Category Archives: writing

Spell-less Magic

Fantasy in recent decades seems to have a big thing for magic systems, and I believe partly becuse of the success of Brandon Sanderson. When I see people talk about magic systems it more often than not seems to revolve around different types of spells and the method of their casting. To the point that it seems to be taken for granted as a basic premise for any kind of magic to appear in fantasy.

This week I was exploring the idea of converting Apocalpyse World to a Sword & Sorcery game. All in all, it’s a system that strikes me as a really good match right out of the box with the one major thing that is missing from it being a set of rules for spellcasting. But it’s not like the game is completely free of magic. One default assumption of the setting of an Apocalypse World game is the existance of a Psychic Maelstrom, which is the source of seemingly supernatural effects and phenomenons, but whose actual nature and trait are deliberately left completely unspecified to organically take shape during play. There is a single ability that allows one of the classes to use magical power in a somewhat direct way, but it is again very vague and open ended and does not really fit the image of casting a spell.

And looking at older fantasy books, this is actually very much like magic used to be portrayed in fiction. The oldest example of a straight up spell slinger I can imagine is Tim the Enchanter, who can summon up fire without flint or tinder. Gandalf, Elric, or Kane, or any of the sorcerers in Conan’s stories don’t say magic words and have stuff shoting from their outstretched hands. Instead their “magic” mostly takes the form of knowing things and being in contact to powerful entities otherwise invisible to the perception of regular people.

The spell in its modern form appears to be primarily a game mechanic. One that was carried over from RPGs to videogames and from there seeped out into the wider field of fantasy in general. While I am a big fan of fantasy games, I’ve always had reservations about the gamification of non-game fiction. Even with games I prefer mechanics to be as invisible as possible and maintain a more organic feel in the in-game fiction. (Which is why I find Apocalypse World quite appealing and always had a problem with D&D magic.)

With the Ancient Lands, I’ve always felt more like making a “game of the book” rather than a “book of the game”, even with the vast majority of my work over the last year being on game stuff with no actual book anywhere near to sight. But these days I feel once again more drawn to writing fiction, with my game development having reached a point where there’s not really much left to do other than playing it. And even with all the worldbuilding advice for writers that adresses magic systems, I find the idea of a spell-less magic to be a lot more interesting.

What’s the point?

I have been dabbling a bit in writing for a few years in addition to working on RPGs and campaigns, and the main problem that kept my stuck with writing something compelling and that’s always been the hardest part about campaigns is to come up with a plot. I am always doing great thinking about worlds and characters, but these aren’t any good if there is nothing interesting happening.

But now I’ve finally come across a great piece of advice. Plot is not really about conflict. Plot really starts with a goal.

Conflict is what follows from the goal not being easily reached and that conflict is what makes up the plot. But the reason why the protagonists are doing anything and how they approach the challenges they encounter result not from the conflict but from the goal.

Instead of trying to come up with a plot by picking a cool and exciting conflict, the process really begins with picking a goal. And then thinking about circumstances that get in the way of the goal, from which you get a conflict. This even holds true when your initial idea starts with a cool villain. The hero does not simply want to oppose the villain just because. He opposes him because he’s an obstacle to reaching his own goal. A villain does not make a conflict. The goal that the villain is blocking creates the conflict and in turn the plot.

Fantastic worldbuilding is so much more easier, fun, and interesting than realistic worldbuilding

I admit that I fell into this trap myself when I started to seriously work on a fantasy world six years ago. So let’s call it a typical beginners mistake. I was young and stupid, just like probably everyone else. I frequently look around in RPG forums for discussions about advice on worldbuilding and I’m always more than happy to share my experiences and discoveries and present various options that I think might be of interest and useful for the people who asked.

But there is this one thing that regularly comes up, almost always by people who are just starting out, that makes me somewhat… let’s say “frustrated”. It’s people trying to make a fantasy world by attempting to model a physically, chemically, biologically, and even astronomically realistic planet. I think the initial consideration is valid. You don’t want to end up people pointing out that your rivers are running upstream or in circles or that you can’t have an ecosystem in which all the animals are carnivores. A basic understanding about geography and ecology is a good thing to have to avoid the most embarassing blunders.

But then there’s always people who start worrying about the size of their world’s sun, it’s radiation output, and it’s distance from the planet. Or how spiders can only get so big because of the way their respiratory system work unless you increase the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere considerably. It’s a typical mistake and I made it as well when I started, but such exercises are ultimately pointless.

The first thing is that it’s still fantasy. If you’re writing really hard science-fiction, then I can understand the desire to show off your real-world science knowledge and make the alien environments physically sound. But why bother worrying about the oxygen circulation in (real world) spiders or the maximum weight supported by bones (real world) mammals and then add 50 meter fire-breathing flying reptiles and ghosts? As soon as you start adding fantastic elements, you already establish that real world physics do not apply to this world.

The other thing that makes such efforts futile is the question how such information would ever become known to players or readers? Is anyone ever going to dissect a giant spider and ask for a description of its whole internal anatomy? Is any character ever going to make an atmospheric analysis or calculate the energy output of the star based on its chemical composition and mass? If a detail can never plausibly come up in the fiction, then it’s useless.

The amount of scientific knowledge you need to make a pretty plausible fantasy world is really very basic stuff: Planets are colder at the poles and warmer at the equator. Climate varies little between summer and winter near the sea and varies greatly further inland. You need to have larger numbers of herbivores than carnivores. Water flows downhil; rivers only meet but don’t split up (except for coastal swampy river deltas). As a simple rule of thumb: As soon as you start adding measurements and make calculations, you went off doing exploring real-world scientific phenomena (which is a good thing),  but it’s irrelevant for your worldbuilding.

