking doesn’t mean that it is designed for atmospheres. So, why would it still look that way? Well, just because we expect it. There is still the matter of slower-than-light propulsion ejecting matter, which is sometimes on the sides, but it could also, most likely, be on the rear. And then there’s the reality of needing to look forward through a window, for example, at the space that you are traveling through. Both of these lend themselves to that similar ship shape.

However, when it comes to that window, we could dispense with the actual window and use a series of view screens instead. There are other issues like this that we can consider, but basically it doesn’t have to be that way. It just can be. If we present it that way, the audience is never going to shrug and say, “Why in the world does it look like that?” We basically accept that without even thinking about it.

We may also want to consider where the ship can be loaded. On Earth, when you’re getting on a cruise ship or anything else on the water, the cargo typically goes on the bottom, regardless of whether it’s loaded from the back or the side. The reason for this is that we don’t want to make the ship top-heavy so that it doesn’t topple over. In space, we obviously don’t have to worry about that. Unless there is artificial gravity, the cargo is not going to weigh anything. That kind of brings up another point. Why don’t we ever see a cargo hold on a science fiction vessel where everything is basically floating? It’s always shown as it is pulled down. It’s just sitting there. The obvious answer for this is that it’s easier for the film crew to film it that way rather than using special effects to show everything floating all the time. But it seems plausible that you would not want artificial gravity in the cargo hold.

Of course, this is going to depend on how the ship is generating that artificial gravity. If it’s one of the more believable rotating vessels, then obviously everything has gravity and there’s only so much you can do about that. However, on that note, if you do have a rotating vessel, there’s going to be more gravity on the farthest reaches of that vessel than towards the center where there’s still going to be almost none. Once again, this is something that is sometimes overlooked. It’s a nice detail we can add for believability. Most of the living space would obviously be on the farthest reaches of that so it has the maximum gravity that they’ve intended for people to have. But there might be maintenance things that are happening towards the center of that vessel where those people have to float.

Now, if we don’t have to worry about that cargo having a weight to it, we could assume, “Hey, it can be loaded anywhere.” Well, what if people have done that and they’ve loaded all the cargo on, say, the left side of the ship, and then this space-faring vessel enters an atmosphere? Suddenly, it’s going to have gravity and all that weight is going to be on one side. The next thing you know, our ship is lopsided and it might crash. Naturally, this is one scenario where maybe they do have artificial gravity in the cargo hold all the time so that they don’t have to worry about this. But it could also be a situation where as they are preparing to enter an atmosphere, they have to go and turn on more artificial gravity there, or something to that effect. Maybe they also have to move the cargo around prior to this. If the cargo was loaded in space, maybe they didn’t worry about this, but if the cargo was loaded on the ground where there is gravity, then they would have worried about this. But then, maybe once they’re into space, they rearrange things.

There are some other considerations like where the weapons are located and where the engines really are, but we can basically make up a lot of that. The big thing we need to worry about there is that we don’t want guns that can accidentally shoot into the ship. By the same token, we obviously don’t want engines that are going to burn up part of the ship. What this really means is that the slower-than-light engines that are ejecting matter to cause propulsion are probably going to be on the sides or in the back, but really the faster-than-light engines with these fictional ways of getting around, we can pretty much put that anywhere. We might have a ship design where the slower-than-light engines are on a typical location that we would see on an atmospheric engine, but the faster-than-light ones, we could just decide to put that wherever we want. We could put that further inside the ship so that it is more protected from enemy fire.

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Internal Ship Structure

Let’s talk about the internal structure of our ship. If our ship is really small, so much so that only two people can fit inside it, for example, then the internal structure doesn’t really matter because it’s probably a single room. But if we’re talking about something like the Enterprise from Star Trek, then the structure of the ship does matter. One reason is that characters need to move between locations, like the bridge, the cargo, the engine room, and their quarters. We may have active scenes such as aliens breaching the ship at a certain place in the hull, and it might be five minutes for our characters to get there at a full run, but they need to get there in two minutes because, otherwise, the aliens are going to destroy something.

