Tag: writing


Posted on by Ryan Gauvreau

Like everything, these ideas are free for the taking. Consider them to be public domain. Just… grab them, and use them, and stuff. That’s what they’re there for.

  1. Financial Astrology

Developed in the throes of the Great Depression, financial astrology is the art of using magic to make money, and using money to make magic. To those that have sworn the oaths, the signs of the stars unfold to their understanding. They are able to decipher the currents of the future, at least so far as it pertains to currency. The stock market becomes child’s play to them that have sold their eyes and their hearts to the great god Pluto, and the more learned among them can predict its changes to the minute.

What they do next is based upon a principle that everyone knows: Wealth shapes the world. Only the merchant-kings know how true that statement is, however. Currency has an effect on the ley lines of the world, which themselves have subtle effects on the environment when “plucked” by the presence of money. Where a ley line is plucked, and how strongly (that is, how much money is affecting it) determines what happens, so that the right amount in the right place can lead to decreased social stability in another city.

With the right plucks nearly anything can be done, with the caveat that ley lines influence only living organisms and not natural systems like the weather, and so the financial astrologers carefully manipulate the flow of money to get the changes that they want (which is not to say that others want it— they are not a unified lot). With enough money, ley lines can be plucked so severely that they actually shift in place.

The one thing about their condition that makes life difficult is that they cannot physically handle money. Credit cards and checks are okay, but actual money catches fire or melts in their hands, leaving them with dross (and burned hands).

  1. Orthosurgy

A system of magic based upon the principle of sympathy, using teeth and nails as foci. While teeth are reasonably potent and retain their power until destroyed, a single full nail is useful for no more than a couple of weak spells, to say nothing of a mere clipping. They may, however, be used for reanimation, whereas teeth can do nothing to one that has died (including those that have suffered death temporarily), and reanimation is not a terribly powerful spell. Full resurrection may require years of clippings, but to turn a corpse into a shambling walker bound to one’s will for a few weeks requires only a few nails.

However, whether they be teeth or nails foci must be taken, not given. This is why children leave offerings for the tooth fairy. It robs the leavings of their power by explicitly giving them out to anyone who would be interested in taking them.

The power of orthosurgy is a gift, however, twisted, and it must be passed on to another in order to persist. Without a declared heir, the death of an orthosurgeost permanently reduces their number by one. Heirs may not be replaced except in the case of premature death, so orthosurgeosts are careful about speaking the “naming words.” Orthosurgeosts become more inhuman as time goes on, first in mind and eventually in body. Among other things they are prone to developing slight kleptomaniacal tendencies, long fingers, and in some cases fingers without nails. Their teeth may change shape and their stomachs change, both in response to whichever diet the orthosurgeost prefers.

  1. Lychery

A kind of ritual magic that makes you the temporary channel for a Power, timeless things from outside existence. The exact ritual sets bounds on the Power and guides its actions toward the desired result: healing, transformation of the body, the unleashing of fire, or whatever other effect is desired.

Lyches know how to use preexisting magical patterns easily enough but experimentation is dangerous. The slightest error can give the Power summoned too much free reign or, if the binding is successful, force it to take an undesired action. Accordingly, innovation is very slow.

Another limitation is tied to candles, which are necessary to strengthen the invoked Power— it might be said that a Power is like a hole of a certain shape which supplies nothing of itself but determines the shape of whatever is put through it. Each candle adds to the potency at hand to make the spell 1.05 times greater than before.

Repeated channeling of Powers affects the body, most principally granting longevity. A lych’s mind is not equipped for this, however, and the weight of memory proves an eventual but inevitable strain. Suicide among very old lyches is common, as senility begins to settle in over the course of centuries. On the bright side, however, senility within the context of a conventional lifespan is far rarer, due to the efforts of lyches to ward off the effects of aging wherever they can, for as long as they can.

If you want some quick figures: 15 candles are necessary to make a spell 2.078 times as powerful as with one candle. 33 to reach 5.003x potency, 50 candles gives it a potency of 11.467x, and 93 candles before the potency overtakes the number of candles at a potency of 93.455x. 100 candles gives a potency of 131.501x and 200 gives a potency of 17,292.58x.

