Volume 3 Archives - The Art of World Building

We should strive for simplicity in our monetary system, especially in terminology.

Using the U.S. as an example, for paper money, bills come in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 100, and 1000. But there’s only one name for all of them: “dollar.” And yet “dollar” really describes “one” accurately. If I give someone a \$100 bill, that’s how I say it: “one hundred dollars.” Unless I specify which bills I gave, you have no idea what configuration of bills I used. Now imagine that that \$100 bill has a name, dellium. Then I could say, “one dellium.” The problem here is that the audience has no idea that a dellium is one hundred of something else. Explaining it is a poor use of exposition, it won’t be remembered, and it doesn’t convey a sense of relative value to other terms we’ve invented and which the audience also doesn’t recall. Using a specific generic term is convenient.

What about coins? Unlike with bills, each coin may have a name (penny, nickel, dime, and quarter) but they can all be referred to with the generic “cents.” And that’s exactly what people do. I might give someone “seventy-five cents,” not say that I gave them “three quarters.” Someone not familiar with the U.S. system can infer that a quarter is the one valued at 25 cents, but only because I specified that the three quarters amounted to seventy-five. By contrast, if I say I provided three nickels, do you know if that’s three times one (\$.03), three times five (\$.15), or three times ten (\$.30)?

We don’t want to do this to an audience. Therefore, two generic words, such as “dollars” and “cents,” one denoting whole and another for part of a whole, provide a better sense of relative value and is preferred for fictional monetary systems. Avoid inventing names for denominations (i.e., “penny,” “dime”). If we really want to, we can, but use them wisely when writing. For example, “Seeing the price was fifteen cents, he pulled three nickels from a pocket.” Contrast that with, “Seeing the price, he pulled three nickels from a pocket.” The second tells us nothing about how much he’s paying unless we know the value of the denomination; our knowledge of it is required (italics) to understand. The first tells us what he’s paying, with a minor detail of how he did so as an option.

With this in mind, we can decide coins, gems, or bills have names and values but still default to generic terms like “dollars” and “cents” to indicate relative value, only rarely specifying which coins, gems, or bills someone used. Or we can just go with two generic terms and be done.

When we move between economies/powers, we must convert our money from one currency to another. Several factors influence conversion rates, including differentials in inflation and interest rates, account deficits between countries (how much they owe each other), public debt, trade terms, and economic performance. Does this sound like something an audience wants to read about, or something we want to determine for not one, but two fictional sovereign powers? Probably not. It’s reasonable to desire getting it “right,” but as is often the case, many details impact this and no one from our fictional world is going to show up and say we’re wrong.

Do we need to show conversion and rationales in our work? Not usually. If we’re doing a story with sovereign powers having just risen or fallen, or other dramatic changes within our tale, then it’s obvious that currency could be disrupted, especially for units of value backed by the government, but most of us can skip it. We don’t typically know why our own dollar is rising or falling and audiences certainly won’t understand what’s happening on a fictitious planet, especially if we don’t tell them. Explaining can actually get us accused of having done research and then dropping it into our narrative.

The conversion arguably matters less with units of weight, like gold, because its size and rarity don’t change. But it might be differently valued in one place. The exchange is typically transaction by transaction and decided between merchant and customer, as opposed to units of value, where the exchange rate is set by the sovereign power or other governing body and changes by the day (on Earth). A merchant must abide by it, and so do we and our characters. It’s simplest to have a character express a reaction to how far their money is going and not focus on details. Being consistent matters less than other subjects because rates change daily anyway.

We have multiple options for currency and, just like on Earth today, more than one might exist within a single sovereign power, not to mention the world.

Trading means providing two pigs for one chicken, for example, rather than two pigs for a unit of value or weight. It is the oldest form of exchange. While areas of our world may do this, most will be more sophisticated. Nomadic tribes and less technological cultures may not have developed currency or the means to produce it, meaning manipulation of ore into metal. They may not have manufactured swords, for example. Later in this chapter, we’ll look at determining the value of items, but it’s mostly about supply and demand.

A fictional world means imaginary supply and demand, so we can invent this and never be wrong. That said, an animal that repeatedly produces a commodity, whether wool, milk or eggs has value beyond its own body, which can be used for meat, bone, and more, so take this into account. A plant that can be duplicated (with seeds, for example) is similar. Skilled labor to produce a long-lasting or superior item is also more valuable than, for example, a ram’s horn that only had to be broken off a dead ram.

