Episode 32: Learn How to Other Systems
Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create other systems. This includes legal, health, IT, education, and more.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- How to invent education systems and whether public or private ones are available
- Why health systems should include mental health and what that might look like in a fantasy setting
- How to create laws
- The different kinds of legal systems
- Different ideas on trial by ordeal and combat
- How to craft easy-to-remember monetary systems and things we don’t need to worry about
- What a unit of value vs. unit of weight is
- Why information systems still apply to a fantasy setting
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Episode 32 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-two. Today’s topic is about how to create other systems. This includes legal, health, IT, education, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 10 of Cultures and Beyond, volume 3 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.
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The first kind of system we’re going to talk about is one for education. If we are storytellers, just about every character we ever invent is going to go through an education system. Some of them won’t, but, of course, many of the other characters will, and this will put that character at a disadvantage. So, it is still relevant. The only time it won’t be is if every character has the exact same education. Otherwise, our interactions, and certainly our opportunities, like jobs, are going to be impacted by this. And if we’re trying to do a character backstory, this is something we really need to know about them.
Systems are typically public, and that means that the government is paying for them. There is private education, but that is not typically a system. Each of those schools is a sort of one-off. That said, a private school may still need to pass some sort of government regulation. It’s sort of part of the system and not part of the system at the same time. It’s definitely not part of the public system, which has expectations.
One point here is that since the government is responsible for public education, if the government is inadequate, there may not be one. So, for example, a tribe of nomadic horsemen doesn’t really have a system in that sense. They will still have education, but it’s probably going to be passed down in a less formal setting.
For the sake of argument, I’m going to break down education into basic and special. By basic education, I mean a lot of those things that most of us take for granted, like reading, writing and basic arithmetic. By contrast, something like getting a college degree in music, like I have, would be special education. Sometimes we may learn the basics of something like music when we are in, say, grade school or even through high school, but we don’t really do a deep dive until we decide to become a specialist and major in that in college.
So, basic education means having a basic familiarity with most things that are relevant in a society. If we have a space-faring civilization, then everyone is going to have some familiarity with things like warp drives. They’re not going to draw a total blank and have no idea what you are talking about because the school system would’ve given them this basic education in that. Someone who goes on to be an engineer who can work on or build warp engines is someone who has special education in it.
In a less developed world, whether it’s fantasy or science fiction, we may have a setting where the children are expected to work because it’s too hard to get the basics of life. Therefore, they don’t have the time and the luxury to go off to something like public school. Today, we have things like child labor laws, but in the past that didn’t exist, partly because children often were required to work. This is something that’s going to come up in fantasy where children may have to do an apprenticeship with either their parents, to take over the family business, or someone else within the same settlement.
The same can exist in science fiction, depending on the technological level and what’s currently going on. For example, the age during which spaceships were routinely being built might have recently passed, and we are now in a kind of dystopian period where things are not so great and the public system of education has fallen into disrepair. However, in this kind of scenario, a lot of knowledge is going to be shared by the public in general. Even though, maybe today, children are not necessarily receiving the same sort of formal schooling, there’s still a general knowledge of something like warp drive. We don’t need to invent an entire curriculum for what people learn. We can just decide on the basic level of education for most people in our setting. Unless we need a character to have a specific kind of ignorance compared to everyone else, this is usually fine.
From the book, I have a couple examples I’m going to read off to you of what we might want to write in our world building files for both science fiction and fantasy. In science fiction, we might write something like, “At age six, students are legally required to enroll at a public Kierdon school, named for the famous scientist, Kier, which they attend until age sixteen. After this, each student must enroll in a technical school for two years, learning space sciences. Advanced education beyond this is available in three-year stints, each resulting in a degree.” Part of what this gets us is the age at which people start and finish, and the kinds of things that they may be studying if it’s not obvious.
For fantasy, we might write, “At age six, students may enroll in a private Kierdon school, named for the God of Knowledge, Kier, if their parents can spare their work hours and afford the modest price. Students may work at the school in lieu of paying in gold. Enrollment is not required. School ends at age twelve, though students can leave at any time. Advanced schooling beyond this is only for nobility, or those considered unique or special, and who must pay with years of service, not less than ten, in their profession after graduation. Refusal will result in lifelong servitude.”