  1. Greensinging

In the earliest days of Man, he was taught language. The language that was taught him was the language of the world— of life and death, or connection and destruction, of bonds and the severing thereof— and Man’s teachers were the birds. But Man’s first act was to sever the bonds that were between him and the birds, so that they would hold no power over him, and ever since that time the birds have spoken no word that can be understood.

Or so goes the story of the langua verde, a peculiar tongue consisting of whistles and other sounds in marked similarity to bird song. Greensingers, or Green Men, sing songs of empathy and decay. The songs allow them to feel what others are feeling and transmit the same. Skilled Greensingers can learn how to feel falsely, to give fear when they are calm, or to calm the crowd though they have also been roused to anger. The songs also allow them to accelerate the natural processes of destruction by spying weaknesses, magnifying flaws, weakening strengths, and instilling, nurturing, and hastening all rot.

Your turn: What’s your favorite system of magic, and what do you like so much about it?

R. Donald James Gauvreau works an assortment of odd jobs, most involving batteries. He has recently finished a guide to comparative mythology for worldbuilders, available herefor free. He also maintains a blog at White Marble Block, where he regularly posts story ideas and free fiction, and writes The Culture Column, an RPG.net column with cultures ready for you to drop into your setting. 

Posted on by Ryan Gauvreau

  1. The old man with jobs for heroes is a dragon

So dragons can shapeshift in your world? And they don’t always get along with each other?

Think back to The Hobbit and put your Imagining Hat back on. Imagine that Gandalf was a dragon. That Smaug was a rival of his, for territory or treasure or something else, or maybe just an undesirable loose cannon and potential threat somewhere two or three centuries down the line.

So Gandalf-the-dragon tracks down some dwarfs that have a personal stake in the issue, gives them advice, and sends them in the right direction. Even helps them pick up a hobbit for the journey, too. And the thrush that mentions Smaug’s Achilles’ heel? Shapeshifted Gandalf again.

Lesser beings are pieces on a magnificent chess set, moved around by their draconic betters. These are moves in conflicts that can last for centuries before they even come to open blows, and sometimes never do.

Another dragon doesn’t even have to be facing down the metaphorical barrel, either. Dragons can have a multitude of reasons for manipulating humans into doing their dirty work for them.

And sometimes, of course, dragons head off potential trouble by giving false reports about themselves. Imagine the look on a dragon-hunter’s face when it’s discovered that the secret vulnerability ze was going to exploit doesn’t actually exist.

  1. The dragon used to be an old man with jobs for heroes

Alternatively, let’s go back to characters like Fafnir. Dragons aren’t born, they’re made, they’ve become. Sufficient greed and obsession, centered on a sufficiently-large hoard, can cause a transformation into a dragon. It may be slow and gradual or very sudden.

A dragon’s new life came on account of its hoard, and its life is forever subject to the same. Dragons can be controlled by holding their hoards for ransom. Luckily, this is usually as far as it goes. A dragon’s strength and power are linked to its hoard and it can be killed if the hoard is destroyed, but dragons seldom fear this fate. They know how hard it is for their former peers to do away with such treasures. More likely is that the thief will turn miserly as well, and a new dragon will be the result of it.

Dwarf-keeps are generally ruled by dragons, of course. More dragons were originally dwarfs than any other species, in fact. Whether this is a natural tendency or their culture has been warped by centuries of dragon rule is anyone’s guess.

I say “alternatively” in the beginning there, but I should add that these ideas are not mutually exclusive. In this scenario dragons have already changed shape once. Who’s to say that they can’t shapeshift back, either into their original form or into anything that their minds conceive. Maybe there are supernatural tells, maybe it’s a flawless impersonation.

  1. The most important part of a dragon’s hoard is the dragon

Maybe dragons hoard gold and jewels. Maybe they don’t. Either way, though, the real profit from dragon-hunting is in harvesting body parts. Every part of the dragon is useful.

The scales make a serviceable armor. The fangs and claws may be made into weapons. But many of the other body parts may be rendered into potions. Dragons possess a venom in their teeth that keeps long and well in glass decanters. Or perhaps the venom, so quick to kill, is a multipurpose fluid that is also behind their fire.

