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.

Podcast Episode 16 – Travel Over Land

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Sep 112018
 

Episode 16: Learn About Travel Over Water

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how to determine travel times for horses, wagons, people and more through various kinds of terrains and what can slow us down, and how.

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 determine travel times for various modes of locomotion, such as walking, wagon, horses, and flying
  • How terrain can modify travel times
  • What makes terrain irrelevant to travel times
  • Why birds (or dragons) can’t always go in a straight line
Coda

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Episode 16 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number sixteen. Today’s topic talks about how to determine travel times for horses, wagons, people and more through various kinds of terrains and what can slow us down, and how. This material and more is discussed in chapter 7 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

Now, in the intro, I mentioned that we are talking about a fantasy setting here, but really, any setting where we don’t have modern technology will do because we’re going to be talking about things like walking, being in a wagon and riding horses that are encumbered to one degree or another by supplies and armor – armor for the horse and knights who are wearing full plate armor, for example. In a typical science fiction setting, we’re not going to have that problem because people are going to be using machines to get somewhere. If people are using machines like those that we have here on Earth, then you don’t really need me to explain how fast a car goes because we all know that. If you have invented a technology, well then, you can pretty much invent how fast that’s actually going to go and therefore, again, I can’t really second guess what speeds you’re going to decide on. So, that’s something that you can basically invent and not have to worry about being realistic. Maybe I shouldn’t put it that way, but what I mean is that no one can call you on it and tell you that your imaginary engine that only exists in your setting goes a different speed because they can’t say that. You’re the one who created it, therefore you are the one who decides how this actually works.

In that sense, you’re kind of on your own. I don’t mean to abandon you there, but it’s actually kind of a good thing because you can make this up and not worry about it too much. On the other hand, if you’ve got a fantasy setting or another kind of setting where we don’t have even modern technology, there are things like horses and wagons, and we should know how fast people can actually go on these. In your science fiction setting, you might still need to understand the stuff that’s in this particular episode because even though your characters might have faster ways of getting around, like a ship, that ship can always crash or break down and, as a result, your characters might be reduced to walking, using a wagon, a horse or similar animal of your own invention.

Now, some of us may not need to worry about this anyway because if we don’t have a map that we’re going to release with our story, and if we don’t intend on doing a lot of stories there, then we may not need to worry about this too much. But it kind of depends on what you say. If you say that it is 250 miles between one place and another and your characters are going to get there by walking, and they’re going to do that in 2 days, that’s not going to happen. A simple way around this problem is to not tell people how many miles or kilometers it is from one place to another. You could do the opposite and tell people how many miles it is, but not tell them how long it takes to get there, but that’s not something that we usually want to do in a story. People want to know how long it’s going to take. Not because they care about how long the journey’s actually going to be, but because the characters are going to be going a certain number of days and we’re probably going to be showing a certain amount of that travel time.

So, if we have a choice between not mentioning the distance or not mentioning the time frame, the distance is the one we’re not going to mention. Now, if we want to be a little more accurate and give people some more sense of realism or that we know what we’re talking about, then we want to start thinking about the combination of them and acknowledging both of those and being accurate. And by being accurate, I don’t mean exactly 26 hours to walk from one place to another. You know, we want to be within a range such as 22 to maybe 28 hours. One of the ways we can use that kind of range is we might want to just suggest that the characters can make it in a leisurely fashion or they might have to really hurry to get there. If we have some understanding of how long it might really take, we can get an understanding of which way we might want to spin that. In other words, this can help us characterize the journey.

If we understand that it could take between 22 and 28 hours to get there, depending on circumstances, and we need them to get there in 22 hours, then we can characterize this as them being in a hurry and they just need to get on with this. Most of us have some difficulty understanding what’s realistic, and that’s the goal of this podcast episode and the corresponding chapter of the Creating Places book.

On that note, I am going to tell you right now there is a lot of detail in charts that I have in the book that I’m not going to cover in this podcast just because it’s kind of hard to describe charts of information. But I’m still going to give you the explanations and give you the understanding of how these things work, and maybe by the end we’ll go through at least one of these charts so you’ll see how it can be applied.

Another note I’m going to make here is that most of the Earth uses the metric system, but I’m going to just talk in miles mostly because that’s what I’m more familiar with and I’m here in the United States. If you pick up a copy of Creating Places, I do have the calculations in both measurements. And one of the things about it is that the amount of time it takes to go doesn’t change. It’s really just which set of numbers you’re using. Understanding the principles is universal. For those of you who do have a map, I would also recommend writing the words “not drawn to scale” on that map just because that gives us a little bit of leeway.

Despite that, when I do a map, even if I put those words on there, I actually intend it to be to scale because I’m going to go ahead and measure stuff and figure out, “Okay, one inch equals twenty-five miles in my world,” and then I’m going to use that as a way of figuring out the relative distances, but I don’t necessarily tell my audience that just because there’s always going to be that guy who’s a smart ass who comes along saying, “Well, you know, I’ve looked and this is not that distance,” or whatever. So, just to avoid that kind of bologna, I sometimes want to put “not drawn to scale” on my maps.

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Travel Modes

The first mode of travel I’m going to talk about is one that’s available to most of us, and that is walking. The basic problem with walking is how long it takes to get from one place to another, and the fact that you’re going to have to carry anything you want to take with you. These days, it’s so much easier to bring a lot of luggage, but back in the day on Earth, people traveled pretty light – if they traveled at all.

And most of that traveling was done by foot to places that were in a relatively short distance of each other. It was fairly common for people to have never traveled outside a small range. This is something that is arguably overlooked in fantasy because most people just don’t have that big of an understanding about what the rest of the world is like, and of course, information in such a setting doesn’t travel nearly as well or accurately as it does today.

What I’m getting at there is that there’s a tremendous amount of ignorance about what’s really going on in the rest of the world, and reliance upon just rumors and what people are saying. And who knows how often people are accurate? Another thing to keep in mind is that people have to be relatively healthy to make such a journey. Most of the people who were doing such traveling were going to be, probably, between the ages of 10 and 40, given that the lifespan wasn’t particularly long back then and, in fact, 40 could be considered rather old to be doing such a thing.

You will have to decide what the fitness level is for the people in your world and how much getting around by foot they really do. I would recommend making a kind of general note in your world building file for this particular setting, just saying that people don’t travel outside 100 miles very often, and when they travel, they generally do so by foot. In such a setting, someone could reasonably claim to have traveled really far and wide without actually having gone terribly far. They could say they’ve been to the other side of the world when they have never gone more than 500 miles away, but even that amount of knowledge is so far in excess of what other people have.

This seems like a good opportunity for someone who’s a skilled liar to acquire a reputation for having traveled farther and to places where they never have been, and then, next thing they know, someone like the king has said, “Hey, I understand you’ve been to this kingdom so far away. We need someone who understands that place and who’s been there, so we’re going to send you.” And that person is realizing, “Oops, I don’t actually know that place. I lied, but I can’t admit it.” So, you know, this is something we can do with our stories.

So, we’re talking about walking – and I do mean walking. Most people are not going to run any measurable distance on a journey unless they are trained warriors or messengers. It’s just not realistic and, of course, it’s kind of hard to run when you’re carrying something like a big backpack on your back. So, that’s also going to be a problem. If you were to create a chart of how long it takes to walk between two locations and how long it takes to run between two locations, well, I wouldn’t actually create that column that says running because they’re not going to be able to do that for very long. I would just assume that someone who is trained to do that kind of thing would be able to do it in maybe a few hours less. Again, we need ballparks here, not dead-on accuracy.

Obstacles

Typically, in our stories, we don’t want travel between two locations to be terribly easy. What I’m thinking of here is things like monsters or nasty species who are out there and who could attack our characters. This could certainly impact our travel time if we are afraid of attracting the attention of any such thing, and we are therefore trying to move quietly. It might also mean that we have to hide for prolonged periods of time. It also likely means that our characters will have weapons. It might not be all of our characters. The typical adventuring party, yes. We’re going to have weapons. But if it’s someone like a merchant who just needs to get from one place to another to do business, not necessarily bringing a wagon of supplies with him, but just maybe going to meet someone that he wants to arrange a business deal with, he may not have weapons, or be good at them, so, of course, he may hire someone to accompany him. But not everyone’s going to have a weapon.

Bear in mind that some places are obviously safer or more dangerous than others. In addition, we might have formal messengers who are acting on the behalf of a king, for example, and we may decide for whatever reason that we have a law where those messengers cannot be molested in any way. And, therefore, they may not actually have a whole lot of weapons with them if that law is reasonably followed. If it’s not followed, then of course they will have it, but that’s going to cause other problems if no one’s really enforcing that law. But I’m just tossing this out as something else to consider. We may have messengers who are able to go without wearing a lot of armor or carrying a lot of weapons because the area’s relatively safe and most people do not interfere with them. These are all factors that can speed up or hinder their ability to travel quickly.

Something else to consider is that in a fantasy setting, or something similar, we often have imaginary species like elves. Well, the elves are roughly the same height as humans, so their ability to travel is not going to be hugely impacted and different from ours just because they might be six inches taller. On the other hand, dwarves are quite a bit shorter than us and their ability to travel quickly might be impacted. It will literally take them more steps to make the same journey. This could not only slow them, but it could have an endurance issue where they just can’t travel as far in a single day.

Whether we use these species or we invent our own, we should pay a little bit of attention to this. Maybe we have a group of four humans who could make the journey in 20 hours, but they’ve got a dwarf with them. Due to this, it could take them 25 hours. And some of them might be chaffing about this as they’re traveling. Either they are constantly giving the dwarf grief that he needs to hurry up, or the dwarf needs to take breaks more often and the others feel fine and they don’t want to deal with this.

If you’re creating a chart of travel times, you may want to have a column for humans versus another species. If everyone is to stick together, the entire group must move at the pace of the slowest person. There is a way around this. We could decide that the dwarves might take longer to make the trip, but they have more endurance and, therefore, they can actually walk longer. If a human would be exhausted in eight hours, well, the dwarf might be able to go ten hours. Since the humans are forced to walk a little bit slower, they might also be able to go ten hours.

So, let’s talk some numbers. How far can the typical human walk reliably, day after day, without needing to rest or be exhausted after they’re done? The answer is 12 miles. We can obviously do more than that in a single day, but we might be exhausted. In fact, we could do so much in a single day that we might be bedridden for a few days after that. So, we do have some leeway here, but we should be aware of the impact that this is going to have on our character if they go beyond that. A Roman legion back in the day could do 14 to 20 miles per day, but they were trained to do this. The average human could do 20 miles a day, but they’re going to be exhausted. Keep these numbers in mind. They’re going to be very useful to you.

Let’s switch gears to riding a horse. Now, you may have another form of animal that’s very similar to that, but we’re just going to talk about horses because that’s what we have here on Earth. Actually, there are other animals, like the donkey or the elephant, but the same principles are going to apply. And if we’ve invented something, it’s going to be similar in that it has a base number of miles per day that it can reasonably travel.

So, with a horse or another animal, we have three basic levels of encumbrance, which is basically light, medium, and heavy. What I mean by encumbrance is how much stuff that horse is actually carrying. As you would imagine, the more you’re carrying, the more it’s going to slow you down and the more it’s going to wear on you and reduce your endurance. That, in turn, is going to affect how many miles a day you can actually travel. This is one reason you might see a traveler portrayed as having a horse with them, but the horse is a pack animal that is carrying all their luggage, basically, and the human is still walking.

For minimal gear, such as spare clothes, maybe a sword, some utensils and some water, this is going to be the lightest load and the person who can travel the farthest in a day on a horse. With a horse, that’s going to be roughly 30 to 40 miles. We’re talking about 30 to 40 miles, day after day, without that horse needing to rest. By contrast, we may have a fully armored knight who is wearing plate armor and has multiple swords, maybe a lance, and it might be a warhorse that he’s riding where that warhorse is also fully armored with plate armor. This is, actually, one reason you might see such a horse not having that much stuff on them when there’s no battle that’s expected, and there is a secondary horse that is being used as a pack animal, where that horse is lugging around all this stuff so that the warhorse is fresh and gets suited up in time for the actual fight. In any case, such a warhorse that is fully armored like that, and is carrying someone else who is also fully armored, is going to have far less endurance and speed.

Then there’s the middle ground between these, and that might be someone who is only wearing chainmail, a shield, and maybe just one sword. And if the horse is armored, it might just be wearing leather.

There are specialized horses that can go over 100 miles per day for several days in a row, and the Pony Express in the United States is one such version of this. However, such a horse was basically incapable of doing much of anything for several days after that. When these riders would reach the next station, they would trade that horse in for a fresh one so that they could continue going at the breakneck speed.

If we’re using horses to pull a wagon, the wagon can travel somewhere between 15 to 25 miles per day when there are no roads. If we want to slow them down, we can just have the wagon get stuck in mud, for example. Roads tend to spend things up, but we may be talking about dirt roads because cobblestones can actually be really brutal on the entire structure of a wagon, causing things to kind of rattle loose.

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Flying

The last mode of travel that we’re going to talk about is flying. We tend to assume that anything flying is going to do so in a straight line, and we even have an expression that something is, say, 20 miles “as straight as the crow flies.” Well, I can tell you that if that crow has to go over a mountain, it’s not going to go in a straight line. It’s probably going to go around the mountain. This will depend on how tall that mountain is. Even real birds struggle to climb over the Himalayas because those are so tall. We have a tendency to depict dragons as being all-powerful, but one way to make them a little more realistic is that they might also have trouble getting over mountains. And, in fact, that’s probably true. If you ignore the impossibility of dragons flying at all, because they’re so big and so heavy, we could still make them have trouble getting over these mountains just because they are so heavy. There’s not that much air. It’s thinner air. It’s going to be that much harder for their wings to propel them over them. A dragon being forced to go around is one way to make them more realistic.

If we don’t like that idea and we want some sort of explanation for how they can just easily go over really tall mountains, we can just decide that they are magical beings and that this aids them in doing so. We may or may not want to explain that to people because some people don’t really like it when there’s an explanation for something. Or, at least, they don’t like it when we explain something implausible. By the way, you may remember from a previous episode that the tallest mountains are those that are on the interior of the continent rather than at the coast.

A hostile territory can also change the flight pattern. Let’s say that dragons are rideable and that two adjacent kingdoms have people who can ride those dragons, and those two kingdoms are hostile to each other. The people in one of those kingdoms might want to fly around the other one rather than over it to get to a destination on the other side. A lone dragon may be afraid to fly through an area that is inhabited by many other dragons, especially if those other dragons are hostile or territorial. As I say that, it occurs to me that most people seem to want to portray dragons as being fearless, but that’s not realistic either.

Now, on Earth, all animals that are capable of carrying a rider are imaginary, but none of them would be affected by the terrain except for these really tall mountains, so they could fly right over roads, forests, rolling hills or deserts without really being impacted by these. If there are nasty things living in a forest, well, this flying animal could just go right over it, at least if it’s going high enough.

Understand Travel by Flight

When we’re trying to figure out how far an invented animal could travel in a day, it’s a good idea to understand how a real Earth animal can do so and start from there. A carrier pigeon goes about 50 miles an hour and can cover up to 700 miles in a day. A hawk can go about 20 to 40 miles an hour during migration. We don’t really care how fast they’re going when they’re diving down at prey because that’s not a travel concern, and that’s what we’re focusing on here.

If we have invented a humanoid species that has wings, bear in mind that it’s not going to be nearly as aerodynamic as a bird. The same is really true of a dragon. Some of them are shown as having four giant legs, not to mention that giant body. This is not really an aerodynamic shape compared to a bird. Without magic, not only is something shaped like a bird going to be faster, but it’s going to have more maneuverability in the air.

And that brings us to something that has almost no maneuverability in the air, and that’s the airship. Now, these are also known by other names like blimps and dirigibles. Some of these might actually exist in a fantasy setting, and they could certainly do so in a science fiction one. We could decide that magic is powering such a vessel to some degree. A large airship like the Hindenburg had a high speed of about 84 miles an hour, but 70 miles per hour was the maximum speed for the smaller ones and most of them typically cruised between 30 and 50 miles per hour. In other words, that cruising speed is what we’re typically going to use. The largest of these could fly as high as 24,000 feet, which means they are, theoretically, able to fly over any mountain range on Earth. However, in reality, they didn’t typically go that high and that would also cause problems such as the payload could reduce how high they can go.

Most of them tended to operate mainly between something like 1,500 and 8,000 feet. Passenger ships were typically for sightseeing and, therefore, they flew much lower, such as under 650 feet. These can typically fly in a straight line, and most of them had a duration of about 24 to 50 hours, but the Hindenburg could actually fly over 100 hours, although that was typically only done when they were crossing an ocean.

By contrast, there is the balloon which just drifts with the wind. They cannot be propelled through the air, and they cannot control their flight path. Or, I should say, they have very limited ability to control the flight path. They also go pretty slow, averaging somewhere between three to six miles per hour. Then, of course, there’s the airplane, but I’m not going to cover that in this episode anymore than I did so in the book because the variety of planes is so extreme that trying to summarize them would not serve a world builder well.

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The Impact of Terrain

We’ve already talked a little bit about obstacles that terrain can cause, but I want to touch on this a little bit more. If our characters need to travel through a forest, then there is an assumption that this forest could slow them down depending on how thick the underbrush is. This makes perfect sense, but one thing that we should consider is that there may be roads through that forest. If there are, then it doesn’t really matter how much underbrush is off to the side of that road because the road itself is mostly clear, unless something like a tree has fallen down over the path and we have wagons.

In a previous episode, we talked about different kinds of forests, such as a savanna, a woodland or just your regular, old, run of the mill forest. Each one of these has a different density of underbrush. There’s a good reason to decide on what each forest is like before deciding on how hard it is to travel through it. On the other hand, something like rolling hills, foothills, and certainly mountains are going to slow everyone, regardless of whether there’s a road or not because you still have to go up and down. Even so, a road could help if it is in decent condition just because it’ll give a smoother surface that is more uniform and less unpredictable.

Now, when it comes to road, they are not like what we have in our modern times when we have asphalt, which is pretty smooth. In a fantasy setting in particular, we are more likely talking about cobblestones or a trail where the road is basically hardpacked earth. Unless it rains, a dirt road can be fairly reliable. However, there is always the issue of wear and tear on such a road because one area of it is going to be more worn down than another, and we’re not talking about an entire mile so much as every 10 feet there could be part of the road that is more depressed and, as a result, water has collected there and there’s more mud. Generally, it’s an unpredictable ride.

Horses also do not prefer hard asphalt or cobblestones. They would rather be walking on hardpacked earth. It’s preferable if there is a certain amount of grass there as well. The reason I mention this is that when we’re trying to figure out how long it would take for someone to get somewhere, or how much endurance they have, if there is an actual cobblestone road, and we’re talking about horses, they may not actually want to be on the road. The riders probably know that maybe they should be off to one side of the road.

So, even if there is a road, maybe it’s not being used because the riders are smarter than that. Any cobblestones, also, are not going to extend very far from a settlement just because it’s very expensive to create these. If you’re drawing a map of your world and you’re using lines to indicate where the roads are, you may want to use a solid line where there is a road, and then a dashed line where it’s only going to be a trail.

By trail, I mean something that’s not paved. Generally, you would only draw that dashed line a short distance, less than 10 miles from the actual settlement. And we’re really only talking cities or the larger towns that are even going to have these roads. Note that I’m really talking about roads that are outside the settlement. Inside the settlement, you might have more cobblestones. I haven’t mentioned this before because we’ve really been talking about travel between two destinations.

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Travel Times

Now, as I mentioned earlier, there is an entire chapter about travel over land in the Creating Places book, and there are a significant number of charts and calculations in there to figure out how long it takes to get from one place to another. What I did there is a typical setup for a fantasy world, so I did something like a riding horse, a lightly encumbered horse and then a heavy war horse, wagons, dragons, things like carrier pigeons and, of course, humans for walking. For each of these, I did some research on what the average travel time is, day after day, without being so fatigued that you can’t go any further the day after that. I used the term “base miles per day,” even if you’re talking about kilometers, to refer to this number.

What we want to do is have that number and then modify that based on terrain. I forget the numbers off the top of my head, but for humans it was base miles per day of 12, and then I would modify that by a number based on roads or heavy forest with no road through that forest, or rolling hills, to see how many miles per day you would actually travel based on that condition changing it. This allows me to approximate how long it might take. Now, in my main world that I’ve been building for 30 years called Llurien, I also calculated for the maps that 1 inch is something like 25 miles, therefore 2 inches is 50 miles and so on. I measured the distance between various locations so I have that information.

Using a spreadsheet I have, I can then calculate how long it takes to get from one place to another based on the terrain. When writing the Creating Places book, I took that spreadsheet and modified it, removing my information from my world and putting in some sample data. I give this spreadsheet away for free to anyone who joins the newsletter. What this means is that you can do the same thing with your setting. You can measure the distance between two places and input some numbers, and the spreadsheet will calculate for you how long it will take to get there by various modes of locomotion based on the terrain.