To some extent, we could just make up scenarios like that, but if we’re going to use the ship repeatedly, we may want to have a sense of this so we can be consistent. We don’t want it to take five minutes to make that trip in one story and then two minutes in another and then ten minutes in a different one. Having planned out our ship to some degree helps us think of scenarios like this to start with. We can organize our vessel to avoid one problem, but we’re probably going to set up another one. So, no ship is foolproof and any scenario could come up where it just causes a problem.

There are certain realities that are going to exist on a ship, such as the living quarters being somewhere near the dining areas. Now, that said, if you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, they do have the main dining area, but they have all sorts of smaller restaurants spread throughout the vessel. Such a scenario will also be true on a large spacecraft. Similarly, there will also be things like lounges in different locations so people can relax regardless of where they are.

Things like propulsion and cargo are typically located towards the rear of a vessel. More importantly, they are farther away from the living quarters because most people don’t want to be near that, partly because that area tends to be a little bit on the dirty side. If you’re creating a passenger ship, this is something to keep in mind. The cheaper rooms are going to be in such an area, or at least near that area.

If we do plan out our ship, I would suggest not going overly detailed unless it’s really going to matter to your story. For example, you may want to say that engineering is on deck six towards the rear of the vessel, and it’s on the port side, for example. You can just leave it at that. You don’t have to say that adjacent to that is some other area. You can basically decide a certain deck and one side of the ship has a certain number of things, and not actually figure out exactly what is right across from each other or next to each other until it matters in your story. Being a little more generic and general about the location of these things gives us some flexibility if we need to change things later.

As for what we’re going to include in our ship, we obviously need a bridge, which is the command center where all the decisions are being made and where a lot of the senior officers are during the important scenes. We’re obviously also going to need to living quarters. Now, one thing that we may want to do there is have the officers have better quarters than the regular crew. Whether our ship is a passenger vessel or not, it’s going to have a certain amount of entertainment. It’s just that the number and type of those are going to vary. Even on a military ship, we’re still going to have shops because people need to buy supplies. On a passenger ship, many of those shops are going to be concentrated in a mall-like area.

Any vessel could also have a jail, which is also called the brig. A military vessel is almost certainly going to have something like this, but even the passenger ones may have one. We may also want to plan out where the escape pods are if these are going to be used in our story. These are typically going to be mostly near the living quarters, but some of them are also going to be spaced throughout the ship so that those who are working the ship and controlling it when it needs to be evacuated still have somewhere to get to relatively quickly rather than having to go all the way back to their living quarters.

Review

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Where to Start

Finally, let’s talk about where to start with space travel. The first decision we should really make when planning a vessel is to decide where it’s going to operate: only in space or both in space and in atmospheric conditions? Another early decision: Is this a cargo ship, a passenger ship or a war vessel? In some cases, it could’ve started this life out as one thing and have been converted into another. We should also decide whether the purpose of our ship is local travel near the planet where it originated from or is it intended to go in between solar systems or even stars? This will determine what sort of engines are needed. If the local solar system is relatively peaceful, then it may also determine how many weapons it has. We should also figure out what kind of events we want to take place on this ship and what kind of vulnerabilities it might have which can be exploited by the way we layout the ship.

These are just suggestions. You can do things in whatever order you decide. One of the general recommendations I always make is if you have an idea for something, just work on that first. The best point of origin is an idea.

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 my album The Lost Art called “Loeillet de Gant, Sonata No. 1, Second Movement.” 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!

