World-building 103: The Fundamentals

Posted on Wednesday, September 17th, 2014 at 11:43

In the first post I talked about the features you need to think about for a world and then I talked a bit about the planning and process.  This post is about what I like to call the Fundamentals.
Fundamentals are the broad rules of the world, they govern the physical rules of the universe, like how the rules of physics work, what chemistry/biology functions and what the rules of magick are (if magick has rules!).


Science-fiction is adept at bending the rules and exploiting the loopholes of physical laws. There are two ways to go about breaking the rules of science, the soft way, and the hard way.

The Stargate from SG1

It’s okay we don’t have to explain the exotic particles necessary to open and stabilise a wormhole because the Ancients did it.

In soft science-fiction it is enough to simply state that a rule can be broken, you can cite alien or ancient technology and move on. Time has a way of turning hard sci-fi into soft sci-fi as new discoveries make the theoretically possible actually impossible, and vice-versa.

In hard sci-fi the science has to at least sound plausible, so unless you seriously know your stuff (at least search the internet to see if anyone has come up with any theoretical way of breaching the law in question, you don’t necessarily need a higher degree in physics or engineering), then don’t go there. If you have some training in a science or engineering subject then you should be able to identify the laws you want to bend, mutilate and break and work out some theoretical way of doing that, even if you have to invent a new stable super-heavy element or exotic particle (let’s face it with dark-energy and dark-matter out there, the truth really does seem at least as strange as fiction)

Most movies and TV shows are mostly soft sci-fi. Some are harder than others, the writers on Star Trek just used to put in a slot for exposition and some poor engineers and physicists had to come along and write convincing hard science techno-babble to cover their butts — back in the nineties me and some friends wrote an essay on how cloaking devices worked, which you can still occasionally find quoted in wikis and the like, it even sparked off some later stories (as far as we can tell — I never got a credit) and got incorporated into memory-alpha because of it.

Quick meme image of Han Solo

I guess the Empire had done their best to eradicate scientific knowledge of Midi-chlorians too.

However, the Star Trek universe had some real science underpinning the baloney (at least until the reboot), even if terms like “Heisenberg Compensators” were bandied around… Star-Wars by comparison is so soft it has the rigidity of soup. In fact, it hardly qualifies as science-fiction at all and is more science-fantasy. Anytime real physics terms are mentioned, they are used incorrectly (and no amount of fudging later will convince us that Han or Obi-Wan knew what a Parsec was or that Hyperspace uses length for time) and yet because of the existence of the magic, sorry psionics, sorry Force we are willing to overlook that and enjoy it (at least until some idiot mentions midi-chlorians then all bets are off). Oh, and those are not the odds of safely navigating an asteroid field either.

In sci-fi (especially soft sci-fi) you can get away with using almost any device that a hard sci-fi author (extremely theoretical scientist usually) has ‘invented’ just by using the right generic name and never trying to explain how it works, this keeps the sci-fi universe ticking over with terms like, artificial satellite, hyperdrive (and hyperspace), wormholes, time-machines, laser guns, robots (and androids and cyborgs), anti-matter, anti-gravity, fusion reactors, force fields, psionics, mutations, tractor beams (available in gravitic, magnetic and acoustic flavours – mmh acoustic tractor beams), warp drives (and space and time warps), some of these I covered in my Science in science-fiction posts last year which you might find useful.

Of course, in fantasy lands breaches of physics are usually (except where the author just didn’t know) because a wizard did it… which I’m coming to, first though…


Superman wrestles with Kryptonite

One of the original glowing green rocks that had weird chemical properties, and also clashed so badly with capes and tights that it was almost deadly.

You find science-fiction and more normally fantasy has a lot of strange materials in it (okay so this one might be titled ‘Material Science’). If you are going the way of fantasy authors you can call on materials like Mithril, Adamant, or Orichalcum to get you out of a plot-hole, although you’ll also find Fairy Steel, Star-metal and that weird glowing green rock.

Unobtanium, Phlebotinum, Neutonium, Ununpentium (or other transuranic metals), Kryptonite, Adamantium, Vibranium and advanced Nanotechnology materials (anything with Buckminster Fuller’s name associated or described as diamond-age technology) are the versions you’ll find in modern science-fiction (and comic-books). For those retro-futurists you might like to think about gravity-shielding Cavorite and similar materials.

But Chemistry isn’t just about the material science. You can also think about drugs, potions, medicines that are unique to the world you are building. Whether its food-pills, invisibility potions, truth serums, zombitoxin, elixir of life, universal solvent, shape-changing-mind-altering Jekyll and Hyde tinctures, Ambrosia or the latest medical bio-glue, you can do a lot by throwing in a new chemical.