These examples give us a rough idea of the kind of thing we want to write in our files to indicate the basic education level. When it comes to special education, this is probably more likely in a setting where basic education advances at least through a good portion of the teenage years. The reason is that what we consider, today, to be advanced education usually requires a certain amount of that basic education. We probably find it easier to believe someone has a college degree in a science fiction setting than in a fantasy setting, or the equivalent amount of knowledge.
In a setting where school ends early, like that fantasy example where I had it ending around age twelve, if someone does get advanced education, it might not be in something like a public or even a private university, but more from something like an apprenticeship. So, we might have a wizard, for example, who is a sorcerer’s apprentice. When it comes to being an apprentice, this isn’t necessarily reserved just for advanced learning. This might be the only form of education that is available to people. This is not really part of a system unless something like a wizard’s guild is overseeing the sort of training the individual wizards prepare for people.
However, we could still consider that private or public, depending on whether the local government is funding the guild or assisting with these apprenticeships. Naturally, when taxpayer dollars are being expended that way, then something like a city council has some ability to meddle in how the apprenticeship is done. So, decide if this is a complication that you might benefit from with your story. We can imagine an apprenticeship where the wizard giving it chaffs at these restrictions and maybe they stop doing it through the affiliation with the government or with a guild, and they go off and do it on their own, somewhere out in the wilderness where they are supposedly not under anyone’s authority anymore. The government may disagree about that, but it sets up a nice conflict for us.
Wizards aren’t the only people who can have an apprenticeship. Obviously, we have more mundane ones, such as something like blacksmithing — no offense to blacksmiths. Then, of course, in science fiction, any number of technologies could be taught by individuals if there is no public, or an inadequate, education system.
We may need to decide on some rules for this, but this is, once again, only going to apply if that apprenticeship is being overseen by a governing body. One rule that we may want to come up with is what age an apprenticeship can begin at, and when is it expected to end? We should also decide if the apprentice needs to live with the master. That is one of several basic concerns we need to think about with all types of education systems, whether it’s public private, basic, specialized or an apprenticeship. We’ve all heard of the boarding school where students live at the school. This can either be during the day or it can be overnight. It can be something like the weekdays, or it can be all year round.
Another issue is whether students are required to go to school. In the United States, it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure that a child of eligible age is enrolled and attends. It’s actually illegal if they don’t, and it is the parents, not the child, that can get into trouble because children are believed to not be as responsible, but we could change that in our setting and have the children be the ones who get into trouble. This might happen if our culture values responsibility and wants to teach that at an early age.
Always remember to consider the culture and the value system. At first glance, that idea that the child would get in trouble seems a little bit odd to us, but if we think of it from the standpoint of what I just said, that they want to teach responsibility, then it becomes understandable. Have a rational for these types of changes makes it something that the audience can accept. Otherwise, something may come across as unfair when the culture doesn’t mean it to be so.
Another issue we should decide is if there are facilities that are part of the school or do students need to go off campus to get them? So, an example of that would be something like a library, a laboratory or even a gym. This may not seem important, but imagine a scenario where there’s no on-campus library, and at a certain time of the day, the students tend to leave campus en masse and descend on the local library. Then we have our main characters who are trying to get into that library to get something, and they find it really crowded. This is a really subtle way of indicating what’s going on. Maybe a character knows that they need to get to the library quick, before 12 o’clock rolls around, because that’s when all the local college students overrun the place. It’s a trivial detail that adds depth.
And, of course, another subject we should discuss is whether segregation exists, or even discrimination, which can be by gender, race, species, ethnicity, social class, bloodline and anything else we can think of, really. Some people may be denied education altogether, whereas some have to go off and get it in private or through an apprenticeship. This may have a consequence to how well-educated they are, which in turn is going to impact their relationships and their opportunities.
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The next system we’re going to talk about is a health system. This can be broken down into mental health and medical health, which we will talk about first. On Earth, life expectancy before the 1900s was seldom above 30 years old. But there is an idea that if someone made it to the age of 20, they could reasonably expect to live another 30 or 40 years. The reason for this was that childhood was the prominent time when people died. The obvious reason for this is that children are more susceptible to sickness. The high percentage of children dying young is what brought the overall life expectancy that low.
Sometimes the percentage of people reaching age 20 could be as low as 60%. That means that for every 100 people that exist under the age of 20, there are only 60 people above the age of 20. One thing this certainly suggests is that few of our characters are going to have living grandparents, and many of them may not have one or either parent still alive.