If rams are common, I might need to give you five of their horns for the tanned leather hide you made from a bear. But if ram horns are used to signal in battle and few rams are around, maybe I’m giving you one horn for two hides. A word of explanation like this adds believability and can be invented in the time it takes to write the sentence. Just be consistent: don’t show a hugely different number of rams existing four chapters later.

###### Metal

Coins have been used as money since antiquity. For fantasy worlds, this is our default currency. Long ago, metal had its value because of weight, quality, and material (like 2 oz. of 14k gold). It relied less on a trade valuation at banks and could be melted down and still have [almost] the same value. A sovereign power minted coins in a standardized process to ensure the weight, then stamped them with an official insignia to establish trust in the coin’s value. One reason is that metals can be impure by accident or on purpose, whether the latter is intended to defraud the unsuspecting or to reduce the amount of precious metal used as money. This impurity can be checked by use of a touchstone, which is a stone tablet that reveals the alloy of soft metals when those are used to write on it.

In time, metal changed from being a unit of weight into one of value. In some countries, only one type of metal (like gold) was used, with different sizes denoting value. Separate regions have access to different quantities of precious metals. This could make things more realistic and more challenging when characters travel between kingdoms.

An issue with coins is their weight; no one carries around two thousand silver pieces, for example, even when they need to. Our world could have iron, copper, gold, and platinum, too. If one platinum equals a thousand silver, then they only need two coins, assuming they can find and exchange these. We may want a conversion like this example, using American money for clarity:

1 iron piece = 10 cents
10 iron pieces = 1 copper = \$1
10 coppers = 1 silver = \$10
10 silvers = 1 gold = \$100
10 gold = 1 platinum = \$1000

Coins are typically round for several reasons. The pointed edges of a square or rectangle will wear down with use, possibly lowering weight and therefore value, while also making the now irregularly shaped coin harder to stack. In production, coins were also struck, causing the metal to push outward in a circular shape, which made this a sensible form. A lucrative business could be had shaving off flat sides of a coin, thereby reducing the weight and value, though milling was added around the edge so that it’s easier to tell when the coin’s edge has been shaved (the milling would be gone). The absence of these indicates a less sophisticated culture.

###### Gemstones

Any gem can be used as money, but can they be a unit of weight? Probably not. How much a gem weighs (how many carats) doesn’t indicate value by itself because the quality can be so poor as to make it largely worthless. Few people have a specialized magnifier (“loupe”) or the training to identify a stone’s quality, making gems less viable as a unit of currency. If people can’t tell the quality, they’ll get manipulated during trading. Despite this, in antiquity, the naked eye was how all gems were appraised, so we can do this, too. Most gem deposits produce low quality stones that will never be fashioned into a jewel. The color and clarity are two elements that determine quality, which can be increased or decreased when the raw stone is carved into a jewel.

An underground race like dwarves would likely mine for gems and minerals, using either one a currency and easily converting values between them. Perhaps one diamond is the equivalent of one platinum piece. Would they have two currencies, or do they represent different spheres of social strata, such as royalty using gems and commoners using coins? A commoner caught with a gem coin might be assumed to be a thief. Maybe every dwarf is given a loupe at birth.

If gems are a unit of value instead, then low grade gems (like amber) can be inscribed with their denomination and function like metal coins. The gems could still be highly polished and look valuable to the naked eye. Even in antiquity, some gems were beautifully carved to show portraits of Roman emperors, including a garland of leaves with the leaf edges clearly visible. They won’t need milling because shaving down a jewel doesn’t produce useful shavings like it does with metal. The coins need not be round as wear on the edges is unlikely.