Chemistry can also affect the Geography and Ecology of a world, if an alien world has acidic oceans and rivers the rocks will be very different to those created by a pH neutral liquid like water, and the fish are probably highly acidic themselves.

Again you can use a soft or hard approach in science-fiction, do your research if you are going to bandy around terms like intra-atomic bonds, lattice structures, crystal alignment, or dopamine receptors (veering into biology by way of bio-chemistry there) it will pay off.

In fantasy it is usual to blame any wierd chemicals that turn up on ancient civilizations, an alchemist or that wizard, but it can be dragon’s blood, venom or the distilled nectar of a particular flower too.


Alien warrior

What do you know, Weyland-Yutani had it right all along, it is a bio-weapon!

Biology in fundamentals has a lot of crossover with the ecology of a world (which gets a post of its own later). Changes to the Fundamental rules of biology, like adding a new mutant ‘X’ gene, acidic blood, or deciding that Darwin was completely wrong and we were designed by aliens might be okay in some fiction, but unless you really do the research it is never going to let hard sci-fi readers suspend disbelief.

The rules of evolutionary biology are perhaps a little more flexible than those of physics though, this is because while evolutionary biology has had its Newton in the form of Darwin it is yet to have its Einstein, and no one has yet explained how flying creatures managed to evolve not just once, but four times independently (and partial wings don’t seem to have any purpose, except maybe as the grasping arms of raptors, ‘display’ purposes, or for self-hugging warmth, and most of those apply only to birds — although insects may have used them for making noise). Also effects like convergent evolution exist as well as wildly divergent evolutionary pressures, which muddy the rules still further, and the whole thing is complicated by trying to extract universal laws from a single data set (namely planet Earth).

In reality, real xenobiologists (or biologists who think the right ways) are quick to point out that we might not even be able to recognise alien life as life at all. Beings that live on frozen moons may have metabolic processes so slow that we simply could not perceive them, viewing them as nothing more interesting than a rock. Conversely, a (presumably organised plasma) being that could survive on the surface of a star would live life so fast that we couldn’t hope to see them either. So when people talk about rules for biology, they are talking about the rules we have observed on Earth and, as Star Trek put it, life as we know it.

Space-Jockey? more like space-suit.

This weird alien, blended into the technology around it, yeah, that’s a suit.

This grants even the hard-science fictioneers plenty of room to manoeuvre when dealing with alien life, but even so it is worth thinking about how that parasitic-birthed-acid-blooded-xenomorph, or gestalt-polymorphic-retro-virus entity evolved (or was engineered). The more thought you give to how they evolved, the more interesting the aliens become. We spent thirty odd years wondering about the biology of the ‘space-jockey’ and its relationship to the Alien before Ridley Scott came up with some ‘answers’ of suit and engineered bio-weapon.

In fantasy fiction there is a lot more room to play with biology. Hybrids can easily be knocked up by a wizard, or passing deity, in a jiffy. That said, the best fantasy (in my opinion) usually treats biology as having much the same rules as our world, creatures evolve and inhabit niches in the ecology, even dragons, goblins and unicorns can make sense in the world if you want.

I’ll talk about monsters and population balance in my later post on Ecology.


Level 5 Mage by CJ Moseley

In Dungeons and Dragons for some reason all a Wizard’s problems start to look flammable once he’s reached Level 5.

Perhaps deserving of a whole series of posts in its own right (world-building 201 perhaps), but I’ll try to give you the quick guide to magic, as I see it.

Magic is a staple of fantasy, although early works tended to gloss over the details and systems, but after the release of  Dungeons & Dragons in the 70s suddenly there were a lot more wizards in fantasy, and a lot more sense to the magic that was turning up. Gandalf the Grey hardly did any magic at all, in fact he was more like a deus ex machina with a sword, but later wizards in movies and books had much more to do and say, and by the time Hagrid told Harry what the owls were about we all had a very different idea what Wizard meant.

In an old post called Fantastic Magick I talked about my research into magic. So if you want you can read that to get idea where this stuff is coming from:

Common models for magic

There are numerous models for magic in fantasy. Here are some:

Picture of someone filing

Clerical powers may vary from world to world.