Perhaps it is their blood, and causes paranoia and various hallucinations. Hence the tales of dragon-slayers that speak to birds after killing a dragon (especially if it can turn into a gas upon contact with the air, which can also add danger to the very fighting of a dragon). Or maybe the hallucinations are the natural side effect of getting down into the depths of reality, where things are truer and the phenomenal world is revealed to be merely symbolic. Or maybe it just makes you invulnerable, as Sigurd discovered.

The heart may prolong the lifespan, cure diseases, or grant strength. The eyes aren’t actually magic, but they do taste pretty good and make an excellent soup.

  1. The next step is body modification

Silly dragon-slayer, you don’t go and use up a dragon’s bits like that. Didn’t you hear that the future is in renewable resources?

Wizards are the elite of society. They’re almost defined by their practice of grafting parts of dragons to themselves. Some of them have a smile like a shark’s, full of razor-sharp dragon fangs. Some of them have new blood flowing through their veins, opening their ears to the language of the birds. Some have threaded dragon muscle in with theirs, or grafted tough skin in place of their own.

Almost all of them have replaced their hearts. It’s the first thing that you want to do, even if it has a fair chance of killing you. With a dragon’s heart in your chest your lifespan can be measured in the centuries.

In some ways scientific progress is right on the level for a fantasy society, but medical science (surgery in particular) is on the cutting edge, if not entirely past anything that we can do today. Wizards direct all of their efforts in this direction, because improving the grafting process is an effort that never fails to bear fruits.

Some wizards push the boundaries of what should be possible, even allowing for magical cross-species organ transplants. Some have chopped up their stomachs to make room for additional organs, and rely on intravenous drips or nutrient slurries. Others are simply content to become bloated parodies of their former selves

Wizards. Biotech. Body horror. Dragons through and through that all. What are you waiting for?

  1. Actually, don’t touch anything there at all, mkay?

A dragon’s hoard is cursed, man. It’s the dragon’s last revenge against thieves and murderers that would despoil it and rob its treasures.

Perhaps you hallucinate or turn mad. Perhaps you become mad with greed (maybe even as the result of partial possession by the dragon’s own spirit) until you’ll kill someone for looking at your hoard wrong.

The curse may be applied to the hoard and whoever owns so much as a single coin of it. This means that the curse can be transmitted vertically, generation to generation, and also be spread horizontally, so that many people are affected. Does it matter how much of the hoard you have, or is the person in possession of a cup subject to the curse to the same degree as the person who owns everything else? Does giving up the hoard relieve the curse?

Your turn: What are some other interesting ways that dragons could be used in a story?

R. Donald James Gauvreau works an assortment of odd jobs, most involving batteries. He has recently finished a guide to comparative mythology for worldbuilders, available herefor free. He also maintains a blog at White Marble Block, where he regularly posts story ideas and free fiction, and writes The Culture Column, an RPG.net column with cultures ready for you to drop into your setting. 

Posted on by Ryan Gauvreau

I’m in the preparatory stages of writing a sourcebook called Species Shock, for really weird non-rubber forehead aliens. It’s going to include a dozen or so species, covering evolutionary history, present culture, psychology, value systems, language… On and on. A lot of stuff.

And that’s just the second part of the book, a grab-and-go section. But the other part of the book is a how-to guide that will be the theory to the second section’s in-practice. It’ll go over things like the different kinds of intelligence that exist, how to justify humanoid aliens if you really absolutely have to (but please don’t), cultural universals, and so on.

If all goes well, it won’t do badly as a companion to Robert Freitas’ Xenology, which you should totally check out right now and I mean right now, because this article will totally wait for you.

Done? Great.

So as I’m in the process of putting my notes together, I thought it might be nice to gloss over a few ideas in this column. We’re not going to get too in-depth, though.

  1. Don’t forget to study

And by that, I mean that there are a few other things that I think are relevant and worth reading. The first is Freitas’ Xenology, which I’ve already linked to and just did again.

Second, there’s a page that I wrote on TV Tropes several years ago which covered some of this ground. You should check that out too: ”So You Want To Design An Alien Mind”.

Finally, if you haven’t been with me since the beginning then it might be worth mentioning an earlier article of mine from this column: “Blue and orange morality for fun and… profit????”