Compared to metal, gem coin denominations may challenge audience memories due to this being unusual in fiction and less familiarity with gem values on Earth, not to mention values in a fictitious world. By contrast, we all know gold, silver, and copper are progressively less valuable. Regardless, we can create and use a system like this one, with units of value:

 Poor-Quality Stones High-Quality Stones 1 amber = 10 cents10 amber = 1 jade = \$1 10 jade = 1 topaz = \$1010 topaz = 1 amethyst = \$10010 amethysts = 1 opal = \$1000 1 pearl = 10 cents10 pearls = 1 emerald = \$1 10 emeralds = 1 sapphire = \$1010 sapphires = 1 ruby = \$10010 rubies = 1 diamond = \$1000

Figure 16 Gems as Currency

###### Bills

Paper money is a unit of value and therefore requires trust and the backing of a bank and/or government. Sovereign powers may be too unstable or short lived for trust to develop paper currency, however. In fantasy worlds, the machinery to mass print paper has not usually been invented, but they can be done in smaller quantities by more physical means, just like coins. Paper money can be easily destroyed in fire, water, or by being torn, but it is easier to carry around in large sums than coins, and in some cases, gems. Keep bills simple, such as ones, fives, tens, and so on. Like some Earth countries, we can change the color per denomination. Bills are typically for larger numbers (dollars) than coins (cents), but there’s no reason this can’t be reversed. They can also be far smaller than what we have on Earth.

###### Credit

Just like today, SF worlds of comparable or superior technology to ours might have credit as currency. This requires official banking by a trusted source, whether a sovereign power on a planet (or elsewhere), a union of powers (possibly across worlds), or an institution that regulates the currency. Today we have bitcoin and other versions of credit, and we can invent more types, but unless we intend to delve into their usage (or the rise and fall of it), we should aim for simplicity. One choice to make is how people access and exchange credit. On Earth we use cards, devices like phones, and computers. What tech might be employed in our world? An iris or face scan? Fingerprints? DNA? An implant?

We sometimes need to understand how commerce works so we can show it with confidence. Two occasions are if we intend to show any transactions, or what characters need to do to acquire something they need. Without understanding how much an item costs, audiences have less understanding of characters’ actions. Are four hours of chopping wood enough to earn a meal, or a rip off? Glossing over it is an option, but showing it adds believability. Writers can experience starting to show a transaction because it feels natural given the unfolding scene, but then hesitate to depict the amount of money being exchanged. Working out commerce solves this.

But sometimes we don’t need it. We don’t need details on how commerce works to show whether someone is rich, poor or in between. Audiences accept that this happens in society. It’s optional to say their job is well or poorly paid, or they inherited wealth, or another factor, but not required. And if we’re writing a story where everything is free, or we have a society so barbaric that even trading one thing for another doesn’t happen, it won’t matter.  Otherwise, read on to learn how to determine commerce.

###### A Monetary System

One challenge of writing stories not taking place on Earth is that we can’t say characters are paying with dollars, Euros, or bitcoins. We need a monetary system or to ignore currency altogether. It’s standard in fantasy to use metal—platinum, gold, silver, copper, and iron coins—but gems and paper options exist. In SF, we can go with “credits” to keep it simple, even if we call it something else.

The money from a kingdom can and likely will have words and symbols on them, with characters reluctant to use those coins or bills at certain times if they might offend the receiver. Such items can be used to identity where they’ve recently been, too, though this is prone to misunderstanding; just because we have a coin from a kingdom doesn’t mean we’ve been there; but this depends on whether the item is a unit of weight or of value, as explained next. A unit of weight, such as a measured piece of gold, can be freely traded across kingdoms so that a coin could be in circulation anywhere and we just happened to get it in our last exchange, but a unit of value is specific to a sovereign power and therefore, possessing it does suggest we’ve been there. An example: if I have a Canadian dollar, I’ve probably been there, but if I have a gold piece from Canada, the value of gold transcends borders and doesn’t mean I’ve been there. I can’t use the Canadian dollar outside Canada, but I can use that gold piece; that it was minted in Canada means nothing, unless they have a reputation for dishonesty and/or the weight is off.

###### Units of Weight or Value

Money is either a unit of weight or unit of value. For example, paper money has no actual value except for the denomination printed on its surface, which spells out its value. Therefore, bills are a unit of value. On the other hand, the amount (or weight) of gold determines its value, even when fashioned into a coin. Metal is a unit of weight—but not always, because metal can have a value stamped onto it, rendering its weight irrelevant.

In media, we’ve seen someone handed a coin and then bite it to see if it’s really made of the material that it appears to be, like gold, or whether it’s only gold-plated. Alternatively, it may be placed on a scale. These matter when the coin is a unit of weight. But it could also matter with coins (of value) if two denominations are the same size. One could be stamped with the value of the other, in theory (counterfeiting). This may influence coins of different values having distinct sizes, but that is done partly to make identification and usage easier. Weighing on a scale can also lead to cheating if improper counterweights are used. These factors can contribute to units of weight falling out of favor in more advanced, established societies.