  1. Spiritual Model: also called the Shamanism or Divine model, this supposes that the physical world is mirrored by a spiritual realm where supernatural entities (from spirits and imps to deities and demons) hang around. By imploring, bargaining with or cajoling these spirits the Mage can change the spiritual world, and the most powerful entities can change the real world for him. Common abilities: Communicating with spirits/gods, summoning spirits to possess objects or people, travelling into the spirit world, manifesting spirits into the real world. Common cost: spirits often require sacrifices and if the Mage fails to persuade or control the spirit then the magic will fail, or worse.
  2. Energy Model: Also called the New Age, Arcane or Force model it supposes the universe is a seething mass of energies and potentials, matter is crystallised energy, and what defines the nature of that matter or energy is its vibration or waveform. Static matter has a stable waveform. A Mage (or Jedi) is able to feel and alter these energies, redirecting and reshaping them through tools and his own vibratory energy of his mind/life energy. This is the model used in D&D for their mages. Common abilities: Extra-Sensory Perception, Matter manipulation, Energy liberation and control. Common cost: The Mage may require objects to provide energy or resonate at specific frequencies, the Mage is often tired, the magic draining their own energy to alter others, can be deadly to the Mage if they are not of sufficient experience.
  3. Probability Model: Also called the Fate or Luck model, it supposes the physical universe is nothing more than a mass of unlikely events, circumstances make some results more likely than others to any given action. By knowing the correct actions to take, the probabilities of certain results can be made more likely.  Common abilities: Luck/Chance altering, Coincidental magic, Prognostication, Doom-weaving. Common cost: usually requires great concentration, years of practice and specific spells to perfect. Failure can result in wild and unpredictable results.
  4. Belief Model: Also called the Maya model, the physical universe is nothing more than the collective beliefs of the people in it. If you can change what people believe then the world will change to match. Common abilities: Illusions and Glamours, hypnotic effects, sciences, technologies. Common cost: can require great concentration, and special preparations to alter the world. Often when it fails it will drive the Mage (or target) mad, making them believe the magic worked, when it did not.
  5. Psionic Model: also known as the Personal Power or Will model, it supposes that the power of a mage’s mind can alter the universe directly (similar to the belief model). Common abilities: ESP, Telepathy, Telekinesis, Mental projections, Poltergeist activity. Common costs: Usually requires aptitude and training to achieve more than the slightest effects, is always tiring for the Psionicist and may become erratic or uncontrolled when stressed.
  6. Information Model: also known as Quantum Model which supposes that reality is mostly down to the information stored in it, like a book. A Mage can read information and possibly even write or rewrite information in the book. Common abilities: ESP, Telepathy, Prognostication, Psychometry, Matter and Energy manipulation and creation. Common cost: Difficult to control, can go disastrously wrong.

There may be more than these 6 models (perhaps a 7th shadow magic model exists, but if it does I’m as much in the dark as you) and they can be blended together. In fact “Real Magick” seems to use all of the above, depending upon the nature/culture of the magician.

Laws of Magic

Luke and his wizened wise mentor.

Every apprentice needs a wizened mentor, some are more wizened than others.

Every fantasy world seems to have laws for its magic. Sometimes the old wizened mentor will explain these laws and sometimes the wizard will discover them for himself. In some stories the whole point of the plot is for a character to discover all the laws of magic (Master Of The Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy is a great example).

If you have magic in your world, you should decide what the laws of magic are. You might have a list of laws in mind already in which case, great, or you might have none. Here are some examples of Laws of Magic you might want to think about:

  • Magic is undone by… Spilling the blood/Death of the Magician, true love, after a duration, or similar.
  • To target a spell a Mage must… know the target’s true name, have a symbolic connection to them, point at them with a wand, make eye contact, or similar.
  • Magic never works the same way twice.
  • The Mage must spend time preparing spells for later use every morning.
  • Magic can only be performed through the use of set spells or rituals.
  • Magic can only happen while the Mage is concentrating upon it.
  • Magic cannot create or destroy anything, only transform or move.
  • Magic obeys the rules of entropy, the costs must be paid.
  • Magic cast out will return upon the caster three-fold.
  • Mages can only cast so many spells a day.
  • Magic is associated with specific genes or bloodlines, wizards are mutants or hybrids with magic using creatures such as fairies, dragons, immortals or gods
  • Magic is powered by the mage’s life force, each casting ages the caster.
  • Spells take up space in the mage’s mind, to learn a spell they must give up a (childhood) memory.
  • Magic is powered by the mage’s sanity, each casting increases the chances of insanity.
  • Magic requires a group, performing a ritual, which mitigates the costs and shares them out.
  • Certain spells can only be performed at certain times of the day, week, month or year.
  • It is easier to alter the mind than the spirit world or real world.
  • All spirits are actually evil and will eat the mage’s soul if they get chance.
  • Magic must have a vessel (you can make a flaming sword, but not throw fire).
  • Magic comes in elemental flavours, which interact in specific ways. Water opposes Fire, Earth opposes Air, etc.
  • Magic is not a science there is only a chance that any given spell will work.
  • Magic is just advanced science, it obeys all the rules of physics, chemistry and biology. The corollary is that the sciences are a subset or school of magic.
  • Magic is powered by mana (or similar energy) which each mage has only so much of a day or a lifetime.