In a fantasy setting especially, the magical healing or laying-on of hands typically means that a god’s power has been channeled through somebody’s body, which is being used as a vessel to heal the wounded. We can still do this in science fiction, but typically, what we’re going to see is medicine that is far in advance of what we have today on Earth. But something we should avoid with either of these is making it too easy for someone to be completely healed with no real consequence to the person or the technology that did the healing. The reason for this is that if people can be healed that easily, then there’s really nothing for us to worry about as an audience member when they get hurt.
This is one reason why I, personally, don’t get all that caught up in any sort of superhero movie where the characters, who are all superheroes, are beating the stuffing out of each other because none of them ever seem to get hurt. Or, if they do, it’s for a few minutes. For me, these scenes lack any drama at all.
Something we should consider is that until relatively recently in human history here on Earth, the existence of germs was poorly understood or not known at all. Therefore, we’re going to have more issues with people getting sick in a setting that doesn’t understand this kind of thing. The result is going to be poor hygiene and things like not washing their hands after you’re going to the bathroom, or before eating. There is a reason that there used to be a lot of plagues, and that today there are not nearly as many of those.
As it turns out, while I’m doing this episode, the Coronavirus from China is running rampant. So, these things do, sometimes, still happen. Something we should consider adding to our setting is one or more plagues that have happened in the last 100 or 200 years because it most likely has happened if the medicine is worse than it is here in the early 1900s and beyond. It’s believable that multiple characters would have an ancestor who died from one.
This sort of thing is also true in science fiction when characters are planet hopping because the germs from one planet are non-existent on the other, generally, unless they’ve already been introduced. This is one reason why we see characters wearing space suits, and it’s not just because they’re trying to find out if the atmosphere is breathable. This idea of a pathogen making everyone sick is a bit of a cliche, but it’s also so believable that it would almost not make sense to never feature this.
This is one reason why the medicine is often shown to be so powerful that it can quickly eradicate this sort of thing. Authors do this because, otherwise, every single story would turn into a biological nightmare story. Rather than gloss over this kind of thing, we probably want to quickly show it or even, in something like a book where the number of days being passed is irrelevant because we can simply state it in a single sentence, we can decide that someone has been quarantined for something like a week, two weeks, and they’ve been inoculated against these things so that they can be there without getting themselves sick, and any pathogens they are carrying won’t get the locals sick. However, especially in that latter case of them not bringing something, and everyone on the planet being safe from it, that’s a pretty big stretch of the imagination, but it’s a caveat that we may have to do. We call it artistic license. Just be aware that it’s not believable, but people will accept it.
Many of us have heard of bloodletting, which has an interesting history behind it. Ancient physicians believed that the body had four humors, as they called them, and that an excess or deficiency in any of these, or a poor combination of them, resulted in an illness. The four humors were blood, bile, phlegm, and black bile, which is believed to be clotted blood because that appears black.
Sometimes people were made to consume a food or a drink to correct an imbalance in these humors, and bloodletting is another example of this because, in this case, too much blood, therefore you let some of the blood out. This practice was surprisingly widespread and lasted for about 2,000 years. These physicians were wrong, of course. These practices didn’t actually help anybody unless it was coincidentally, such as having high blood pressure, and reducing the amount of blood in the body temporarily fixing this. The practices could often be quite harmful. But what if we had a species where their body actually is like this, whether it’s those four humors or something else, and these practices work? That would be an interesting thing to do.
We’ve all heard of a quack, which is someone who uses questionable claims and practices to try to help people, or at least claim that they’re going to do so. They often sold something like a balm or an oil that had materials that were considered to be unique inside them. If we have a setting with unique plants and animals, then it’s easier for us to come up with something like the infamous snake oil salesman kind of idea.
Some of these substances were harmful, and some of them could be addictive. That could have been, also, on purpose. If you’re trying to con people, it seems like a good idea to make them addicted to whatever it is that you’re selling. Some of these people were not nefarious. They honestly believed that what they were doing would help, and they genuinely wanted to help people.
Regardless of our decision, in a society where ignorance is more widespread because of our educational system, then these quacks are also going to be more widespread. In science fiction, where we are more likely to have planet-hopping characters, we’re more likely to run into these exotic materials that may have a reputation, even if it’s false, for some sort of miraculous cure.