Now, some of that has a lot of work to it, and if I had it to do over again, I don’t know that I would, so there’s another tab on that spreadsheet where it’s a little bit more generic. What I mean is that instead of having every two points on my map laid out and how long that takes, I just have a kind of general chart that says, “Okay, this number of miles will take this long to do.” The advantage of that chart is that you don’t have to do any calculations at all, and not even really any measuring. You can just eyeball your map. Or, if you don’t have a map, just decide, “Okay, it’s 55 miles between these two places, and the chart says that would take this number of miles if you are traveling by this way.” And then you could add or subtract slightly from that if you don’t agree with my modifiers.

Basically, what I’m telling you is that a lot of this work has already been done for you and you can get it for free. If you really want to understand the nuts and bolts of how all of that works, you can buy the Creating Places book and there is quite a bit of stuff in Chapter 7, I believe, about how all of that works and what my thinking is on all of it.

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 “Understand” 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 15.2 – How to Create Settlements

 news, Podcasts  Comments Off on Podcast Episode 15.2 – How to Create Settlements
Aug 282018
 

Episode 15.2: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how  to create a settlement. This includes the differences between an outpost, village, town, city, and even settlements in space.

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:
  • Which settlement types have the most corruption
  • How travelers might be treated in each
  • What kind of attitudes will be where
  • Where to places your outposts, villages, towns, and cities
  • And other differences between one type and another
Coda

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Episode 15.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number fifteen, part two. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create a settlement. This includes the differences between an outpost, village, town, city, and even settlements in space. . This material and more is discussed in chapter 6 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.

The Outpost

When we’re populating our continent with settlement types, we have a variety of these to choose from, and we’re going to start this podcast by starting with the smallest ones, like an outpost, and work our way up to the megalopolis. The difference between all of them is, of course, physical, and this is determined, partly, by population size, their defenses and the availability of resources. But size, in turn, affects what is available there.

We can call something an outpost, a castle, a tower or something else, but we’re basically talking about a single building or a small group of them that are not big enough to qualify as a village. I’m generalizing throughout this episode, but these outposts may not be permanently staffed with people. This may have consequences, such as the inability to do farm work, depending on how often this place is inhabited.

Naturally, once plants are planted, they need time to grow and, arguably, there’s only so much that needs to happen in the meantime. Now, someone who is a farmer listening to this might think that there’s all sorts of things that need to happen, so pardon my ignorance, but if there are people there every season and they can do something with the plants that have been planted, such as harvesting them or planting them at a different time, then it may be possible for farming to happen. But my point is that if no one is there except for occasionally, such as once a year, then farming is not going to happen.

Farming is not the most exciting topic to most of us, but the point here is that if people cannot grow their food there, they’re going to have to bring it in from somewhere else. In science fiction, with something like a food replicator, this is less of an issue. In a fantasy setting with magic, it might be possible to open a portal somewhere and, therefore, supplies can come in that way. Without these options, people are going to have to bring their food with them. The exception is, of course, anything that they can catch or hunt.

Now, to over simply things, if the inhabitants are basically evil and they do obnoxious things, then they’re not going to have any problem raiding a local village or town for their food supplies. On the other hand, if they’re more benevolent and get along with people, and this is part of a sovereign power and there is a nearby village, town or whatever, then that other settlement might be tasked with providing food as necessary to anyone who is in this outpost. Another option here is that this outpost could be so far away from every other settlement, and it might even be forgotten, that there is no one who is responsible for this place. And that’s true whether we’re talking about supplies or even maintaining this place when no one is occupying it.

If no one is responsible for this place, then it has probably fallen into a certain amount of disrepair. Another option we have is that there might be other things inhabiting it. For example, we could have a monster living there. We could have orcs, goblins or something else in a typical fantasy setting that are making use of this settlement. This might be a known problem so that anyone who is intending to come there and make use of this for more peaceful purposes, for example, they might know that when they arrive they’re going to have to fight and drive out anything that is occupying it.

Some of these considerations are things that we can do to make it seem like this is not just a standing building that’s out there and no one has anything to do with it and it’s not connected to the real world. There are people and things that are going to be using this even if no one is consistently using it. Some of these might have been truly abandoned so that they are a ruin, but other ones might be only temporarily used or maybe only used seasonally. If that’s the case, you’re probably going to need a reason for that. For example, using weather, let’s say that there’s a monsoon season that only takes place for about two months in every year and, during that time, the monsoon causes certain things to happen to the land. As a result, this place should be occupied. In preparation for the upcoming monsoon season, people will probably come here and clear out anything living there and spruce it up a little bit.

Another issue with an outpost is that the population is smaller and, therefore, there are a lot of professions who are not actually present. In fantasy, they might realize they need a carpenter or a blacksmith, but one is not present. In science fiction, they may realize they need someone with technical skills, like an engineer, and this person simply isn’t present, or the one they have is not advanced enough to do what is needed. This is one reason such an outpost could have an alliance with a larger settlement. There’s also likely to be no police force here so that someone is taking it upon themselves to deal with such matters if it comes up.

When creating such an outpost and deciding which professions are not here, try to think of something where the absence of that person is going to cause a problem for your story. An obvious example would be medical personnel. If someone gets hurt, it’s a little too easy for us to think of the perfect healing ability or technology to fully recover that person. It might be better to have them still impaired in some way, but not as bad as when they were first wounded. Try not to make everything too easy for them.

Castles

Arguably, the largest outpost is going to be something like a castle that has no village surrounding it. Castles are defensive in nature and, therefore, they are largely self-sufficient. They will need the farmland nearby, but of course, a certain amount of those supplies are stored within the castle so that they can withstand a siege of a certain duration, such as a month. However, until recently, the ability to preserve food is pretty limited. So, don’t think that you’re going to have a castle where they have like a year’s worth of food and it’s not going to just rot within a month. That’s only likely to happen if magic is involved.

Now, there may be buildings adjacent to this castle that are not big enough to be considered a village, but basically, these are temporary buildings in the sense that they could be destroyed during a siege, and it’s not a huge loss to the people in the castle. They can always rebuild those. So, there’s only going to be so many of them in this scenario we’re talking about where there’s a castle with no real village. There may still be these other buildings around.

One big question for world builders is where do we place a castle? These are typically placed along an important trade route. They may be near a dangerous territory, such as a mountain pass. If there are nasty things like ogres in that mountain range and they are likely to emerge from those mountains in that mountain pass, then somewhere within a mile or two of that pass there’s probably going to be a castle. The idea would be to stop these ogres before they get further into a sovereign power.

This has another advantage to us in that we can decide that we have a character who is something like a knight who has special training in fighting ogres. And how did he acquire that training? Well, he went to live in that castle for a couple years and he specialized in doing this because that’s what goes on there. This castle could be famous for that and any knight who lives there should be required to go there. And this is one way we can fill out the backstory for such a character.

Another thing to consider about castle placement is that, yes, we may have decided that we want one within, say, two miles of this mountain pass, or whatever the danger is, but then the question is, well, where within those two miles do they actually build the castle? Since it is defensive in nature, castles are often built on existing areas of land that have some sort of natural fortification. The easiest of those is land that is simply higher than the surrounding terrain. There might be something like a cliff face that is standing behind this castle so that no one can attack from behind. There could be a body of water there that is large enough to inhibit anyone from attacking the castle from that direction. If there’s a cliff face on one side and a body of water on another, then this place can only be attacked from two different directions.

A final word on castles is that there seems to be an oversight in a lot of fiction where if a castle is located within a sovereign power, but somewhere near the border – and we’re talking like 50 miles – then there is this impression that whoever owns that castle now has always owned it and, therefore, they are the only ones who know the secrets of this castle. Well, the reality is that if this castle has stood for, say, 1,000 years, it has probably changed hands several times, especially if it is near a border like that.

I can tell you this: If I captured your castle, I would do everything I could to learn its secrets. And then if, let’s say 50 years later, my country lost that castle to yours again, well, I would still know those secrets. I mean, I might be dead. But the point is my sovereign power, we would still understand the secrets of your castle. So, we might know how to break into it in some sort of secret avenue that you’ve created, such as hidden tunnels or whatever. So, it’s not going to be the situation where I don’t have any tactical knowledge of your castle. I’m probably going to know a lot about it. So, try not to fall into this trap of portraying your characters in a story as being the only ones who understand the secrets of this castle. That’s probably not true.

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Villages

Let’s talk villages. When we are going to create a settlement type, we often are trying to figure out, “Should it be a village, a city, a town or what?” If we have a map and there’s an area that we consider to be somewhat out of the way, but potentially useful, this is where we might choose to place a village. Why a village? Well, because we might reason that this place has some things to offer, but not so many that it’s going to attract a lot of people. Generally, you probably want to place your villages on a map after you have already decided where the major cities are. Actually, to be honest, I don’t even place villages on my maps unless I’m doing something really regional. The reason is that there would be so many villages that it would completely consume my map. That’s all you would see.

Even so, this basic idea of an out-of-the-way village is one to keep in mind. Such a place is probably less visited and, therefore, they might be less likely to be welcoming of strangers or travelers, and this is something to keep in mind if your characters are going to arrive there. They are more likely to be viewed with suspicion.

Another location for a village is along an important trade route, but not at a critical part of that trade route. At a more critical location, such as a place where multiple roads are coming together from different directions, that might be a major trading point that increasingly builds up to a town and then, later, a city.

So, if we have something like a city at a major crossroads, then where would the villages be? Well, they’re going to be along those trade routes, but at not such a critical place. By along the trade route, I don’t mean that they’re necessarily right on the road.  They could be several miles off to one side. They are, once again, going to be somewhat remote, but not as remote as one that is off in the middle of nowhere. They, therefore, might be used to travelers, especially if it actually is built along the road and it can be seen from there. Such a place is more likely welcoming of strangers.

In the Creating Places book, I have an entire chapter about travel on land, and one of the things you learn in that chapter is how long it takes to get from one place to another by various means of locomotion. The reason I mention this is that if two locations are within a day’s travel, there’s probably not going to be a village along the way. On the other hand, if it would take a week to go from one major location to another, then there’s probably going to be something like a village or a town in between. The reason for this is not only the distance that needs to be traveled, and the fact that a certain number of people are going to be living there, but the reality is that people need somewhere to stay overnight when they are traveling by land. A village may spring up for exactly that purpose. Now, originally, it’s probably just something like a campsite that has a convenient water access. In time, maybe someone built an inn or a tavern there and this becomes the focal point of a village that slowly grows out from around it.

For example, if wagons are routinely going through there, well, wagons breakdown. We might need a carpenter and a blacksmith. So, these might be two people who live in that town. Well, we’re talking villages, but you know what I mean. This sort of point of origin is a good idea to keep in mind because it can affect the attitude of our settlement, such as whether they are welcoming of strangers or they don’t want them to come there. There are other ways that the attitude of such a place can be affected by this. An out-of-the-way village might be one where everyone shares a similar religious belief, for example. Differences might be less tolerated.

By contrast, a village with a more transient population of people coming and going through there is going to be more tolerant of differences. If I’m a traveler and I’m about to approach a village that’s in an out-of-the-way location, maybe I’m smart enough to hide something like a talisman of the god that I worship because I don’t know if that is viewed favorably there. On the other hand, if I’m approaching a village that is right along a major trade route, I might reasonably assume that they are more tolerant and not do such a thing.

Another thing to keep in mind with all villages is that they are less likely to have a dedicated, official protector like a sheriff. The community might be small enough to not need someone who does that on a full-time basis. The reason we might care about this is that there’s probably someone in that settlement who is a better fighter than everyone else, such as an expert swordsman, for example, and that person is the one who is looked to by the rest of the villagers for guidance or, at least, interference when there’s some sort of fight that breaks out. Or if villagers are being approached by travelers who are coming there, this might be the person who someone goes running to get and says, “Hey, there are some people coming up on horses,” for example. “Why don’t you come up in a show of strength and make it clear, ‘Hey, we’re not just defenseless villagers. We’ve got a guy here with a sword and he looks like he knows what he’s doing.’”

So, this person might be seen as an unofficial protector of the town. The same can be done in science fiction where a character can just appear to have a lot of confidence with the way they wear their guns or they’ve got some sort of rifle slung over their back. A village is also unlikely to have something like a wall surrounding it. Or, if they do, it’s probably going to be made of something like wood. That may be less true in science fiction because they are more likely to have technology in general, and it’s relatively easy to have something like a wall built if you have things like spaceships. And, of course, that wall is not going to be made of wood.

While a village may have characters like a carpenter or a blacksmith or an engineer in science fiction, they may not have these individuals. So, once again, we might decide who is here and who is not. The big reason I mention this is that, let’s say it’s fantasy and there used to be a blacksmith who lived here, but he recently died six months ago. Well, now things might be falling into disrepair a little bit and one of our visiting characters might have that skill and be able to barter that. In other words, maybe this character doesn’t have money to pay for food and lodging, but they have the skill and they might have to stay for a week doing a bunch of repairs. And the same thing can be done in science fiction with an engineer.

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Towns

Let’s talk about towns. Unlike with the villages, a town is likely to have more than one of something, such as a blacksmith, a carpenter or an engineer. This means that not only is the population not going to be deprived of such expertise, but there is competition for these people’s skills and the business. A side effect of competition is that everyone raises their game. The result is that everyone here is likely to have a superior skillset compared to the same people who are from a village. Our traveling characters are also less likely to get away with bartering their services for fare and lodging. In other words, they’re going to need money. If they don’t have any, this might be one reason why they visit villages instead of towns.

Another issue with a town is that there tends to be more diversity of the population, and this includes races and species. Depending on which ones you have invented or included in your settlement, this might also affect the amount of crime that takes place here. For that reason, some species might not be welcome here. Or, if they are, they are watched very carefully, or there might be special rules just for them. These rules can include a curfew or not being allowed to carry weapons. There is also almost certainly a dedicated police force. Both of these promote more rules and laws. That, in turn, means there’s probably a jail.

Now, there are likely to be fewer laws here than a city, which means that there could be more corruption. We could have businesses more likely to cheat customers, for example. Sometimes corrupt officials hold considerable power, and this kind of reminds me a lot of the Hollywood westerns that we’ve seen. A stereotype of those is a traveling character who arrives somewhere and runs afoul of the corrupt sheriff who is intimidating the town.

Taxes are almost a certainty in a town. While that’s not a glamorous subject, one of the things that comes with taxes is the ability for the town itself to improve the town. This could mean better roads and better fortifications. Those police we were just talking about need to be paid. We don’t really need to worry about what taxes are used for, but the basic idea is that the town tends to be better quality precisely because of the taxes. There’s also a kind of infrastructure there in the sense that there might be a mayor and he needs to make a living. Although, in some places, he may not be officially paid.

Generally, things are more official and formal here. Naturally, due to the population size, there’s going to be a lot more farming going on nearby. In a less civilized world, like in a fantasy, the farmers may have a lot of prominence. Whereas, in our modern world, we tend to take that for granted because we have such an abundance of food. Try to keep this in mind if you’re writing such a scenario because the farmers have a lot of power.

In addition to the mayor, there might also be a formal town counsel. These people might be appointed, but they might also just be people who have influence in some way, such as those farmers we were just talking about. We could have a wizard, a blacksmith, an engineer or whoever we think is important to this town’s functioning.

A town often has one or more families that have been there a really long time, and they are considered to be very influential and, in fact, the town might actually bear one of their names. In order to ease the management of a town, it is sometimes divided up into wards, with each one of those neighborhoods having someone who is ostensibly in charge of that ward. Those individuals are the ones who can be voted on and voted into the town counsel to represent the interests of that ward.

Another issue with a town is that there may be zoning. What I mean is residential, commercial and industrial areas. If you’ve ever played a game like Sim City, you know that it’s not a good idea to have your industry right next to your homes because the residents start complaining about the smell, for example. When thinking about laying out the interior of a town, you may want to decide where everything is located.

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Cities

Let’s talk about cities. In a place with this many people, there tends to be a lot of formalities such as laws, regulations, police, a legal system, mayors, a voting system in a free society, zoning and even procedures like how to evacuate or handle certain kinds of emergencies. As world builders, we don’t typically have to worry about a lot of this and we can simply assume it’s there.

However, one area this comes up for is when these laws don’t take into account certain minorities who don’t have the rights that other people have. This is something we definitely might want to consider because it could impact the lives of our characters whether they live in this city or whether they are just visiting. With visiting characters, some of them may be allowed to carry their weapons while the others have theirs confiscated. Not only can this be based on race or gender, but it can also be based on where this person is from because that other country or city might be a traditional enemy of this one.

Try to think of some restrictions that you can impose on some of your characters, but maybe not all of them. Someone who lives here but is not treated equally might see this as a reason to leave this place for somewhere else. This is one reason why immigrants come to the United States, which is seen as a place where this kind of diversity is more tolerated, even if it is so with limitations. The concept of equality for all is a driving force behind that kind of immigration, even if the reality fails to live up to that.

Cities offer the best and worst of everything because there’s a lot of competition here, but there’s also a lot of crime. It’s going to depend on the settlement, of course, but there’s a lot of leeway for people to get away with things. There can be a big difference between how life is for the rich and for the poor.

There’s definitely going to be zoning where industrial areas are separated from commercial and residential. It can be tempting to think that the rich people live in one area and that the poor people live in another, but there are certainly places on earth where everyone is mixed up together. So, we have this as an option.

Cities are certainly going to have some of the best fortifications and the military to staff them. It can be assumed that something like a knight from such a place is better trained and has more experience than someone from a town or a village. There is snobbery in all things, so this can also influence the attitude of such a character. Maybe when this guy is traveling and he comes into a village and there’s a knight there, he is looking down on that person as being inferior when that person might actually have been from a city or had extensive experience there and is simply living in the village now and is, actually, much more capable than is assumed. This is one of many ways we can add dynamics to our characters.

These military people might have inns, taverns and equipment shops that cater to their needs as well. There may even be a certain amount of culture associated with them because there are so many of them.

There tends to be more anonymity in a city, but that will depend on the technology level. In a science fiction setting, we could easily have people be issued some sort of card that is needed to access every single doorway or something else so that people always know where they are. Without that kind of technology, people are much less likely to know where you are coming and going from because there’s simply no way to track you and there are too many people for anyone to be paying too much attention to that.

This is in stark contrast to a village where everyone might know your business, whether you want them to or not. This freedom allows you to do things that might be considered inappropriate. So, let’s say that you have a sexual orientation that you don’t want anyone to know about. Well, in a village, people are going to figure that out pretty quickly. But in something like a city, it’s going to be easier for you to carry on with the kind of relationship that you want, and possibly keep that a secret.

We haven’t talked about tolerance since we were talking about villages, but in a city there’s likely to be much more tolerance in general of different viewpoints. This does not mean that there’s not going to be prejudice. What I mean is that there are going to be individuals who still have a nasty attitude about some other belief system, but all of these belief systems are still there as one giant melting pot where people are mixed together. By contrast, in a village, the people who have some opposing view might actually be shunned out of that village altogether.

In a city, opposing groups with different viewpoints can still be there, but they may not have much interaction with each other. But then, some of them may. So, you’ll have a mix of tolerances. Generally, people in a city are exposed to many more ideas that they may not agree with and which may change their opinion about things over time. A generalization we can make about people on earth is that those in cities tend to be exposed to more viewpoints and have more tolerance, while those in more rural areas tend to have a more homogenous viewpoint, and the people who live there are more uniform in the way they think about things. The reasons for that could be complicated, but one of them is just exposure, or lack thereof, to opposing ideas.

The main difference between a city and a megalopolis is simply the size. In our modern world, we have cities that have very large suburbs around them where those suburbs are actually towns. Those towns are often right up against another town that is next to another city so that all of it almost seems like one giant place. Each one of these will still have its own name whether it gets absorbed into a larger megalopolis or not. One distinction I’m making there is that we might effectively have a megalopolis, but we don’t actually give it a name. It’s still just going to be called a city, even though it’s right up against other cities. Functionally speaking, they may form a megalopolis, but no one’s probably going to call it that. Lastly, another word for megalopolis is metropolis.

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In Space
Figure 60 Rotating Space Station

Figure 60 Rotating Space Station

Let’s talk about settlements in space. There’s what I’m calling a “vacuum settlement.” This means any settlement that is surrounded by a vacuum instead of breathable air. This reality will completely dominate how life is in that settlement. Since such a settlement doesn’t happen naturally, we are completely fabricating how that is laid out. We can pretty much do whatever we want – within reason, of course. These can range in size from a village to a city, and many of the issues we’ve already talked about will apply to these.