Pick a few, or better yet make some up of your own.

Techniques and Tools of Magic

Image from Jamie and The Magic Torch.

Some magickal tools are stranger than others

What separates the magic of an Eskimo Angakok and a Blackfoot Medicine Man? Both are using the Shamanic model, calling on similar spiritual entities, but they do the same magic in very different ways. They call on different spirits, in different ways, and may be paying different, but similar costs. What becomes important are the tools the Mage uses and how they use them.

Here’s how you set that up for yourself.

  • A song, chant or poem (each effect/spell is different) which must be correctly pronounced.
  • Nonsense words (which might be in the song, or be the names of spirits that must be called upon)
  • Complex hand/wand/dagger/sword/staff gestures or dance
  • Writing/drawing runes/signs/hieroglyphs/symbols/circles/mandalas
  • Music must be sung or played that is specific to the task
  • A puzzle must be solved (usually a magic square, or mathematical equation – although I guess that’s like engineering)
  • A specific potion, powder or poultice must be made during the casting
  • Symbolic objects are used in the casting of the spell, such as ropes, candles, chalices, cloths, bat guano, etc
  • The Mage must enter a trance or heightened emotional state to activate their magic.

Often there will be a complex system of correspondences that controls which tools and techniques are useful in what circumstances. This correspondences are usually specific to the school of magic that is being studied. For example, drums may correspond to Earth magic, Lightning bolts, or Astral travel as they reflect earthquakes, thunder or horses hooves in the minds of the Mage.
You can make these techniques and tools universal, or require specific ones for specific spells, schools or magicians. It’s your magic, set it up how you like.

The Price Of Power

Magic should have a cost, otherwise the mages are unstoppable beings that would destroy the universe for their petty whims. Some example costs you may want to think about including:

Spell Components

Bat guano: essential ingredient for fireballs and gunpowder.

  • Physical ingredients are consumed in the magic, ink, gold dust, gems, incense, wine, spices, paper, chalk, candles, etc.
  • Animal (and perhaps human) sacrifices must empower the spells and rituals to work
  • The mage’s life force, sanity, creativity, hair, emotions, memories, mana, willpower, or own blood must be sacrificed to empower the spells
  • Food and drink must be consumed during the rituals of magic that are appropriate for the spirits called
  • The environment will be drained of energy (mana, life force, heat, etc) by the magic
  • Risk, while not actually a cost the mage must risk it all when casting. If the spell goes wrong it may cost them their sanity, life, or immortal soul in one fell swoop
  • Backlash, magic has its effect, but then later the effect will Backlash affecting the mage or their environment negatively. This effect may accumulate over time, and is often combined with Risk.

Again you can pick one, or several and invent new ones for yourself. You can decide if every spell or effect has a different cost, or whether magical laws are universal, only the intensity varying.
Personally, I like to have differing schools of magic that all operate in slightly different ways as it makes for a deep, complex magical world.
This is similar to the real world, where the magic practiced by Native peoples around the world may share similar concepts, but have completely different implementations. Australian Shamans are said to be close to the spirit world and are feared for their powers, the Shamans of Siberia are also close to the spirit world and feared for their powers, but the techniques, tools and restrictions on their magic are not similar at all, and both are different to a Spiritualist medium.

Summing up

Working out the fundamentals of your world (or rather how they differ from what you think of as the real world) is a great start to building a complex and realistic fantasy, horror or science-fiction universe (it can even help with historical novels, thrillers and detective stories). You can always state that your book is set in the real world, but sometimes that raises the question of which real world? The real world as seen by a Physicist is very different from that of a primitive shaman, and neither exactly line up with the world view of Hollywood actors. Since it is all about suspension of disbelief (which occurs when you break the rules you have in place — not necessarily the actual rules of our universe) then the demographics of your readers and players are more important than anything else. If your players/readers are scientists then you should make your science hard, if they aren’t then you can get away with softer science. Conversely, if you are writing for fantasy readers, they accept magic more easily, but are going to worry about any advanced technology that you throw into your medieval world.

Right, that about wraps it up for the Fundamentals, next time I’ll talk about Map making (Cartography) and Geography, until then drop some comments if this was useful or you now want my blood…