I also want to make an appeal to dream big. An Earth-like planet with medieval culture is unlikely to really inspire people and amaze them. When you set out to build a new fantasy world, then you really should consider to build one that is different and something people haven’t seen many times before. Of course there’s some personal stylisitic preference talking here. I’m unashamedly a huge fan of Morrowind, Planescape, and Star Wars and 70s and 80s fantasy art. There seems to be very little fantasy of this kind to be around these days. But it’s fantasy, you’re allowed to be fantastical.

Know what you don’t want

Not much of a big revelation, but it feels like a somewhat important step of my own worldbuilding work.

My favorite design paradigm is “Perfection is not reached when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.” (My second favorite one is “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”) While it has led me to very good results so far and the Ancient Lands are now much tighter and sleeker, I still frequently find my mind wandering off into wrong directions when making up new details. And what I realize now is that many times I end up following the same paths that didn’t lead to anything satisfying before. There are many fantasy ideas that I really like but which are not fitting for this particular setting.

  • Stone Age Fantasy: The Ancient Lands are a world in which civilization is small and short lived, which is mostly wilderness and ruled by spirits. This is a setup that lends itself very much to Stone Age cultures and I frequently find myself thinking of cultures and settlements in a Stone Age context when trying to define them more sharply. But now I realize this is really not what I want. The original concept was of a time where elves and dwarves rule and are at war with dragons and giants. That would be much more like small Bronze Age kingdoms. While it’s tempting to go that route to distinguish the setting, I don’t want to do a Stone Age hunters game. No need to explore this direction any further. What I want is more Morrowind and Kalimdor.
  • Weird Horror: I’ve found myself coming back to pour over Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures and Patrick Stuart stuff many times and most of them are great. And there’s a good number of ideas in them that I think will be of great use to me, but I don’t want my campaigns to be like them. There’s a lot of great images and effects to be found, but the setting doesn’t really have a place for bleak dispair.
  • Classic Demons: I love demons in D&D. They are one of the greatest parts of the whole generic D&D mythology. I am also quite intrigues by the demons from Dragon Age. But my setting doesn’t really have a place for such embodiments of evil. What I a, going for is something much more like Daedra or Quori, with a lot more weird and less obsession with destruction. If I find myself thinking about evil destruction spirits, I should get myself to stop and instead work on something that’s more on the point.

Creativity isn’t something to just turn on and off as needed but more of a bubbling of ideas that for some reason feel right. But good design needs focus and direction. Knowing what you want is great, but knowing what you don’t want, even though it’s a great idea in general, also might help quite a bit.

Time is an Illusion, and so are Pants

While I’ve been thinking about Morrowind, Planescape, Glorantha, and Tekumel (and why Dark Sun doesn’t seem to feel fully right as being in the same category) I came to the conclusion that beyond Asian and pre-medieval stylistic influences they all share a considerable amount of metaphysics and religion and have some esoteric aspects that are a big part of their appeal. (Dark Sun doesn’t, which is what sets it apart.) It’s something that I frequently pondered and has always been in the back of my head since I first wrote about the subject two years back. And while thinking about what elements with philosophical and metaphysical aspects I already have, I came up with a pretty decent list.

Most of these things started with me wanting to hav certain aesthetic and narrative elements that turned out to be conflicting with each other. Attempting to solve these conflicts by making various small changes and adaptations led to the discovery of numerous new ideas that are all not entirely original but make everything come together in a distinctive way that gives the world a unique character and opens interesting venues for exploration.

The Mythic Otherworld

This is an extension of Philotomy’s concept of the Mythic Underworld, which treats dungeons as places outside of the regular laws of nature and working by their own unfathomable supernatural rules. In the Mythic Otherworld this idea is extended to entire lands, or in case of the Ancient Lands the Spiritworld. The wilderness is a place of mostly mundane dangers that simply try to eat you. But the Spiritworld and its native creatures are not bound by the normal rules that make the civilized lands and wilderness make sense. Being inherently supernatural,the Spiritworld is a realm where things can seem illogical or outright impossible. There are castles and landscapes that defy gravity, fires that burn forever, underground labyrinths that never run out of breathable air, and creatures encountered in places they couldn’t have possibly reached. There are rules that govern the Spiritworld, but they are often quite different from those of the physical world and rarely make sense to mortal minds.

(This concept started as an attempt to make sense of the illogical layup and keying of many early dungeons, but actually turns out to be a really good paradigm for designing fantastic places with a mythical atmosphere and making spirits alien.)

Life Energy

Anything that exist is infused by energy. Energy allows living creatures to move and think, gives spirits their powers, and is also what makes fire burn and even seemingly unliving stones roll down cliffs and crush things underneath it. Energy is everywhere and while it appears in different looking forms it is ultimately all of the same essence. This life energy of nature has no boundaries and all things and everything that happens is part of the same whole. But within this universal energy is a vast multiplicity of wills, and each will has seemingly complete control over different bodies. But all the wills of each animal and plant within a landscape also make up the spirit of the land and this spirit can manifest a body of its own, even though it simultaneously exists in all the other beings within its realms.

To great spirits it comes naturally to share control over all the things in its domain with the individual wills of each being. People and animals are not normally aware of this touching and merging of wills. But it can be learned to extend the will beyond the own body into other things and other beings, which is then known as magic. Once control is released, things again follow their own natural behavior, which is why all mortal magic is impermanent.

(This originally started by thinking about the actual mechanics by which the Force makes things happen, but it ended as something that also very well explains spirits and divination.)