Naturally, one of the most important aspects of such a place is that no one interferes with the oxygen supply. This could literally kill everyone. And, as you might imagine, there’s probably going to be significant technology preventing such a thing from happening. This means not only redundant systems, but significant military who are protecting these. Such a place is likely to have significant rules for even something as simple as opening a door from one place to another could lead to depressurization.

As you can imagine, most people living there probably have a significant understanding of the risks. They almost certainly have an interest in certain kinds of laws being obeyed; those laws being the ones about that kind of interference. Even someone who considers themselves a rebel is unlikely to be willing to go that far with their rebelliousness that they interfere with such a thing. Visitors might also be closely watched and monitored to make sure that their access to one thing or another is tightly controlled.

What’s Not Covered

Now, before we wrap up with how to start creating a settlement, I want to talk about a few things that are not going to be included in this episode. These are additional subjects that are included in Creating Places in Chapter 6.

One of these is the defense and offense of such places, such as the fortifications like archery towers, cleared areas, castles and, of course, the wall. There’s also a discussion of what kind of armed forces are really located here, from the local guards to cavalry, knights, flying forces and beyond. Then there’s the importance of how our settlement is known to others, and from within its own population. This includes not only reputation, but its colors, symbols, slogans and even the products that they produce. All of these can make our settlements more interesting and believable.

Where to Start

Finally, let’s talk about where to start with inventing a settlement. It’s a good idea to start with a settlement’s location because this is going to affect so many things about it. This includes not only its layout, but the climate and, therefore, how people dress, for example, and even the plant life and animals that are nearby. The neighbors are also important to decide soon, and this includes things like the terrain, such as a forest or mountain because that’s going to impact how easy it is to reach this place and what sort of products and livelihood they can create for themselves.

We should also determine where it is within a sovereign power, such as how close to the border or further in because that’s also going to impact the fortifications. The most important of these neighbors is, arguably, any neighbor that affects the number of species and kind of species that are located here. The size and population is a major area to consider after you’ve decided where this settlement is located. This will determine much about what life is like here, including the society’s worldview. The smaller areas that we can worry about later are things like its reputation, how well it is known and things like the symbols and slogans. These are not things that are going to have a major impact on our use of this place, but just add some color and depth.

And, as with everything with world building, the most important thing is to start with something where you have a solid idea. As long as you’ve got one, just go with it and it doesn’t really matter what order you do these things in. It’s just really a question of whether you have an idea or not. And if you don’t, then I recommend doing the order we’ve talked about here. But if you have an idea, go ahead and work on that first, exhaust it, do what you can, invent everything you can think of and then worry about some of these other things.

Closing

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Podcast Episode 15.1 – How to Create Settlements

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Aug 142018
 

Episode 15.1: Learn How to Create Settlements

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how to create a settlement. Learn how location, terrain, water supply, Old Town, neighbor settlements, zoning, and secrets can make for a more interesting setting for your 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:
  • How to determine where the water supply is
  • Choose what Old Town is like
  • How terrain can impact city layout and fortifications
  • How neighboring settlements and sovereign powers impact society
  • Why nearby terrain can affect the population and who lives in your settlement
Coda

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Episode 15.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number fifteen, part 1. Today’s topic is how to create a settlement. This includes the impact of location, population, zoning, its history, and any secrets it holds. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6 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.

Location

One of the most important aspects of any settlement is its location because that determines so many things about what happens there. This includes the reason it exists on that spot, to what it has to defend itself against, the climate, species, culture and a lot more. So, we’re going to start with this. First, we’ll talk about climate, and we’ll only touch on this briefly because we already did a whole episode about this earlier. Today, we just want to talk about how this affects our settlement.

Climate is a consistent weather pattern over a long period of time, and it affects the amount of rainfall, the temperature and the air quality. Since the climate generally stays the same in a place for thousands of years, any city built there is going to experience that climate for a long time and adjust to that climate. This not only affects the people there and the culture that develops, but it also affects the plants and the animals who live there, or nearby, and that, in turn, affects the livestock and anything else that’s available for the people who live there.

A simple example of this is that some climates cause a desert to form and other climates cause a rainforest, and these are basically the opposite of each other when it comes to rain and how much livestock and plant life is found there. That’s an especially dramatic example, but less dramatic versions of this happen, such as one area of the United States is known for being really humid and hot, but another area of it is known for being really hot, but dry. And the result is that people think of these places different ways, even if they don’t live there, just because they’ve heard of what life is like there. They hear about it because it’s important to the people who live there and it has affected the way they live their lives. For example, in the hot and humid area, people probably don’t spend quite as much time outdoors during the summer. We could think of many examples of this, but you can really just base things on analogues. Something from Earth.

One of the great things about deciding our climate is that if we have a map, for example, and we’ve already decided where our city is located, our map may have already basically told us what the climate there is. In that sense, the work is done for us. Now, if we don’t have a map, we may want to choose a city that we are familiar with, or at least one that we’ve heard about, and choose to use that as the basis as far as the climate goes, and then research that city on the internet and see what life is like there as far as how that climate affects people.

When we first go to create a settlement, all we really need is a high-level idea of what it is like, such as humid or dry, rainy or arid, hot or cold. More details than that are something that we can add later. Also bear in mind that the terrain can affect the climate because if we have a city that is very high in the mountains, for example, the climate is going to be different there than we might expect, given the latitude where it is found. This is also something that we discussed in a previous episode.

Terrain

This is a good segue into talking about terrain, so let’s focus on that. If our settlement is located in the mountains, those mountains are going to inhibit travel to and from that settlement over land. If we have a science fiction setting, or even a fantasy one where there are a lot of giant birds of prey or dragons or something similar that flies, some of this could be mitigated. Keep this level of technology in mind when you are laying out a mountainous settlement because, depending on how much ability there is to go over walls and over the terrain, this will impact the kind of fortifications that they have, and that’s something that we’ll talk a little more about in the next episode.

What you want to do in the beginning is get a feel for how well-visited is this place? Do they seldom see travelers, or are travelers coming there all the time anyway? Decide how easy it is for people to get there. Also consider how technology has changed. It might be that in the past there wasn’t technology that allowed people to easily get there, and, as a result, there weren’t too much in the way of walls, but now it is easy for people to get there via the air and there still aren’t too many reasons for walls. But maybe they have other fortifications instead.

Part of what we’re getting at here is that there might be fortifications that are old and in disrepair because they no longer apply, such as a wall that used to keep people out, but now technology has rendered that well meaningless, but no one took the time to knock it down, so it’s still standing. Maybe sections of it have fallen down and no one has done anything about it. This is the kind of thing that we can use to characterize the age of a place as people are arriving, or if we’re just setting our entire story there.

Another thing to keep in mind with mountains is that this will really limit where any farmland is, and might inhibit it altogether, depending on how rugged that terrain is. Keep in mind that mountain ranges typically have valleys and those may be wide enough and fertile enough for farmland. However, this does restrict them to that particular valley and, as a result, there is some vulnerability to someone burning down the crops or just predators knowing that our species are there and they can be attacked because they’re working the land at times.

A mountainous settlement is also a likely one to have a certain amount of involvement in mining. This is going to help us think of some potential products that they might have in the form of gemstones or other materials that they’ve pulled out of the earth. The settlement might even be rich because of this. Maybe they have big walls after all.

Bear in mind that any settlement might be adjacent to more than one terrain. So, for example, with a desert city, we don’t have to decide that it’s entirely in the desert. We could just have the desert be off to one side. Now, there’s not going to be a lush forest right next to a desert because, if you’ve been paying attention to these episodes, that’s not typically the way climate works unless something like magic is at play.

We could also use technology because, certainly in our modern times, we have turned entire deserts into something that’s got enough vegetation for people to live. In a futuristic society, we could certainly do the same. The real point I’m getting at here is that by having more than one terrain type near our settlement, we can make use of more than one. This gives us the best of both worlds, and potentially the worst of both worlds. You may recall from a previous episode that not all deserts are actually sandy. Many of them are hard. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we have a sandy desert to one side. It’s unlikely that an army is going to choose to approach from that direction. On the other hand, if there are grasslands in the other direction, that’s probably the way they’re going to come. This may have an impact on the internal layout of our city, not to mention the fortifications.

Another terrain type that might be near, but not surrounding, our settlement is a forest. Fortifications is one of the basic reasons for this because a forest can hide an approaching army. It’s fairly standard for the inhabitants of that settlement to cut down the trees within a certain distance around the settlement, such as a mile or two. So, even if our settlement is inside the forest completely, there’s still going to be that cleared area around it. But we may want to just decide to put our settlement adjacent to that forest.

One great thing about a forest is that the trees and the other plants there provide a great number of products that our people are going to use for one thing or another, such as building ships. There’s more mundane stuff that they can do with it, but I think the presence of wooden ships in a fantasy setting is something that’s pretty important. This can greatly expand how far people can go, but the absence of those will also restrict them from going anywhere. This is something to keep in mind. Just as with mountains, we need to figure out how often is this place visited, or how often do people travel away from here to other places? We need to do this with other settlements, whether or not they have a forest and access to water, whether that’s the ocean, a lake or even a river.

A water source is another thing that’s really important, not only for the ability to drink it, but because of these travel opportunities. Anywhere that’s located on a coastline, such as the ocean or a large lake, is going to be visited and also have the ability to travel, assuming that there is a forest nearby for them to create ships from.

Some of these settlements near the water might also have other dangers that they face, just like in the mountains we might have something that’s living underground and that comes out from time to time. Near a large water source, we could, of course, have sea monsters. We may have also chosen to invent species that are water-dwelling and which are sentient, and therefore can interact with our species. So, by knowing that these exist and deciding where our settlement is, we can decide whether that species is well-known there or not.

Bear in mind that there are underground rivers, and these could allow a species that is water-dwelling to get much further inland than we might expect them to. There are a lot of products that come from the sea, and I’m not just talking about food. This could be anything like candle wax from whales, to any product that we invent.

Another subject we should think about is whether the terrain is impacting the layout of our city. This is something that’s certainly going to happen in the mountains because if there’s a giant area of hard ground, we just aren’t going to be building anything on that. We may want to decide that there’s a large outcropping of rock that’s in the middle of a settlement, and that it acts as some sort of gathering place for people. It could also be a convenient lookout point when people climb it, or it could also be used for games such as those by adolescents.

Higher areas are typically used for defense, such as a castle being built there. Sometimes this is also where wealthier people will live. Water is generally considered to be more advantageous than not having the water. And I don’t mean on the grand scale, but just that the wealthy people will be those more likely to live near a river, for example. This isn’t always true because it will depend on the river and other factors, but it’s something to keep in mind as an option. On the other hand, the port area of a town is going to be a little more rundown in many cases, but it will depend on the settlement and what you want to do. In a fantasy world, it is often shown that a port is somewhere where nefarious people are more likely to gather, such as pickpockets and those without a job. On the other hand, in certain modern ports here on Earth, we have very nice ports where that have been turned into a tourist destination.

Bear in mind that something like a river can act like a natural mote, preventing or inhibiting an army from attacking from that side. And, obviously, a big body of water is going to have the same affect, unless, of course, they are attacking from wooden ships. Well, in a fantasy setting, they will be wooden. But, of course, they don’t have to be. Generally, you want to figure out how the terrain has impacted the layout of your city. Where’s the river or lake? Where are the higher areas? Is there something that must be built around, and what is it? Is it a swampy area or is it a giant boulder? Variation is good.

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Water Supply and Old Town

We should also consider where the water supply is and remember that seawater cannot be consumed by humans, at least, because the salt will make us sick. Our basic options are a river, lake, spring or well. In a more modern or futuristic society, we could have giant stations that are basically turning seawater into something that is drinkable, because that is possible, even today. That process is called desalinization. When laying out our settlement, it helps to know where that water supply is. If we have a settlement that is a large town, or even bigger, such as a city, then there’s probably going to be an area that’s called “Old Town,” or something similar. Old Town is definitely going to have its own water source. After all, that’s where people started building this place.

Just like we were talking about with ports, Old Town can sometimes be a rundown area that is not much traveled, or it can be a tourist destination that is well kept. As you build many settlements across one world or multiple worlds, try to vary this. Regardless, Old Town tends to be a place with narrower streets and where the buildings are kind of crowded in close upon each other. So, decide if there is an Old Town, where it’s located, and what it’s like.

The Neighbors

We should also think about who the neighbors are. This can include sovereign powers. After all, our settlement is either deep within a sovereign power, near the edge of its power, or in a land without a power ruling it. If it’s deep within a territory, it’s not going to be reached very quickly by an invading army. This means it might enjoy more peace of mind, and therefore have less expectations of war. In fact, the population there could be rather skeptical of ever being attacked. They might be complacent. This does depend on the strength of the sovereign power to whom it belongs, because if it’s a new power or one that is actually failing in some way due to something like famine, or just poor government, then that kind of weakness can invite another sovereign power to attack. It’s also possible that the settlement is now deep within a territory, but that sometime in its past it was closer towards the border. This is another scenario where it might have walls for fortifications, but those are not necessarily being kept that well anymore. Maybe the guards who are on those walls are just doing a kind of duty where they don’t expect any actual fighting.

If the settlement has been near the border of a sovereign power, that means it might have been attacked repeatedly over the coarse of it’s history by another sovereign power’s cities. If it’s currently near a border, then that means it’s probably built up a little bit more when it comes to military and fortifications. And it might even have people who specialize in certain kinds of fighting, such as if we have a kind of species that is known to live in that neighboring sovereign power, we might have people who are good at fighting that.

During either times of peace or war, it’s possible that people could come to this settlement for training, and that could be something that we make our settlement known for. This is one way in which the neighbors can help build up our city. So, one of the things we need to decide is where inside our sovereign power is this settlement, and how long has it been there? If it was part of another sovereign power, and that has a very different culture, we can also then figure out what cultural elements from that other sovereign power have impacted this one.

Another option we have is a city or city state that is not part of a sovereign power. Some such places might be very strong, but others could be very vulnerable. Decide if this place needs allies and whether or not it has them, and from where. That will determine how quickly someone can come to their aid. It’s also possible that one of its allied cities is the one that has been captured recently by another sovereign power, and now cannot come to its aid. Many places will have been conquered at some time in their past, so it helps to figure out how long ago this last happened, how often it happens, and how did it end? Is this settlement recently captured or was that a long time ago and it’s at peace with being part of whatever sovereign power it now is part of? Or is this settlement a little bit restless as far as the population, and they would like to have their freedom back but they don’t think there is anything they can do? Maybe everyone is just biding their time.

For any settlement that’s within a sovereign power, we can generally assume that other settlements within that sovereign power are basically friendly toward it. However, this may not be true if they were once adversaries or at least recently so, especially if there’s another nearby settlement that has only been recently conquered by the sovereign power to which our current settlement belongs. One thing I’m getting at here is trying to create a little bit of history for our settlement. We don’t have to explain history, but we can show it in various ways, such as architecture that came from another sovereign power that is no longer ruling this place.

Our characters may be well aware of such a thing, and we could have them walking down the street and see some building that they despise because of that association. Maybe they think about this as they’re going along. We’ll only want to do this if it impacts the scene that we’re telling, but there are ways to do that. For example, maybe he’s about to meet another character who is from that sovereign power.

I’ve already mentioned the idea that there could be skilled warriors here due to threats that this settlement faces, but we’re also going to have skilled laborers who have one talent or another based on the kind of terrain that is nearby. For example, if the right kinds of trees are nearby, we’re going to have people who are good at building ships. If there are mountains here, we might have a mining colony and we could have people who are good at carving those stones.

Think about who is here, and why. And one of the reasons we can do this is that our characters are going to have some sort of history or a family business that they have originated from. Even if our character is now an adventurer, for example, and he’s going to go out and do whatever adventurers do, his family probably has a business that they run, or that they’re at least part of. What is this guy trying to get away from? What talents does he have that he almost wishes he didn’t have, but he was forced to acquire those by his parents? You can see there are ways to tie all of this together.

We should also decide on a very important set of skills, and that is who are the warriors, healers, wizards and something like fighter pilots, and do they come from the settlement or not?

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Zoning

Another concept to be aware of is that of zoning. What this means is that residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural zones are often created in settlements to separate things. If you’ve ever played a game like Sim City, you have some familiarity with this because if you create something like the garbage dump that’s needed to take care of the city’s waste and you put it too close to the residential areas, the game will start telling you your characters are unhappy in that residential area because they just smell the garbage all the time. So, you’re supposed to try to layout your city so that there’s not an overlap of certain things. This is a simple subject, but it’s something that’s sort of advanced in the sense that you don’t really need to worry about this too much unless you are taking the time to draw a map of your settlement.

Now, if you would like to sketch something that no one sees just so you can get a better sense of how things are laid out, this is a good idea. We’ve already talked about several areas to be aware of, such as where Old Town is, where the source of water is, if there’s a river or something, if there is an area that has high ground, or if there’s some sort of obstacle like a giant outcropping of rock.

Another area to consider is where are these different zones? When I do this, I first think about where I would like people to live, and then I put the commercial stuff nearby and I put the industrial stuff just a little bit further away. It’s tempting to say that the wealthy people are in one area and the poorer people are in another, and that does happen, but sometimes they are mixed together. This is arguably better for conflict. The upper class might also be farther upstream because all the refuse will flow downstream towards the poorer people. This is one of the things that wealth gets you.

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Secrets

We should also consider what secrets there might be in this town and if those have anything to do with this physical location. We can also decide what sort of secrets our settlement has. Some of these might be based on its location. Secrets could be incorporated into this city layout that we’ve been talking about. For example, maybe there are catacombs or some other supernatural phenomenon that’s underground and a building has built over that location. And over the centuries, most people have forgotten that this is there, or maybe they never knew at all. If we have gods or world figures or even the undead, we can create these places that have some sort of significance.

Secrets can also be a little bit more mundane, such as some sort of nasty group that is operating out of this settlement. What comes to mind on Earth is terrorist groups. Naturally, these groups don’t invent a settlement. They find one that is welcoming in some way, or at least allows them to operate. Consider what sort of secrets there might be here, and if you were to read Creating Places, Chapter 11 is called “Creating Places of Interest,” and it has a lot more ideas.

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Closing

That’s going to be all for today’s episode. In our next one, we will continue our discussion on how to create a settlement and we’re going to tackle a really big subject. That’s going to be the differences between a village, town, city and megalopolis. Each of these has their own consideration and things that are possible there and things which are not. We’ll also talk a little more in detail about the defense of these places, how a settlement is known, and how many places you should create.

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Podcast Episode 14.3 – How to Create Sovereign Powers

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Jul 312018
 

Episode 14.3: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create sovereign power. Learn how population, location, climate, symbols, and tensions between a sovereign power and others can all enrich your kingdom, republic, dictatorship, and more. Why have them all be the same when little details can bring out the vividness?

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 determine what the population consists of regarding species/races, and how terrain impacts this
  • How to create variety in your population
  • How a sovereign power’s relationships with others or people within it can create more contrast
  • How to create symbols, colors, and flags to identify a sovereign power
  • How location impacts the way a power develops, and how you can leverage this to create believable details
  • How a power’s reputation is earned, changed, and viewed, and why characters will pay attention to this when traveling
  • Where to start with creating a sovereign power
Coda

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Episode 14.3 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number fourteen, part three. Today’s topic is how population, location, climate, symbols, and tensions between a sovereign power and others can all enrich your kingdom, republic, dictatorship, and more. Why have them all be the same when little details can bring out the vividness? 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.

The Population

The first thing I want to talk about is the population of our sovereign power. After all, the people and our characters are the whole point. Something that’s fairly obvious once it’s been pointed out is that we should consider which species are likely to live there based on the land features that are available. For example, in fantasy, dwarves are typically living either in mountains or rolling hills. If our sovereign power is located almost exclusively on a grassland, then there probably aren’t going to be too many dwarves who call this their home. The same would be true of elves if we accept the idea that they prefer the forests.

On the other hand, if the sovereign power includes a territory that does have a forest or a mountain range or rolling hills, then the species that live in those are going to be more concentrated in that area. All of this is something to keep in mind when we are laying out a sovereign power. The great thing about it is that it’s a built in way of deciding where people are. The work is virtually done for us by the geography. All we need to say in our files of information or in our stories is that there is a certain type of terrain in a given area and, therefore, the dwarves, the elves or whoever are more commonly found in that area.

Let’s take a specific example of this. Let’s say that on the eastern side of this sovereign power that is mostly a plain, a grassland, there is a forest. But then, farther to the west, several hundred miles away, there is another, much larger forest where there are also elves. We might have a human character encounter an elf and wonder out loud, or even just in their own mind, “Okay, which forest is this guy from? Is he someone from my own sovereign power, or is he someone from that other forest that is several hundred miles away?”