Podcast Episode 17 – Travel By Water

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Sep 252018
 

Episode 17: Learn About Travel Over Water

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how travel over water is impacted by wind, ship types, and more. Learn how to determine travel times over water when using oars or the wind. This includes ship types like the frigate, galley, ship-of-the-line, 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:
  • How to calculate how long it takes to travel along coastlines and oceans by ship
  • The top speed and average speed of various vessels during a journey
  • How a nautical mile differs from a normal mile
  • The difference between different types of ships
  • How wind speed, direction, and ship configurations change sailing speeds
  • What kind of weapon can replace a cannon if we don’t want to use gunpowder, guns, or cannons in our world
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 17 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number seventeen. Today’s topic is is about how travel over water is impacted by wind, ship types, and more. Learn how to determine travel times over water when using oars or the wind. This includes ship types like the frigate, galley, ship-of-the-line, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 8 of Creating Places, volume 2 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.

General Tips

This is another episode that may apply more to fantasy world builders than science fiction ones, simply because, in science fiction, most of the travel is done through the air — or the absence of air in space. However, our science fiction characters could end up having to travel by water if they crash land on a planet and there’s no other way of getting around. I’m also talking about traveling by wind power or by oars, not by engines.

In science fiction, we could either invent the kind of engines that people have and how fast that means they can go, or we can base things on engines here on Earth. One reason I’m not going to cover that is that engines are significantly more predictable than the wind. This is not to say that sea conditions cannot affect how fast someone is going because, of course, they can, but I am admittedly targeting those who write fantasy, or a setting that does not have that kind of technology.

Now, most of us have no idea how long it takes to get from one place to another by various kinds of ships, or how fast those ships can travel, or anything about how these ships really work. Watching something like The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it doesn’t really help you understand this. If anything, it gives you the impression of not understanding this at all, which is how I always felt.

Now, there are a number of things that impact the difficulty of sailing between two different locations, and one of those is the wind. The direction of this can change and, also, the strength of that wind can change. Some countries are also better at building ships that are more seaworthy, and they also might have better sailors and therefore a better navy. All of this influences the trade routes that are going to show up, which nations can conquer others, or how difficult it is for them to do so.

Using the wind, we have a lot of leeway for how long it might actually take someone to get from one place to another. Depending on your point of view, this can either be good or bad. The good part is if our calculations are not exact, well, it’s not going to be exact anyway, so that’s just something that comes with the territory. The bad part is we don’t have a fixed answer that we can use and we have to do a certain amount of guesswork. Unless, of course, you understand the contents of this podcast episode, or the corresponding chapter of the Creating Places book, which has some charts that really help with this.

There are several reasons why we have this leeway, and one of those is that if we have drawn a map, we should just write on there that it is not drawn to scale. If we have oarsmen, they are not going to be able to row at the same speed indefinitely, and their endurance and training is going to change from ship to ship. So, one crew might be able to go faster than another. Of course, wind speed is not consistent, and then the wind direction is also not consistent. Both of these can affect the speed. Different types of ships also sail at different speeds under the same exact conditions. If you have a frigate that is chasing a ship-of-the-line, it might be faster. Another thing to bear in mind is that ships are weighed down by the people who are on there. Some of those can be killed in combat, for example, and then there’s the cargo, the amount of food and, of course, the weapons and ammunition.

Figure 58 Corvette

Figure 58 Corvette

At the start of, let’s say, a five-month journey, the ship is going to be weighed down more than at the end. So, in theory, it’s going to be traveling slower. The ship can, of course, be damaged. My favorite explanation for why we have leeway is that our ship might be sailing on a fictitious planet with, possibly, a different number of moons and anything else that may affect the seas. This could be a kind of cheap excuse if we say that a frigate is sailing a certain number of nautical miles at a certain speed and, therefore, it reaches its destination in a certain number of days, and someone on Earth says, “Well, that’s not possible,” and we say, “Hey, man. This is a fictional planet. You can’t really say that. I’m the god of this place. I say what really works here and what goes.”

So, that could be considered a cop out, and the information in this podcast and the corresponding chapter is going to help you not have to resort to that explanation. Of course, not having a sailor call us out on what we’ve said is one reason for this, but we just might want to be more accurate and we can use the information that we learn for characterizing the journey that people are taking.