The Wyrd

Time is always flowing and things constantly changing, so it is impossible to accurately foresee the future before it happens, even with the most powerful magic of ancient spirits. But things never happen without a reason and all beings behave according to their nature, which makes many things that happen predictable. As the life energies of nature and magic flow through everything, great spirits and powerful magical beings have the ability to see what is hidden to the eyes and sense the paths that all creatures are following. This infinite network of paths is the Wyrd, and it is always in motion as creatures make choices and accident happen. But while paths are constantly changing, they rarely change by much and can be highly predictable to those who are experienced in watching them and knowledgeable in the hearts of men and beasts. Divination is the art of reading the everchanging wyrd and recognizing where paths are about to cross. Since all beings tend to follow their nature, great spirits and old shamans can tell which future encounters are fated to happen. They also can make predictions what choices people will make, but these become more unreliable the more unusual their circumstances are, and no power in the world can foresee the great differences that can be made by a loose stone or a serpent in the grass.

(Divination magic is always limited to predicting encounters and obstacles that are likely to happen, but can make no accurate statement of how they will play out. Telling the future without negating player agency and dice results lets me eat my cake and have it too.)

Drifting Time

Time is something that seems simple and straightforward in everyday life, with things changing and moving forward. But this is only because people are mortal and always only see short stretches of time and the physical world is followed by seemingly regular cycles of the seasons. But spirits have a much different perspective that allows them to see mountains rising and lands sink beneath the sea, yet at the same time nothing ever really changes and all the efforts of mortals are never getting them anywhere. On sufficient scales time is not a straight river that runs from the mountains to the sea but endlessly meandering without source or destination. Within the Spiritworld even the passing of seasons and years loses most of its meaning and both the weather as well as preservation and erosion are ultimately depending on the moods of the spirits of the land.

Whether days have passed or centuries makes very little difference in the Spiritworld. Ancient castles can be found in pristine states while solid castles may have crumbled to rubble after returning to them a month later. And while spirits may forgive, they rarely forget, and will honor both ancient agreements and avenge slights that happened generations past.

(The benefit here lies in having a good explanation of why there are so many ruins but little current civilization without having to rely on a Tolkienian decline of magic. It also justifies how magical creatures seem to be waiting fo centuries in inhospitable lairs for adventurers to find them. From their own perspective they and their lairs simply exist in a temporal limbo until outsiders interact with them.)

The Blight

The magic used by spirits, shamans, and witches utilizes the natural life energies within the environment and all the things in it and as such is limited to doing things that are naturally possible. But there is a space beyond the borders of reality which is filled with the energies of raw Chaos. Chaos energy has the potential to change the fabric of reality and through this allows sorcerers to do things that are impossible. This makes sorcery an extremely potent force that can be used for both great works and terrible destruction. But Chaos can never be fully controlled by mortals and every use of sorcery or the mere presence of demons weakens reality around them. This Blight warps and poisons the natural world and all living things touched by it. First it causes weakness and feelings of supernatural dread, but long exposure leads to deteriorating health and eventually turns living things into twisted monstrosities. Sorcerers learn to adapt to the changes of the Blight and consider it a price worth the unlimited potential sorcery offers. But most people see them as madmen who are laying the world into ruin in their thirsting for power. Druids and Demon Hunters stop at nothing to destroy sorcerers and demons wherever they can and while their methods are often extreme most people welcome their continual battle against further spreading of the Blight.

(This one started with my fascination of the idea that heroes fighting dark magic accept that this effort is exposing them to its power and eventually changing them. The Dark Side from Star Wars and the Darkspawn Blight and demonic possession from Dragon Age were both big influences on this.)

Red and Black Hearts

The peoples of the Ancient Lands do not think in the concepts of Good and Evil, or even such dualities as Order and Chaos. When judging people’s character, they distinguish between those whose actions bring peace and those whose actions bring suffering. Those who bring peace are usually higher regarded than those who bring suffering and are regarded as better or worse people accordingly. But there is no such thing as a concept of cosmic divine law which people can live in accordance with or violate. Not everyone who brings suffering needs to be despised or be made to stand justice, but they are all dangerous and often feared.

Most people who spread suffering are regarded as having a Red Heart. They are prone to anger, rage, hatred, and violence. While courage and strength are greatly admired by most peoples, those who have no control over their fury and lash out against others without thinking or restraint are seen as very dangerous people. While many redhearted people are regarded as thugs, this quality is also often found in those who have many other admirable traits. Their rages are often seen with sadness by those close to them, but if they prove to be to violent and unpredictable they need to be taken care of, one way or another.

People with a Black Heart are quite different in character and are much more unpredictable. They are not driven by rage, nor do they seek any satisfaction in the suffering of other. Rather, blackhearted people do not concern themselves with the suffering of others at all. They simply worry about their own goals and needs with no considerations about the wellbeing of others. They don’t go out of their way to spite or harm others but don’t hesitate when their plans will made others to suffer. For those who are more foresighted consider the social consequences of harmful actions on their longterm goals, but when they think they can get away with it there’s little that keeps them from sacrificing anyone.

Some people are seen as having both a red and a black heart and most of them are quickly regarded as monsters in humanoid form or being possessed by demons. Many of them are madmen who soon find an end at the hands of vengeful pursuers, but some end up among the most feared warlords and bandit leaders.

(Calling something evil is an ancient shortcut in western culture to not having reflect on an opponents motivation and reasons and get an instant moral justification to destroy them without further questions asked. Anytime I come across fiction that avoids this lazy simplification (usually Japanese but often also European) I really enjoy it a lot, and it makes interactions with supernatural and inhuman beings much more fascinating. So eventually I found this solution to have people “who just need killing” without giving the players an instant excuse to enjoy it. This is also why there are no orcs, goblins, or gnolls in this setting.)