Let’s talk about mental health. On Earth, the field of psychology is a relatively young one. Long ago, people could be confined, possibly for the rest of their life, for having something that, today, we would consider to be a minor problem that could be treated with behavior therapy or possibly medication. It was even possible to declare someone mentally incompetent, or something to that effect, if they were disagreeable.
One of the abuses heaped upon women is that a husband could have her declared insane and get her committed. That’s obviously a little bit extreme, but we have these options in our world. As far as the confinement goes, most of us are probably thinking of something like a prison or a mental hospital, but these mental hospitals may not have existed. So, an option that we’re left with is someone in the community being willing to essentially imprison these people in something like their basement and take care of them. The quality of care is, of course, going to be questionable — or it could be. It really depends on who is doing this. If this person has no ethics and they’re getting some sort of payment from the town for doing this, then, of course, that money might just be going into their own pocket instead of helping these patients live a decent life. But if it’s someone who is religious, they might actually, genuinely care about these people and want to help them.
Consider where the people who are considered mentally unwell are kept if they cannot be treated in the society due to not having enough advances in mental healthcare. There is likely a well-known location, such as a building in just about every town where the crazy people are kept. In a more advanced society, it’s more likely that they will have medication and other things to help people, just as we do today, and that only a small number of people will end up being confined. But they still will be, so there’s going to be one of these places in a city. Maybe more than one.
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Legal systems are one of the more important systems we need to invent. This is true even if it’s as simple as an eye for an eye because if one person kills another in revenge like that, maybe everyone else just lets it go. And if they don’t, then maybe something like a blood feud will start. In other words, we still need to know what the consequences of such an action are.
As it turns out, there are several types of legal systems. One of them is known as civil law. This means that a legislator creates and modifies an authoritative source that formalizes laws, and that source is either a constitution, which is at the sovereign power or federal level, or a statute, which is at a lower level, like the states in the United States.
The constitutional laws tend to be kind of broad, and they end up being interpreted at the lower or statutory level, like in the states. This is one reason why we may see different laws in different states because there are different interpretations. An example in the U.S. right now is that marijuana is illegal at the federal level, but it is legal in some of the states. If we want to do something like this in our fictional world, we just need to know that there’s something like a sovereign power, and then self-governing bodies, like the U.S. states or provinces, within that body. This is one way a character can get themselves into trouble when they’re traveling because they have moved between different jurisdictions with different laws.
Civil law is one of the most common types of law systems, and common law, as it turns out, is the other big one. It’s called common law because it was common in England among the king’s courts. Along with civil law, common law is the other most common on Earth. And, in fact, it’s about one-third of the Earth. This one is interesting because the primary feature is that a judge will look to any sort of past case that is like the one that has come before him, and if this past case is similar enough to the current one, he must abide by the reasoning that went into that previous case when ruling on the current case. This means that precedents are considered the law. If the case is unique, he will be the first one to rule on this subject, and his decision will go on to be the precedent that other judges must consider.
In other words, these judges are actually making the laws if there isn’t one for them to already follow. This is very different from civil law where a judge would have no authority to do anything if no law has been broken. But a judge in a common law system can essentially decide that there is a law that has been broken. This is true even if one doesn’t really exist. Another name for this is judge-made law or judicial law.
The other type of legal system is religious law. This is one where the Bible, for example, would be considered the legal text. The author of such a document is considered to be a god. However, sometimes a prophet, like Moses, wrote down those laws, like the famous Ten Commandments, and these are considered Mosaic Law, meaning they are named after the prophet.
One of the things we all want to do is figure out how to create laws. I’m going to break this down into what might be considered moral laws and then incident laws. A moral law would be one that something like religion can influence. And that means where the values, morals and beliefs are promoted through restrictions on what is considered permissible behavior. An example would be laws about abortion or whether capital punishment is allowed. Morality is one of the things that causes the law to be one way or the other.
In Chapter 1 of Cultures and Beyond, the chapter on creating culture, we looked at the idea of cultural idea and vision. We should consider this when we are trying to invent a new law that has a moral nature. This is one way to use work we’ve already done. In the book, I have a bunch of examples — and I’m going to read a few of them — of what could be considered moral laws. This means that either a value, a belief, or a moral idea has led to the existence of this law.