One way he might be able to tell is if elves are accepted as a member of the sovereign power, then the elf might be wearing a symbol of some kind that identifies him as belonging to this sovereign power, especially if those other elves that are farther away are considered enemies. After all, he wouldn’t want to be mistaken for one of them. Then again, those elves that are farther away, and who are enemies, might purposefully figure out how to wear clothing that looks like this, and then infiltrate this sovereign power doing this, by pretending they are the elves that are from that area.

This is a pretty simple and effective way to give an impression of more dynamics to our setting. It also makes it easier to not have everywhere be just the same and some sort of generic place. When we are laying out a sovereign power, we might want to purposely include parts of different land features inside the borders of that sovereign power. Of course, one issue that could result is that there might be a forest that the elves believe belongs to them, but then part of that forest is seen as part of one sovereign power, and then another part of it is seen as belonging to yet another sovereign power, so that we sort of have three different groups who are claiming areas of this land.

Hopefully you remember from the previous episodes that if more than one sovereign power is claiming they are sovereign over a territory, that means that neither of them really are until one of them falls. So, all we really need to do here is decide that a land feature has a given species living in it and that another sovereign power has claimed some of that area as its own. If this other sovereign power has completely taken over or surrounded that land feature, then maybe those living in it consider themselves part of that sovereign power. But, either way, there could certainly still be some hostility going on here.

Another issue to bear in mind is that monster or other undesirable animals could be inside that land feature. As a result, even though that area has supposedly been conquered, there are things in there that are a problem for the people who are living in that general area. This is, once again, something that we can make use of because people from a given area of the sovereign power might be living near a dangerous land feature. Not because of the feature itself, necessarily, like a volcano that might erupt, but because of the things that live in that land feature, or are on it. Just as we consider one area of our own country to have a certain kind of weather or reputation, maybe that area of the sovereign power that is dangerous has a reputation because of what’s there.

Part of what I’m getting at with all of this is that we don’t really want a sovereign power that is just uniform across its entire territory. There should be areas that are seen as being one way versus another, and that there is contrast. This keeps things more interesting, and also realistic. Right now, we’re talking about population and type, but we can also do that with the weather. In other episodes, we talked about how climate can be different on one side of a continent versus the other because of things like prevailing winds. And this is something that we should make use of to create more variety. Now, when it comes to these undesirable creatures or monsters, our sovereign power could have specialized fighting forces who are experts at dealing with this. Naturally, these people might be trained and stationed in the area where they are going to encounter this problem.

We can also decide that this country is known for having people who are good at fighting this threat. Maybe there’s a training center there and maybe people from other sovereign powers that are friendly to this one come here for training and experience dealing with it. This can help give our characters some backstory. If we have a knight from one sovereign power, he could have spent time in another sovereign power gaining a certain kind of experience, and now it is years later and he is off on our story and he has a certain amount of world experience as a result of this. We could have him encounter a citizen from that sovereign power where they trained him, and he knows cultural things or even language issues and is able to relate to that person and say, “Oh, yeah. You know, I spent two years training at this city and this region where you’ve got these monsters,” or whatever. This is a great and believable way to add some diversity to our character and make it seem like people did not just grow up in a little fish bowl where they have no outside experience.

Maybe this knight even has a certain amount of reputation because he trained with those people, especially of those people have a reputation for being really good at fighting this problem. People can then look at our knight character and say, “Well, you must be really good at it, too. Maybe you can help us with the same creature here,” or, “We’ve got a similar one and you would be the most qualified. Therefore, we’re going to ask for your help in dealing with this.”

So, lack of uniformity in our sovereign power is a good thing. There’s a tendency among us human authors to create sovereign powers that were created by humans for humans, and where any other species that we have invented are just bit players on that stage. This might be something that we want to challenge. And in science fiction, that probably does get challenged a little bit more than in fantasy. I’m speculating, but the reason for this is likely the prevalence of aliens from different planets merging on some sort of moon or whatever. You know, there are these stations where people get together. There’s just all this interconnectivity that is assumed to be taking place. By contrast, we almost have more racism built in where everyone is holed up in their area and not wanting much to do with everybody else.

The elves are too snobby, or whatever. They’re elitists. I forget what the usual stereotype is for dwarves, but they basically stay underground. So, everyone’s got some sort of prejudice that keeps them there. The question is whether we want to continue doing this trope, or do we want to expand and do something new? Either way, we should decide who is in power in this sovereign power and what percentage of each population is. We probably don’t want to go with hard numbers because that’s not really going to translate for most people, and it also kind of binds us. It’s a little more flexible to just go with a percentage, like saying the dwarves are about 20% of the population, the elves are 15%, and maybe the humans are 54% and the rest is a hodgepodge of other things. I wasn’t paying attention to my math there, so hopefully I didn’t go over 100%, but you get the idea.

Something else to bear in mind is that whatever species created that settlement, they may not be the only ones who are in power anymore. This is going to depend on the age of the sovereign power or the settlements within that sovereign power. You may remember from the previous episodes that a given form of a sovereign power, its type of government, does not last forever. They come and go. It could be a kingdom one century and it could be a dictatorship for 20 years. It could then be a totalitarian government for another 30 years and then switch back to something like a constitutional monarchy, and then, later, it’s going to be a republic. So, this changes a lot. And each time the form of government changes, it’s possible that new species are more prevalent in this sovereign power.

The practical impact of this is that 200, or even 1,000 years ago, let’s say the elves were only a small percentage of the population. But now it’s 2,000 years later and they’re a much larger percentage of the population. When this newest form of government forms, maybe they are an inherent part of it and so are aspects of their culture. To me, this is a much more believable scenario, assuming that there is territory of this sovereign power that includes the typical elven homeland in this case. You know, the terrain of forests.

Now, we could be thinking that each time a sovereign power collapses, its territory gets divided up into smaller bits. And that can happen, but a new sovereign power can essentially take the place of the old one and have more or less the same territory. It might shrink a little bit, it might grow in one direction or another – literally one compass point or another – but it’s going to cover much of the same territory. The fact that a new government has taken over, and maybe renamed the country, doesn’t mean that the sovereign power as a whole has really vanished. It’s just kind of reinvented itself. In order for it to really vanish, you would have to bomb it off the face of the earth so that no one lives in that entire territory anymore.

So, it’s still going to be there. The people that made up the previous incarnation of this sovereign power will still make up the new incarnation of this sovereign power. If we’ve got a mix of species, like elves, dwarves and humans, and some sort of outside force conquered this sovereign power, but then didn’t have the armed forces to maintain control over it and left, those species that were there before are still there, and they’re going to need a new form of government. When they form that, they may still do so together. They’re not necessarily going to be just the humans forming it, and the others have no say. If they’ve been around for a while, then maybe they’ve changed their minds about how they want to do things and they are more inclusive.

You know, this does happen. People don’t necessarily just shove people out. What I’m talking about there, by shoving people out, is excluding them from the new government. If it’s going to be a more authoritative state, then maybe they do. But if it’s going to be a new form of democracy or like a federal republic, then those are more inclusive by nature. And this is how we’re going to end up with laws that say, “Yes, the elves can be elected prime minister,” for example. And if you’re thinking it’s only elves who are going to be pushing for that, that’s not necessarily true. In the United States, the founders tried to make things inclusive from the very beginning. This has mostly lasted since then, although it has had problems and challenges. But the basic vision of inclusion was created by white men where they wanted to give more rights to others.

Now, some of that wasn’t there in the beginning. Eventually, women had to be given more rights, like voting rights, and others had to be given more rights. But the basic idea of the country being inclusive was there from its founding. So, even though white men arguably founded the country, or were involved in creating the documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, today, we’ve had a black president and it’s been a really long fight to get to that point. But this is the kind of thing that we can do in our sovereign powers that we are inventing.

What I’m getting at here is that we should decide who invented the sovereign power a long time ago, and then how things have changed as time has progressed, and who was involved in the new formation of the sovereign power, and what kind of rights do they have? In order to do that, we need to understand our population. And, in order to do that, we should have an idea of what land features are included in our sovereign power’s territory.

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Relations with Other Sovereign Powers

Since we’ve been talking about relationships within a sovereign power, let’s talk about that a little bit more and how that can be affected by relationships with other sovereign powers. All good stories need tension, and even in the gaming world, we need to have reason for our characters to go from one place to another. So, let’s talk about causes of tension.

The first up is going to be ethnicity. This is similar to racism and is an unfortunate reality that we can use in our work. If we’d prefer not to include this in our work, then it’s better to not comment on it at all and just ignore it than to actually comment on it and say that there is no ethnic hatred because that’s not really realistic. It’s a nice end state that maybe humanity or other species of our invention will one day get to, but we’re not there and I doubt it’s going to happen any time, even on fictional worlds. But if you don’t want to do anything with ethnic hatred, then just ignore the subject rather than saying, “Hey, everyone gets along fine,” because that’s not realistic. It’s also not interesting.

In general, with ethnic hatred, what happens is that unfavorable attributes, such as character, are assigned to a group of people who usually share physical traits, and that makes them easier to physically identify on sight. Usually, we’re talking about facial features like the shape and size of the nose, or the eyebrows, the jaw, even the mouth. Really anything. In a world with fictional species, we can use other features that are more prominent, like the pointed ears of elves or a lot of the brow ridges that you see on characters in something like Star Trek.

So, if you want to create ethnic hatred, one of the things that you can do is just decide that people in a given region of your world have certain physical features. There doesn’t need to be any rhyme or reason for those. It’s just going to be the way it is. What I mean is that those features are not going to have anything to do with where they live. It’s just that people who have those features have congregated in that area for a certain amount of time, and now they are associated with that area and they are an actual ethnic group. People typically just assign negative character traits to a group of people with whom they have experienced tension before. It might have been some sort of dispute, and it could have been anything from cultural to ideological, or something based on the form of government.

We almost don’t need to do a deep dive into this. We could decide that one culture is really big on personal freedom, and another one is not. And, as a result, they really have a problem with the way those manifest in each other. And, as a result, they have associated that form of government with bad behavior, for example, in their opinion, and associated that with the physical features. So, therefore, it becomes not just a general hatred, but a hatred that is associated with the ethnicity of the people who exhibit those physical traits and those behaviors.

As usual, we can take analogues from Earth, whether that’s an actual ethnic issue from Earth or something cultural that we’ve decided to assign to one ethnic group versus another. For example, abortion rights and even gun rights are hot issues. So is homosexuality and whether this is accepted. All we really need to do is assign one side of this argument to one group, and the other side to the other group, and associate this with ethnicity because of physical features and have it be a more localized issue. That’s how that comes about. You know, in our modern world, we’re also interconnected, so these are not issues that have anything to do with ethnic groups. It’s a more widespread issue than that. But we can do the same thing on a more local region, and that’s how it becomes an ethnic issue.

This brings up another source of tension that can happen with a sovereign power, or between one and another. And that is the worldview. We can use countries on Earth, again, as examples. For example, we have some that are known for being democracies and others that are known for being these authoritative regimes that are really brutal to people. Something that can happen is that countries can end up fighting proxy wars. For example, the United States likes to see democracy spread. So, sometimes we assist other countries in becoming a democracy.

By contrast, communist countries have typically supported each other for the same reason. At times, we’ve had the United States propping up one country, and another country, like Russia, propping up a different one and turning this into a kind of proxy war where the United States and Russia are not going at each other directly. They are fighting each other ideologically through countries that each one of them is supporting.

Another source of conflict is resources. Earlier, I talked to you about having a forest that is partially or completely inside a given sovereign power. Well, what if there’s something in that forest, whether it’s the trees or something special that we’ve invented, and it’s rare and, therefore, the sovereign power has total control of it, or at least partial control of it, and somebody else wants that thing? Well, now we’ve got a source of conflict. This is another thing to bear in mind when you are laying out where your sovereign power’s borders are.

On that note, territory is another source of conflict. Aside from the obvious reason we were just discussing, it could be an issue where something like a landlocked sovereign power wants access to the sea and it can’t get to it unless it conquers another territory. Of course, if both sovereign powers in question are democracies, then maybe they work together in a more peaceful way. But if one of them is totalitarian, like a dictatorship, and the democracy is the one that has the access to the sea, it’s probable that the totalitarian government is going to attack instead of negotiate. Unless it’s going to do something like build up its nuclear weapons, for example, using an example on Earth, and say, “Hey, we’re only going to give up these weapons if you give us access to the sea.”

This is the kind of thing that goes on in the real world where sometimes countries build up an arsenal not because they’re intending to use it, but as a bargaining chip. It’s always smart to go into negotiations with something to trade.

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Identifying Sovereign Powers

Let’s take up one of the easier subjects in world building, and that is the different ways that we can identify our sovereign powers. Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of research or other things we need to do and spend a lot of time on something, but this is one area of world building that we can just do one at a time or in batches and just kind of quickly get this done and move on. It’s relatively lightweight. What we’re talking about here are symbols, flags and even slogans like you might have seen in Game of Thrones. These are used to identify a sovereign power. Of course, they can also be used to identify smaller units like a settlement.

On one hand, this is a minor subject, but the symbols are important exactly because they are symbols. We can create a brooding, intimidating symbol for an authoritarian power, and then something that’s a little more welcoming for a democracy. These symbols will be emblazoned on things like ships or battle stations or the walls of a castle or just the flag that’s flying overhead. They can also be incorporated into the uniforms that characters are wearing. Along with the colors, these symbols are a good way of quickly getting across an impression. This is one of our great uses for them as storytellers.

That said, I do think this is something that should be invented later in your development of a sovereign power because you’re going to want to understand what your sovereign power is like and what it may represent to other people before going too far with something like this. However, you can always change your mind. If you decide that your symbol is really cool but maybe it doesn’t go with the sovereign power you originally associated it with, you can just take it off and put it on another one, provided you haven’t actually published something using that.

The goal of any identifier we choose is to not only identify that power, but to embody or portray a fundamental trait of that power. And they can inspire fear, loathing, love, indifference, or they can also be a rallying cry during a war. And when our characters are traveling and they are going to arrive somewhere, they’re going to be on the lookout for these symbols. And failure to mention them is a bit of an oversight. Imagine, even on Earth, if you were on a boat in the ocean and a ship was approaching you, and it was a military one, would you be looking to see what country it belonged to? Because if it’s from Russia or the United States, that could have a very different impact on what’s going to happen to you.

When it comes to symbols, these may change each time the sovereign power itself changes. In fact, this is more likely than not because the new government wants a literal symbol of the fact that it is a new government and it’s not the previous one. There’s been a change. Of course, they could also change the name of the country, for example, but it’s still going to want a symbol. But it doesn’t have to change, especially if the symbol is something that is very cherished to the people. Also, if the symbol is a geographic feature like a mountain that’s distinctive, then that’s probably not going to change if that mountain is still within the territory of the sovereign power.

That brings up an interesting scenario of that land feature being in a territory that has been conquered by another sovereign power, and now the symbol of this sovereign power is located in another sovereign power. That’s probably going to be a big point of pride and something that really bothers people. Bear in mind that an authoritative government is going to have a more intimidating and bold symbol, and even the colors, to imply the impression and dominance of that government power. Even the architecture in such a sovereign power can reflect the attitude of the people who are in control. On the other hand, a democracy might want softer colors and a less threatening and more inclusive symbol.

We should be sure to make a comment about the impression that any symbol we invent makes. If we just say that it’s a hawk, that doesn’t really tell us what it looks like. It could be depicted in a benign position, or one where it’s kind of attacking, or one where it looks majestic. These differences are pretty important. When it comes to color, a domineering government is going to choose a primary color such as red. They can also use things like black and white because these are fairly stark. Colors certainly come into play when it comes to flags because many of the simplest flags here on Earth are simply a horizontal stripe of one or more colors.

These colors don’t have to signify anything to us, but it’s always better, of course, if they do. Although, the average person often forgets what the colors may mean. I think that this is one area of world building that we can usually skip because the average person reading our work is not going to care what the colors mean. What they care about is the impression. Bear in mind that the flags should be relatively easy to depict. Because, in our modern world, we have machines that can create really elaborate designs, but you may have noticed that most flags are not that involved. That’s probably because they’re very old when it was relatively easy to sow together two or three different horizontal stripes that are each in a different color in order to make a flag.

So, if we’re doing fantasy where the technology is not like our modern world, we might want to go with pretty simple flags. But if we’re doing science fiction where technology is far in excess of what we have here, then we may want to go with something that’s a little bit more elaborate. The more advanced it is, the harder it is for the average person to depict that flag.

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The Impact of Location

I want to say a few words about the location of our sovereign power because, as the old adage goes, location is everything. We’ve already talked about how land features can influence this, but I want to go into this a little bit more. The example that I’m going to use first is that if we have an island nation, then this can really impact the culture that originates in that place because they are going to be relying on the sea not only for transportation, but for things like fish. As a result, they might be not only very good at sailing, but they might be explorers.

On one hand, this is so obvious that it almost seems like a cliché, but it’s also so obvious that it would not make sense to not do this. However, if that nation is relatively young, it may not have the industry to really build ships to do that. And, as a result, it might be the kind of place that is easily conquered by others who do have that industry and the resulting skill at sailing. They also might not be good at fighting, so that they get conquered even though they are good at sailing. So, on one hand, the fact that they might do a lot of sailing could suggest that they are a seafaring power and that they’re someone to be feared on the seas, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. They could also be a victim.

Something else we can also leverage is the proximity to the equator. Here on Earth, we still need to use the equator to help us lift off into space. The reason for this is that it’s easier to get to that kind of altitude if we are closer to the equator because the Earth is spinning faster there. In science fiction, we could decide that the engines are so powerful that this is no longer a concern, or we could decide that the world that we’re creating is a little bit more like our modern one where they still need to use certain kinds of rockets that benefit from being close to the equator. One scenario that can be helpful here is that if a sovereign power wants to launch something into space, but it’s not near enough to the equator, then it’s probably going to want to form alliances with a sovereign power that does have that territory.

I hope one thing that you’re picking up from all of this is the way we can create allegiances and enemies with sovereign powers based on terrain and location. We can also decide to use the landscape as a way of characterizing the sovereign power itself, and even justifying the forms of government that have been found there. It’s a bit simplistic, and almost a cliché, to say that a foreboding and intimidating landscape, like a desert, is therefore going to give rise to a totalitarian or authoritative government, but the idea does have some appeal. The idea is that the landscape is harsh and, therefore, so are the people. On the other hand, if it’s more like a paradise, then maybe everyone is kind of soft and the government is benevolent.

The climate might also affect this. For example, if the sovereign power is centered right over the equator, then it’s going to be pretty hot and rainy. Therefore, people are not going to be wearing heavy, long clothes. As a result, something like a man wearing a full suit of plate armor might be relatively uncommon and just not part of what they do there because that’s hot, it’s heavy and it’s not something you’re really going to wear in that climate. This is not to say that it can’t be done, but that is something that originated on Earth in colder climates. Actually, that may not be true. I haven’t really looked into that, but it does seem plausible.

We should also pay attention to how easy it is to access this sovereign power. If it’s very mountainous, then maybe people have a hard time getting there. This could also inhibit people from successfully attacking it in war unless they are doing so from the air. These are things to keep in mind because you might expect the military in such a place to not focus so much on ground forces, but on aerial forces for defense. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, it’s likely that there’s more than one terrain in this sovereign power. So, different areas of it are going to be impacted in different ways. This means that those who are really good at flying on great birds of prey might be doing so in one area of the region, and found frequently there, but on another area, where it’s mostly plains, they may not be in use. Or they actually still could be because it’s still a fast way to get around.

As long as we have a justification that makes sense, we can kind of do what we want here. Sometimes it’s a good idea, again, to have variety for not only different kinds of terrain, but different kinds of skillsets and peoples who are found there.

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Our Power’s Reputation

The last subject I want to cover before we close out and talk about where to start is the reputation of our sovereign power. All countries have a reputation for one thing or another. A single dictatorship might have the same reputation among two different democracies, or it might have different ones. More importantly, a dictatorship will view a dictatorship differently than a democracy will view that dictatorship. Now, if that’s starting to seem like a lot of work to make up all those viewpoints and reputations among different ones, we don’t really need to do that. We just need to do the one that we’re going to actually use.

Granted, if we have a character from a democracy and a character from a dictatorship who have become friends, and they’re approaching another dictatorship, each one of them might have a different attitude about what’s going on there and what the reputation of that place is. But this is not a scenario that we usually use. That’s the scenario where you are going to have to worry about this. So, I’m going to read off a quick list here of things that a country might have a reputation for.

One of them could be a mad king. It could be slavery, whether they have slaves or whether they are the source of exported slaves. It could have a reputation for spacecraft design or a type of man-o-war ship. Maybe it’s a reputation for raiders, like the Vikings, or conquerors, individuals like Genghis Khan. Maybe there are unique plants and animals or products, or a war that seems to never end. It could be known for superior weapons, armor, technology or other devices. And they could have really powerful wizards, or maybe wizards are banned altogether in that sovereign power. So, you can make up your own list of things that we can give a reputation for, and these are things that we might want to choose based on the story that we are going to tell.