For example, maybe we have learned that it’ll take our characters, traveling on a certain type of ship in certain conditions, 20 hours to get somewhere, but we need them to take 25 hours. So, what do we do? Well, maybe we throw up a storm. Maybe that storm damages one of the masts. So, this can cause us to think of things that we can put into our story so it’s not just an easy trip that is glossed over and not even mentioned. Of course, we could do that kind of thing anyway without having to throw out any numbers, but you get the idea.

Ship Terms

Let’s briefly cover a few ship terms so that we all are talking the same language. The only ones I’m going to cover here are the ones you need to understand in order to understand the difference between one type of ship and another because we’re going to be talking about that more later.

The mast is the vertical pole you see in the middle of the ship. Some ships have none, some only have one, some have two and some of them have three. In a few cases, there are actually four of these. Technically, there’s even a ship with five, which I believe is called a clipper ship, but we’re not going to really be worrying about that one.

Now, there are other terms for these, like the center mast is obviously the one in the middle, the foremast is the one at the front of the ship and the one at the back is often called the mizzenmast. But we’ll just call that the rear mast to keep this easier. That mast is usually the shortest. The one in the middle is usually the tallest. If a ship only has two masts, the one in the back is the one that’s usually not there.

Now, what’s the point of a mast? Well, it’s to hold the yards. Those are the horizontal bars that the sails are actually attached to. Now, as it turns out, not all of the yards are horizontal, but most of them are. There’s also an expression you may have heard, and that is that a ship is square rigged. What this means is that if the ship is headed north to south and the yards are east to west, they are squared up with each other. That’s what a square-rigged ship means.

On the other hand, there’s something known as lateen-rigged ships. That means that the yard is sloped and runs parallel to the ship. So, if the ship is pointing north/south, the yard is also pointing north/south.

Most ships have anywhere from one to three yards per mast, and there are names for these yards, but we don’t need to know what they are in order to understand what we’re talking about here today. Some ships actually have a combination of the square and lateen rigging, and what that typically means is that the main mast and the front foremast are square rigged, and the mizzenmast, or the rear mast, is lateen rigged. The reason I’m mentioning this is that some of this is going to come up when we talk about the different types of ships because the rigging is one way to identify them. As you might imagine, the number of yards, sails and the way they’re configured have an affect on the ship’s speed.

Lastly, we want to talk about the sails. In a square-rigged ship, the sails are actually in the shape of a trapezoid, which means that they’re wider at the bottom than they are at the top where they are attached to the yard. On the lateen-rigged ships, the sail is usually triangular. And if you’re having trouble picture that, just picture a sailboat. On the other hand, in the movies like The Pirates of the Caribbean, the square-rigged ships are what you would typically see. One way that this affects the ship speeds is that the square-rigged ships do pretty well in the open ocean because the wind speed is usually fairly constant, or at least it is more so than it is closer to shore. The direction is also fairly constant, again, as it compares to being closer to shore.

Figure 56 Ship of the Line

Figure 56 Ship of the Line

Well, when you are closer to shore, the lateen rigging allows the sailors to change the sail more quickly to take advantage of the wind speed and the wind direction. This greater adjustment ability allows for better maneuverability and can actually make the lateen-rigged ships sail faster when they’re closer to

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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Ship Rates

It’s time to talk about ship rates. I don’t mean, “Hey, that’s a first-rate ship, or a third-rate ship,” in the sense that first-rate is a really good ship and third-rate is kind of a mediocre one. That’s not what we mean by ship rates. The ratings are not a judgment of quality. It’s really just about the number of guns and personnel. We’re going to talk about this later, but we may not want guns and gunpowder, and therefore cannons, on our world, and we might want to have to replace those with something that is plausible. But, for the sake of this conversation about ship rates, we’re just going to talk about what the British Navy does. And, of course, they have cannons. So, that’s what we’re going to be talking about.