  1. Don’t forget to talk about humans

In every profile featured in Species Shock, there are going to be two sections called Conflict and (more-or-less positive) Relationships. No species is going to be so nice and fantastically hippie’d that they won’t ever have strong disagreements with humans, which they won’t be able to settle with just a trip to the ballgame and a talk over beers. They may not react with physical violence (though they may, and the profiles will discuss the possibilities) but there will be situations in which they will desire to exert their will contrary to the wishes of humankind.

These don’t necessarily have to be over resources or anything, mind. I’ve got a species who may potentially come into conflict with humans over the fact that they act as brood parasites toward their own kind.

On the flip side, I don’t have any interest in designing species that can only have conflicts with humans in every conceivable universe. So I’m going to think about what each species might want from, and be able to give to, humankind, and how they might relate to our species on a more peaceful, symbiotic basis.

  1. But don’t forget that they’re aliens

Some species will share psychological traits with humans. Any similarities to human psychology will often serve only to make the differences more jarring and, insofar as they may be unexpected and/or downplayed, dangerous.

They have different value systems. They have different mental concepts and maybe even different logic and truth systems. They definitely have different languages, and almost certainly they don’t communicate exactly like people do, with the same range of noises produced in the same manner (in fact, one of the default assumptions I’m making in the book’s profiles is that nobody can pronounce each other’s languages properly).

  1. Don’t forget about cultural universals

Cultural universals are elements of culture that can be found in all human cultures. Here’s a sample list. As part of making sure that your aliens are truly alien, you should take the time to decide which universals the aliens do and don’t share with us.

Robert Freitas goes over cultural universals too, including a sample list of cultural universals for hypothetical alien species.

And don’t make humans the center of the universe either. If you have multiple alien species then you should come up with some cultural universals that are shared by some of the aliens but not by humans.

  1. Don’t forget to make your aliens individuals

There will be rough cultural outlines, basic assumptions, stuff like that, common to each species profile. But I don’t want to make any of these species into a planet of hats, and one section of the profile will be geared to that end.

Let’s say that for some reason I were writing up Klingons for Species Shock. They kind of go against everything that the book stands for (indeed, you wouldn’t be totally off the mark in saying that they’re the reason that the book is being written) but whatever.

Klingons are pretty hardcore about honor and being warriors and stuff like that. So this section of the profile would give a few different examples of Klingon warriors, showing that there are multiple interpretations of their codes and honor systems and such. It will also describe, say, Klingon scientists, Klingon taxi drivers, and, oh, let’s say Klingon farmers, and discuss how each of these occupations applies the common Klingon ideas to their lives.

  1. Don’t forget to set them in context

Your aliens did not arise out of the nether of the never-never. They have an evolutionary history, and even if they exterminated all other life on their planet there was other life there once upon a time. So take the time to get an idea of how they got from single celled organisms to where they are now. Figure out some of the places where their path diverged with other species. And above all, figure out what some of the species were that they are or at least were contemporary with.

You should be able to give a few decent paragraphs of what their world’s wildlife is like, and by having an outline of their world’s evolutionary history it should make sense.

Your turn: What else do you think is worth keeping in mind when writing up aliens?

R. Donald James Gauvreau works an assortment of odd jobs, most involving batteries. He has recently finished a guide to comparative mythology for worldbuilders, available herefor free. He also maintains a blog at White Marble Block, where he regularly posts story ideas and free fiction, and writes The Culture Column, an RPG.net column with cultures ready for you to drop into your setting. 

Posted on by Ryan Gauvreau

A little ways back I wrote an article about the second-person POV. I don’t think that there’s much for me to say on that topic that I haven’t already said, but there are other ways of telling a story, including a few that I haven’t seen taken advantage of very often. (more…)

Posted on by Steven Savage

fence barbed wire

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

Last column I covered bias and bigotry in the settings you’re developing. Not a pleasant subject, but one that’s important because believable characters have their biases and often their bigotries – just as we do.

To summarize my handy rules-to-remember on the subject:

  1. Everyone has Opinions.
  2. When opinions “solidify” they become Biases.
  3. When Biases become part of our identity they become Bigotries, sort of black holes of ideals that suck other things in.