Honor

While honor is an endlessly complex field, it’s role in the Ancient Lands primarily manifests itself in the two concepts of hospitality and vengeance.

Hospitality is the idea common in most cultures that everyone is obligated to offer food and shelter to travelers within the means of the host and according to the station of the guest. In a world with few travelers there are no places where one could rent a room outside the handful of major trade cities and there are no other places to stay the night or winter indoors than in the homes of locals. While the forests and mountain valleys are not as deadly as the open sea, it has become accepted that offering hospitality to travelers is an adequate price for seeing the same kindness extended to oneself or your relatives when similarly in need of shelter. There are limits to hospitality though and the guest is expected to offer a gift of gratitude in exchange, which again is according to the means of the guest and the station of the host. Overstaying ones welcome or not presenting sufficient gifts, let alone abusing the kindness of the host, is as much a violation of hospitality as not offering travelers a place for the night and just as much damaging to ones honor and reputation.

In a world where visitors from outside are rare, hosting guests is often much more of an honor than a burden to the host. Hosting esteemed guests is a great boost to ones reputation and in most places it is understood that only the mosy powerful families will get this honor. While refusing hospitality when requested is highly dishonorable, offering it freely to travelers can make the lesser families of a village very powerful enemies. Since the most powerful families are usually also the richest who ca best afford hosting guests in considerable comfort for extended time, this is an arrangement that mostly suits everyone involved just fine. Traveling adventurers coming to a new village will usually stay at the hall of the chief or another of the great families.

When conflicts happen, Vengeance is the most common institution to maintain stability. While there often is a desire to see an offender punished, avenging an offense is primarily a means to ensure that nothing of that kind will happen to the offended family or clan again. By getting revenge, a familiy is showing its strength and the severe consequences to anyone who might want to try attacking them. The point is not to get even but to make everyone afraid to cross the familiy again and because of this it is often impossible to let an attack go unpunished, even if the family has no desire for blood. To let an offense pass shows that the family is weak and an easy target for further attacks. Most of the time vengeance can be satisfied by payments of reparations. Paying reparations is safer for both sides and allows the conflict to become forgotten much faster than if someone got killed or maimed. If the reparation is sufficiently high, it means a significant loss for the offending family and it has been established that the attack has cost them. If the offer of reparation is considered insufficient or the crime too grave, the offended family will be after blood. In any such feud both sides come out much worse than they were before and it’s not uncommon that the offended family ends up losing more people and wealth than they inflict in damage on their enemies. Killing is not always necessary and in some cases causing injury will be regarded as acceptable if both sides aren’t eager for a long and deadly feud. But deaths can always happen and sometimes an injured member dying from wounds weeks later can reignite a stalled or solved feud. Feuds can continue for week or months until both sides are too exhausted from the constant state of warfare to continue. If the offended family believes it has shown that anyone attacking them will pay dearly for it, a truce will usually be negotiated though neutral mediators.

Vengeance is almost never between individuals but between families or clans. In tribal societies nobody is ever acting alone and any offense that is being commited is usually done in the presence or at least with the knowledge of a relative. These relatives also share responsibility for the offense, but part of the blame also lies with the elder siblings and older relatives who are responsible for properly raising the children of the family. The responsibility for every offense lies with the whole family. Most people own little personal items and most wealth in the form of land and animals is shared by the whole family,so any reparations automatically affect the family as a whole. The same goes when crops and buildings are destroyed or animals stolen or killed. When an offense is avenged with blood, there are also other practical considerations to attack relatives of the original offender. It is often easy for a family to protect a single member inside their home indefinitely, making it impossible to get at him. In theory all members of a family are valid targets, but many families hesitate to attack children or old women unless the other sides starts doing it first. But when arrows and torches are flying accidents happen and this escalation is not uncommon. Also, even if an offender manages to survive a feud unharmed until a truce is agreed his family will have suffered greatly and they know exactly who was responsible for bringing this suffering upon them. Even if they feel obliged to protect the offender, they will often see that he sees punishment for his offense themselves.

(I’ve long been intrigued at how vengeance and hospitality really worked in practice as their portrayal in fiction always seemed just as dodgy as that of warfare (which is mostly sensationalist nonsense). I’ve spend years researching social organization and public order in pre-civilization societies as a cultural studies student and it’s a very fascinating alternative to the typical medieval fantasy approach. While it’s a highly complex subject I think breaking it down to these two key concepts lets the players gets the most out of it while being pretty easy to grasp.)

I think nothing here is really new and ha been seen in one way or another several times before. But I doubt that all these elements and ideas have been used in this particular configuration and I am feeling very happy with the setting getting my own unique stamp because of it.

Background Lore is Secondary Stories

A good number of fantasy works, and in some cases science-fiction, have accumulated a huge corpus of background information that is not directly part of the plot or even relevant to it but still a source of endless fascination to dedicated fans. This isn’t new and has been a big thing in RPGs since the 90s. But it has gained an increased prominence in longer running videogame series and some of them, like The Elder Scrolls as perhaps the most famous example, deliberately focus a considerable amount of the development work on this aspect. And huge numbers of fans love it and enjoy going hunting for clues and trying to figure out the connections between seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of information.

I’ve long been wondering how this stuff really works and how one could deliberatey build it into the worldbuilding for books and RPGs as well. And I believe what’s really going on with all this lore information is that the creators are telling secondary stories within the gaps of the main stories. It’s not uncommon for writers to overdo it with the worldbuilding and tell the audience about things that are ultimately irrelevant and don’t connect to anything else in meaningful ways. But bodies of lore are different. The small pieces of information that are scattered around to be discovered do not stand by themselves for their own sake. They are puzzle pieces for the audience to collect and assemble into more or less complete stories. Often very small stories with very simplistic plots, but it’s the act of finding the pieces and interpreting them that makes these background stories interesting and compelling for the audience.