For example, maybe black magic is forbidden, and the reason would be that it’s a morality question where you have to deal with unholy forces. A law could be goblins are not allowed near a treasury, and this would be based on the belief that they are thieves. Another law could be that fire wizards must assist with extinguishing public fires. This would be based on a value that they should help society.
Another type of law is what I think of as incident laws. This means something has happened and now there’s a law to inhibit that happening again. That’s pretty self-explanatory, so let’s look at some examples. Let’s say black magic is forbidden, and the reason would be that this leads to unsavory beings being in town, and the resulting problems they bring. You’ll notice this was also what I called a moral law. So, we could have both moral laws and incident laws where the two of them are essentially merged. So, we’ve got one law that satisfies both of these desires.
Another example of that would be the one about goblins not being allowed near the treasury. This could be again because they robbed several treasuries in neighboring kingdoms. So, there’s your incident, one that could have led to the belief I stated earlier that they are thieves. Another law could be that children may not perform magic because they’re too undisciplined and they’ve caused problems before.
The great thing about inventing incident laws is that they give us a little bit of history in small bits, and we can make these up as we go along, or just whenever we have an idea. It doesn’t take very long.
Let’s talk about trials. This is where we get into the fun stuff. As we all know, the point of a trial is to find out if someone is guilty or innocent. Today, we have a kind of boring version where people just listen to evidence. And that’s all well and good, but in the past, on Earth, we had some interesting ideas going on.
One of those was trial by combat. Typically, this was two people fighting, but sometimes it could actually be a group of people fighting. Generally, it was the accuser and the accused fighting each other because witnesses or anything else could not be found that would exonerate the accused. These were typically a fight to the death, and if they accused won, they were considered innocent, and that was the end of that. That might seem odd, but the trial by combat was an offshoot of a trial by ordeal. We’ll get into some details in a moment here, but in a trial by ordeal, if you’ve survived something, the idea was that God has spared you because you were innocent.
So the same idea applied to trial by combat. If you lived, you were innocent. This assumes that the god was paying attention. For that reason, trials by ordeal, and sometimes the combat version, were often held on religious sites. Some people were able to bypass this by either choosing a champion to fight for them or just going for the regular old boring trial of today. This could happen if they were too young or too old, or if there was some way in which the fight would be unfair because of something like a physical handicap.
When it comes to trial by ordeal, there were multiple versions of this. One version of trial by fire was to walk several paces while holding a hot iron bar. That wasn’t really the test. That happened three days later when the bandages were removed. If your skin was showing no signs of healing, you were guilty. If it was starting to heal, you were considered innocent.
A variation on this was to have a boiling pot of water, and you have to retrieve something like a stone from the bottom. The depth of the water depended on the seriousness of the crime. You could do something similar with something like magic fire in another setting. We could also do it with radiation.
Ordeal by water was another variation where someone would be bound, hand in foot, and then tossed into the water. The guilty floated and the innocent sank. With an ordeal by water, the hands and feet were bound and the person was tossed into the water. The guilty would float and the innocent would sink. Now, if that sounds like a death sentence either way, the reality is there would be a rope around the person so that the innocent could be brought back to the surface. These are all ideas we can leverage, and in the book I also go into punishments and how we can invent new ones, or leverage ones that previously existed here on Earth.
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A monetary system is one of the other areas where we should figure out what people are using for money. There’s a concept we should be aware of, and that is the difference between a unit of weight and a unit of value. Paper money has no actual value except for the denomination that is printed on its surface, and that spells out the value. This is a unit of value. On the other hand, the amount of gold or the weight of it determines its value, so that is known as a unit of weight. So, each time I say unit of weight, think of something like gold, and each time I say unit of value, think of something like the dollar bills in your wallet.
For units of value, it’s important to understand that a government is backing this. That dollar bill in your wallet is only worth one dollar because the government is supporting this. So, if that government collapses, that becomes worthless. If we have a setting where there’s a lot of volatility with governments coming and going, units of value may not exist because no one trusts them to last very long. Instead, they might be using units of weight.
The value of a unit of weight, like gold, is based on the rarity in the setting. That typically lasts across sovereign powers, for example, because the amount of gold on Earth, for example, is essentially the same. Granted, people are still digging it up from time to time, but basically there’s only so much of it. Even if more of it is found and that affects the price of gold, it does so almost uniformly across different sovereign powers. There’s more to it than that, but this is the simple way of looking at it.