Where to Start

So, let’s conclude by talking about where to start. Creating a sovereign power is a really big subject. So much so that it has taken three different podcast episodes to cover much of what is included in the Creating Life book about this. And there are some things that I did not cover. When getting started, we can often do things in different orders, but, I think, with a sovereign power, we should first decide on a very big picture item, which is, this supposed to be a force for good or for evil? Because that’s probably one of the two ways we’re going to use it.

Once we decide this, we can then choose the form of government because a force for evil is going to have a more restrictive, authoritarian government, and a force for good is most likely going to have a more democratic one. Next, we should really think about where on the continent it lies because that’s going to determine any other sovereign powers that we’ve already invented and the kinds of conflicts that are going on between them. It’s also going to determine what land features are included or near that sovereign power. And that, in turn, will also impact what kind of resources that are there, and potentially some of the conflicts and the population makeup in different parts of our sovereign power and overall.

And, lastly, we can start worrying about some of the simpler items like the identifiers, the customs and the languages that are found there. Creating a sovereign power is actually one of the more fun things if you have a pretty good idea on how to go about it. And I would recommend signing up for The Art of World Building newsletter, if you haven’t already, and getting the free template that walks you through filling out all of this.

Closing

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Podcast Episode 14.2 – How to Create Sovereign Powers

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Jul 242018
 

Episode 14.2: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create sovereign powers by understanding government types like federations, unitary states, kingdoms, dictatorships, authoritarian states, oligarchies, republics, and more, including how they rise and fall.

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 world builders should care about government types and how to use them
  • Why each type rises, falls, and what life is like for people in its territory
  • What authoritative states like a dictatorship are
  • The difference between a federation, confederation, unitary state, and more
  • The difference between constitutional and absolute monarchies
  • What an empire is
Coda

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Episode 14.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part two. Today’s topic continues out talk about how to create sovereign powers by understanding government types like federations, unitary states, kingdoms, dictatorships, authoritarian states, oligarchies, republics, and more, including how they rise and fall. 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.

Government Types

Most of us probably think that a subject like government types is going to be kind of dry, and maybe a little bit boring, but I have found that it’s actually one of the more interesting subjects when it comes to building a world, and even creating a setting for our stories where it can impact the story that we are telling. One reason we might think it’s not interesting is that we just don’t know some of these things. And so, one government type is kind of the same as another to us, unless we have looked into this or we’ve recently taken something like a high school or college course on the subject.

You could do a lot of research on this, but one of the things that I’ve done with this entire series is done that research for you. Now, I won’t cover absolutely everything because there are literally entire books written about government types. And, in fact, they’re probably entire books written about one specific government type, such as a monarchy. But what I have done is collected all of what I feel are the relevant, high-level details about what we need to know as world builders. And that’s part of what we’re going to discuss today.

If you really do want extreme detail because you’re going to write a story kind of like Game of Thrones, where the details of how government works actually matter to your story, there are many resources out there that you can find. But, for most of us, we are really just trying to decide what the government is like because of how this affects life for our characters. And we really only want a high level of detail on this. So, that’s what I’m going to cover here. It’s not because I’m lazy or I don’t find it interesting. It’s partly because I’m trying to teach and reach the widest audience here. One thing I’m hoping that may happen for you is that you become more interested in this and then you go ahead and do the deeper dive into it on your own.

In quite a few episodes, I’ve talked about using analogues, which is basically when we invent something that is based on something here on Earth. Government types is a good way of doing this and we can even use things that have happened with governments here on Earth to model something on. For example, in recent times, the government of Somalia has kind of fallen apart and been destabilized and, as a result, pirates have sought a better life through attacking ships that are sailing near. And this is something that we can use ourselves.

If that seems like it’s too recent an example and someone, a reader of yours, may realize what you’re basing it on, then you can look through Wikipedia on any country and find things that have happened in that country’s history when one government type or another fell, or rose, and different things that happened within that country. We can take one of these, modify it a little bit, and it’ll be something of our own. This is also a good way to get ideas.

On that note, with Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin did not invent much of what is there. He’s actually based it on real life events in England. Now, this is not taking anything away from him because he has admitted this and it’s basically a point of inspiration. It’s funny how if you plagiarize someone’s words, people have a big issue with that, but if you take an idea like what happened in England and then turn it into a book series, like Game of Thrones, people will actually appreciate the fact that you’ve called their attention to something that happened in history. So, it’s not only not considered bad, but it can actually be considered a plus and you can be given more esteem because you have taken something from the real world and turned it into an intelligent story. So, don’t be afraid to use an analogue.

Something else I should mention at the start here is that sometimes a country has a name that is misleading and is actually wrong. For example, we could call something the Empire of Kysh when it’s really a federation if we looked at how it’s government works. But maybe the people in that country decided it sounded better to call themselves an empire. This is not a scenario that I am making up. This is something that actually happens here on Earth. So, as world builders, we should try to use the correct name for something, but we can get away with using the wrong name. It’s just one of those situations where you should know the rule before you break it because there’s always going to be that guy who comes along and says, “Hey, that’s incorrect. You’re using the wrong name. You don’t know what you’re doing.” Well, make sure that you do know what you’re doing, and then, if you’re using the wrong name, do it on purpose, for a reason. And it can be as simple a reason as I like the way that sounds.

Something else to bear in mind — and this is something that can really enrich our world — is that no government type lasts forever. Now, if it’s relatively young, such as a couple decades, then maybe it does. But in the case of something that’s been around a thousand years, most likely the form of government has changed repeatedly. And it can go kind of in any order. We’ve got all these different options like a constitutional monarchy, an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship, a federation.

So, these things change. We’ll talk a little bit as we go along about how things can change from one type of government to another. This is something that can make our setting a little more interesting, and certainly the story that we’re telling somewhere, because any government type that came and went is going to leave some sort of impact. And it could be just something like a dictatorship creating these hulking, brutish buildings that are intimidating to people, and that architecture still being around.

The type of money that is around, or some of the laws, could come from a previous government type and still be considered just part of the way things are now, even though there’s a new government type. Obviously, some things will not stand the test of time and will be abolished, but sometimes things do remain. And this is also true when a sovereign power is conquered by another sovereign power and occupied for generations. Eventually, that conquering sovereign power may leave, but they may have had a permanent impact on the setting that they had formerly occupied.

So, with all that said, we’re going to start talking about different government types. And these can be organized in different ways, such as by the power structure or the power source. And the latter is what we are going to use here. So, the first thing we’re going to talk about is authoritative states.

Authoritative States

The first authoritative state we’re going to talk about is the autocracy. This basically means one person is in charge and they can do whatever they want without any consequence. This is the sort of leader who can kill someone in broad daylight rather than having their guys go and kidnap someone and do it in a back alley somewhere. We tend to really like this idea for fantasy and science fiction villains who are running a country because this gives our hero someone to destroy.

We don’t even need good reasons for this person being so evil because we can always fall back on that idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We may not want to say that because it’s a cliche, but the idea still holds true. We can give this person any reason to be the way they are. It could be their ego, it could be their personality in some other way, or it could be the fact that they have witnessed that sort of abuse by their predecessors. It could also be fear of someone taking over and doing the same things to them.

We’ll be discussing these more in a few minutes, but absolute monarchies, like Brunei and Saudi Arabia, and dictatorships are the main forms of autocracy. There’s almost not that much to explain to this because it’s relatively simple in that one person has so much unchecked power. The simplicity of this also makes it somewhat appealing to us if we haven’t taken the time to research more complicated forms of government. This could even be expected in the genres, and that might be one reason to avoid it in favor of something that takes a little bit more research and skill to depict.

The next authoritative state we’ll talk about is the totalitarian government. In a totalitarian government, the state has total control of everything, which is, of course, why it’s called that. This means military, communications and even the infrastructure, like your water source and your electricity. There’s only one political party and they use a lot of propaganda to remain in power and control the minds of the citizens who have no power at all. And there’s not going to be any law to protect people or get them what they want from their lives.

You have few, if any rights. If you try to speak your mind in this sort of regime, the punishment could be really brutal. We’re talking about not only death, but mass killings and long prison sentences, or even hard labor. The military is also used to enforce the will of whoever is in charge. And this can also mean that there is a cult of personality where everyone is supposed to worship this person. This is the sort of government that has a secret police, and they use the state to terrorize people into submission. If you’re looking to create the good versus evil sort of dynamic, this is the sort of government that many of us would consider evil.

If you live somewhere that has this government type, or if you are visiting, it’s going to have a major impact on your stories. So, you should have a pretty good understanding of what life might be like there in order to set your story there. And if you don’t want your story to be that impacted by the government, then you probably should not choose this. Maybe you should choose something a little bit more generic, like a monarchy.

One of the ways that this government type arises is after a war when there has been a lot of destruction, and the existing government type might have been destroyed during that war, such as many of the people leading a democracy being killed or the political party being destroyed in some way, or just upset enough that a balance of power shifts too much in one direction and one political party seizes all control. So, if you’re trying to figure out how such a regime can come to be, this is one option.

A totalitarian government can also form after anarchy when there is no government at all. What these scenarios have in common is a power vacuum that is filled by someone with a lot of political allies supporting them. This is part of why in the United States the founders created different branches of government to try to prevent anyone from getting that much power, or even one political party gaining that much power. That sort of power leads to abuse.

Now, if we like the idea of a totalitarian government, but we find it a little bit too extreme, we can go with another type which is known as an authoritarian government. Power here is not so absolute and all-encompassing. There will still be one political power, and that could either be an individual or a group. But one of the differences between an authoritarian government and a totalitarian one is that the latter has a cult of personality designed to worship the leader, who is usually very charismatic. But in an authoritarian one, the guy may actually be disliked. One of the reasons this still works is that he is not in as much control of the government.

Another difference is that in an authoritarian government, the state is mostly concerned with aspects of political life, not everything else. So, it’s possible for someone to do things like own a business and have a certain amount of rights, or at least the illusion of control. However, that control is mostly over their own lives, not the political establishment. That is being tightly controlled by those who are in power. There will be a legislature in this kind of government, but there is so much corruption and red tape that, basically, those who are in charge can stall any progress on something that they disagree with and they don’t want to see it go forward.

This is, again, part of the illusion of what life is really like there where they allow people to think that they have more freedom than they do. Someone may be able to introduce a bill that would change the way the state works, but the state would basically kill it. In a totalitarian one, you wouldn’t even be allowed to do that, and if you said anything about it, you’d be killed. Some examples of an authoritarian government include Laos, Egypt, China, Vietnam and North Korea.

The last authoritative state we’re going to talk about is the famous one: dictatorships. When one person or party rules a country, that’s a dictatorship. And that does bear some resemblance to some of what we were just talking about. But one of the things to keep in mind here is that this is almost a role in government more than a type of one. One basic reason for this is that it’s basically impossible for one person to rule everyone. They’re going to need a whole bunch of people to support them. And sometimes that leader is nothing more than a figurehead of a party or a small, elite group of people who are actually in charge. And this person is the public face of that dictatorship.

So, that begs the question, “What type of government is it really?” And the answer is it’s either authoritarian or it’s totalitarian. So, to reiterate, a dictatorship is not a type of government, it’s more of a role in an authoritarian or a totalitarian government. This means when you are creating a dictatorship and you’re calling it that in your notes, for example, you should still figure out which type of government it really has, and the answer is not “dictatorship.” When we say it’s a dictatorship, we’re really talking about the authoritarian or totalitarian governments that are run by a dictator and his inner circle, and that’s why we’re calling it a dictatorship.

On the other hand, if we want to be vague and not make a decision about what the government type really is, then a dictatorship is a good way to imply a certain level of brutality. One reason we may want to do that is so that we can make up our minds later. Like some of the other brutal regimes, a dictatorship can arise when there is a government that has collapsed and either a leader or a military group exerts control. Sometimes it is actually elected presidents or prime ministers who seize power by crushing the opposition and then creating a one-party rule. All we really need is a power vacuum and someone to seize control.

One last note on dictatorships is that a new dictator may want to prove to any surrounding sovereign powers that they are a force to be reckoned with and, as a result, they stage a series of attacks and wars. On the other hand, if the dictator has been around for 20 or 30 years and has already established himself, then he may not want to upset the balance of power in the region. And it’s not because he’s trying to be nice. It’s more because he’s protecting his own status quo. After all, what if he attacks someone and he loses, and then attacks someone else and he loses? Then he starts to lose stature and be seen weak by his own people. And, as a result, he may be taken over by somebody else.

So, part of what we’re getting at is that dictators can act differently from each other, and it’s going to depend, in part, on how long this dictatorship has lasted. Keep this in mind when creating one. Finally, some examples of this are the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and, of course, Nazi Germany.

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Democracy

Let’s talk about democracies. One of the basic ideas of democracy is that people are allowed to participate in government and they have influence over what becomes a law. Now, you may not have heard of this, but there are two versions of this. One of them is called direct democracy, and the other one is indirect democracy. The direct kind means that people vote directly on the initiative that is supposed to become law. The indirect kind means that we actually appoint people, such as senators and congressmen, and they do the voting for us. Many of you will recognize this because that’s basically the way the United States is set up. However, it is possible in the United States for people to vote directly on some initiatives. Many of those direct initiatives are voted on at the state level, or even at smaller levels like the county.

With the indirect kind, we are voting for people to do our biding, and if we don’t like the way they have done things, we end up voting them out of office. This gives rise to a scenario where a politician tells us what we want to hear in order to get elected, and then they don’t necessarily follow through and then they end up losing the next election. Because we can vote people in and out of office, this has eliminated the need for something like a revolution. We can create change in a more peaceful way. And government is supposed to reflect the will of the people, not some all-powerful leader.

Democracy as a concept, and even a reality, has existed for thousands of years, but it’s really only been in the last couple hundred years that it’s become one of the major forms of government. Before that, there tended to be a small group of people known as an oligarchy who were running a country. Now, just because we create a democracy, that does not mean that our characters who are experiencing that form of government, whether they live there or they’re traveling through it – it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to run into problems.

For example, even though equal rights are supposed to be one of the things that happens in a democracy, we all know that there is bias, whether it’s gender bias or racism. There can also be bias against immigrants, whether they are legal or illegal. If there’s a lack of freedom in someone’s home country, that could be the reason they have journeyed to the country where the story is taking place, like the United States if it was happening here on Earth. As we all know, the United States has been looked up to as a place where people can come to for greater freedom in their lives. But, of course, so many people have done so that we have a pretty strict immigration policy, as do a lot of other countries that have a better standard of living.

When we are creating sovereign powers, we probably want to create multiple types in a sense that some of them have a good standard of living, like a democracy, and some of them have a terrible one like in the dictatorship. One sovereign power will be a place to avoid and another one will be a place that is sought after. This is a truly great reason to have a better understanding of government types and use them for variety. Characters will be well known for having originated from one place or another. There’s a tendency in fantasy and sci-fi to just say that someone is from so-and-so country and not only not mention what kind of government type it has, but – and we don’t necessarily want to get into explaining that to people, but another character should have an opinion of what life must have been like for that character.

If they’re from the Kingdom of Kysh, and that’s an absolute monarchy where people have almost no rights, then someone should say, “I can see why you left,” or something to that effect. Or they might just assume that this person’s relatives are living in a harsh world, or maybe they’ve even been killed. On the other hand, if I’m the person from a dictatorship and I found out that you’re from a country like the United States, I might assume that your life has been really great, and maybe I’m jealous.

Now, when it comes to the rise and fall of democracy, usually something must change in order for this significant level of change to occur. This is true of any government type. They don’t just suddenly end for no reason. If there has been a dictator, for example, who has been abusing power, and this person is killed in some way, or just dethroned, then the people could have been fed up for so long that they go ahead and try to create a democracy. If that sounds too simple and farfetched, well, that’s exactly what happened when the United States formed and threw off England as its ruler.

But a democracy can also fall when things become too heavily sided in one direction or another. Right now in the United States, one political party has more power than the other. And if that continued to go in that direction, and the people in that party were willing to give up democracy, then we could actually move away from a democracy towards a more authoritarian government. This could not only happen from things becoming too one-sided, but it’s possible that the government wasn’t setup with enough checks on balances of power. If there weren’t enough laws to stop a leader from doing something, then maybe you could get away with it.

In extremely recent times, such as this year in the United States, in 2018, we actually have a president and a political party who don’t seem to care as much about threatening this balance of power. And people have even talked about supreme court nominees potentially pushing things even further in one direction. And some people are rightly worried that this could ultimately lead to a destruction of democracy to at least some degree.

There are some additional details in the Creating Places book, but I’m not going to cover those today.

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Federations

Let’s talk about federations. As it turns out, there’s more than one type of federation, but one of them is actually called federation. The others are a unitary state, the confederation, and, of course, the empire. Let’s first cover the federation.

This is a union of self-governing states or regions that give up some of their freedom for a national government and some other advantages. There is a constitution and it outlines the status and the division of power, and this cannot be altered by political powers, the federal government, or any of the regions in the union.

One goal of that union is greater stability, which can be economic. One of the problems with that is that if one of the states has a serious economic problem, it can actually affect all of them. Suddenly, what seems like a good idea might not seem like a good idea anymore to all those who are affected. Another reason for joining a federation is that if there are territorial disputes, this will also be resolved with the agreement. In other words, a federation can put an end to war. Now, we may not like this idea because it could interfere with our setting if we are trying to have countries who are at war, or characters who are being affected by war.

In an earlier episode, we talked about the concept of sovereignty, which is basically whether or not you are self-governing. And when it comes to a federation, the individual states are self-governing, but they don’t have any power at the federal level or with any foreign power. And all states in the federation may not be equal because some of them may have joined before newer laws came into play and impacted later powers that joined. Of course, that sort of imbalance of power can also lead to problems.

The central government is tasked with trying to find a solution that will satisfy all of the states in the federation, so this can be a big task. And if we have a character who is in that federal government, they might have a lot of problems on their hands. However, this is not normally the sort of thing that people find interesting, so we’re going to have to make this really be character-based and impactful in the story in such a way that it makes it interesting to our readers.

If they fail to resolve these conflicts, this could lead to civil war. And there’s a really good example of this. It’s called the United States Civil War. I’m going to simplify the issue, but basically the southern states in the United States thought that the constitution gave them the right for slavery, and the other states disagreed with this. Now, slavery was a basic part of the economy in the south, which felt like it wasn’t going to survive very well without it. And, as a result, war broke out. The southern states tried to create the Confederation, which is another form of federation that we’ll talk about in a minute. But one of the problems that the south faced is that no foreign country would recognize that the south had sovereignty over itself. So, this was going to be a problem. The federal government in D.C. fought the war partly to bring the southern states back in line.

Now, a final note on federations is the naming convention. Sometimes they actually do have the word “federation” in their title, but a place like Canada does not. And there are other titles that can be used, such as a confederation, a federal republic, dominion, kingdom and even union. The only real problem for us as world builders with these titles is that we can’t always tell what form of government something is just by the word that we have put on it.

Let’s talk about the unitary state. This is very similar to a federation except that the federal government can completely eliminate the autonomy of the states. The way this forms is also a little bit different because a federation comes together when independent states join forces, but a unitary state originates from a preexisting central government granting more autonomy to those previously dependent states. For example, imagine that a country like the United States suddenly set free, so to speak, the 50 states making it up, and became a unitary state where those states now have more autonomy over themselves. But one of the things about a unitary state is that just as it can give that autonomy to the states, it can also take it back. The unitary state’s central government can literally abolish a state altogether at will.

This is an interesting scenario where a state could be existing for a long time, but maybe it’s doing things that the central government’s leader doesn’t like. And so, he simply abolishes the state altogether. The United Kingdom is an example of a unitary state.

Let’s talk more about a confederation, which I mentioned a few minutes ago. This is when a group of sovereign powers forms a permanent union so they can act together against other states. And membership is voluntary, which is very different from a federation. A state that’s part of a confederation can simply leave if they so choose. We once again may find this to be a little bit less interesting because we kind of like it when someone is being constrained by something, they try to do it anyway, that causes a problem because somebody like another government or part of their own government goes after them and we have this conflict. If you can simply take your ball and walk away or go home, there’s less drama to that.

A confederation usually forms by a treaty, but the agreements are not binding until the member states create laws that are in accordance with those agreements. Some examples of a confederation are Switzerland, Canada, Belgium and the European Union.

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Empires

The last one we want to talk about is the empire. This is a little bit different from everything we’ve been talking about because in this case we have multiple sovereign powers who are being ruled by a single power. For example, the Roman Empire conquered one sovereign power after another and absorbed all of them into its own Roman Empire. By contrast, France was only a kingdom when Napoleon decided it was an empire, even though they did not yet rule other sovereign powers. And he did this partly so that he could declare himself emperor. After all, why be a king when you can be an emperor? The British Empire included territories that were far across the sea. So, this is another option for us.