An extreme case are the Dark Souls games, in which the lore of past events is all the story the players get. The actions of the player character are really insignificant to the story and the hero has absolutely no agency to influence anything. In Dark Souls games the whole story has already happened. What the player does is playing with fun combat mechanics and discovering the backstory, which really is the main plot. The actions of the player character are only a minor footnote or an epilog to the story.

When writing books or creating s world for an RPG with the desire to give the audience lots of background lore to discover (as the A Song of Ice and Fire books do very well), I think it is probably best to focus on content that constitutes stories. People are unlikely to care much about manufacturing, agriculture, or the legal system of a fantastic world. People respond primarily to stories snd stories are also the most suitable content for letting people fill in the blanks with their imagination or deduct the missing pieces from details that are already known.

If you want to create a world with interesting background lore that draws the audience in, focus on stories that happened in the past.

A draft for a magic system for stories

After quite some time I am finding myself drawn back to writing and one thing I quickly noticed when going over my notes again was that my ideas for magic were really not that interesting. I’ve been reading Elric and Hellboy and played a lot of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and one thing I really like about all of them is how the magical elements in them are windows into a much larger reality of alien weirdness and religion. I also think that the only topics worth writing and reading about are the basic existential questions of what you want, what you should do, and who you ultimately want to be. In a world dominated by immortal spirits that inhabit and empower nature and a single force that is both the source of light and magic, these two fields lend themselves to blending seamlessly together. To decide what you want to do and to be, you need to understand how you are connected to the rest of the world around you. And there really isn’t a lot to explore with a magic system in which sorcerers replace the natural instincts of animals and tendencies of plants and the elements with their own stronger will. It’s easy, practical, and reliable and doesn’t overlap in meaningful ways with philosophy and cosmology. There is nothing mythic about it.

So I went back to the drawing board to take the ideas about what magic can do that I already had and weave them into a more metaphysical framework of spirits and reality. The end result was a magic system with no spells. Elric and Hellboy have no spells where someone waves a hand and says a magic word and a bolt of lightning shots out or someone turns into a chicken. There aren’t spells in Kane or Thief, nor in Indiana Jones, and very few in Conan. Yet they are all full of magic. Slow magic and indirect magic, that often is tied to objects or spirits and doesn’t just jump out from a sorcerer’s mind.

The basic idea for magic is that all things in the world have energy, which is the source for both life and also magic. The most simple form of magic, if it can even be called that, is Alchemy. Everyone can do it if the right ingredients are known and properly used without any special power required. Alchemy is not just the brewing of potions but also the making and wearing of amulets that ward off various spirits simply because they are made of substances that these spirits avoid. Alchemy is the secret knowledge of substances that can be used to do miraculous things. There is no real line between occult alchemy and commonly known herbalism.

Life force and magical energy is in everything and connects everything, making the whole world with all its creatures, spirits, and landscapes into one. Spirits are automatically aware of these infinite connections but people can also learn to sense their presence. Through this awareness they gain moderate abilities of telepathy and precognition and a stronger ability of persuasion and dominance over others. How strong these powers of Perception and Persuasion are depends on the Personal Power of the person. Partly it is confidence, but since all things and beings are connected through their life force “power resides where men believe it resides”. Overpowering an opponent through combat, cunning, or any other display draws some of the opponents power to the victor and he gains even more power if his accomplishments are recognized by many people. But not only people can gain power. Beasts can too, as well as objects. Relics or the weapons of great heroes become powerful themselves and add their power to whoever is wielding them. Both those who lead and those who use magic greatly seek these Items of Power.

While these things and abilities are magical, the highest form of mortal magic is Summoning. Those who practice this high art are known as witches, shamans, and sorcerers. To summon a spirit, a person has to draw its attention through the use of alchemical substances and sacrifices and mentally calling out to it. Often considerable personal power is required to make a spirit come, and even greater power to subjugate it to ones will. Anyone can perform a summoning but the risk is great for those who lack the power and knowledge of alchemy to controll them. Spirits can be made to perform services for the summoner, but they also can do much more than that.

Once summoned, a spirit can grant a summoner its powers through Possession. Anyone lacking sufficient power and experience with spirits can easily fall under the complete control of the spirits they summoned. But those who are experienced and strong enough can control the spirit inside them and use its powers for themselves. The most commonly summoned spirits for possession are minor elementals that allow a summoner to breath fire, survive at the bottom of the sea, or open the ground beneath the feet of their enemies. Experienced summoners can summon such minor elementals in a matter of seconds and then release them again, but it’s always a considerabe risk and an exhausting battle of wills. Beast spirits can be summoned to allow a summoner to change his shape into that of the beast, but this can also be used against enemies who lack sufficient power to control the spirits and become permanent thralls to them, cursed to remain beasts forever.

As magic systems go, this one is pretty fuzzy and it is so by design. Mechanics and rules are not something I am interested in and it’s also a magic that is not intended for magical battles. Witches, shamans, and sorcerers are not people who throw around spells when convenient but are defined by their occult knowledge of the supernatural realm and mostly practice their magic in consulting spirits in hidden seclusion. It’s not what you’d usually come up with for a game, but for stories I find it much more interesting.