When a government collapses, so does the value of its currency when it is a unit of value. That \$100 bill in our hand may now be worth zero if its value was backed by a now defunct government. By contrast, gold is gold. Like other metals (or gems), its value is based on rarity in the world rather than by a sovereign power, and this seldom changes much if at all, which is why, on Earth, it’s considered a safe investment—it is largely immune to the impact of a government’s collapse. One reason to care about this is that a character who doesn’t believe a government will last is unlikely to visit a bank, hand over his gold (a unit of weight) in exchange for bills (a unit of value), and walk away feeling safe.

Doing so seems less likely in fantasy due to the less robust governments that may exist. This robustness, or lack thereof, impacts everything, including police for those robberies, laws and courts to punish offenders, and accountability, which government provides to ensure people believe their state will take care of them and that institutions like banks and other infrastructure work. But if we have an empire, a constitutional monarchy, or a long-established state (over a hundred years), the state may insure banks (just like modern ones on Earth) so that people trust them. This way, even if the bank is robbed, you’ll still get your money because that bank is liable for the theft.

In SF, the advances in technology (and cooperation) that make activities like space travel possible are likely predicated on sophistication that matches or rivals that of modern-day Earth. Units of value are more likely than units of weight. A collapsing government can cause a rush on financial institutions to transfer that money to an institution in a stable, foreign country, before the value is zero. These people can be gouged by unscrupulous nations or banks who know what to do with desperate people. This can be an excellent way to create a now poor character with a backstory in wealth.

If units of weight are still in use, there’s another complication in SF: the value of an ore like gold is based on its rarity. Discovering a new planet where a valuable ore is far more abundant can throw an economy into disarray as the value of that ore plummets. This is what typically happens when a new gold deposit is found: the value of all existing gold drops because greater abundance renders it less valuable. This should be a genuine fear of anyone whose fortune is in precious metals or gems. It’s easy to imagine that person being opposed to space exploration – unless they think they can control how much of that ore, found on another planet, makes it to them. If that new planet has civilizations on it, both economies could be disrupted. It’s unlikely that the planets have the same composition (or even extraction capabilities). It’s also unlikely that a single ore will be different in rarity. While economics isn’t a subject that excites, the potential financial disruption that newly discovered planets bring has been successfully overlooked by countless world builders who don’t want to worry about it, and audiences accept it because they haven’t thought about it, but we should. The introduction of germs and parasites between these two worlds has been featured more often.

Inventing punishments is a fun aspect of world building, especially if we’re feeling sadistic. We have real world ideas to draw from and can create our own. We can decide later which punishments go with which crimes, but if we’re feeling poetic, we can devise penalties that teach a clearer lesson about breaking a specific law. There are typically more laws and crimes than punishments; for example, jail time is used for a wide array of offenses.

We don’t need to go overboard inventing punishments, especially ones we aren’t going to use. If we invent some, we might benefit from one extreme, horrible, and memorable punishment and several much lesser ones. We want someone to react very seriously to being threatened with the terrible one. But lesser offenses and consequences are far more common, and our characters won’t take them seriously, just as a parking ticket is an annoyance and little more. These punishments offer a chance to show the presence of the law (and making our world seem more complete) in ways that don’t overtake a story.

Remember to imagine ways characters can resolve, avoid, or minimize a punishment. Sometimes we get a choice of a day in jail or paying a fine, for example. If we’re nice to an officer, maybe we get a warning instead of the ticket. In corrupt places, there’s always bribery. We’re always looking for a way out so give the characters known ways to minimize their punishment; they’ll be aware of them unless in a foreign land.

A basic decision is whether capital punishment (i.e., death) is accepted in the society. This is typically reserved for the most serious of offenses, such as murder, rape, treason, war crimes, crimes against the innocent (children), and more. When there is no feasible way to deter criminals from repeating a heinous crime, this led to the death penalty. For example, if we have a wizard who used magic to commit such a crime, and it’s possible to prevent them from doing magic ever again, capital punishment is unlikely (removing their access to magic will prevent a repeat). In a nomadic tribe, death may be more common due to the lack of prisons, but an established society with cities may have less need of it.