Empires always form as a result of coercion, which can be a war where you defeat the other sovereign power, or it can be something like economics. Sometimes a weak state is simply annexed by an empire for protection and other advantages such as trade, and they might be perfectly okay with this. It’s always better for even an empire to not go to war, so if they can coerce, in some other fashion, another sovereign power to join the empire, they will do so.

One of the problems that an empire faces is simply the physical size of it. And it’s not going to have troops to maintain control over all of that. So, having a certain amount of peaceful interaction with the sovereign powers that it has absorbed is going to go a long way to making it stable. Another issue you can face is having, basically, racism going on where different ethnic groups that were part of different sovereign powers have now both been absorbed by one empire, and now they have to act like they get along. This may work for a time, but there could be simmering hatred. And if the empire ever falls, then those ethnic groups and their respective sovereign powers may go right back to fighting with each other.

It should also be noted that if you are being ruled by an empire, and you’re in a previously independent sovereign power, and then the empire falls and your sovereign power is suddenly freed, well, that’s no longer going to have its own government. Actually, that may not be true. It might have a government, but the point really is that there’s still a sudden change to the government, so this is another opportunity to suddenly change the type of government that we have in one of our sovereign powers.

So, if an empire falls, we could have one sovereign power that becomes a dictatorship, another one that becomes a constitutional monarchy, and another one that becomes a democracy. Generally, if an empire collapses, this is often catastrophic for any of the sovereign powers that it was ruling over.

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Monarchies

Time to talk about everyone’s favorite, the monarchy, which is what a kingdom is technically called. This used to be the most common form of government until the republic eventually took over. So, if you’re writing fantasy and you keep using this, well, maybe there’s a reason for that. A federation is arguably more common in science fiction.

In a monarchy, the person in charge, the monarch, is sovereign until death or abdication. As we all know, a monarchy is typically hereditary, with only the members of the family, such as the males, becoming a monarch. If we would like to be more progressive, we can have women also have this ability. The heirs are raised in a royal family and taught what is expected of them. And if the same family rules for many generations, that is called a dynasty.

Now, sometimes the path of succession, who becomes the next monarch, is not always clear. And that actually lead to the War of the Roses, which, in turn, inspired George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Some of the succession stuff is a little bit confusing, so I don’t want to go into the details here in the podcast, but the details are found on the website and, of course, in Creating Places.

What I want to talk about instead is the difference between an absolute monarchy and a constitutional monarchy. I briefly talked about the absolute monarchy earlier when I mentioned the authoritative states. An absolute monarch is one who is above the law and can get away with anything. Precisely because such persons abused their power, there were resistances that slowly built up in one kingdom, and then in another. And, over time, a new form developed and that’s called a constitutional monarchy. What’s happened in this case is that the monarch has become the head of state, which I explained in the last episode, and then there is a parliament with a prime minister, and that prime minister is the one who is the head of government.

What we’re talking about here is that all of this power that one person had has been disseminated to other people. One result is less abuse of power. The constitution is actually what exists to place those limits on the monarchy. Now, you may be wondering, as I often did, what can people get away with? What can a monarch do and what can the prime minister do? And the answer is that it really depends on the country, and the result is that we can do whatever we want when we are inventing a sovereign power that has a constitutional monarchy. This is one area where we don’t need to feel like we have to get it right because we can make it up.

Oligarchies

Now, there is one last group of government types known as oligarchies. What they have in common is that a group of people is in charge. Anything can really be the basis for an oligarchy, such as a group that has unusual wealth or military power, status, family, higher education or even an ability like with wizards. An aristocracy is a form of government where a privileged class of people is supposedly the most qualified and, therefore, they are in charge. In a plutocracy, it’s a small group of rich people. In a military junta, as you would expect, the military is in charge and the government type is usually authoritative. Then there’s a timocracy, where only property owners can participate in government. And then there’s a theocracy, where a religious person or group is in charge. Although, the reason they are in charge is that they are supposedly given that position by a god, who is the ultimate authority.

Now, if you’ve ever wondered what a nation is, or a country, I do go into some detail in Creating Places about what these are and what these words really mean, and it might surprise you. They are not government types, however. I’m also not going to go into detail on how to choose a form of government or how to create the history, although I did mention a little bit of this. And another subject that I cover in the book is how many different powers you should invent.

In our next episode, we’re going to continue discussing the subject of creating sovereign powers.

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 14.1 – How to Create Sovereign Powers

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Jul 032018
 

Episode 14.1: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create sovereign powers like kingdoms, dictatorships, republics, and more. This includes what sovereignty is, how it is gained and lost, the divine right of kings, some roles like head of state and what each means, and branches of government.

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

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What sovereignty is and why it matters
  • The difference between external and internal sovereingty
  • How sovereignty is gained and lost
  • What the divine right of kings is
  • What a head of state and head of government are and how they differ, and why you should care
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 14.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number fourteen, part one. Today’s topic is how to create sovereign powers like kingdoms, dictatorships, republics, and more. This includes what sovereignty is, how it is gained and lost, the divine right of kings, some roles like head of state and what each means, and branches of government. 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.

What is Sovereignty?

To talk about sovereignty, we naturally need to understand what sovereignty means. Basically, it’s the right to govern oneself without outside interference. It’s also a question of recognition, both from other countries and from the people within its borders. This is known as external sovereignty versus internal sovereignty. We’ll talk about both of these in more detail now.

External Sovereignty

A sovereign power may or may not be recognized as having sovereignty by other powers. In other words, we can’t just buy an island somewhere, declare ourselves the king and have sovereignty because other, actual sovereign powers may refuse to recognize that we have this sovereignty. There are some reasons why they may refuse to do so.

Exclusivity is one of these reasons. If two sovereign powers are contesting an area of land, that means that neither of them is recognizing that the other one has sovereignty over that land. Therefore, neither of them have sovereignty. Of course, a power could have sovereignty over other lands where that is recognized, but when it tries to take over another area of land, its sovereignty over that particular area is not recognized.

There is a modern example of this where Russia has sovereignty over many lands, and there was another country that was independent and had sovereignty, but Russia decided that because its citizens lived in that country, that this other country belonged to it. So, it invaded and took over that country. And it felt that it had the right to do so, but most of the rest of the world disagreed. In this instance, what Russia was doing was claiming that it had sovereignty over that country and, at the same time, it refused to recognize that that country had any sovereignty of its own. Since much of the rest of the world, such as the European Union, did not agree with this, Russia was subsequently punished and kicked out of the G8 summit, which became the G7 as a result.

So, if two powers are claiming sovereignty over something, or somewhere, then one of those sovereign powers must be destroyed, or it must be engulfed by the other, or otherwise proven illegitimate. Otherwise, neither of them is truly sovereign. Two powers cannot be sovereign over the same territory. One of them has to give.

Another factor that can come up is that sometimes a sovereign has the legal right to control a territory, but it doesn’t have that actual control due to a lack of military. Their military may be insufficient to control that territory. This is something that comes up in war when one country attacks another and drives them out, but other countries see the invaders as exactly that – they are invaders who do not actually have a sovereign claim to that territory. Sometimes, when the war is finally over, it’s because allies have kicked out that invading country on behalf of the country that was invaded.

I said that in a way that’s a little bit confusing, so let’s use an example. This may not be historically accurate, but let’s say that Germany invaded France and expelled the French nobility so that they were no longer there, but the rest of the world did not recognize that Germany now had sovereignty over France. The rest of the world might have thought France has been invaded and they need to be properly put back where they belong when it comes to the rulers. So, therefore, French allies might have joined forces with France and helped expel the Germans. In this case, the reason for this was the question of sovereignty. France’s sovereignty over that territory was recognized by other countries, but Germany’s claim on sovereignty over French territory was not respected.

During this war, it’s possible that France’s army would’ve been defeated. And, in that sense, it would have this legal right over that territory, but no longer have the military might to enforce that sovereignty. Therefore, it would have to turn to allies to help it. If those allies agreed, then they would help. If they did not agree, then Germany would be successful in taking over that territory. Now, just because Germany has taken over France, that doesn’t mean that other countries immediately recognize that it has sovereignty over France, but, in time, they may.

Now, rather than this being a military issue, there could be other reasons such as a population that is being uncooperative. Perhaps Germany is trying to rule France, but the French citizens are just being incredibly difficult and rebelling all the time. This could make it difficult for Germany to exert the sovereignty that it is trying to claim, even if Germany has defeated France’s military.

We’ll be talking about internal sovereignty in a few minutes, but, basically, that’s what we’re hinting at here. If Germany now possesses France’s territory, but the citizens of France do not recognize that they are now citizens of Germany, then there’s a bit of a problem. The territory itself, the people in it, are not recognizing Germany’s claim of sovereignty.

It’s also possible to achieve sovereignty but not be independent due to needing help from other powers. In fantasy and science fiction, we probably don’t like this idea because we want someone who is weak to be overtaken by a nefarious kingdom that our heroes can then try to destroy. So, if a kingdom has sovereignty but it needs a lot of help and is, therefore, not independent, it could be taken advantage of by another sovereign power. Or, in the case of our fantasy and sci-fi settings where we want more aggression, then it could just be taken over.

But there are times when a large country, like the United States, is benevolent toward other countries and trying to stand them up as a democracy, for example. One of the reasons that can happen is for ideological reasons where we prefer democracy to spread throughout the world as opposed to authoritarian governments proliferating. Therefore, if there is what we consider to be an evil regime that has fallen, and a new government hasn’t taken its place yet, but they show an interest in democracy, we might help them try to achieve that democracy. In this case, what we would be doing is showing them respect for their culture and their own sovereignty. And, even though they need help from us, we are providing that without just trying to take them over.

The kind of assistance that one power can lend another could be military, it could be technological – which is especially interesting in science fiction – or it could be humanitarian. Or, in fantasy settings, it could be magical assistance. Maybe the wizards of that sovereign power don’t have anywhere they can get schooling, so we allow them to come to our country for that. The same could be said for the ability to pilot spacecraft. Maybe they don’t have the training facilities, but they’ve got people who have the talent. So, we provide that for them. We give them the training. Maybe we even loan them some ships or help them start their own industry. The leader of such a sovereign power, such as a monarch, might want military aid that he has to bargain for by offering something else, such as crops or natural resources.

One thing that we can gain from all of this as world builders is that we can start thinking of alliances that different sovereign powers might have because of the ability to trade for something that they don’t have in their territory. So, for example, if your sovereign power has no large forests, then they’re going to be at a loss for the kind of wood that might be needed to build wooden ships if we’re in a fantasy setting. A sovereign power that has no mountains might have a lack of mines and, therefore, no ore to build technological weapons or spacecraft. This is one way that the terrain of a sovereign power can be used to help us create more relationships that make sense.

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Internal Sovereignty

Now we should talk about internal sovereignty, which is whether the sovereign power is recognized by its own subjects. In more extreme cases, people might overthrow the ruler, or murder him, imprison him or even exile him. As storytellers, we tend to like these more extreme versions, don’t we? If the person who has been overthrown still lives because they’ve been exiled or imprisoned, that does give us the option for further problems that this person could cause. Death tends to eliminate that option unless we have a setting where undead are an option.

So, the obvious question is when does a ruler get overthrown by his people? Why do they not respect his sovereignty? The main answer for that is weakness or, at least, perceived weakness. This can come in several ways. The inability to create peace, or restore it if it has been disrupted, is one of the reasons. War is not typically good for anyone. Though, in our modern times, we sometimes cynically say that the companies who manufacture weapons, for example, often benefit from war. And that is true, but, generally speaking, war is devastating, and it’s considered a very negative thing.

This is still true even if your side wins. The reason people celebrate the end of a war is that they can go back to their peaceful lives. So, a ruler who cannot create peace or restore it when something has gone wrong is considered weak, and he might end up getting overthrown if the tension goes on for too long. It also must be remembered that usually it is males who get sent into war – at least historically on Earth – and this really does cause a major problem with reproduction and people’s ancestry continuing as people are being killed off during battles. If war drags on for a long time, this can really have a devastating affect on many aspects of life. But it’s not even just war. Even smaller conflicts can cause these kinds of problems.

Another source of peace going wrong could be rebellions. If there is a rebellion happening within the country, and the ruler is unable to squash this, this can be considered weak. That tends to encourage more people to rebel, so this tends to be bad for not only the ruler, but the people who are trusting him to do something about this will increasingly lose faith. And they might actually join such a rebellion.

Another potential sign of weakness is when the ruler refuses to enforce a law when those laws are being broken in a way that are very costly to the country. For example, in the United States and other countries, we have immigration laws. There are people who feel like illegal immigration is a major problem and the government is not doing enough to enforce the laws by removing illegal immigrants. The failure to act in a way that the people find acceptable is considered a sign of weakness.

Of course, another issue is that a leader could be too strong about enforcing those laws in such a way that it is disrespectful of human rights, and that this also causes disillusionment and an idea that the leader is still being weak because they are actually being too forceful in the name of being strong. But, you know, being strong doesn’t mean being cruel to people, such as separating children from their parents when they cross a border illegally because of your detention policies.

So, different people are going to have different ideas about that, but this is a very timely subject. This is an issue that’s not only happening in the United States right now, but in other countries, due to an unusual amount of migrant population moving from one country to another, not only in the United States, but also in Europe. So, this is an example of a law that is not being enforced enough for some people who have determined that the leader is, therefore, weak. They, therefore, lose respect for that leader. Incidentally, enforcing laws in a draconian fashion might also upset the people so that the rebel.

Something else that we also see play out in our own country is that promises to one’s own people need to be kept. We often see people being removed from office in democracies because the people feel like they campaigned on certain promises and then did not uphold them once they were elected. So, at the next election, they get booted out of office. In our science fiction and fantasy settings, we might especially want to pay attention to the idea that promises that are made to one’s own police force and military force must be kept. Otherwise, this can result in an internal war and a coup with a military junta or dictatorship taking the place of whatever leadership was there. And if you’re not sure what a military junta is, we’re going to be talking about that in another episode.

And the last note on this is that many centuries ago, people tended to believe that a single person should rule because this provided a single voice of decisions. But, as the years have passed, this idea has slowly fallen out of favor. We’ve moved towards more countries that have an elected body, such as a parliament, that has authority.

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Gaining Sovereignty

All of this may have you wondering how a power gains sovereignty. So, let’s talk about that. As I alluded to earlier, a conquest is one of the more interesting reasons for us. In the modern world, and potentially in science fiction settings where there is a lot of communication, there might be more of this issue that we have today where things like the European Union are joined. These are multiple countries that are working together. And, therefore, at this point in Earth’s history, we are generally opposed to one country conquering another.

While that may have been true in the past, the military might that we had back then was not so great, and the cooperation was not so great that we could actually stop countries from doing this as much as we can today. One of the reasons we can stop countries from doing this is that we have a very integrated world when it comes to things like trade, and we can jointly punish a country that invades another, the same way that Russia was recently punished.

So, if we are creating a setting that is like that, this is something we may want to consider. We might not have sovereign powers conquering each other so much anymore. But, if we’ve got a setting that is more like what you typically see in fantasy, then it’s much easier for one country to simply attack and absorb another, and then hold onto that territory for long enough that it is considered sovereign over that territory. How long is long enough? Well, it’s probably going to be at least 5 years, maybe 10. But, certainly after 100 years, everyone who was alive when it used to be another sovereign power is now dead, unless we have something like elves that live 1,000 years or more.

So, if no one in living memory even remembers that being a different kingdom, then it’s no longer that kingdom. That’s gone. That kingdom might actually still exist, but the territory that it used to have might have been taken over by another country and held for so long that it is considered part of that other country. Although, of course, we could still have historical records and people saying, “Okay. This is still a sore point. We still want that area back.” But it might have gotten to the point where other countries just decide, “Okay. We recognize that this other sovereign power has taken over that country or that territory for so long and has held onto it that we now recognize, yes, it is sovereign over that territory.”

Figure 3: Erizon

Figure 3: Erizon

Another possibility that can come up is that one power could cede land to another via a treaty, for example. This isn’t the most exciting for us, but it does happen. An example of this would be the Louisiana Purchase that happened in the United States where the United States bought a huge territory in the center of the United States, or what is now the center of the U.S., from, I believe, France. And why did France agree to sell that huge area of land? Well, France was having a money issue back in France because Napoleon had declared war and was attacking all these different other sovereign powers. He also decided he couldn’t fight wars over there and over here at the same time, so he just sold the territory to the United States. Now, it’s been a while since I read about that, so there may be details I’m forgetting, but you get the basic idea.

There’s another way that territory can be claimed, and that is if no one is claiming sovereignty over it, then, in a sense, it is up for grabs. The example I’m going to use is, once again, the United States because when the Europeans – the British, the French, and the Spanish conquerors – landed on what is now United States territory, each one of them just claimed sovereignty over different areas of it. Why did they feel that they could do this? The Native Americans were here. The answer is that the Native Americans did not really understand this concept of sovereignty, and they didn’t recognize it. And, therefore, they weren’t really sovereign over this territory. They considered it to belong to everyone. You know, these other people come in and decide, “Well, no. This belongs to my country. That belongs to the other one.” So, it just got divided up.

Basically, these countries that invaded did not recognize any sovereignty by the Native Americans. And, therefore, they just took the land. There were overlaps, at times, with different countries claiming different areas of that land. And, of course, that led to wars and, eventually, what is now the United States won out and everyone else ended up leaving. When other countries departed, what they were doing was also finally, and formally, recognizing that the United States had sovereignty over that land.

We can use this same sort of scenario, especially in science fiction, where different spaceships from different planets or sovereign powers could discover a country at roughly the same time. And they start investigating the minerals and other ores that this planet provides, and different countries could be deciding that they want one continent, or part of it, versus another one. And, next thing you know, you have all these wars. You know, I haven’t seen this scenario played out in a science fiction book, but it seems like something that’s fairly obvious. This might be a little bit harder to do in fantasy, unless we have a situation very similar to the one I described a minute ago about the Native Americans. Of course, what precipitated that was an improvement in the quality of ships that could sail over the open ocean. And, therefore, different countries were able to discover North America at roughly the same time. By roughly, I mean over the span of a couple decades.

Barring something like that in a fantasy setting, we might have to have something like the wall in Game of Thrones come down, and various kingdoms decide that they want to take that land. You know, there would have to be some sort of discovery of new land that no one had claimed in order for several countries to rush in and start claiming it.

The Divine Right of Kings

Let’s also talk about the divine right of kings. This is something that sounds really cool, and which you’ve probably heard of before. Basically, what this means on Earth is that someone is considered to be sovereign by the will of god, and that is the only person to whom they answer. A dictator or an absolute monarch is going to be viewed this way, or, at least, want others to view them this way. It implies that they are above the law.

You’ve probably also heard that quote that absolute power corrupts absolutely. So, tyrants tend to like this idea. It could be considered treasonous to stand in the way of this absolute monarch. If we have a world where there is more than one god, we could also do this and have one person decide that they were appointed by one god to be the ruler, and another person could decide that they were the one appointed by a different god to be the ruler, so that we could have conflict.

Now, here on Earth, some places, like Asia, consider a sovereign to be legitimate only if he is a just ruler. If he is unjust and engages in very bad behavior, then he could be stripped of this sovereignty. This is an area ripe for conflict because we could have some people deciding that this sovereign was acting justly, while other people decide he was acting unjustly. And, therefore, when he is stripped of power, some people might want him to be restored to power. So, this is another way we can use something for storytelling.

Losing Sovereignty

Since we’ve talked about gaining sovereignty, let’s talk about losing it. We’ve already touched upon this because one of the most obvious ways is to be conquered. Another is to be overthrown from within, such as during the French and American Revolutions. Both of these violently ended the rule of sovereign powers. When this happens, a new government must take its place. If you’re looking for ideas on what sort of government could replace them, we will be covering many options in the next episode. There are some additional details found in Chapter 5 of Creating Places, but I’m going to move onto roles such as the head of state and head of government next.

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Head of State

The head of state and head of government are the two most important roles in a government. And, at first glance, this might sound like it’s going to be a boring subject, but it can actually be really interesting and very beneficial to understand this when we are doing world building or any storytelling involving these characters.

The head of state is the visible representative of a sovereign power. He may have no actual power, or very limited powers, being largely ceremonial. This is the monarch who might show up to bless a battleship or a sailing vessel, or to knight someone. If there’s an annual parade on a big holiday, this is the figurehead who will be in a prominent position during that parade. Sometimes, they appear to have power, but they are just going through the motions. That could be something like signing a bill into law where the parliament actually does that, but this person still signs off on it. This head of state is also the highest military leader, or commander in chief, but, as with other subjects, this power could actually be ceded to other people who have control of it.

