Tag Archives: roleplaying

Building an Epic Fantasy World: Magic, Science, Art, Scientific Method, and Technology

In my previous post, I went into detail on how I designed the physical geography of the world and what considerations I had towards the setting. See the last post here. This time, I’ll go into what makes a fantasy setting, well, fantasy. Strapping men with bare chests and scantily clad women… er, no not that kind of fantasy. Magic, we’re talking about magic. Because that scene where the hero(ine) is about to cut loose and slay their foe is so much more impressive when they do so swinging a magic sword, right?

I’ll pause here and mention that I essentially shelved my entire writing project for years while I designed a magic system for it. This is not me tooting my horn, this is me warning you, as a reader, that it can be a process that takes over, that there are hazards in world building.

Like anything else in writing, magic should not be the end-all-be-all of the story. I spent years developing the rules of my magic systems and what it all boils down to is that it works best if it’s in the background of the story rather than front and center. The reader doesn’t want a ten page explanation of how the conjuring functions. Nor do they want the down on their luck adventurers to have the day saved at the end of the story because… well, it’s magic! Establishing rules for it is a good way to avoid the latter, while the former is something to avoid through improving your writing craft. Personally, I’m of the mindset that it’s better to have details that the reader doesn’t need than to leave the reader feeling that they were ‘robbed’ by the ending of your story.

All that said, what do you want to accomplish with the magic in your world? For me, I’m irritated by magic in books and movies that has no price. I’m an engineer by both education and trade, I know that energy has to come from somewhere… so when the wizard cuts loose with beam of purest light… where’s he getting the juice? Matter can neither be created or destroyed (energy too, they’re exchangeable). The answer, for my world, is that there are tons of power sources. Heat and light are the most common, and obvious, sources of power. Those are what our current technology relies upon to produce electricity. So, creatures and people who use arcane power do so from stores of energy they converted from heat or light… or other ‘free’ sources of energy.

This then led me to categorize what forms of magic we’ve heard of and to develop practical methods for them. I won’t go exhaustively into detail, but I developed rules for wizards, witches, gods, demons, priests, mages, and sorcerers, all based off of different methods of transfer, storage, and usage of that available energy. From here, I also applied different methods of each. Some wizards would approach the use of their magic in a scientific method, exploring the capabilities and potential through experiments and gradually refining it over time. Others, in turn, would approach it like an art form, eschewing crude or clumsy spells for ones that serve multiple purposes or accomplish a task with greater subtlety. Lastly, as far as magic, I figured knowledge would be powerful. Knowing about thermodynamic processes would give a spellcaster advantages. Understanding complex geometry when drawing a rune would improve their efficiency. Wizards, therefore, would need to be both well educated and smart enough to apply their knowledge of science. Mages and Sorcerers, whose magic is focused on biological constructs and modifying living creatures, would need to know exhaustive details of biology, chemistry, botany, and medicine, to better practice their arts. This in turn, also applied to the cultures of the world. Some cultures would approach magic in scientific measures, experimenting and pushing the boundaries, while others would develop it to an art form. Still others would encourage the use of horrific biological experiments and creating monsters, while others would use the same forms of magic to prevent the spread of disease and heal.

The next step, for me, was why did humanity utilize magic instead of technology? At its simplest level, technology is sharply distinct from magic. There is a sharp cause and effect split. Praying to a spirit to put out a fire is far different than filling a bucket with water and dousing it. Some levels of technology would have to function or else the world wouldn’t make much sense. Muscle powered things such as weapons, tools, and the like would need to work. But why wouldn’t more complex things, like gunpowder, steam power, or even clockwork devices?

My solution to this issue was twofold. First, I’d already established that power had to come from somewhere. What if beings seeking power could take it from available sources? Steam power requires a heat source, and if an educated wizard can drain the heat out without the use of a steam engine, why would he want to build one? Furthermore, if there are energy beings in search of sources of power, items like steam engines would be targets. Energy beings would feed off of them, passing the heat to the outside air and gaining power in the energy transfer. The same would work for combustion engines. The same effect would work for chemicals such as nitroglycerin and gunpowder. Energy beings would see the potential energy in such items, and for a slight cost (a spark) they could harness the latent energy in one jolt… having catastrophic results for anyone in the area.

The second part, for me, was what would stop more advanced technology? In my planned background, the people of Eoria were descendents of multiple colonization waves. They lost their technology as it failed over time. The answer for me was a low grade electromagnetic field generated by the magnetic field of the star. This would cause electrical differences that would cause sparks, static welding, and other issues that would slowly cause failure on most technology. Everything from circuit boards to metal gears would be affected over time, gradually failing. Combined with the voracious energy beings of the planet, any high tech civilization which visited would have power cells drain rapidly, parts break, and would generally see a systematic failure of their equipment. Would there be a work-around? Of course, but the easiest method would be to adopt the local magic forms and once the transfer was made, then why try to rebuild a technology base when the infrastructure for magic is already in place?