There are many ways to kill someone in state sponsored execution. The next table lists several:

 Title Description Boiling Alive Immersed in boiling liquid of various kinds Blowing from a Gun Tied to the end of a cannon, which is then fired through the victim, blowing them to pieces Blood Eagle With the victim prone, the ribs are removed and placed to resemble wings Brazen Bull Roasted to death inside a brass bull with a fire underneath Breaking Wheel Tied to a wheel that slowly breaks all the bones, may slice the skin open Burning at the Stake Bound to a stake and burned alive by a fire under and around a person Charivari Parading an offender through the streets to mocking jeers of a crowd Flaying Skinning someone alive, which leads to slow death Hung, drawn, and quartered Dragged behind horse, hanged to near death, disemboweled (sometimes emasculated), beheaded, and finally cut into four pieces, head placed on a pike atop rampart walls Impalement Vertically or horizontally shoving a sharpened stake into the body and leaving the victim hanging above the ground on the stake Keelhauling Tied to ropes and dragged along rough/sharp bottom of ship Mazzatello A blow to the head knocks the victim out, the throat then slit Sawing Cutting someone in half with a saw Schwedentrunk Forcing copious amounts of foul liquid via funnel into the victim Slow Slicing A literal death by a thousand cuts and removal of body parts

Exile is another option if value systems inhibit capital punishment.

To invent punishments, we use our imagination and the setting we’ve created to find uniqueness. People may be modified, such as with chemical castration for sexual crimes; a variant might be eliminating access to magic for wizards or have cybernetic implants removed (or added) in SF. If we’ve invented unique plants, animals, or locations, we can use them as punishment. The latter are especially useful for either banishment or temporary placement, like a jail. Merely being exposed to a phenomenon that we developed in chapter five (“The Supernatural”) might be useful. A plant may be harmful. An encounter with an animal likely to produce death can be used in a trial by combat. What if there’s a local monster no one can kill but they’re hoping someone can and criminals get the honor of trying? Succeed and go free. Otherwise…

These are ways we can leverage other world building creations. Assigning a punishment to a crime is a matter of matching severity. Harsh governments like an absolute monarchy maybe have the punishment not fit the crime, but others generally strive for fairness, even if what they’re doing makes questionable sense, as in the case of some trials by ordeal we previously examined. To people of that time, they were accepted and believed, and this will be true of most within such a society, so consider what this says (to our audience in particular) about how wise they are and their beliefs. As an example, if trial by water and sinking means innocence, the society believes it or wouldn’t be following this rule of law. Do we want our readers to roll their eyes about this, or our SF characters that arrive in a less advanced world? And is the idea of God saving the innocent true or essentially superstition? A SF character could scorn this only to discover that it’s true. Be sure to consider how our audience and characters will react to punishments they find in other lands.

In Earth history, a few trial types warrant mention. We don’t mean the staid kind of today, where people calmly apply reason to presented evidence, but events like a trial by combat or ordeal. Some methods were thought to reveal the truth about the accused, even though they didn’t. Fighting was physical, of course, but imagine how those with unique powers, like wizards, might conduct these.

A specific form of proof for murders in the medieval period was cruentation, which involved making an accused murderer touch the corpse, which might start bleeding if pressed hard. This indicated guilt and seems ripe for manipulation by the wise (don’t press too hard and be exonerated!). We can leverage this to have the body react (or believed to) in different ways and for other crimes, especially with invented lifeforms, but be aware that audiences will typically scorn such beliefs as nonsense. They may feel contempt for a species or society that practices this, unless it’s true. As medical knowledge rose, specifically the understanding of how and when dead bodies naturally emit fluids; this fell out of practice because people realized it was bogus.

###### Duels

The goal of a duel was not to clear one’s name of a crime, but to restore honor besmirched by another. These were originally fought with swords before giving way to firearms; the former continues as the sport of fencing. In both cases, the weapons were to be similar. Established rules governed the engagement. Honor was restored in part by following these rules and by showing that honor meant enough to participants that they’d risk their life over it. Killing the other person was therefore not the goal and could actually harm the honor of the survivor. Laws against duels led to their elimination, so we should decide whether they’re still legal in our setting. Consider the values of each species and whether honor matters this much. They can duel in new ways or achieve “satisfaction” another way.