Examples of heads of state would be kings, emperors and presidents. A president is sworn in, whereas a coronation is for a monarch. As world builders, we have the ability to grant these heads of state whatever powers we would like them to have. On Earth, this changes from kingdom to kingdom, so we can do whatever we want here. Don’t feel like you have to get this right by modeling it on some kingdom here on Earth.

We also don’t have to explain the reasons why they are only ceremonial, in one way or another, and have no actual power. Readers don’t typically want some sort of history lesson unless that story has something to do with the reason this character does not have the power, because that character wants to flex that power and discovers they don’t have it. Unless it’s part of your story, you don’t need to worry about that too much.

Head of Government

The more important role, arguably, is the head of government. This person is the one leading government, and they usually have a title such as prime minister or chancellor. If this person is also the head of state, then they will have a title like king, emperor or president. Arguably, writers have a tendency to simply give a title like “President So-and-so” without actually explaining anything about what they can do. Some of that may be natural because we don’t really want to bore the audience with exposition explaining all the things that they can and cannot do, especially if they’re not going to impact our story. But it does help us to think about this. So, I’m going to give you a couple ideas here.

What we want to do is think about what this head of government can actually do. So, for example, can they veto laws or sign them into existence by themselves, or do they need parliament? Can they be removed from office, and by who? Are they protected from prosecution? Can they be executed? Can they raise and lower taxes? Do they need permission or cooperation from others in government to get anything done? Can they declare war? Are there exceptions to any of this? For example, maybe they cannot declare war under normal circumstances, but, in more extreme ones, they can.

If our sovereign power has a prime minister who is the head of government, that means that there is also going to be a ceremonial head of state who has less power. An example of this would be the prime minster of Great Britain. He is the actual head of government. The queen is the ceremonial head of state. This is why the President of the United States meets with the Prime Minister of Britain to discuss matters of government, because these are the two heads of government. Now, in the case of the United States, the president is also the head of state. So, there are times when, in the capacity of head of state, the President of the United States meets with the Queen of England, but this is mostly a ceremonial function. Why is that? Because the Queen of England does not have that much power. All of that resides with the prime minister and with the parliament.

And if you were paying attention, I did just say that in something like the United States, which is a democracy, one person is in the role of head of state and head of government. But then, in certain other setups, like a monarchy, we might have the king or queen be the head of state. Power has been ceded to the prime minister and parliament. This is what’s known as a constitutional monarchy, and we’ll be talking about that more and it’s alternate version, the absolute monarchy, in the next episode. The absolute monarchy is one where the king is the head of government and the head of state.

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Branches of Government

I’m briefly going to talk about the different branches of government. The executive branch is the one that administers the state and enforces the laws which are passed by the legislative branch, whereas the judicial branch is the one that interprets those laws. The reason this is separated this way is to prevent abuse of power. Even in a democracy, there are those who wish to abuse power and try to merge or force their way past these delineations to get what they want. The separation of powers inhibits that. It is built into the government structure by design and on purpose to prevent the sort of abuses that happened in the past.

An absolute monarchy where the king, for example, is both head of state and head of government, and believes he has this divine right of kings and only answers to god, this king is the kind of guy who’s going to do tyrannical things that really upset a lot of people. And, over time, people resisted this kind of thing. Sometimes, they got executed by the king for this. But, sometimes, enough resistance built up in the population that the king ended up having no choice but to cede power to government, and he became a head of state and, next thing you know, you had a parliament that had these different branches of government. And that parliament was led by the prime minister who was the head of government who had much of the power.

One thing that we are implying here is that earlier forms of government were often this type where they were an absolute monarchy, and things have progressively moved toward a more diverse separation of powers so that no one person has that much control. One way we can use this in our world building is that if we have a very advanced society that you’re likely to see in science fiction, then they may have also moved away from things like absolute monarchies. On the other hand, a fantasy setting where things tend to be more like our past, like a medieval setting, they are more prone to having this sort of government because, maybe, they have not collectively moved past it. By collectively, I mean that multiple countries might still have monarchies. On Earth, this was once the primary form of government, or one of them, and today, it is one of the least popular or common ones.

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, First 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 13.2 – How to Create Land Features

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Jun 192018
 

Episode 13.2: Learn How to Create Land Features

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create land features, including grasslands, deserts, and various kinds of wetlands like bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps.

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:
  • Where grasslands will have tall grass and where they’ll have short, and why
  • Why not all deserts are sandy and where you’ll find the ones that are
  • What the four different types of wetlands are (bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps) and how they differ
Coda

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Episode 13.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part two. Today’s topic concludes our talk about how to create land features. This includes grasslands, deserts, and various kinds of wetlands like bogs, mires, and fens. This material and more is discussed in chapter 4 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.

Creating Grasslands and Prairies

Let’s briefly talk about grasslands, which can also be called prairies. As the word “grasslands” implies, this is an area dominated by grass, whether that is tall, short, or a mix of both. Naturally, it’s much easier for a predator to hide in tall grass. And, therefore, we may be tempted to use this quite often. After all, we can have something hiding that is trying to attack our characters.

However, it is tempting to do this everywhere so that we have that possibility everywhere, but if you’re creating a setting for a particular story, decide whether you need this or not. And, if you don’t, then go ahead with the short grass, just because there are probably going to be opportunities for you to use taller grasslands in another story. And we don’t want to get into a habit of always making them tall. So, if you don’t need them to be tall, just go ahead and make them short.

We’ve probably all seen TV shows or movies where our characters, or something that’s after them, is using the tall grass to their advantage. This is a pretty good hiding spot, with one exception. If you are already being pursued and you enter these grasslands, you’re going to leave a trail that’s going to last for a little while. And, therefore, it’s going to be relatively easy for whatever’s following you to follow that trail.

But, otherwise, if more time has passed, you can easily hide in these tall grasses for a long time. To some extent, that will depend upon your predator because if they have a good sense of smell, then they may be able to follow you anyway. But, for those of us, like humans, who are mostly going by sight, we are at a disadvantage trying to find someone who has been in those grasslands for a while.

Figure 27 Grasslands

Figure 27 Grasslands

That said, we’ve all seen characters who are good at tracking, which is identifying how the ground has been disturbed, or even how vegetation has been disturbed. And, therefore, following the path. So, this is another option to give our human characters, or others who are like them, the ability to track someone anyway. Of course, if there is aerial pursuit, then this isn’t going to work nearly as well.

Now, if you’re wondering where the taller grass is more likely to occur, the answer should be fairly obvious. It’s going to be where there is more rain. This is something to keep in mind beyond your story needs because if you have a desert and you would like the characters to run right out of that desert into tall grass, that’s probably not going to happen because the whole reason there is a desert there is that there’s not a lot of precipitation. And, therefore, it doesn’t make too much sense that there’s going to be tall grass right next to it anymore than there would be a forest right there. What is realistic is that we would have short grass that slowly gives way to taller and taller grass and, eventually, to a forest.

Something else to be aware of is that in tropic climates near the equator, sometimes almost all of the year’s rain happen in just a couple weeks. This might mean that those tall, green grasslands are only a temporary feature.

I’ve mentioned the issue of prevailing winds and rain shadows a couple times, and how mountains can affect rainfall, and I’m going to do so again here using the United States as an example. When the Rocky Mountains rose out west, what happened is that this caused a rain shadow that killed the forest for hundreds of miles to the Midwest. And this caused the famous plains that are dominating the Midwest.

The reason this happened is that those mountains caused most of the water to come out of the clouds, into the mountains, and then, on the other side, there wasn’t any moisture to fall – or not enough to cause more lush vegetation. This is still true today, but when I did some research on this, one of the things I found is that the Native Americans would periodically burn down the grasslands, and they were doing this for a specific reason. They were trying to prevent trees from growing there because, eventually, those trees would start to grow and they would start to become a savanna, which we talked about in the previous episode. And, in time, a savannah could start to become a woodland, which has more trees, and then it could eventually become a forest. And they did not want this. They wanted more land for their livestock to graze. So, they periodically burned all the grasslands down. Well, not all of them, obviously, but they would set fires that would burn for many miles and this would kill off any potential trees that were starting to grow.

One thing this shows us is that even before modern civilization, humans had the ability to manipulate the land. So, if you have a world in a fantasy setting where there is not modern technology, your people could still be causing such a thing to happen. In fact, if we’re going to create a story that happens on a plain and have our characters get involved with nomads, for example, we might actually want to show a scene of them burning down the grasslands. Or we can just have our characters come across an area that has been burned, and maybe they think it’s natural, like a lightning strike, but it actually isn’t.

On that note, when we do create grasslands, we shouldn’t decide that there’s no population there, but we might want to go ahead and decide that there are nomads populating it. Not only is this reasonable, but it gives our characters someone that they might run across while they’re traveling. The nomadic culture is going to be very different from the culture of people who live in cities, and this gives us a good opportunity to show some more variety. These nomads might also be hostile or friendly depending on their relationship with those in the city. After all, there is likely to be some trade going on, but there might also be some suspicion on both sides, and possibly some past conflicts. So this, again, gives us more diversity and some history.

This is more likely anytime we have a wide expanse of land that is full of grasslands. So, if you have an especially tall group of mountains in the interior of a continent – which, as we learned in a previous episode, is where the tallest mountains will be – then we just need to know which direction the prevailing winds are going based on how far this land mass or this mountain range is from the equator, and then we can decide that on one side of this there is heavy forest, and on the other side there are many miles of grasslands that are populated by nomadic tribes.

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Creating Deserts

While we’re talking about areas with limited rainfall, let’s talk about deserts. It may surprise you to know that, here on Earth, deserts take up an entire third of the land surface. Not the entire surface, just the surface covered by land. So, don’t be shy about placing deserts on your world because they’re definitely going to be there, although we can change how many deserts are on the world.

Figure 32 Hard Desert Surface

Figure 32 Hard Desert Surface

However, you may want to not stray too far from doing a third of the land surface, and there’s a reason for this. The deserts play a role in regulating the planet’s temperature. So, if we go far outside of that, we may be messing with how things work. Although, the average person is not going to know this. Still, it’s something to keep in mind and follows that idea that you should know the rules before you break them. So, don’t be shy about adding deserts in many places.

And the obvious question is where would they form? And, if you’ve been listening to this episode and the previous ones, the obvious answer is that they would form to one side of a mountain range. This isn’t always true, but it often is. On that note, some deserts do receive rain, but they don’t receive enough to compensate for the high levels of evaporation. How little rain to we need in a year to cause a desert? Just 10 inches, which is really not that much.

Don’t think of a desert as a place where it never rains, because that’s usually not true. Some places are sort of semi-deserts because they receive 10 to 20 inches of rain, and some of these also have grass, in which case it’s called a steppe. So, this will be a place where it is still fairly barren, but not nearly as barren as a place with bare rock or sand. Once again, this variation keeps us from having everywhere be the same. Land that is closet to a mountain range might be a desert because of the lack of rainfall that the rain shadow caused, whereas land that is a little bit further away might be a steppe because it’s getting a little bit more rainfall and, therefore, has low grass. That, in turn, might give way to actual grasslands.

Of course, the reason that there is increasing vegetation further and further away from that rain shadow desert is that there is moisture in the air that is being picked up continuously. It’s just that most of it that was in the air before it hit the mountain range left those clouds. By the way, when it does rain in the desert, it often happens in a violent downpour, and this can cause a flash flood that happens miles away from where the storm actually is.

Another interesting fact about deserts is that they normally cannot form too close to the equator because there is too much heavy rain in the tropics from 0°, which is the equator, up to a roughly 30° latitude. That said, it is possible to have a desert here, and you may be able to guess why. There are areas near the equator where the elevation is very high and, as a result, instead of it being a tropical climate there, it’s actually a more temperate climate that would normally be found further north or south, away from the equator. The result is that if there are mountains there, there can actually be a rain shadow. And, as a result of that, an actual desert that is at the equator.

When it comes to the composition of deserts, it might also surprise you to know that only 20% of the Earth’s deserts are actually made of sand. Hollywood tends to show us this as the default, so most of us probably assume that’s how all of them are. But it’s not true. This is yet another way that we can make one desert different from another. The rest of the deserts are actually kind of like a virtual pavement of tightly packed small stones like pebbles. Hearing me say that, you might assume that it’s very loose, but it’s actually very stable. This hard desert is hard on the feet, including those of animals.

And one thing that this also means is that people can move relatively quickly through this, as opposed to a sandy desert. So, while a horse might struggle in sand, it will be fine on the hard desert. However, the hard desert is actually going to hurt its hooves. That doesn’t mean that the horse can’t travel on it, it just means that sooner or later it’s going to get fatigued, and that’s probably going to happen sooner. Horses prefer relatively soft earth, but not so soft that it’s like mud. So, when you’re working on your travel times, consider what type of desert is in a specific place.

So, the question then becomes where do you find a sandy desert versus a hard desert? One answer to this is to understand why sand forms. Basically, what’s happening is that extreme temperature changes from day to night cause rocks to break apart. After that, more erosion occurs from wind, and you end up with sand. In an earlier episode, we talked about climates, including the dry climate, and this is where deserts are typically found. Both the hot and the cold deserts are more likely to have this, as opposed to the mild deserts where the temperatures are not that extreme.

While there are a few more little details in the Creating Places book, the last thing I want to mention about deserts is the difference between a sandstorm and a dust storm, as these are not the same thing. Most of us have probably seen these towering images of what looks like a sandstorm engulfing an entire city, while these are actually dust storms. Sand is too heavy to get that high into the air. In fact, it doesn’t get much higher than us. What sand will do is pelt you sideways. It does not actually fall down on us from above, because it’s not going to get that high.

So, a dust storm looks really impressive, but is it really that lethal? And the answer is, actually, yes, because exposure to dust storms, if it happens repeatedly, can actually cause an incurable respiratory illness. Now, that can cause people to eventually suffocate. This does not sound as exciting or as dangerous as immediate death from sandstorms, but a dust storm is actually more likely to cause death. If we’re going to be writing a story that features one of these storms, we should have some idea of the difference here and use it appropriately.

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Creating Wetlands

Now that we’ve talked about places with very little water, let’s talk about places that have a lot – so much so that they are called wetlands. As it turns out, a wetland can either be freshwater, saltwater or brackish, which means that it is somewhere in between. Not surprisingly, the freshwater ones tend to be inland where water is coming from rainfall and runoff, whereas on the coast we’re more likely to have the saltwater ones. The ones that are brackish are still going to be near the coast, since that’s where the saltwater is coming from, but they also have a freshwater source, which is either going to be rain or a nearby lake, or a river, or possibly an underground spring. The result is called brackish.

Figure 28 Bog

Figure 28 Bog

As storytellers, we can use wetlands as a place where monsters like to hide because humans, in particular, tend to like solid ground and not be that comfortable going into them. Those who spend a lot of time in wetlands will feel differently, of course. These might also be the people who are familiar with that monster or what it is capable of, and even where it tends to be. They are likely to be the source of rumors about it, too, whether those prove to be true or false. Most wetlands are found in the temperate climate zone or in the tropics near the equator, but they can be in polar areas, too.

When it comes to the freshwater wetlands, what we might want to do is decide that there is an area of any lake that is actually a wetland. This could be any side of it, and what we’re talking about is a transition from lake to solid ground. And that area in between is going to be our wetland. This is generally the case. So, we don’t need to invent new areas on our map if we’ve got one. We can just decide that one area of a lake is the wetland.

Aside from monsters, why would we want to create one? Well, there could be lots of fish and other animals that have this as their habitat, and this results in products and other things that our characters might be using, which also includes food. In a world with magic, we could certainly decide that some sort of plant is growing there, and that it is very valuable, and that’s the only kind of place it’s found. And, therefore, those who are comfortable moving around in that wetland are going to be the ones who are harvesting that. And, therefore, they might have some position of prominence, at least when it comes to that particular item. Now, if it turns out that we do have a monster and we have that special plant there, maybe the monster has some sort of special property as a result of having access to that plant.

Creating Mires

There are four basic types of wetlands, and the first two are both known as mires. This includes bogs and fens. After that, we’re going to talk about marshes and then swamps.

When it comes to bogs and fens, both types of mires get their water from rainfall. Both of them form at the edges of lakes, as we were just talking about, and sometimes they can even cover the entire surface of that lake. So, what’s the difference between a bog and a fen? Let’s talk about bogs first.

A bog forms in a low area of land or on top of an old lake, which also forms in a low area of land. A bog can be many meters deep, and what happens on the surface is that dead plant material, like mosses, tends to form peat. Evergreen plants can grow on the surface, and one of the things that can happen is that, from a distance, it might look like it is just regular land and you might have no idea that there is actually water under there. This is especially true if it happens to be adjacent to a forest and, therefore, it just looks like the ground blends right into the forest in the background. And so, you could have a scene where a group of warriors on horseback are charging across the land, and they think they’re heading for that forest, having no idea that there’s actually a peat bog there and they’re just going to tumble right into the water.

Figure 28 Bog

Figure 28 Bog

One interesting idea we can leverage is that sometimes carnivorous plants exist in bogs, and these survive by eating invertebrate, but there’s no reason we can’t have bigger plants that survive by eating our people. In drier locations, we can actually have trees growing in these bogs. So, it’s not impossible to have a large plant. And by large, I don’t necessarily mean that it’s tall because a plant could be many meters across, lying across this apparent ground, which is actually peat.

Sometimes on Earth, large animals, like moose and caribou, are found in bogs, and there are a lot of other animals like otters and just smaller animals that use this as their home. And then the peat moss itself can be used as fuel for either heating or cooking. This, once again, gives us a product that we can mention in our city if there’s a nearby lake that has a bog on one end of it. Maybe someone is burning peat moss for fuel.

So, how does all of this differ from a fen? And the answer is pretty simple. Instead of being covered in peat, a fen is covered in grasses and shrubs. In addition to occurring along lakes, they can also occur alongside a river. They also typically get most of their water from the ground rather than rain, but this is not the kind of difference that your audience is likely to notice or care about if you point it out to them. A fen can also turn into a bog in time. Like bogs, fens have a tendency to be found in the mountains. And, just like with bogs, they can be deceptive from a distance so that you don’t realize it’s a fen and you might just assume it’s a grassland.

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Creating a Marsh

Let’s talk about another type of wetland called a marsh. They also form in a depression of land, or at the edge of a lake, or along the side of a slow-moving river. The water tends to be shallower here. Keep this in mind if you’re intending to use a marsh as the habitat of a large water-dwelling animal because that may not make as much sense as placing that into a bog or a fen, for example. The monster that we were discussing earlier is probably going to be more a land-dweller than a water-dweller if it calls a marsh its home. But, as for other life here, we can still have fish, bird, amphibians and smaller aquatic mammals. Instead of grasses and trees, like you would find in a fen, or the peat that you would find in a bog, here we would have grasses and reeds.

It is possible to have a saltwater marsh. These are found further from the equator along a coastline where the tide will flood them. However, they must usually be protected by a lagoon or an estuary because, otherwise, the flow of water coming in and out might be too strong for them.

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Creating a Swamp
Figure 31 Swamp

Figure 31 Swamp

And that brings us to the last wetland, and that is the swamp. This is one that we’ve all heard about, but we may not understand the difference between this and other types of wetlands. It’s basically a wetland that is a forest, meaning there are a lot of trees here. One way this is different from a fen is that fens don’t have nearly as many trees. As you might expect, a swamp occurs near large rivers and lakes. This means that we can once again take any lake that’s on our map and decide that part of it is a swamp. This swamp might also connect directly to an actual forest where the ground is solid.

Now, it is possible to have two different types of swamp, one of them being a swamp forest, and one of them being a brush swamp. And the difference is the amount of tree cover. The shrub version has fewer and shorter trees and is mostly bushes instead.

Now, within a swamp, there are sometimes dry areas of land that are raised, and these are called a hammock. This is where the shrubs tend to be found.

In a fantasy world, we know that elves love forests, but there seems to be not much mention of elves loving a swamp, even though this is just a forest with a lot of water. But maybe this is something that we can exploit in our world. Surely, the elves can find a use for this particular habitat.

Now, that said, we often show elves as living up in extremely tall trees, and it’s possible that such tall trees are not going to be growing inside a swamp for the simple reason that the ground is so saturated that they may not be able to grow that tall without falling over. Maybe this is the reason we don’t talk about elves being in swamps.

However, while they may not live in the swamp, there are certainly going to be times when there is a forest, and there’s a lake, and in between there is a swamp. And I see no reason why we can’t have elves make use of that swamp. At the very least, they’re going to be familiar with the types of creatures that live within it. They might turn them into products or have other uses for them, and this is something that we should explore as world builders.

So, that about wraps up Chapter 4, Creating Land Features, although I do have a few sections in the book that I’m not going to cover here, including settlements, which is briefly talked about in relation to these land features, and then the cultivation, meaning how much the humans and other species have manipulated this land for their benefit, and the impact that this can have on that settlement and the corresponding land features.