I’ve got a handy little chart that I’m going to gloss over kind of quickly here, but it basically includes the officers, seamen and boys, and servants in the count of the men who are aboard. A first-rate ship is going to have somewhere between 100 and 112 guns, and 841 men. These are the biggest ships. By contrast, a sixth-rated ship, which is the lowest, is going to have somewhere between 20 and 28 guns, and 128 to 198 men. Now, in between those two extremes, we have the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-rate ships, but I’m not going to throw out a bunch of numbers for you because it’s probably not going to stick.

Anything that had fewer than 20 guns, which is the sixth-rate ship, was not considered a rated ship. All of the ships that we just mentioned, the sixth-rate through the first-rate, had three masts. Now, the two biggest classes, the first- and second-rate ships, had three full decks just for the guns, which is a lot of firepower. That means they were carrying as few as 90 guns and as many as 112 guns.

Now, the third- and fourth-rate ships had two gundecks, and the fifth- and sixth-rated ships only had one gundeck. So, the first and second have three decks, the third and fourth have two decks, and the fifth- and sixth-rated ships have one deck. Well, these are the decks devoted to only guns. For any ship that had more than one gundeck, the biggest guns were on the bottom because you don’t want them on the top because that would make the ship top-heavy and more likely to turn over.

Ship Types

Now, we’re going to start talking about the ship types, which is where this stuff gets interesting. As world builders, we could invent our own ship types, but I don’t think we really need to because people are not sick of the ones that already exist. One reason for that is, possibly, that ships are not typically shown in any sort of great detail, even if they do appear in a fantasy book. By contrast, if seemingly every fantasy book has elves in it, for example, and therefore people get kind of over exposed to this, some people might just think that they want to see something new. I don’t think the same thing happens with wooden ships.

So, with that in mind, when we’re talking about ship types, we’re going to look at some of the most prominent kinds that were around on Earth. This is less about inventing ships than using existing ones and understanding what we’re talking about. Now, vessels come in two basic groups: The long ships and the round ships. Now, the round ships are not actually circular, of course, but they are called that because they are wide when compared to the narrow and streamlined long ships like those that the Vikings used. And, as it turns out, we’re only going to talk about one long ship, and that’s called the galley.

The long ships are the earliest types of ships, and all of them were basically designed for war or really fast transportation, not carrying cargo. They were usually powered by oars, but they would have maybe one sail for additional propulsion at times. The galley is the ship that is synonymous with Vikings, although it was used elsewhere. It usually had a single mast for that sail, and it had a metal prow at the front so that it could ram another boat and board it. While it’s a really maneuverable ship, it has a really wide turning arch and it requires calm weather. While it can be used to go on the open seas, it wasn’t typically used that way. It was mostly found along the shoreline.

The invention of guns and the addition of cannons to bigger ships is one of the reasons why this kind of ship fell out of favor. So, if your world doesn’t have that kind of firepower, the galley might be one of the more commonly seen vessels. Some of these could be quite large and have a forecastle and a rear castle for artillery and soldiers, and as many as 25 oars on either side, each oar being rowed by 5 men. However, this is not the kind of ship that’s being used for war. If it is being used in war, it’s leading the vanguard. This is where the captain of a fleet of galleys would be.

The presence of the forecastle and the rear castle means that the captain and whoever else can go and have a private conversation – or relatively private conversation. As you can imagine, that has some advantages.

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Round Ships

It’s time to talk about the round ships. We have quite a few that we’re going to discuss. The round ships were originally designed for carrying cargo and passengers. But, of course, they have been used for war. This is pretty much what you’ve seen in every pirate movie. Unless I say otherwise, all of the ships we’re going to talk about are square-rigged on all of the masts. Now, you may have heard the term “man-of-war,” but this is not an actual ship type. It’s just a generic English name for any three-masted warship that has soldiers and cannons. Two examples of a man-of-war are the frigate and ship-of-the-line, but those are, of course, two different ship types.