###### Trial by Combat

Trial by combat was essentially a duel that had been officially sanctioned, except that instead of honor being the issue, the defendant had been accused of a crime by the person whom they were to fight. This happened when no witnesses or evidence could clear up the matter. The fights took place in public and on special platforms for all to see, like a boxing ring without the ropes. Some were able to decline this combat due to handicap, age (young or old), or other factors that rendered the combat unequal. They were tried by jury instead. Priests or royalty might decline as well. If fighting a woman, men were hampered on purpose to improve equality, such as one arm tied behind the back. Another option was to choose a champion, someone to fight on behalf of the accused or accuser. We could do these if two species we’ve invented are unmatched physically.

If the defeated didn’t die in combat, he might be killed afterward, such as by hanging. In some Earth countries, depending on the crime, we could surrender when defeat was imminent, avoiding death but being dealt a harsh fate, such as slavery. World builders could extend this to include exile or, for a wizard, perhaps permanent removal of magical powers.

###### Trial by Ordeal

Variations on trial by ordeal exist and we can, of course, invent our own, especially if using animals or interesting places for them. Many tests were about survival, which indicated innocence, since God had saved the falsely accused. If there’s a real god of justice, maybe this trial is accurate (assuming he’s paying attention). This association with a deity led to these being carried out in church (maybe so he is paying attention!).

One version of a trial by fire was to walk several paces while holding a hot iron bar. Three days later, when the bandages were removed, an innocent person showed signs of healing while a guilty one didn’t. Walking over hot coals is a variant. We can raise the drama by using volcanoes or unnatural (magic) fire, even radiation in SF.

Ordeal by water can involve binding the hands and feet and being tossed into water; the guilty floated, the innocent sank. Either might die in the process, but a rope was tied to the accused to bring them up and prevent that. A variant involved retrieving a stone from the bottom of a boiling cauldron, the depth of which corresponded to the severity of the crime; those uninjured by this were innocent. Being submerged in cold water and surviving also indicated innocence.

We can substitute supernatural or scientific elements, such as harmful substances, radiation, or dark matter. If a species is naturally resistant to an element we’ve devised, this can be used as a test. We can use these Earth analogues as inspiration. There’s also no reason earth or air can’t be used, too. Maybe those who can survive being buried alive are innocent, or those deprived of oxygen. The latter seems obvious in space, assuming people are spacefaring and yet still this barbaric.

Like the old saying, “shit happens.” And sometimes, the ruling authority creates a law to inhibit it from happening again. Examples include restrictions/permits on weapons, pollution, vehicles, building and infrastructure, and many more. What they have in common is an attempt at improving safety and life quality through prohibition. If a building fell down due to an earthquake, a new law may result in better materials being used. People driving too fast or while drunk leads to accidents, injury, and death, and therefore a slew of laws. Most of those aren’t particularly glamorous or useful to us and, while they’ll exist, we don’t need to focus on them. We should focus on what’s different about our invented world (magic, tech, lifeforms) and the resulting laws we need to envision.

With technology we’ve invented, imagine what can go wrong and create incidents proving it. The result can be a character using a weapon that’s not up to code because it was invented before a law, and possession and use of it is now illegal, either back home or where they are now. They might be upset to find it confiscated, then even destroyed by the local authority. Magic can lead to many laws, especially if we’ve decided that our magic system includes the ability for failed spells to still do something (see chapter six).  This is a great way to invent small stories, minor characters who were involved (and for whom a law may be named, officially or colloquially), places of interest (where it happened), and some history.

Examples of laws inspired by incidents (with explanations in parenthesis):

1. Black magic is forbidden (it leads to unsavory beings in town and the resulting problems they bring)
2. Goblins are not allowed near a treasury (they robbed several in the neighboring kingdom)
3. Children may not undertake interstellar travel unless accompanied by an adult or guardian (kidnapping risk)
4. Ogres are not allowed in public baths (they’re disgusting and cause evacuation)
5. Children may not perform magic (they are too undisciplined)
6. Interstellar travel is only permissible on “Class 5” vessels or above (others are obsolete and do not work with modern docking stations)
7. All residents must pass a biannual swimming test, especially dwarves (over a hundred couldn’t be rescued in the last flood and many non-dwarves also perished due to resources diverted to dwarves’ rescue)
8. A federal work authorization permit from Earth is permitted to be employed on Mars (illegal immigrants are taking jobs)
9. Inciting Thor’s wrath is punishable by death (Thor destroyed a city the last time someone provoked him)

Creating laws is relatively easy if we view them as having two sources: an enforcement or prohibition on values, beliefs, and morals, or to inhibit repetition of a past action, which is viewed negatively. I refer to these as moral and incident laws. While people break laws, the laws exist to inhibit or control behavior. We should keep this in mind and use it to invent ones we can use, and which our characters can break, intentionally or not. It’s a good way to get them into trouble, especially in foreign lands. Sometimes a law is both moral and incidental in origin, as we’ll see by some examples being reflected in both lists in this section.

