Posted on by Ryan Gauvreau

Harry Potter, Night Watch, The Dresden Files… There are more than a few worlds with a society of wizards hiding in the shadows. Throw in masquerades of any supernatural sort, not just wizards, and you have most of the urban fantasy genre.

And a lot of these, maybe even most, do a fairly good job. But then you’ve got some that take their cues from Harry Potter without bothering to think for a moment about what actually makes sense. Which is sort of important, because while you’re allowed to take your flight of fancy and come up with any number of bizarre fundamental principles in a world, if that’s your thing, you still need to be consistent.

Every universe has rules, and the most important one is “Where not stated otherwise, the rules of this universe match our own.” This is why you don’t need it explicitly stated that fire consumes oxygen in the Harry Potter books, or that Harry Dresden eats food. With that in mind, let’s go over a few points:

  1. Check your math. And then double-check it. For Heaven’s sake, at least do the math, just once

This… This is the really horrible one. Even JK has admitted that she’s bad at math, but that’s not really an excuse because you don’t need more than a calculator and an elementary school education to figure out basic mathematics like addition and division and fractions. Oh, and some time taken out to crunch the numbers.

Here are the facts, as I see them: If you’re going to go out and create a world, and expect anybody at all to be invested in it to any degree at all, then you owe your audience some basic respect. This includes going through the bare minimum of work necessary to make your world coherent and self-consistent, and not something that’s going to fall apart over five minutes of concentrated thought.

For one of my worlds, which I built partly for a play-by-email game that might only be seen by half a dozen people ever, I set about crunching the numbers. How many students graduate from the school every year? What is the mortality rate for different age groups? How long do they live?

It took me two hours, not two minutes, and I went over it front and back to check my math. Because your audience deserves a coherent universe, and if you don’t have the time to make one then you probably don’t have the time to make a coherent plot, either.

I didn’t have to worry too much about how many kids a given generation had, because anyone can be a wizard so long as you’re taught, and nobody is allowed to be taught except at this school. So the school has a set number of students every year that never changes with increased population growth (minus a few renegades, of course). But even if you have to account for population growth, you still don’t have to go to Wikipedia or know the equations for doubling time in order to figure out that if you want to have one thousand students at your magical school, then you can’t have a total population of three thousand.

You should definitely look up real-life population stats, of course, just to make sure that you don’t accidentally turn one in a hundred people into a wizard, but that’s a side note.

  1. Choosing to not act is still a choice

And therefore an action in itself.

If you’re designing a, well, wizardly masquerade, then your wizards are hiding themselves from the mundane populace.

Why are they doing it? And, related, why are they willing to accept the consequences?

Let’s say that your wizards have healing magic, right? If that stuff works on cancer, then guess whose fault it is whenever somebody dies from cancer.

Can they create food? Pretty sure there are some starving people who would kind of appreciate being on the receiving end of that.

When Hagrid tells young Harry Potter that wizards keep themselves separated from muggles because the latter would be bothering them all the time for magical solutions to their problems, what Hagrid is saying is “We care less about your lives than we do about not being inconvenienced.”

  1. Work through the implications

This one is kind of related to everything else, but it deserves a section of its own, too.

Something that Harry Potter gets right: Having healing magic is going to raise the life expectancy.

Whenever you introduce a newfangled thingy-thing, ask yourself what the side effects are going to be. Not that it’s about a wizardly masquerade society, but this is something that I liked about The Legend of Korra: You had firebenders, who were apparently able to produce more energy (through fire and lightning) than they consumed, working in power production. What did they do? They shot lightning at batteries, basically.

Of course, that had other problems, and I was glad that the series, again, addressed them. Because the world was such that non-benders were essentially disenfranchised, in a position that was arguably worse off than that of the common worker in the early 1900s, and so of course there was going to be resentment and uprisings reminiscent of the Communist movements of those days.

But then— and here is the lesson for you, dear worldbuilder— after the protagonists got rid of the guy in charge of the Equalist movement, the show treated the problem as if it had been solved. Completely ignoring that little had changed from before, so that all they had done was treat the symptoms while totally ignoring the underlying cause.

The structure of your world, to lift from Schopenhaur, cannot be “so accommodating as to let itself be used like a hired cab, which we dismiss when we have reached your destination.” You cannot introduce an element into your story and then fail to address it as soon as its purpose has been served.

I will say it clearly: That is the behavior of a hack.

  1. As mobility rises, the possibility for tyranny decreases

Is magically-aided transportation possible in your world? How easy is it?

One of the main tools utilized by any society, aggressive toward and controlling of its own people, is the ability to limit choices. Dissenters in North Korea cannot magic themselves into a nicer place, for example. Serfs in feudal Russia similarly couldn’t get very far away.

On one side of the scales, measure out how feasible it is for a group to enforce its will on the people. On the other side, measure out the capability of the people to escape the reach of a group or individual that they disagree with. Alone, the power of apparition results in the dissolution of the North Korean state, just like it makes the Holocaust impossible. Anti-apparition wards counter this, but only to the extent that they are feasible to erect and maintain. If you can easily keep a camp of people from apparating, then we still have death camps, but if you can’t set the wards down on a whole country then North Korea’s present government is still going to dissolve and, quite possibly, the Nazis wouldn’t have had anyone to put in camps in the first place.

Next week we’ll cover five more things to keep in mind.

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