Now, I have a chart that, this time, lists out the different ship types and how many guns they have, how many crew, the maximum speed in knots, and their total length. And, of course, the name of each ship. I suggest going onto www.artofworldbuilding.com and looking for the Creating Places book in the menu. You can find a link that says “images.” This image of the chart is available online for free.

The ships we’re going to look at are the brig, frigate, galleon, gunboat, ship-of-the-line, sloop and sloop-of-war. Fortunately, all of them have a maximum speed of roughly 11 knots. The frigate and the gunboat can both go up to 14 knots. By the way, I also have a picture of each ship type that we’re going to talk about, which is also available online.

First, we’re going to talk about the brig, which is a two-masted, square-rigged ship that has a single gundeck. This ship is really fast, highly maneuverable and it can be used as a merchant ship, warship or a scouting vessel. Pirates really like these because all of these.

The frigate is also fast and highly maneuverable, and is a fourth- of fifth-rated ship with one gundeck. These are often used as scouting vessels for a fleet, escorting something, patrolling or even acting independently. In fact, these are the largest ships that worked independently because the bigger ships were considered too valuable to risk being captured or destroyed. This is something that’s obviously more likely to happen if a ship is traveling alone. Now, there is something known as a heavy frigate, and that means a frigate that has two gundecks instead of only one. They are the same length as bigger ships, like the ships-of-the-line, but they have so little firepower by comparison that they would typically just run away from such a vessel. Otherwise, they would quite literally get blown out of the water.

We’ll talk more about ships-of-the-line in a minute, but during a line of battle where there’s a row of ships on one side, and then the enemy’s also got a row of ships on the other, the frigates were not part of that ship-of-the-line configuration. That’s why they’re not called one. The frigates were present, but they were typically behind the line. The reason they were there is that they would relay signals from one ship to another. Imagine if you’re the last ship in a ship-of-the-line. All you can see is the ship in front of you. You can’t communicate to anything that’s farther along. Therefore, you would communicate to a frigate which was off to one side, and that frigate would relay signals farther up the line. The rules of engagement also dictated that these ships were not actually fired upon unless the frigate had fired upon another ship first.

Let’s talk about the fireship, which is an interesting variation. This is not a type of ship because any type of ship can be turned into a fireship. This kind of ship is designed to be set on fire and then sent into the enemy line of ships to, hopefully, catch other ships on fire. This obviously means certain destruction to itself, and therefore valuable ships like the ships-of-the-line were not used for such a vessel.

Another ship type is the galleon, which has two features that distinguish it from other ship types. That is the mast and the prow at the front of the ship. The prow just has a distinguishable look to it that you would recognize if you saw a picture of one. Another way to spot this ship is that the center mast and the foremast at the front are square-rigged like all of these round ships that we’re talking about, but the mizzenmast, the one at the rear, is latten-rigged instead. That allows for a better point of sailing. As a result, this galleon could actually save days or even weeks on a long voyage over the open ocean. In other words, it would leave behind other ship types.

Then there’s the gunboat, which we may have to rename if we don’t have guns in our world. But this boat is really small and it usually only has one or two cannons on it. It’s designed to be used in coastal waters and take on large ships where it’s easily outmatched, but if you have a dozen of these, they can do horrific damage to a larger ship just by surrounding it and blowing holes in it. These are cheap and easily replaced.

On the opposite extreme is the ship-of-the-line. This is a ship with at least 60 guns. This includes all first-, second-, and third-rate ships. They get their name because of this configuration where they sail in a straight line, firing at a parallel line of the enemy ships. The reason both sides do this is so that they don’t accidentally hit their own ships. The first-rate ships-of-the-line are the biggest ships on the sea.

Figure 55 Galleon

Figure 55 Galleon

On the opposite extreme is the sloop, which for most of us just means a sailboat. This is too small to be a ship of war, and it’s really only something we’re going to use if our characters need a small, wind-powered vessel to get from one place to another. If we would like them to use oars instead of a sail and the wind, then we might have them use the galley, which was the long ship that we talked about first.