What does the ruling authority want to influence? Always consider the form of government, discussed in Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2) because this will impact how much control government is asserting through its legal system.

###### Moral Laws

Whether the system is religious or not, religion often influences laws as values, morals, and beliefs are promoted through restrictions on permissible behavior. Examples would be abortion or whether capital punishment is considered humane. Laws that discriminate are likely to originate in beliefs and values if not morality, as people characterize those who are different poorly. This includes gay, racial, and women’s groups. We can extend this to professions such as wizardry or specific types, like witchcraft and necromancy. If we’ve invented species and worked out their relationships with humans and others, we can envision laws resulting from conflict with or disapproval of another race’s values (or perceived values).

In chapter one, we looked at cultural ideas and vision and should leverage this while inventing laws of a moral nature. A society is a sum of its ideas, promoted in part by law, and those of the majority can inversely impact minorities through them. The simplest pronouncement of a law will not include explanation, but the reason for the law can often be inferred, at least by those living within the community. In parenthesis below, a short reason has been added, with an indication of whether it’s a value, belief, or moral leading to the law.

Examples of laws based on morals, values, and beliefs:

1. Black magic is forbidden (moral: it requires dealing with unholy forces)
2. Goblins are not allowed near a treasury (belief: they’re thieves)
3. Fire wizards must assist with extinguishing public fires (value: they should help)
4. Communication with alien species is prohibited without a permit and government monitoring (morals: solidarity with your species should take precedence over befriending a potential enemy of the state).
5. Wizards may not perform magic on the Holy Day (values/morals: it is reserved for godly shows of such power, as a sign of respect)
6. Ogres may not eat in public places (belief: they’re believed to spread disease)
7. Children may not perform magic (belief/morals: it teaches them to rely on this)
8. Capital punishment by being drawn and quartered is forbidden (morals: too barbaric)
9. All residents must pass a biannual swimming test, especially dwarves (value: too many dwarves must be rescued during periodic flooding, hampering efforts to rescue others)
10. Those sentenced to death shall be devoured by dragon (morals/values: it’s a quick death and waste not, want not)
11. A knight who flees shall be executed (value/morals: without courage, the knighthood will suffer loss of faith in it)

Most of our settings will have a legal system, even if it’s as simple as “an eye for an eye.” This section takes a high level and simplified view of these systems because most world builders will not be writing a legal drama, which is the only scenario where more detail is likely needed. Some places have a mix of the systems we’ll cover, and we can do the same, though we may struggle for a reason to. In our setting, the publication of legal decisions, so that everyone can access them, is required; without this, laws are not enforced equally.

With all systems, our usage is primarily to cause trouble for our characters, who run afoul of a law, either by breaking it, encouraging others to do so, or even just speaking out against it. Any of these are more likely when traveling, due to ignorance of local laws, but there are other factors. Characters are usually on a mission and only passing through, and are therefore trying to avoid trouble, but we can have one member who tends to cause problems and another who knows the local laws and tells them what not to do. Use this as a guide. This helps us add an issue that either develops character(s) or plot.

###### Types

There are several types of legal systems. The source of laws is one of their primary differences. The system type arguably matters less than specific laws that impact our story, but they are briefly summarized next.

###### Civil Law

One of the most widespread systems (along with common law), civil law means that a legislature creates and modifies an authoritative source that formalizes laws. That source is either a constitution (at the sovereign power or federal level) or a statute (at a lower level, such as states in the United States). Constitutional law tends to be broad and interpreted more at the statutory level, which is one reason variations can exist between states within a union. For example, as of this writing, marijuana is illegal at the federal level in the U.S. but legal in some states. To do this in our fictional world, we mostly need to know there’s a sovereign power and self-governing bodies (like states or provinces) within it. A character can get themselves into trouble outside their home territory because they didn’t know something legal back home is illegal somewhere else. This can happen within a power, not just when traveling between different ones. If there’s no law we’ve broken when we’re brought before a judge, he has no authority and the case will be dismissed.

