Professional Worldbuilding

[— Karen Myers —]

Worldbuilding is a very large topic — for this post I’m going to focus on some of the fundamentals of how cities and armies work, since getting that wrong usually includes screwing up basic economics, logistics, or even gravity. If you can’t make that stuff seem real, you’re in trouble.

And what’s the best place to learn all that? From actual history. And where better to get a guide than a professional military historian, eh? Even better if he covers the classical world all the way up, and focuses on how fiction gets it wrong.

Bret Devereaux, in his blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, lays out very well-founded discussions of what is wrong about the way fiction (written or game or film) presents the economics that hold a nation together, or the constraints on how armies move, or the reasons cities take the form that they do. Since most of his blog consists of rather pointed criticisms of how the real world is being simulated by people like us, it’s a great point of view for us to become familiar with.

For example… In this article, he critiques the new Amazon Rings of Power not for its lack of fidelity to Tolkien, etc., but for the gross impossibility of some of its representation of any sort of reality.

In, he gives us a head-shaking discussion of the bogosity of the Loot Train Battle from Game of Thrones.

The Fremen Mirage critiques the notion of the morally and martially superior ‘savage’, using Dune as its (negative) exemplar.

I found the discussion of how cities grow as agriculturally surrounded entities especially helpful in designing an older urban environment and its circles of economic layers.

There’s even a handy subset of articles as resources for worldbuilders such as ourselves: I’ve read them all and recommend them. Browsing through the articles in this link is… educational. And, besides, the fellow has an excellent grasp of snark.

What worldbuilding horrors have you encountered (or committed)? How did you discover your errors?

60 thoughts on “Professional Worldbuilding

  1. “What worldbuilding horrors have you encountered?”

    Fantasy novels (and RPG settings) that don’t take magic into account.

    1. What kind of magic is it? Is it reliable as in “Use this spell and this will happen 99% of the time”, or does every use have a significant chance of failure or unexpected results?

    2. Are those results physical, or are they restricted to non-physical results?

    3. How common is it? Are there restrictions on who can use it, where, or when. Because if you have reliable, common, and physical magic, it’s going to be used as a tech replacement. The best example is maybe something like a “decanter of endless water”: if that exists, the size of your cities, agricultural output, military tactics are all going to be affected.

    1. Even just the 0 level spell “Create water” would play merry hob with sieges and alleviate droughts. And any acolyte can do that one.

    2. Agreed. It’s part of what drives my in-process series, where magic discoveries compete with [real world] Industrial Revolution discoveries, and the economic issues sort things out.

    3. I’m working on one where the invention of food magic has had — not exactly the effect intended on war.

      One notes that offensive and defensive magic do not have to progress in lockstep.

      Also that without sufficient protection, teleportation would change the world for the worse.

      1. Yup. They are such underrated things in most campaigns. There were people in my D&D world (flunked out of mage academies) who were making their living on mending spells or prestidig spells.

            1. And it produces clean dry socks on demand.

              Which means any NCO who bans it will get it experience the joys of being the pin in a game of bowling for officers.

              1. Which means the NCO in question has to get Creative… I have seen such escalations (sans magic…) Then again the NCOs I dealt with were promoted because they were craftier than the boots. (I had the interesting ‘privilege’ of being in the MI unit in the corner of an infantry base. One of my gaming buddies was an infantry squadleader. There were STORIES.)

        1. D&D is notoriously weak in world-building. Despite the way that magic is supposed to be rare, and the spell-lists are distinctly loaded toward combat, the worlds are generally modern with a medieval veneer — and not a thick or even complete veneer.

          1. That was what drove me nuts about the Pathfinder 1e setting, which was basically AD&D 3.5 with the numbers filed off. Everything was shamelessly based off of what a bunch of upper middle class Americans ‘knew’ how the world ‘should be’. Including things like the main good guy nation interfering with the slave trade (by sinking slave ships and taking the slaves back home to make good citizens out of them) being practised by several major and literally right-next-door nations without them being attacked in response.