Now, the sloop is not to be confused with the sloop-of-war, which also is called a corvette, kind of like the car. As the name implies, this is a warship that has a single gundeck with 18 guns. These are not rated ships because they only have 18 guns and that does not meet the minimum of 20 in the British system. But, of course, we can invent our own system and maybe call these seventh-rate ships. The sloop-of-war has all sorts of different sail configurations, not just the square-rigged one.

The last one we’re going to talk about is the privateer, but this is not really a ship type. Any ship that is operated by a private individual, or a group of them, for profit is considered a privateer. A sovereign power would give something known as a “letter of marque” to the captain of the ship, and that authorized this captain to engage in acts of war against other ships. Any time it got the loot from this, a certain percentage of that captured prize was supposed to go to the sovereign power. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like piracy, well, it basically is. The difference between a privateer and a pirate is that letter of marque authorizing what they are doing.

One of the cool things about this is that here on Earth, in our history, we had people who had one of these letters that would basically absolve them of their actions, and they would sometimes get a letter of marque from two different countries like France and Spain. They would justify the attacks on Spanish ships with the letter of marque from France, and then do the exact opposite. This was illegal and, of course, they didn’t tell either country that they were doing this. And, of course, some of them got caught and they were accused of being pirates and punished accordingly because they had violated the idea of being a privateer by playing two sides against each other. That sounds to me like a story waiting to happen.

Some countries also refused to recognize the letter of marque from their enemies, and then they would just hang the privateers as pirates. Sometimes they only threatened to do so as a way of extorting an exchange of prisoners or something else. Anything larger than a frigate was not typically used for this because it was considered unsuitable. So, therefore, there wouldn’t be any ships-of-the-line being used as privateers.

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Ship Speeds

Time to talk about ship speeds. The first one we’re going to talk about is when people are using oars because this is pretty straightforward. The top speed doesn’t really matter because people can’t keep that going for very long. If there is a favorable wind, a ship can do about two to three knots. With an unfavorable wind, it’s about half of that, or one knot to one and a half knots. Earlier, I said that many of the wind-powered ships can reach 11 knots as their maximum speed, so you can see this is pretty slow by comparison.

And now comes the harder part, which is trying to figure out how fast ships can travel by sail. We should keep in mind that during a coastline-hugging trip, the ship will dock for the night in a port if it is able to. This is going to slow down the trip a little bit, of course, because they are not actually sailing for however many hours they are docked. By contrast, when sailing over the open ocean, a ship will have enough crew that they can sail continuously.

Now, I have some calculations that we’re going to use. These are going to be kept relatively simple. These are also going to be done in miles. Speed is measured in knots. A knot is one nautical mile per hour. That means that a nautical mile is 1.151 land miles. If you’re wondering why there’s a difference, well, the nautical mile accounts for the curvature of the earth while the land mile does not. That’s mostly a piece of trivia that you can surprise your friends with. What this really means for us is that if we’ve decided the distance between two ports on the coast is 25 miles apart by land, we would have to multiply that number by 1.151 to learn how many nautical miles it would be. In this case, that would be just under 29 miles. Whether we measure in miles or kilometers has no affect on the time that the trip takes.

Figure 53 Brig

Figure 53 Brig

Now, most ships have an overall speed of between four and six knots during a long voyage over the open water, but they’re going to have about three to four knots during a coastal trip or along islands. Ships can go slower or faster than that, but they’re not going to be able to maintain the ideal speed, or the maximum speed, of roughly 11 knots because of the variations in windspeed and direction.

If you want to figure out how long it takes to get somewhere by ship, here is how you would do this. The first thing you would do is measure the distance on your map, if you have one, using miles. Then multiply that number by 1.151 to get the nautical miles. If the ship is going six knots, then you would take the nautical miles and divide that by six knots to get the number of hours of continuous sailing needed, meaning this is not taking into consideration any stops for the night.