In fantasy settings, it does seem less likely that units of value, like paper money, are going to be common. One reason is also that they may have not come up with a way to mass produce something like paper money. Something to bear in mind, especially with planet-hopping characters in science fiction, is that the value of an ore, like gold, is based on its rarity, as I just said. And if new plants are being discovered and new deposits of something like gold are being found, this is going to have an impact on the value of gold back home.
Like germs, this is another aspect of planet-hopping stories that people sometimes overlook because every story would turn into being an economic thing just as much as a germ thing when new planets are being discovered. But the reality is that new planets are going to change the economy of other planets. The easy way to solve that is to not have the planet be discovered during the timeframe of your story, but sometime recently, like 10 or 20 years ago, and this impact has already been felt, at least initially.
Another issue here is that it’s not just gold that’s going to be found in different quantities here, but all sorts of other things. That can quickly get complicated and overtake our story. We have several options we want to keep in mind when it comes to currency. The oldest form of this is basically trading one thing for another, such as me giving you my apple and you giving me your banana. But maybe I need to give you three of mine for one of yours. How do we determine this? The short answer is supply and demand. Since we’re talking about a fictional world that we made up, we can simply make up what the supply and demand is, and no one can argue with us. In other words, we can make this simpler than it seems. I have a couple examples of scenarios in the book, but I’m going to skip over that for now.
Another option is using metal coins. A long time ago, this was a unit of weight, but in more recent times it became a unit of value. So, something like a nickel doesn’t have that much actual value aside from what is actually printed on it. We can do either of these in our setting. One problem with coins is that they’re kind of heavy if you need to carry around something like 2,000 of them. This is why we need some sort of trading system within the coins. For example, let’s say that I decide that one iron piece is ten cents. Ten iron pieces would be one copper. Ten coppers would be one silver. Ten silvers would be one gold. Ten gold would be one platinum. This way, if someone needs to carry around the equivalent of 2,000 dollars, they’re not carrying around a bunch of iron pieces. They’ve only got two platinum pieces.
Generally, for something like this, we just want to keep it as simple as possible for the audience because we don’t really want to be explaining this, and they’re going to get caught up in our story and not remember it.
Another option is the gemstone. These may not be a unit of weight because the weight, by itself, doesn’t necessarily tell us how valuable that gemstone is. Most gem deposits here on Earth produce very low quality stones. High quality stones not only start off that way, but they can actually achieve more quality, or less quality, depending on how well that stone is carved. But when it comes to using gemstones as currency, we probably want to go with these low quality stones that can be turned into pieces that have a value stamped upon them. This might make a lot of sense for an underground species like dwarves because they are presumably running across these gems and metal all the time. Once again, we might want to come up with a trading system, such as one amber piece equaling ten cents, ten amber pieces equals one jade, ten jade is one topaz, ten topaz is one amethyst, and ten amethyst is one opal.
That example is using poor quality stones, but what if we wanted to use higher quality ones? We could do something like one pearl is ten cents, ten pearls is one emerald, ten emerald is one sapphire, ten sapphire is one ruby, and ten rubies is one diamond. Of course, you are free to make up your own hierarchy of this.
Another option we’re all familiar with is paper money. One problem with paper money is that it is easily destroyed by water, fire, and even being torn, but it is easier to carry around large sums than coins. Bills are typically for larger numbers, such as dollars, whereas the coins are for smaller amounts, like cents. However, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this.
Another option is that of credit, which we have here today. This is arguably more likely in a science fiction setting. Just like with a unit of value, the source of the credit is going to be some sort of government-backed agency that we feel confident is going to honor the amount of credit we have.
Two subjects about monetary systems that I’m not going to cover today are how to do currency conversion and the relative value of currency. What I do want to talk about is something that most of us are concerned with, and that is how to determine the value of anything in a fictional world. This includes how much people are paid for jobs that either don’t exist here or haven’t in a long time. The simple trick for this is to use the values of the country where you live, and then make some alterations.
For example, if I go into a restaurant and I buy prepared food, I know how much various things are going to cost where I live. I’m going to make some numbers up here, but let’s say that fast food is under $10, a cheap, sit-down dinner is under $20, a nicer outing will set me back about $30 for just me, and something above $50 would be expensive. That will be something like a rare occasion, like New Year’s Eve, and that’s partly due to demand on such an important day.