            Or said good guy nation being lead by a universally loved except by evil people African paladin who has some of the gods themselves as his fanboys.

            1. A consistent world might have that. After all, the powerful, magic-rich nations could phase out slavery because they could automate the slave work. And then they could force it on other nations who had no choice because they didn’t have the magic.

              But that requires world-building.

              1. It was the powerful, magic-rich nations that were the ones engaged in the slave trade while the smaller, weaker nation (a third their size and nowhere near their power) was the one thumbing its nose at them.

                I admit to being really disgusted with the whole thing because one of the slaving nations, Cheliax, was so obviously Black Legend Spain, just devil worshipers instead of Catholics. And the writers openly admitted that the ‘good guy’ nation of Andoran was a utopia like what they knew all their leftist dreams would lead to if they ever had the power to put them into effect without having to compromise. And ‘it’s only a game, it’s only fantasy, so what if it doesn’t “make sense”?’

                My own take was that Andoran probably lasted a decade before between incompetent leadership and going out of their way to antagonize all the neighbors lead to then being stomped flat.

                1. :Noodles a moment to see if she can come up with a way to get that result:

                  Well, you could have their magic power be from blood magic– so you did actually need those slaves, either as labor or as fuel– and then the little nations with the “gods fanboi our boi” guy have anti-black-magic effects BECAUSE of their holiness– basically a paladin nation.

                  Yes, this would take work they clearly didn’t do, and no I’m not going to dig hard enough to make it work because I’m helping with a several “X but it makes sense” worlds. 😀

              2. I am sorry to go on so about a silly game. It’s just that it had so much potential that was squandered time and time again in the name of ‘The Narrative’ and to please the personal agendas of the writers.

                Which could still work if done well, but here it was done so hamfistedly I got tired of it.

                1. Going endlessly on about the lousy world-building of popculture artifacts is great fun and needs no excuse.

                2. And it reinforces the point that world building has to make sense if you step back a little. “If my Hero King keeps doing this, what will the neighbors do in ten years? What will the economy do in ten years? How does he pay for that Great Army of Liberation anyway?”

                  1. Will my point of view character even notice (fathom is unnecessary) any of the clues for the reader to understand that it works?

      2. :grumbles: Absolutely!

        Working on a story with my husband where that’s basically how the two idiots manage to survive for Far Too Long in the forest.

        You have fire!

        You have clean (without soap or water)!

        You can change the temperature of a whole freaking SQUARE FOOT of stuff! (even if it’s just warm or cool, drinking that water will help– or *warm your blankets*!)

        Hey, I need to get attention– I MAKE SPARKS APPEAR!

  2. Read this one SF novel set in a future where the people of color ran things and whites were marginalized minorities. (For this purpose Arabs and South Americans were considered POC as were US blacks, etc.) It was set in a near-future (200-300 years from now) where Mars was being settled. So far, so good.

    Then absurd economics kicked in. The society was as corrupt as it gets. Everyone was rent-seeking, and siphoning off money intended for other purposes to enrich themselves. And things were going just great from a development standpoint.

    That Just Does Not Happen. At the level of corruption described in the novel things would be collapsing. It would be the Russian Army in the Ukraine time. (One reason I tend to be skeptical of claims of Ukrainian corruption is the performance of their army. Corrupt armies can’t fight. Not well.)

    Yes, you have societies on Earth that are endemically corrupt, but to continue they either have to be sucking off money from a healthy society next to them (typically because the corrupt society has some resource, like oil, the healthy society needs) or they devolve into a snakepit of misery for the masses and opulence for the elites. (We may yet achieve that in the US the way our elite have been running things.)

    But this author had the whole setup as stable, with corruption side-by-side with growth. It does not happen. If the producers are not rewarded for production, they stop producing. It ends up like the Soviet-era joke: They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.

    1. Relative opulence for the elite. Even with a healthy society beside them, they may only live better than their own proles.

      A Soviet dacha was something within the grasp of an American plumber.