That’s my method of designing magic and technology in my world. As you can see, I focused on what I wanted and then set the circumstances that would create that. Along the way, I established rules for the magic system, to limit the capabilities and explain what would work and what wouldn’t. Next post I’ll talk a bit about how I designed the cultures and societies of Eoria.

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Building a Fantasy World: Geography, Climate, Weather, and Time

I thought I’d do a bit of discussion about world-building, especially with a focus on fantasy genre world building. I’ll be using the setting of Echo of the High Kings for this, my upcoming epic fantasy novel. First, one thing I feel is valuable is taking the time to establish a world, culture, history, and all that goes with it. There are fantasy stories and novels where this is all kept very vague or even mutable. I would point out, however, that some of the most successful fantasy authors are the ones who have taken the time to build the world in which their characters live. It isn’t just about knowing what lies beyond the hills the characters are climbing, it’s also about knowing why the character’s culture and background might drive his decisions.

For my science fiction and fantasy novels, I like to do extensive world building. There are a million details that I like to know. The place I started, with my epic fantasy, was the world. I drew the original map as the first bit. Maps are a staple of epic fantasy, but that’s not why I drew mine. I drew it because I wanted to know where things were in relation to one another, long before I even started writing. I started with a large, central continent, which I gave a large inland sea. This sea both split the continent, and allowed for trade along its coastlines. I wanted trade to be well established, so that communications and travel are also established. Also, while I wanted each area to have its own background and culture, I wanted them speaking a common language in most of the areas, which basically required that they have constant communications and travel, else over generations their languages would shift. I also crafted a natural channel or rift that connected the inner sea to the southern ocean, and left the top of the sea open to the northern ocean. This meant that the natural trade facilitated by the inner sea could easily spread to the rest of the world. From there, I wanted to establish natural boundaries that would separate some of the more distinct cultures and empires. Mountains and rivers often act as the natural boundaries with nations, so that’s where I started. Also, with the large geological rift splitting the continent, I figured there would be some extreme tectonic upheaval. This served another purpose because I wanted a strong presence and threat of barbarians, so I established high mountain ranges, with deep, secluded valleys which could act as the refuges for these barbarians as they attacked the lowland civilizations. I also wanted an ‘evil’ empire, based in the south, so I crafted a deep jungle region for them to live in and follow their bloody and violent gods.

Map drawn, I wanted to know where this was in relation to other places. I made my decision, early on, that I wanted this world to be part of a greater universe. So I expanded it. The continent was joined by four others, which make up the world of Eoria. Eoria, I decided, has a severe axial tilt, which basically means that the seasons are very extreme, making for scorching hot summers and bitterly cold, dark winters. In addition, it has a much longer orbit than Earth, a total orbit that lasts six hundred and ninety nine days, which are twenty six hours long. I divided this up into twenty four months of twenty nine days, along with three non-month holy days. In addition, each month would have four weeks of seven days along with a single feast day. Why is that important? Well, it means that those scorching summers last for six months… and the winters the same. It means that a campaign or fighting season could last as long as eighteen months, depending on weather. It means that extreme snow-fall in the winter will lead to particular designs for buildings and that spring flooding will be a huge issue, as will drought control in the summer. This is a setting where survival of civilization requires work, hard work at that. Surviving winter is an endeavor that requires preparation and forethought and a certain level of pragmatism, especially in the far north where the growing season relative to the rest of the year is so short. With only a six month growing season, it makes sense that many northerners would turn to raiding to augment their supplies for eighteen months of cold and darkness. It makes even more sense that they might make pacts with beings or creatures that others might find unfathomable, in order to prevent death by starvation or freezing.

What about tides? And also, with that severe axial tilt, how is that maintained? Earth has a moon, a large one at that, which maintains our axial tilt and provides us with ocean tides. Here I came back to the fact that Eoria is going to be part of a larger universe. Maybe not at first, but they need to be able to adapt to the idea that there are other people out there. How better than another world, just as blue and green as our own? Thus, Eoria has a twin world, Aoria, also a life bearing world. In addition, it has cities and towns and people of its own. More, there has, at times, been contact back and forth. Thus, people know it is there, and the underlying assumption is that of course there are other worlds, other people. Eoria and Aoria are locked in orbit together, a dance that has lasted several billion years. They are distant enough that the tides are not extreme, though they are higher than what we are used to here on Earth. Why does that matter? This will make harbors and channels more important, for both tactical and strategic considerations. Deeper harbors will prevent ships from being stranded on low tide, while deep channels will remain navigable.

Moving outwards, there’s the star that both worlds orbit. I could call it ‘the sun’ but I’ve already established that this isn’t Earth. Nor is it some almost Earth. This is Eoria. In Eoria, they call their star Auir. Now with the orbit for Eoriel being so long and therefore so far out, Auir needs to be a bit warmer than our sun. Therefore, Auir burns a bit hotter and has a faint greenish cast to its light.

At this point, I’ve developed the world, its climate, its weather, and even a calendar. That allows me to link things not just to a timeline but also to peg down when characters might celebrate a holiday and when they might shutter their windows and hunker down in fear of dark or wicked spirits. The weather and geography allow me to design the cultures of the people that live in certain places and to justify some of the actions they may take as a result.