So, let’s say that I have a fantasy setting instead. Obviously, I’m not going to use the word “dollars” and “cents” there because those don’t exist. So, let’s just go with a generic term, coin, and that is my one dollar. A turkey leg or a steak-on-a-stick might be the equivalent of fast food and only cost me about five coin. A sit-down meal at a tavern is going to run me something like 20 coin. And if I sit down at a nicer restaurant, that might be 30 coin. And if I’m doing that on a major holiday, maybe I’m spending 50 coin. I don’t have to determine the values here because I’ve basically borrowed stuff from Earth. If we want to change the numbers more, I can just multiply everything by three or add a zero to the end or subtract something. We can do the same thing with products, services and wages.
If there is something that is not here on Earth anymore, we can substitute something that is here. For example, if I don’t know how much a two-handed a sword might cost, well, think about what that is. It’s a pretty big specialty weapon. So, maybe we want to research big speciality guns that are still being used here on Earth and compare them to find a price. We just need to be plausible, not be right because it’s a fictional world and we’re the ones who are deciding what the economics are. There are so many factors that are involved in this, and if you think about it, even around the holidays, there are major sales. So, what might seem really expensive at another time of the year is suddenly an incredible deal at that time. Prices and values change all the time, and no one can tell us that we’re wrong.
To determine how much someone will earn in any profession, we have to think about what that labor’s value brings. Local conditions will impact this. Maybe I can earn a meal by chopping wood for two hours in one place, but it will take me four hours to do the same in another. The reason for this difference would be that the labor has different value in different places. If there’s no one to chop wood in one place, I might get away with less labor because what I’m doing is more valuable. If everybody can do it and my services aren’t really needed, then I’m going to have to work longer. I might even be turned down.
In both fantasy and science fiction, there are things like supernatural phenomenon, or radiation and other stuff that’s unique to these settings, therefore these might provide interesting jobs that people can be paid for. What if there’s a wizard who needs help preparing potions, or needs somebody to drink one of them to see what happens, to see if they got it right? I would imagine that due to the danger, this could make you a lot of money, and it could also end up with you dead.
There could certainly be technological experiments that are going on that have the same issues. For all of these, we just need to consider how rare or common the job is, and how many people are willing or able to perform that job, and then think about what’s going on in our setting at the time and how much they may be able to get away with. The rarer the duty, the more likely they will earn. It’s that simple.
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The last system we want to talk about is information systems. In sci-fi, we can leverage any real-world technology such as radios, telephones, postal systems and, of course, the internet. We can also invent new systems. But I think the challenge here is that it’s going to be hard to come up with a result that is different from what we have today. What do we have? Well, nearly instant transfer of voice, video and data across vast distances. So, the end result is one of the things that we’re really focused on, but we can do something with the technology that delivers these results.
In another episode, we talked about creating items, and in this case, we really just want to think about the interface that we use. So for example with the internet, we’re going to need a computer that’s going to either have something like a mouse or the ability to do a touchpad, and we need some sort of connection. It also either needs a keyboard or some sort of voice control. So, we might want to do something similar, but replace all of these components with something else. The end result is the same because we have an almost ideal kind of scenario going on today, but the technology at least looks different when it comes to the actual pieces.
In fantasy, it may not seem like we have information systems, but we actually do. What I mean is that news has to travel somehow. One way it used to be done was that an important notice might be placed on the door of an important building, like the church or a town hall. That required everyone to be able to read it, so it’s possible that someone could be stationed there to read it off to anyone who was staring at it and trying to figure out what it says.
Then there’s the town crier who is someone that goes around announcing the news. This could either be done just generally when something important is happening, or at specific times of the day, and possibly at specific locations like the town’s water supply. Then there are the messengers who often travel on foot or horse. We might have rules in our setting about how these guys are supposed to be treated, and this could vary from sovereign power to sovereign power, and city to city. This is something that we want to work out.
We also have something like the ravens from Game of Thrones, or the carrier pigeons from Earth. We may also have winged humanoids who work in this capacity and which offer certain advantages over birds. Then we have magic devices that do the equivalent of our internet today. The crystal ball would be the obvious example from cliche. So even though it’s a fantasy setting, we should give some thought to how information spreads.
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 Now Weaponized! called “Promenade.” 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!