###### Common Law

Common law derives its name from being common across England among the king’s courts, and since Britain’s empire spread far, it is now common across a third of the Earth, too, making it the other most widespread legal system (along with civil law). Its primary feature is that a judge will look to past cases that are like the one presented to him. If similar enough, he must abide by the past reasoning when ruling on the current case, as the precedents are considered the law; this principle is called “stare decisis” and is the main difference between this and civil law. If the case is unique, he will be the first one to rule on the matter, his decision henceforth becoming law to be considered by judges thereafter when faced with a similar case. Because of this, if there’s no law, a judge can effectively make one. This contrasts with civil law, where a judge would have no authority to do anything.

Another name for this is judge-made law or judicial law.

###### Religious Law

If there’s a religious document, such as the Bible or Quran, this will be the source of religious law. Either a god or a prophet (through whom they spoke) may be considered the author of the document, and this sometimes results in the ideas being named accordingly; Mosaic laws were written down by Moses, for example. Such sources are considered the word of a god about ethics and morality. A famous example may be the Ten Commandments. Variations are considerable across religions, which gives us flexibility and frees us from “getting it right.” Canon law is the body of laws and regulations that a religious authority creates; these are typically named after a source, such as apostles or a church (or a group of them). As with seemingly everything in religion, these teachings can be interpreted quite differently, resulting in sects and other divisions within the religion, each adopting and applying their own laws. Past cases may or may not be considered; the interpretations of mankind are less important than the word of a god.

###### Contrasting Types

Both civil and common systems are unlikely among civilizations that have no written language or which are nomadic, due to the inability to codify the laws or a library in which to store them for reference. Expecting someone to memorize so much is improbable and prone to error, but maybe we have a trusted species with perfect recall or the ability to summon knowledgeable spirits from the afterlife as needed. Without such measures, only civilizations that have advanced to and beyond Roman or medieval may reasonably be assigned either legal system. We might see elves and dwarves with such a system in fantasy, but probably not ogres and goblins.

By contrast, religious systems may be heavily dependent on fewer texts (at least in the beginning), which are readily available in churches, with the laws implied or explicitly stated in sermons and other stories that practitioners regularly hear. While not a rule, a religious system may be likely before and during more sophisticated civilizations.

A character who understands the difference between common and civil systems might have a different reaction to being accused of a crime. If he’s aware there’s no law and finds himself before a judge in a civil system, he might be unconcerned because the judge can’t do anything to him. The case will be dismissed. But if he’s in a common law system, the judge can invent the law based on this case. He might not feel so confident. In a religious system, it could go either way.

Civil judges must consider any previous cases (known as case law), but this is secondary to interpreting the source of law (constitution or statue). By contrast, in common law systems, previous cases are the law the judge is following, and he is highly reluctant to go against precedent.

On Earth, mental health services are a recent development; they hardly existed before two hundred years ago. Before that, people were often thought to be touched by the devil, possessed, or some other nonsense. Many were either killed or confined, whether in more official places like an asylum or in the basement of a village resident assigned to care for these prisoners, who might be shackled day and night. Sometimes sane people were dealt with this way when they went against powerful people or social movements, calling for change.

We can do the same in a fantasy setting or inject our modern compassion and understanding into the world. In SF, it’s reasonable that advances in health care parallel those in other areas of technology, but it’s not a rule. We’ve all seen seemingly dystopian SF where ships, space stations, and characters are all filthy and lawlessness seems to predominate; both physical and mental health needs may suffer, too, as the latter can almost be considered a luxury. The case can be made that the development of machinery helps provide for basics like food and shelter more easily and that “free time” is subsequently available for professions like psychology, but when people are struggling to get food, no one wants to spend time helping a disturbed person.

One reason all of this impacts characters is that people hear psychological terms, should they exist, and use them just as we do. But that depends on information flow. It’s better in SF, in theory, than in fantasy, as is education. Even a dystopian society where that education system has disintegrated might still be aware of the terms, if they entered common usage before the collapse. Do we want our characters using such terms? They’re optional. The term “ego” hadn’t been invented in medieval times, but people were aware of it, anyway, using other words like pride.