Now when bigotries seize control of an individual, a group, a nation, or a galactic confederation, that can lead to outright campaigns against various people. Attempts to extermiate, subjugate, control, or drive out an entire identifiable group. In short, persecutions.

Which is the unpleasant subject of today’s column.

Persecution is a common theme in many works, as it is (sadly) part of the human experience and human regrets. However persecution is also a word and an idea thrown around too easily, so we don’t often think about persecutions in detail when worldbuilding. It’s easy to genericize it, to stereotype it, asopposed to dealing with it as what it is – an unpleasant but near-living thing.

Let me note, again, I am discussing the behavior of humans and human-alike creatures. So other races you create may behavie differently – maybe the Dwarves of Lavabarrow* have a semi-hive mind that makes them integrate with any society or something.  That’s up to you.

With that being said, let’s ask just what is persecution in a setting? (more…)

Posted on by Steven Savage

shattered face statue

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

For the next few columns I’m going to be exploring the dysfunctions and conflicts in the worlds we create. Not conflicts brought about by our mistakes as worldbuilders (though those can become fuel for deeper worldbuilding as noted), but what happens when things break down? Sure we’re all busy building our world, but things go wrong inside the worlds as part of good worldbuilding, and we have to figure out the implications of the crises we create.

In fact, as repeated several times, conflict is actually part of the process of making a world accessible and interesting. People want to hear stories and play games about things that happen, and that often involves conflict. Not always of course, but often enough it warrants its own section here in a series of columns by a slightly-mad-scientist of randomizing ideas.

Now everyday conflicts are one thing; arguing over a tab, not being able to find dragon dung at the alchemist’s shop, and so on. Let’s talk about the big ones, the ones that are epic and horrible, the ones we write about – and the ones that in real life make us wonder why the hell they happened.

So let’s go and find out just how things break down and go wrong. We’ll start with how it stays together in the first place – well, how our cast of characters and people keep it together.  After all, they’ll be the ones you’re writing about or your players are playing.

Also they’re probably the ones causing the problems . . . (more…)

Posted on by Steven Savage

chessboard chess

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds).

A lot of people who wolrdbuild get into roleplaying games. I feel I can make this statement clearly; its true in my experience, and of course I’m not quoting any numbers so I have deniability. I’m covered here!

But seriously, it seems like people get ideas from, put ideas into, or think of ideas in forms of RPGs. I’m not just talking the freeform collective storytelling style of RPGs – I’m talking about the rules-and-dice type RPGs that we’re all familiar with.

We wonder what class a character would be in a given game.

We try and build a character we made in a given game.

We think of game rules as writing guidelines.

We get ideas looking over game rules.

And more . . . (more…)

Posted on by Ryan Gauvreau

“Why do you assume I have a choice?” Stephen King, Night Shift.

A month ago I explained horror from an LDS viewpoint, justifying, as it were, the existence of the horror genre. But why me? I recognize the need for electricians but have no desire to be one myself, so the need itself is not reason enough for my participation, and while I don’t think that there’s any reason to defend myself (I already did that to my satisfaction) there is room for curiosity to be had. Why did— well, you think of an author yourself and add “write in that genre?” because I definitely don’t feel qualified to compare myself to the Greats at this point. But why does anyone write how and what they do? (more…)

Posted on by Steven Savage

(Originally posted at Muse Hack – sharing this one with people here!)

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Jay Hartlove at Con-Volution when we sat next to each other on the Worldbuilding And Religion Panel.  I was thrilled when Lillian Csernica re-introduced me so I can interview him – because this is a man that pushes himself.  Let’s meet Jay! (more…)

Posted on by Ryan Gauvreau

In light of my earlier article on dystopias, I thought it would be appropriate to bring back an aborted setting that I worked on a long, long time ago. The premise was that there was a great conflict by a number of groups, called the Utopians, who were each genuinely trying to better everyone’s lives. But they disagreed on methods and they disagreed on ends. Even though they acknowledged that they were all trying to do a good job they couldn’t work together because each of the others sacrificed or didn’t address something which they considered to be of vital importance.

That’s what this is about, by demonstrating and giving examples.  Good Guys— or at least Decent Guys— who still can’t get along because they have such differing value systems, and the myriad ways that a utopia can take root. (more…)

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