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 Now Weaponized! called “Serenade.” 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!

5 Tips – Government Types

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Jun 052018
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #13): Government Types

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is sovereign powers. You can read more in Chapter 5, “Creating Sovereign Powers”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Authoritative States”

Whether an autocracy, totalitarian, dictatorship, or authoritarian government, authoritative states are not the most pleasant ones to live in unless you’re the ones in power. With severe restrictions on freedoms, our hero can find himself/herself under duress to accomplish what they desire. They make great places for your hero to destroy or at least kill the leader of. The differences are discussed in Creating Places and help make our sovereign powers stand out from each other.

Tip #2: “Democracies”

A democracy allows people to participate in government by having influence over what policies are made into laws. This means far more freedom for the population and our heroes, who might originate from such a place and be philosophically opposed to more oppressive regimes. Wanting to free someone they love or respect from such a place is the sort of thing that makes them heroic.

Tip #3: “Federations”

Whether an empire, federation, confederation, or unitary state, federations have states that have some sovereignty over their own affairs while still following the laws of the federation. Some are members voluntarily while others are not, and some can leave when they want but others cannot. Their point of origin is also different.

Tip #4: “Monarchies”

Kingdoms are common in fantasy but less so in science fiction, but either way, they’re not all the same. The two main types are absolute vs. constitutional. The former has a ruler who has no limits on his power, a scenario ripe for abuse, especially with the “divine right of kings” being employed. A constitutional monarchy gives more power to the people via parliament and results in a ruler with often severe restrictions on their powers.

Tip #5: “Oligarchies and More”

An oligarchy is any form of government where power is controlled by a small group of people. This could be those in the military, those with magic power, the wealthy, merchants, or other groups we invent. Some of these variations have names like theocracy, aristocracy, or military junta, and each may have stark differences that lets us create more variation on our world.

Summary of Chapter 5—Creating a Sovereign Power

Kingdoms, empires, dictatorships and more are types of sovereign powers that world builders can create. Before we do, a high-level understanding of the differences between them is crucial. Many variations to government types exist, which gives us freedom to tweak details for our needs, but we should know the rules before we break them. The role of sovereignty, including how it is gained and lost, is examined in this chapter along with the “divine right of kings.” We also look at the head of state and head of government roles, the differences between them, and the conflicts that can arise. The nature of each branch of government is examined along with parliamentary systems. Democracies, federations, theocracies, monarchies, autocracies and more are examined for their key differences.

Inventing a sovereign power should include friends and enemies who shape policy, lifestyle, and culture. The form of government has significant impact on inhabitants and results from world view. History affects this as well, and while creating a history is optional, it enriches the dynamics of relationships and can create heroes, villains, and attitudes in the population. We should consider which species are present and in how great a percentage, and what languages are spoken or forbidden. Our power’s location and climate will impact lifestyles and vegetation, which also influences what natural resources it has or lacks, and what the power does as a result. These can all lead to tensions both with other powers or the residents. Symbols, colors, flags, and slogans will be a source of pride and even fear for both foreigners and the population.

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Podcast Episode 13.1 – How to Create Land Features

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Jun 052018
 

Episode 13.1: Learn How to Create Land Features

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how to create land features, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, and various kinds of forests, from woodlands to savannahs, jungles, and run-of-the-mill forests.

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

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to create mountains that are different from each other, and characterize them
  • The difference between extinct, dormant, and active volcanoes
  • What the four major types of forests are and where they form, and how they can impact story, and
  • How to make each river different from the last one you invented
Coda

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Episode 13.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part one. Today’s topic is how to create land features, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, and various kinds of forests, from woodlands to savannahs, jungles, and run-of-the-mill forests. This material and more is discussed in chapter 4 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.

Creating Mountains

Mountains are the first land feature we’re going to talk about because they have a big affect on where forests, deserts, and bodies of water, like rivers and lakes, will form. In the previous episode, number 12, we talked about plate tectonics and how this determines what kind of mountain ranges are in what location. I don’t want to explain that over again, so if you missed that episode, I suggest checking that out. I would also suggest checking out the previous episode, number 11, where I talked about prevailing winds and rain shadows.

I’ll briefly mention the reason we care about this, and basically what is going on is that wind is moving in a certain direction based on how far from the equator that landmass is and where the wind is passing over it. What happens is that the prevailing winds hit one side of the mountains and most of the water in those clouds falls on that side, causing a forest there and, on the other side, there is no more rain to fall. And, as a result, there’s usually a desert there. This is one of the reasons we care about putting mountains on our map first. Or, even if we’re not doing a map, this is something we should decide on early.

But let’s talk about the mountains themselves, not the affect that they have on vegetation. We all think we know what a mountain is, but it might surprise you to know that there is actually no definition that has been agreed upon. For something to be considered a mountain, it just has to be something that stands out from the surrounding countryside. So, if you have a very flat land and there is a so-called mountain that is 2,000 feet tall, then it’s going to look like a mountain. Calling it one might seem ridiculous to someone who is used to living somewhere where the mountains are 14,000 feet tall, but it’s still okay to call it that. For this reason, when we are doing world building and we are deciding that there’s a range of mountains, or even just a solitary peak, we should always make a note in our files just how big this thing is.

On Earth, roughly a quarter of the surface is covered in mountains. So, when you are laying out your continent, you should have this understanding that these are not exactly rare. Depending on the size of the continent that we’re inventing, there could be multiple mountain ranges. Sometimes mountain ranges are parallel to each other. Using the United States as an example, all of them appear to run north to south. The Cascade Mountains on the western coast do this, and so do the Rocky Mountains that are further inland. And the same is true on the eastern side of the United States.

One thing to keep in mind is that to the average person like ourselves, when we look at a map showing the topography, we might think that the Cascade Mountains on the western side of the United States is one very long mountain range going all the way from Canada down through the United States into Mexico. But the reality is that these are actually separate mountain ranges that are sort of stacked on top of each other north to south.

If we choose to do such a thing ourselves, then we may want to leave a small gap in between those mountain ranges and indicate that this is a travel route (or a pass, as we sometimes call them) or we might want to just decide to use one name for the entire range. And, in fact, this sort of thing does happen in the real world. We do that with the east coast mountains. For example, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Mountains are actually part of the larger Appalachian Mountain Range. If we don’t want to invent three different names like that, then we don’t have to.

Many of us have probably heard of Olympus Mons on Mars. This is the largest mountain in the entire solar system. On Earth, Mount Everest is roughly 29,000 feet, but Olympus Mons is 69,000 feet. This seems like it would be truly amazing, but the reality is that the mountain is so large – it’s basically the size of France – that if you were standing on that mountain, you wouldn’t even realize you were on a mountain because it’s so broad and flat. The reason this mountain is so tall is that there are no tectonic plates on Mars. And we discussed that in a previous episode. Basically, all of the continents we have here on Earth are on top of a tectonic plate which is sort of floating on the surface of the Earth. They’re all basically moving. When they move towards each other or they pull apart, this causes volcanoes and mountain ranges to form.

There’s also something called a hot spot, and this is actually what’s causing Olympus Mons. Basically, the surface of Mars is not moving and there is a hot spot there. Therefore, the magma is just perpetually coming up. This doesn’t happen on Earth to the same degree because the surface of the Earth is moving. And, therefore, the hot spot keeps changing as well and that gives us something like the volcanic islands of Hawaii.

One point I’m getting at here is that a truly enormous mountain is only going to happen on a world where there are no tectonic plates, and that’s going to cause all sorts of other changes to our world that we might want to be aware of. For example, all of the other kinds of mountain ranges are probably not going to exist. As a result, those mountain ranges that don’t exist are not going to have an affect on prevailing winds, and there’s not going to be this whole thing of rain shadows and forests on one side, and then deserts on the other.

Of course, anything is technically possible, and scientists often say something like that, and then, years later, they discover a world that has something that they thought was impossible. So, maybe I’m wrong, but you get the idea. If you’re going to do something like one truly enormous mountain, you’re implying that there are no tectonic plates and that there would be other side effects. However, the average person reading your book is going to have no idea about any of that.

This means we could get away with a truly enormous mountain, but if you stop and think about it, a solitary mountain is the most impressive looking thing. One example that you can Google to get some images of this is Mount Shasta in Northern California. It’s the only mountain right there and it stands out very dramatically from the surrounding because of that. And it’s only 14,000 feet tall, compared to Mount Everest at 29,000 feet. And then, of course, there is Olympus Mons at over 69,000 feet.

When I see pictures of Mount Everest, it doesn’t look nearly as majestic to me as Mount Shasta, even though it’s twice as tall, because there are all sorts of other mountains that are almost as tall surrounding Mount Everest. But, on the other hand, Mount Shasta is kind of standing there mostly by itself. In other words, context is everything.

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Volcanoes

In thinking about volcanoes, one of the things that we need to concern ourselves with is its status. Some volcanoes are said to be extinct, and what that really means is that in written history it has never erupted. Now, if we have a species like elves that are 1,000 years old, and they have a civilization going very far back, then your world might have no volcanoes that are considered to be extinct. Or we could change our definition from extinct meaning “that no written record of it erupting exists” to “no living memory of it erupting exists either.” Or we could decide that extinct just means it’s 5,000 years since it erupted. In Earth terms, that’s long enough ago to be before written history. Actually, that may not be true, but you get the idea.

An extinct volcano is one that has not erupted in thousands of years. So, what do we call one that has erupted in the last few thousand years or during written history? Well, those are called dormant if they are not currently active. And, of course, an active volcano is erupting right now. You’re not going to fail to notice this. Neither are your characters. As storytellers, we only need an active volcano when that’s actually going to impact the story that we’re telling.

Extinct volcanoes may not have much use for us because it’s no fun deciding that something is never going to erupt again and, in fact, we’re right about that. It can be more fun to decide that people think it’s extinct and that it’s not going to erupt again, but it’s actually dormant and then, suddenly, it erupts. But, of course, just as with the active volcanoes, once it’s erupting, that’s going to be impacting our story. So, we only need to be concerned about that if it’s going to be something we want to happen.

In other words, should we bother putting a volcano there if it’s extinct, or should we always decide that those are dormant? In other words, we’re not going to use it until, suddenly, we do need it. Bear in mind that even with a supposedly extinct volcano, it’s possible for us to have geological cataclysms of such a huge nature that a once extinct volcano becomes one that’s erupting.

Also bear in mind that, just like you were a few minutes ago, probably, your characters don’t really know the difference between dormant and extinct. All they’re really going to be thinking is whether or not that’s going to erupt anytime soon, and that’s going to be based on how recently it last erupted, which means it’s dormant. If everyone says, “Well, we don’t remember it ever erupting,” well then, of course, it’s extinct. But no one’s probably going to make those distinctions. The exception would be a scientist.

Characterizing Mountains

When we’re creating mountains, we should also try to characterize these just as we do with volcanoes. We could reasonably say that mountain ranges are roughly in the 3,000 to 4,000 foot range, which is around 900 meters, or they tower over 10,000 feet or over 3,000 meters. Making a distinction here is one way to keep all of your mountain ranges from being the same. If the continent you’re inventing is going to have two mountain ranges, make one of them small and the other one big. How do you decide? Well, from the previous episode on plate tectonics, you might remember that the tallest mountain ranges tend to be those on the interior of the continent. They also don’t have volcanoes.

On the other hand, those mountain ranges along the coasts do have volcanoes and they tend to be shorter. This isn’t necessarily the case, however, as the mountains on the eastern side of the United States are in the roughly 3,000 to 4,000 foot range, whereas the tallest mountains on the western coast are in that 14,000 range. This might sound contradictory, but basically, that’s the way nature works. Nothing is really a law set in stone, and the great thing about this is that this gives us flexibility to decide what we want to do. We can be informed by science instead of restricted by it.

The lower mountains are less likely to cause the rain shadow that we’ve talked about in a couple episodes here. On the other hand, taller mountains will definitely cause one. This is why we see rain shadows on the western side of the United States, but we do not see them on the eastern side.

Tall mountains are obviously harder to get over, not only for those on land, but even for birds. It may surprise you to know that in the Himalayas, there are species of birds that try to traverse those mountains and they have a lot of difficulty flying that high to do so. If you have dragons in your world, or enormous birds like eagles that you see in The Lord of the Rings, this is also going to affect them. And it might affect them even more than the smaller birds.

So, if you’re trying to decide how tall the mountains should be for your story, then this is one way to make a decision. If you would like the dragons to have to also go around, then there you go. You could just make these mountains very tall. That said, we do like the idea that dragons are all-powerful, but it’s really a good idea in any sort of storytelling to give even something supposedly that powerful some sort of weakness. This is a very realistic and believable one for dragons.

The higher the mountains, the less likely they are traversed, which means that there may be fewer trade routes or settlements there. This, in turn, makes it a good place for a hideout for something like a wizard. In science fiction, this is less true because, of course, we usually have spacecraft and something like that is not really an issue.

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Rivers

Let’s talk a little bit about rivers. They obviously flow downhill because that’s the way gravity works. And, usually, they end up either in a lake or an ocean. But, sometimes, they actually dry up first. They can also fall into something like a sinkhole in the ground and become an underground river. This is something we can leverage if we have a humanoid species, for example, who lives in water. The result could be that the species is found in places where people might not be expecting them. There could be an underground river nearby.

As for what determines where a river flows, it’s generally going to go through the softest material. In other words, it’s going to erode dirt before it’s going to erode rock. We may also want to keep in mind something called a flood plain. This is where the water goes when the river overflows its banks, and a flood plain can be many miles wide and have settlements in it. So, this is where we want to focus on this. Decide if you have any settlements that are built in a flood plain near a major wide river. If so, they have likely been flooded repeatedly, and this is something that you can add to their history file and it’s part of their life there that they expect this. Maybe they’ve even built their houses on stilts because of it.

The age of a river is also something else to consider. If a river is steep and fast, it also tends to be relatively straight. So, if you draw a straight river on your map, you are implying that it’s a young river that is steep and fast. It might also be deep instead of broad because the water is going through there so quickly that it’s carving a deeper channel.

Then there are mature rivers which are less steep and they flow more slowly. And this is going to mean that they have a wider channel and more tributaries.

And then there are the old rivers. These are slow and they don’t erode much anymore. And they usually have a flood plain.

If we are drawing a map, we should also be aware that there are going to be many more waterways than the ones that we’re going to draw, especially if we’re doing a continent-sized map. If we were to draw every little river or stream, the entire thing would be covered in rivers. What this means is that we usually want to make a decision on what the major rivers are, and only depict those. Don’t get carried away with putting every other little river onto the map.

When it comes to lakes, sometimes we have a hard time deciding where a lake should be when we’re drawing a map. Well, one thing to consider is that they tend to be at higher elevations. This means that we might want to draw it closer to the mountain range than the sea, for example. However, we can really get away with doing almost anything we want here and not explain it. All that really matters is that there is an area of depressed land, and that is where the water has begun to collect.

On Earth, most lakes are freshwater, but not all of them are. So, it is possible to have a saltwater lake. It’s also possible to have a lake that does not have a river flowing out the other side. Most of them do because this is how the river maintains its water level. The lakes that don’t have a river causing this outflow of water are going to lose their water through evaporation. This is, again, something we don’t need to explain to anyone, but there is a tendency to always want to have a river coming out of a lake on one side and going in on the other. And we don’t necessarily have to do that. Generally, you will want to do it, however.

There are some other interesting details on lakes and rivers that are found in Creating Places, but I’m not going to cover them here.

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Types of Forests

Arguably, most of us are not that familiar with the different types of forests. And, as a result, we tend to make all of them mostly be the same in our work. So, what we’re going to focus on here is discussing some of the differences of the main types. In Episode 8, I talked about the different types of trees. So, we’re not going to cover that. We’re just going to focus on the different types of forests. That said, it does help to know the basic types of trees. There are evergreens, which are literally green all year. Then there are coniferous ones, which have needle-like leaves such as pine trees. And then there are the deciduous ones, which have seasonal loss of flowers, leaves and fruit ripening.

As it turns out, all trees are actually losing their leaves throughout the year. The issue with deciduous trees is that they do so all at once in a dry season or a winter season, and that’s the one that we associate with losing leaves. But, as someone who has a pine tree in his back yard, I can tell you that I spend all year sweeping off my deck because the pine needles just keep falling off. This is on my mind because I literally did this about three hours ago.

Regular Forests

To talk about the other types of forests, we need to establish a baseline that we will just call the run-of-the-mill forest. This is the one that we will distinguish the other types from. So, what’s a forest? Well, that means it has a tree canopy covering roughly 60 to 100 percent of the land under it. In other words, this has one of the thickest tree canopies and, as a result, the most shade is found under it. If we have decided to invent a plant that needs full sun to grow, then it’s probably not going to be found in this forest unless it’s along the edge of a clearing, for example. There may not be enough sunlight, but it depends on how thick that canopy is. If we’ve decided that it’s covering 100 percent of the land, then yes, that’s true. On the other hand, if it’s only covering 60 percent of the land, well then, there’s probably enough sunlight in certain areas for that to grow.

This is the kind of detail that can add some realism to our story if we’ve decided the characters are hunting for that plant, but they have to go, say, further into the forest to get to an area that is less full of canopy, and it has more sunlight. But, by doing so, they’re going to run into some nasty thing that they’re going to have to fight. Why would they want that plant? Well, because it has some sort of property, like magical or poison, that we need for our story. This amount of tree canopy also means that there will be some underbrush, but it’s not going to be impenetrable.

Woodlands

The next thing we want to talk about is the woodland. Now, we might not call it that on our map. We might just still write the word “forest” or “woods,” but we should note in our files that this is a woodland once we understand what that is and why we would want to create one.

The trees in a woodland are spaced further out, and that means that the canopy is less and, therefore, it’s relatively sunny. Rather than calling a forest a light forest, we should call it a woodland because that’s what it is. There tends to be less underbrush and, therefore, it’s relatively easy to ride horses or other animals through a woodland than a forest, or a jungle, certainly. Keep this in mind when deciding what type of forest is in your story. If you want the characters to be able to ride through there relatively quickly, then you say it’s a woodland. If you want it to be harder to get through, then maybe it’s a forest with more underbrush. Of course, in both cases, they may have trails going through there that bypass this problem, but you get the idea. If they leave the trail, then they have a different degree of difficulty going through the land anyway.

This would also be true for anything living in there that might want to attack our characters. Is the road needed or do they have the ability to go off that road without suffering any major consequences to their travel time? As you might imagine, if you’re a creature who would like to attack travelers, it’s easier to do so in a forest than a woodland, partly because there’s less to hide behind, but, in a forest, the characters you want to attack might be more restricted to the road and, therefore, it’s easier to know where they’re going to be. If we’ve invented a species that is known for attacking travelers in forests, they probably aren’t known for doing that in a woodland. So, if you’ve created two forests – well, one’s a forest and one’s a woodland, that species might be in one, but not in the other so much.

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Savanna

And then there’s a savanna, which has almost no tree canopy at all, despite the trees. One result is that there could be grass, and it could be rather tall grass that could be hiding things like a lion, for example. If you’re wondering where a savanna would be located, well, it’s usually between a forest and a grassland. In other words, the thick trees have given away to sparser trees of the savanna, and those eventually give way to the grassland. We shouldn’t be afraid to create a savanna because a fifth of the worlds land surface is actually comprised of savannas.

Jungles

The last type I want to talk about is the jungle. And this is a term that can be poorly understood for a number of reasons. Sometimes the word “jungle” is confused for the word “rainforest,” but to understand that explanation, you’d first need to understand what a jungle is.

It’s basically a very dense forest with enough underbrush for it to be difficult, if not impossible, to get through unless you cut your way through. By contrast, a rainforest has very little underbrush because the tree canopy prevents light from reaching the ground, which means that it isn’t going to grow. So, the impassable jungle often borders a rainforest because there is enough light at the edge to allow that thick underbrush to grow. You would have to cut your way through it in order to reach the deeper area where it’s going to be a rainforest, and there is not going to be all that underbrush.

So, why does a jungle and a rainforest get confused for each other? Well, it’s because European explorers were initially traveling through tropical rainforests by river, and what happened is that because the river is opening up the forest there, there is enough sunlight to cause a jungle. It’s growing on the edge. So, basically, they thought, wrongly, that the jungle continued miles in each direction away from the river when the reality is if they had just cut their way through a little bit more, they would have seen that it’s just a rainforest and that the jungle is only by the river.

We can use this in our stories by having our characters basically make the same mistake. So, we could have a settlement that’s in a rainforest and that’s only reachable by boat on a river, and people assume that you have to get through this incredibly hard jungle underbrush to get there. And, therefore, people don’t even try without even realizing that maybe they only have to cut their way through, I don’t know, maybe 1,000 yards of jungle before they suddenly have much easier travel time through the rainforest for the rest of the trip.

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 Now Weaponized!, called “Serenade.” 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!