      1. True. When my husband was young, his father (who was a plumber for the city) and his uncle had a cottage up in Michigan that the two families would visit during the summer. They apparently stopped going around the time he was in his teens, and he’s not sure what happened to it after that.

  3. Currency. In a world the simulates medieval England/France, have people pay “a ten-weight of silver” per person and horse for a room, meals, beer, and animal lodging for one night at an inn. The coins as described are pure silver, the size of a US silver dollar OR are gold.

    In the real world, a pure silver coin of that size, IF it was not a forgery, might get you anything from a month of room and board at the inn to a nice, medium-sized freehold farm, depending on the year and the part of the country you were in. Silver was not all that common, and the average coin was the size of my thumbnail or even smaller. Gold coins? Even scarcer, and most never circulated as currency.

    I will not get started on trade, exchange, bills of exchange, and so on. 😉

    1. “a pure silver coin of that size, IF it was not a forgery, ”

      If the silver in that size coin was actually pure, no one would care if it was a “forgery” or not.

  4. I think the most egregious example I’ve ever seen was the pilot episode of a TV show where a bunch of kids who had not eaten in over 12 hours and who had no idea where their next meal was coming from decided that all they wanted to do was dance around a bonfire and dismiss the one girl suggesting they go find supplies. My reaction to this was, “Your writers have clearly never missed any meals or met anyone who has.” It was also to not watch the subsequent episodes.

    1. The power of hunger as a motivator is underrated. “I don’t care, I’m hungry and I’m eating that . . .” Could end well or badly, depending on the story. (As MomRed once observed, how desperate were people that they developed ways to make bitter manoic edible?)

      1. “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” — Jonathan Swift.

        “No, just a hungry one.” — snelson134

  5. I always wonder where the energy comes from to power magic in the first place. It just … happens? Because you want it to?

    I remember quite clearly an incident in a novel where the main character managed, anonymously, in about a year, to buy a few contiguous acres in downtown Modern Atlanta, remove whatever was standing there, and build a public park, all while remaining anonymous and paying for it … out of pocket? And never once checking in with the city planning department?

    1. It comes from the same place that FTL does — it’s a “given” of the genre.

      Now, non-SFF doesn’t get to do that (hence your Atlanta example), but speculative fiction embraces the “any rules you like as long as they’re consistent” concept. Else what would we do for vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc.?

      1. I know, but I can’t help thinking that energy has to come from somewhere. I guess it’s siphoned out of some parallel universe where the residents are starving and desperate to find out who’s destroying their world.

        1. In the most sensible worlds I’ve seen ‘magic’ is another field like the electromagnetic field, on with enough umph that all the things we do that are very impressive to US are like trying to empty the ocean with a tea cup. Some get into it more deeply than others.

          There are older school magic systems where it seems to be like that only weaker/harder to access and understand (Andre Norton’s Witch World seems like this. Power is available in small quantities to those who have the ability to get at it, but big things are hard to do and take time to build up the power, though BIG things can be done with enough people, enough power, and enough desperation. Though it can be quite fatal to those doing the spectacular things.)

        2. Since the universe itself is, by the second law of thermodynamics, moving to maximum entropy from a highly ordered state that could not have been produced by any known process, the universe is a subset. It’s coming from outside that.

    2. Do the laws of thermodynamics apply?

      I’ve got an idea where superpowers don’t obey them; in fact, that’s how you know it’s a superpower. Then, I have to consider how supersenses don’t obey them.

  6. One tiny one, but it threw me out of the story enough that other plot problems finished the job.

    Hummingbirds. In Joseon-era Korea.


    …Which, of course, has made the bunnies determined to write a story in that era where there ARE hummingbirds – but only because someone visited Central America via the Manila galleons silver trade and deliberately brought them over!

    (And it wasn’t easy….)

    1. Which is the great problem. Subject matter experts can pull apart your treatment of a subject.

      And EVERYTHING has subject matter experts.