If you want to get into self-publishing you’d better know what you’re doing

Getting close to having the design and stats for almost 100 Ancient Lands complete and turning towards writing the individul descriptions, I started looking into options to raise money for commissioning illustrations. I didn’t even get to look up common rates for artists yet but it’s already gotten complicated just looking at the legal issues regarding financing. I am in Germany. So very complicated.o

Fortunately for me, three semesters of German business law in one of my past failed academic endeavors turned out to come in very handy once more. I do speak some legalese. If you don’t it’s probably all much worse.

It did all start out quite simple. Kickstarter is now doing business in Germany and that seems where most backers for RPG materials are already having accounts. This could potentially have been a major obstacle. (I don’t think many people would bother to make a new account on some tiny site they never heard of to make a single 2€ pledge.) 5% fee for Kickstarter also doesn’t seem so bad. Quite reasonable actually.

But then I was wondering about taxes on the money raised. And oh boy… Wellcome to Germany! ^^

First thing, the whole sum that people have pledged is income. And subject to income tax. Not sure about the exact rates but this can easily gobble up some 20% of the money. If you fail to report what you spend it for. Money used to buy art for a book are business expenses. You don’t pay taxes on it. Buying layouting software is a business expanse even when you run it own your own computer. No tax on the money you spend on it. And the 5% fee you pay to kickstarter is also business expenses. If you spend all the money raised on producing your product you don’t have to pay any income tax on it. Income tax is only on the leftover money that you pocket at the end. But only if you correctly list the business expenses in your tax report.

When someone gives you money and you promise something in return, it’s a purchase. Kickstarter pledges clearly qualify for that. And everything that is a purchase is subject to 19% VAT. However, VAT is meant to apply only to sells to end consumers. As a business you can get the VAT that you payed to your suppliers and contracters refunded by the German revenue service. If your contractor is based in Germany. Which to my knowledge very few good fantasy artist are. It’s not to bad if I’d want money from the French or Dutch revenue service but if I’d hire an American artist it would get much worse. Hiring a tax lawyer to do it for you would probably cost more money than you’d get back.

But contrary to common belief, German administration clerks are not total monsters. If your annual revenue is under 17,500€, small business owners have the option to opt out of paying VAT for sales and getting VAT payed to suppliers refunded. Small business owners mostly don’t know how to do proper accounting anyway and the amount of money gained by the revenue service wouldn’t justify the costs of having their accountants spend time on figuring out the exact numbers. I was genuinly concerned about the possible situation of raising more than 17,500€ (which I very much doubt) and suddenly having to pay 19% VAT, possibly ending up with less money in the end. But no, the excemption applies for the whole year, you simply lose it for the next year. No such risk of falling into accidental debt because you made too much money. If you don’t expect to get any significant VAT refunds this is wonderful. Saves you a lot of accounting and you get to keep the whole 95% of pledges from a Kickstarter campaign.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is. Because you are now a business owner. Welcome to the Chamber of Commerce, young initiate. In Germany there are two types of self employment. Businesses and free professions. Business owners automatically become members of the chamber of commerce while most free professionals do not. If you’re an author you are a free professional. If you are selling goods, you’re a business owner. Writing your own books and selling them? That’s a confusing question that leads to hundreds of online search results from the last 12 years and nobody really seems to know anything. As a painter or sculptor your status as a free professional appears to be secure because selling each painting or sculpture is part of the job. This seems not to be the case with books. German law makers and judges seem to assume that only writing books for commission is part of the writers art. Publishing is a trade business and as such not a free profession. And think about it: As a self publishing writer how much money do you make with writing? None. All your income and profit is from selling large amounts of books. The different state revenue services and regional chambers of commerce still seem to be very uncertain about the whole situation and you might be able to weasel out of becoming a business owner. But I don’t think it’s worth the trouble of potentially getting accused of tax evasion.

And here is why: In case of releasing a monster book with commissioned art, could I be regarded as acting as a publisher for the artists? I think I very well might and then there’d be no doubt about my status. The revenue service might never know since they won’t be looking inside my book? Well, any money raised through Kickstarter is income subject to income tax. If I want to avoid that I have to show that I spend it on tax deductible business expenses, so I have to hand in the recipes from the artists. Also, if I’d ever end up collaborating with someone else on a book and split the profit, or use my resources to sell a book for someone else, I’d no longer be just selling my own art. It’s just so much easier to register as a business owner right from the start.

I’ve seen people worry about being subject to business tax and membership fees for the Chamber of Commerce if they are business owners instead of free professionals and that this might eat up all your profit leaving you with a net loss. But if you sell some books at the side as a minor second job this will be negligible in Germany. Business tax is only paid on profits after income tax has been subtracted. And as a business owner with no employees you only pay business tax on profits above 25,000€ per year. Good luck ever getting that much out of self-publishing your books. And on that money you only pay 10% business tax. If you make a profit of 30,000€, that is cash in your pocket, you still pay only 500€ business tax. That’d be under 2%. I consider this very reasonable for what I would regard as a big fish.

Membership fees for the chamber of commerce aren’t also that bad. If your profit is under 5,000€ per year you can apply for having all fees waived. If your profit is up to 15,000€ per year you have to pay a yearly fee of about 30€. Above that you also have to pay a small part of your profits. Which in my city is currently the low rate of 0,15%. So if you’re annual profit is 30,000€ you have to pay 500€ business tax and 52.50€ to the chamber of commerce. The later of which are also tax deductable. It won’t ruin you. The vast majority of taxes will be income tax, which you will have to pay anyway regardless of how your enterprise is registered.

This is just an example for Germany and I might very well have gotten very important things totally wrong. Getting here took me about 12 hours of research and I already had preexisting knowledge about the basics of business law. And all of it just to raise some money to sell a small book with negligible expected profit. The lesson here is this: Consider very well if you want to deal with alll this trouble.