Let’s use an actual number. If we had 77 miles, we would multiply that by 1.151 to get 89 nautical miles. Traveling at 6 knots, we would take the 89 nautical miles, divide that by 6 knots to get roughly 15 hours of continuous sailing. At 4 knots, it would take 22 hours, and at 2 knots it would take 44 hours. So, it’s really not as hard as it seems.

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Weapons Instead of the Cannon

I do have a number of other subjects that are discussed in the book, Creating Places, but the last subject we’re going to cover today in this podcast is the weaponry. If we have decided that there is no gunpowder, guns or cannons in our world, that means that the ships have no firepower. Therefore, there is really no drama to these. So, the question is what can we use as an alternative? Before we talk about that, we should probably understand what the cannon is, how it works and how many people are needed to fire that. So, let’s take a closer look.

The largest cannon typically found on a ship in the Age of Sail is a 36-pounder, which means it fires a cannonball weighing 36 pounds. This cannon took 14 guys to operate. One of these people is a powder boy who goes and gets the gunpowder. This role is eliminated if we don’t have cannons, of course. One thing this might mean is that if we have 100 cannons, then we might have 100 fewer crew because we don’t need the 100 powder boys. Although, I do think that one powder boy could actually work on two different sides of the ship. But you get the basic idea that the number of crew might be reduced when we reduce the number of people needed to operate a weapon that is going to replace our cannon. We may not ever want to mention this, but it’s something to keep in mind.

There’s also a chief gunner who is responsible for priming the cannon for firing, but he’s not actually the one who fires it. But this role is the one who is in charge of the crew. The rest of them are called gunners. There’s a sequence that I describe in the book that I’m not going to go into here, but it basically involves prepping that cannon for firing, actually firing it, and then re-prepping it.

Figure 59 Ballista

Figure 59 Ballista

One issue with a cannon is that there is tremendous recoil, which means that the cannon flies backwards away from the edge of the ship; the hull. Therefore, it has to be forcibly moved back into position by all of these gunners. This is one of the reasons why there are so many crew for these really large cannons.

So, if we don’t have a cannon, then what can we use? I can tell you that I did a lot of research and looking into this, and the only thing that I could really find that really makes since is the ballista, which is basically a giant crossbow. If you use something like a catapult, well, that has a motion that is going to interfere with the rigging because there’s all those ropes holding down those sails. The ballista is one of the few things that has a firing motion that’s similar to a cannon, and you could actually have it inside the hull. Granted, a ship might have to be built slightly different to accommodate one of them, but it still could fit in there and fire through a hole just like a cannon.

The big question here is how much firepower and range does that really have? The Roman ballista could fire over 500 yards and it was made of wood. But if were to make ours out of iron and have metal for the arms, this could give us greater power. We also might have a fictional alloy of greater strength, like adamantine, when that can provide even more power. Such a fictional alloy could produce a range that is greater than the Roman ballista. A 12-pounder cannon could fire 1,500 yards. While the practical range was a lot less, we can certainly claim something similar for our new ballista. Being plausible is the bar we need to get over.

Now, as far as firepower, a ballista is strong enough to fire straight through an armored knight and pin him to a living tree. We’re talking about a real ballista, not the fictional one that we’re going to invent. Obviously, one could blow a hole in the side of a ship, especially when the wood is not of a living tree because a living tree is much stronger wood than any wood that came from a tree. Now, in the book I go into some other details like how many people you might need to fire one of these, but I’m not going to cover that here. I’m also not going to cover how fast a ballista could fire, but I’m just giving you this basic idea of something that you could use to replace a cannon with. Either you can do some more research on your own, or you can pick up a copy of Creating Places and read what I came up with.

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 my album Serenade of Strings called “Shades of Blue.” 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!

10,000 Downloads

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Sep 242018
 

The Art of World Building Podcast has now had over 10,000 downloads of its episodes! Thanks to all of my loyal listeners for making a fun project well worth it.

The podcast is based on the book series and in about two months, I’ll run out of material until I finish volume three, so there may be a slight delay before it resumes.