Podcast Episode 30 - Creating Items - The Art of World Building
Aug 252020
 
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Episode 30: Learn How to Create Items

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

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

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Episode 30 Transcript
Intro

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

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

Ownership

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

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

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

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

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

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Regular Items

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Magic Items

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tech Items

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Creating A.I.

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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