  7. I usually scream and throw things at the TV when we encounter sloppy worldbuilding in a science fiction show. Yet, to my surprise, Steve and I have become addicted to a Turkish costume drama that regularly spits in the face of consistent worldbuilding and we just point and laugh… and keep watching. “Isn’t it nice that the nomads have a stone bridge in the middle of the camp… and mill-sawn planks… and three Turkish warriors can regularly kill a dozen or more Mongols/Templars/whoever… and that the bodies just disappear instead of stinking up the place…”

    Either our brains have turned to mush or the people who make this show are really good at getting us emotionally sucked in, because we keep watching and specularing… “I hope Selcan gets back together with Gundogdu… I hope they see through Gumustekin’s schemes… They’re not really going to execute Dogan, are they?”

      1. You’re not going to believe this, but Bollywood has actually become slightly less unrealistic over the last 50 years. Films of the ’70’s regularly switched scenes to portray things like the young lovers singing a duet in the Swiss Alps.

        I gave Bollywood a pass back then because the movie theater in Mombasa was air-conditioned.

  8. The endless supply of bodies is a big annoyance to me.

    K, you want to play with extremely warped sex ratios; that’s fine, but if you have five males born for every one female, you cannot also have only families of three or less! It DOESN’T WORK, especially not when you set it up so that this is normal and has BEEN normal since forever!

    If you absolutely want that, you’ve got to handwavium– say, each pregnancy with a female offspring makes it harder and harder for the mother to carry to term at all, or maybe even has a high rate of killing the mother. So you may end up with three sisters, as the stuff of legend, but four? That’s the stuff of “When rabbits smoked pipes” type fairy-tales. And maybe mention something like how it’s really common for (off screen) families to have nine, ten sons, trying to get that daughter.

    1. It’s also necessarily temporary because every excess male is decreasing the chance your genes get passed on. Every daughter gives you (on average) five grandchildren for every grandchild your son will get (on average). The evolutionary pressure to have more daughters is enormous.

      1. “Temporary” in the extremely long view of things, assuming there’s no reinforcement– and that there’s no counter pressure. IE, having six older brothers is a major survival advantage.

        Something like making traits on the X chromosome that are dominant for expression of a trait that greatly improves the survival chances of male offspring– but are recessive for something life-threatening, so only female offspring would show this genetic illness.

    2. This is the area of ‘interesting curses to play with’ I think… I’ve played a little with the other end of it (Very dangerous country so they loose a large number of men during fighting season and since they’re fighting monsters more than other nations there is no ‘both sides are out of men so now we have a break of 15-20 years before we go at it again.’), but this one could be quite interesting, too. you give me Ideas. Dang it.

        1. A little where there are neighbors. (Part of the problem is some of their borders are Howling Wilderness Filled With Monsters, and another border is Evil Empire. That border they tend to lure in bold types who want OUT. Sometimes it ends… poorly.) There’s definitely an element of ‘we don’t care where you came from as long as you don’t break any of OUR laws or bring trouble with you.’ I will say it’s not a particularly healthy polity, (which is part of what the story is about fixing. Little bit of a Return of the Rightful King schtick. With Gryphons. Can’t forget the gryphons.)

  9. In a certain book series set in a wizarding boarding school, it was when the author started talking about where the other magic schools were located.

    In the books, she mentioned four–one in Britain, one in France, one for all of Central and Eastern Europe (because that area is known for the residents playing nicely with each other) and one with a Portuguese name in South America, so that one was probably in Brazil.

    Then, in expanded universe material, she said there were 10 “accredited” wizarding schools. Then, she dropped that there was one in the US, one in Russia, one in Japan, and one–one!–in Africa. She never said where the other two were, AFAIK.

    Mexico? Iran? Iberia? Italy? Pakistan? Vietnam? Zip, zero, zilch, nada.

    IOTW, despite the fact that a lot of the factors that led to Europe and North America dominating the world in the late 20th century just simply would not be applicable to her magical world, said world seems to be dominated by them anyway, never mind her complete failure to take little things

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