In the end I found out that the amount of taxes and fees I’ll have to factor into the cost of the project are basically nothing. If I file all the right registration forms and correctly list my tax deductable business expenses. It’s not magic, but it’s rocket science.

The Green Hell and the Circle of Life and Death

Today someone mentioned the idea to me that most decent pulp settings appear to have some cool major distinctive feature that also works as a kind of source for all manners of conflicts within the world. For example in Dark Sun, the magical technique of defiling was what killed most life on the planet, is what gives the sorcerer kings their power, and allows them to keep the few surviving cities from being burried by the desert as well for the time being. In Star Wars the Dark Side of the Force created the Empire, drove the Jedi to extinction, and also is the main reason why the Jedi exist as an order of knights in the first place. In Morrowind the Tribunal and their belief to be living gods led to the creation of the Dunmer, their extreme conservatism and hostility towards outsiders, and the existance of the Ashlanders. And in the vast majority of stories of Conan the whole trouble comes from sorcerers desiring power. I think to make my Old World setting more pulpy than my old Ancient Lands setting, some kind of similar universal driver of tension could possibly be a great help.

A few weeks ago I read a post by someone writing about having seen a somewhat unusual nature documentary that showed life in the wilderness just how it is without overly dramaticising it. And it seemed to him to show that nature is not at all nice and pleasant, but really full of violent death. The vast majority of it being the deaths of children. Around the same time I’ve read a post by Zak S. about Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown being mostly a revulsion against life, which I found to be very convincing. Life means feeding and reproducing which in many cases, or perhaps even most, is neither pleasant not pretty.

In my years at university dealing with cultural studies I made the discovery that almost all major religions disapprove about the physical aspects of living and promote a detachment from bodily things and a focus on the purely mental. And it really made me wonder why all religions that praise and approve of living seem to promote having sex with the cult leader? I’ve been wanting to do something with a very body-positive approach in a non-creepy way in my worldbuilding for a long time but never really got around to it.

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And I think here might be the perfect opportunity to adress all these things. I had often thought of the Old World as being “a lot like Dark Sun, but with forests instead of desert”. In Dark Sun the driving force behind all conflicts is magic that drains nature of life. How about a setting in which the source of conflict is an overaboundance of life?

Life is not just life. It is also death. The Circle of Life is also a Circle of Death. To actively live all living things have to consume. In the end everything dies, and then it gets eaten. The only way a species can survive is to reproduce faster than its members are getting killed. It’s an endless breeding and feeding. Breeding is feeding. And in the center of all this killing and reproducing are people. And nature doesn’t care for them a bit. Like it does for anything else. The cycle just continues and there is nothing that one could do to stop it. People simply have to arrange themselves with this simple truth. And this process of arranging is where ultimately all conflict comes from. The desire to feed yourself and your relatives and to avoid being fed upon for as long as you can is what all conflict ultimately comes down to.

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I’m still not 100% sure if I really want to go with this. Things like these always take two or three days with me before I know how I really feel about them. But I think there’s certainly a lot of potential to give the setting it’s own distinctive character and quirks, which really is a major thing in Sword & Sorcery and pulp in general. Here are some applications I have already in mind:

Civilization is fragile: This is something I’ve had in my mind for a long time now. I don’t want to do the standard fantasy thing where the world was once great and then everything declined into some kind of post-apocalyptic world or another. Instead the Old World is a world in a constant cycle of growth and decay. Settlements are founded, grow, decline, and are eventually abandoned or destroyed to be reclaimed by the wilderness. This has happened countless times before and will happen countless times again. Abandoned and ruined settlements are found everywhere in regions that are settled by people. There are many great stone ruins as well, which had been build by the various fey folks. They are still found in many places and many of them hold magical wonders beyond the powers of mortals. But their builders were not killed by some kind of catastrophe. In truth their reign over the land came to an end when they realized that even with their great magical powers the attempts to build lasting kingdoms and empires was futile in the face of the power of nature itself. Shie, naga, raksha, and giants are still around, but they all live in the Spiritworld once more, as they did for countless eons before.

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The Green Folk: I’ve long been a fan of both treant and spriggans (duh…) and also like the idea of shambling mounds and other big beasts made from vines, branches, thorns, and moss. All these walking plant spirits are collectively known as the green folk. There are many types of them and they are literally found everywhere not covered by water or ice. In a way they might be the true masters of the world but they normally care little for either mortals or fey.

The Swarm: It’s not only plants that dominate the Old World, but also animals as well. In particular insects which though small outnumber all the larger beasts combined. Though not all insects are simple tiny bugs. Every now and then huge swarms of big insect creatures appear from seemingly nowhere and by the time they start stripping the surrounding region of all available food they have already been building their nest to raise even larger numbers of young. The swarm is a natural disaster that can happen anywhere where there is food to be found, which is almost everywhere. The immediate surroundings of a nest are soon reduced to barren wastelands but drones swarm out for many more miles to hunt for any kind of meat they can find. The only protection is to bar oneself up in a cellar and wait for the swarm to move on, which can often take several days. Once the hunting stops, the nest is soon abandoned with the creatures seemingly vanishing into thin air again. Many believe that they are not ordinary animals but instead creatures from the Spiritworld, perhaps to forrage for food for their young before they return back to their home.

Villains for the Old World

As I was writing on the idea of Hope & Heroism, someone pointed out to me the importance of motivations for the antagonists. Coming up with a list of heroes who represent all the ideals I am looking for in protagonists was very easy. But examples for good antagonists turned out to be a much more difficult task. I had a few ideas for villains who I think are cool and who I would love to put into the Old World, but thinking of any reason why the heroes would be fighting them was a lot harder.

The more I was thinking about it, the more I came to the conclusion that good motivations for an antagonist are much more dependent on the specific attributes of the setting than it is the case for heroes. Heroes are generally easy to create as they really just need to be good people with the determination to take action against villainy. You can quite easily move these from one setting to another and their motivation to do good always works just fine. But antagonists don’t have to work just with the heroes, but also with the many unique aspects and elements of the setting. They need much more than just a hero to oppose them. They need to have a goal that benefits them and a plan that is actually feasible. And these things really depend a very great deal on what and who else is all in the setting.

So I’ve decided that a post on Villains of Hope & Heroism wouldn’t be making any sense and not be useful. The same narrative principles can be applied to a huge range of very different settings. Instead I am focusing on the nature of antagonists in my own Old World setting.

After going through all the examples of books, ,movies, TV shows, and games for ideas what kind of antagonists could work in such a setting, I narrowed it down to four main types of antagonists.

  • Warlords: Perhaps the most classic type of antagonists. These people are military leaders whose long term goal is to hold their territory against their many enemies, and often to destroy them before they attack on their own terms.
  • Sorcerers: If there are antagonists for Sword & Sorcery type tales more iconic than warlords then it’s the sorcerers. Masters of dangerous arcane powers who are always looking for more knowledge and power and often try to take direct control over the domain of the master they serve.
  • Bandits: Simple but reliable. Some antagonists don’t have any big elaborate plans or higher goals. Some are simply content with taking what they want and killing those who resist them.
  • Avengers: In a world where might makes right and the law is in the hands of whoever carries the biggest stick, vengeance is the way to put the offenders in their place. In many tales the protagonists set out to avenge their fathers and masters, but in a tale of Hope & Heroism nothing good can come from that. But a lot of bad for a lot of people who are only tangentially involved. Whether the tool of vengence is poison, an army, or a horde of demons, it’s always a great source of trouble for the heroes to take action against.

Regardless of who the antagonists and their minons are, every heroic tale needs some type of villainous plot that the heroes are trying to stop. (I wonder how far back this convention goes. It doesn’t seem to be common in ancient hero tales.) For a setting of city states and barbarian tribes I found these following ones to be a good set of templates to work with.

  • Conquest: Sometimes an antagonist of the warlord type simply wants to expand his territory for greater wealth and fame. It is simply ambition that drives him and a need to show his prowess. Not a particularly interesting motive but a simple and uncomplicated one. Probably works best as an additional complicating factor in situations where tbe heroes are already busy with going after someone else. The conquest might be just an opportunistic small warlord seeing a chance to make his move or be the backdrop for the tale of the heroes. In either case, the conqueror is probably not being to be the focus of the adventure since he’s not very interesting in himself.
  • Resources: In this situation a warlord is in the whole conquering business just for the sake of it, but it really is just the means to get access to very important resources. Something that the antagonists needs, and needs so badly to kill for it and take it from others who need it as well. This is much more interesting as it’s probably easy to see that the antagonist had to do something to keep his people fed and save. But it’s going to be the method with which the heroes will take objection. Simply beating back the antagonists forces won’t end the conflict, only delay it for a while at best. This doesn’t have to be a military invasion of a neighbor. It might very well be the antagonist’s own subjects who have to carry the burden.
  • Defense: Things get even more ambiguous when the antagonist is taking drastic actions as a measure to defend his domain against another foe. The measures taken to improve defenses might lead to hardship for the farmers and workers, but can also mean attacks on and annexation of vital territory. Many of the locals might even support a change in leadership which will only make the antagonist to resolve to even more draconian measures.
  • Magic Power: True magic power is in a wholly different league than ruling over land or people. This alone might lead sorcerers to see the hardships of others as a very accepable price and warlords might very interested in getting their hands on a magic weapon that can secure and expand their power. The plans to attain a new source of magic power can be very complex, but as a motive for an antagonist it’s actually very simple. Many of the lunatic sorcerers who want to destroy the world can be made much more plausible if they are simply searching for magic power and are willing to pay a very high price for it. Or rather, have someone else pay that price.
  • Vengeance: A relatively simple and straightforward motivation, but one with endless possible applications. Pretty much any character imaginable can be motivated by vengeance and the possible plans to gain it are endless. The main use of vengeance in tribal society is to scare away enemies and prevent further attacks in the future. Retaliation as a show of strength. In societies with no police this can put the heroes in quite difficult positions. For a short adventure a group of warriors seeking vengeance against someone in the protection of the heroes makes for a great conflict. But revenge for past crimes that have already been mostly forgotten can be a much bigger source for a lot of trouble that is still to come and the heroes are probably going to much less sympathetic to such a cause. Especially when the revenge comes in a form that affects many other people mostly unconnected to the original offense.
  • Plunder: And sometimes all that bad people want is some wealth and comfort. Other people’s wealth to be specific. Greed is as basic a motivation as it gets and there is little about it that would justify negotiating some kind of compromise between parties. But used for minor antagonists or as an easy break between more complex adventures it’s still something that does the job. Antagonists out to burn and pilage (and that other stuff) might either be in addition to the primary opponents of the adventure, or they might constitute a particularly unpleasant segment of the main antagonist’s minions.

These lists are both not very long, but I think each of them comes with so many variables that they can be reused many many times without becoming overdone. Especially when you switch between them regularly to avoid falling into a regular pattern. Even when not looking specifically for something to use in an adventure of Hope & Heroism or something set in a Bronze Age setting, all of these motives should easily work in most types of tales.