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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

One of the things I do when I have a minute to spare, but can’t do much but think, say, while waiting at a traffic light, is to ponder a fictional setting that I’ve been puttering around with for years.  I think about pieces of that world, characters in it, historical events, magical mechanics, whatever seems most interesting at the moment.  I’ve written some of it down, and I’ve structured some of it into a series of stories I’d like to tell, and a lot of art I’d like to do.

Sometimes I find it helpful to share my creative process, if only because it forces me to think about it, and possibly refine it.  If you all can get something out of my meanderings, hey, that’s a bonus.

This time, I want to write about Geistflies.

Geistflies

These little guys, to be precise, or at least, a fictional variant:

Fireflies

(Photos by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu)

Fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some call them) are mostly harmless, but have a certain visual charm on dark nights where their lights show up.  As with so many other weird phenomena, they are ripe for fictional explanations.  We know today that fireflies glow thanks to chemical reactions, but a less informed populace might invent other reasons for the glow.  Sometimes these reasons are based in evidence and observation, sometimes they are pure whimsy.  Often, there’s a bit of both involved, especially if location is important and patterns show up.

And as is so often the case, reality can be weirder than fiction anyway.  Take, for example, the weird story of the “Angel’s Glow” from the U.S. Civil War.  Some Civil War soldiers had wounds that glowed in the dark.  Weird, crazy stuff.  That article is just outlining a theory still, but a reasonable one.  And yet, to a delirious soldier in the field, would bioluminescent hitchhiker bacteria be the first thought?

Anyway, I designed that Geistfly Swarm card for some friends a couple years back (which actually is why I started digging into card design, which led to the Tinker Decks and Tinker Dice).  I just used a photo from a quick online search and ran with it to mock up graphic design concepts.  The text is really just official looking gibberish I made up so it looked like a card from an actual game, and I did the rest of the graphic design, experimenting with visuals.  The title of the card, “Geistfly Swarm” was just part of this creative tinkering… but it’s a name that has stuck in my mind since then.  It was just an experiment with making an interesting sounding name, sort of like my mild fascination with alliteration, but there’s something interesting happening there.

One, it rolls off the tongue well, with a pair of vowel sounds that echo each other in the two syllables.  There’s a lyrical quality to the term.  This lyricism can inform the genesis of the term, culturally speaking, and how it’s applied in society in the novel setting.  Perhaps the whimsy involved means that it’s largely used as a children’s story term.  Perhaps, though, like the Grimm Brothers stories, there’s a dark secret at its heart, and it’s been candy coated by the pretty sounds over the years.

Two, it’s a mishmash of two languages, German and English.  What sort of culture would use such a mix?  Would anyone try to be more grammatically correct and call them “ghostflies”?  What effect would that have?

Three, what if there are two species involved?  Regular fireflies, where the term is used much as we would today, and then the geistflies?  What would differentiate the species?  Color?  Behavior?  Location?  Mechanics?

…and so I decided that geistflies are an offshoot of normal fireflies.  They live in my world that has magic, sometimes wild and powerful, sometimes regimented and almost baked down to a science.  This particular bug, the geistfly, doesn’t light up for the same reasons as the firefly.  No, these geistflies react to magic and light up purely as a matter of physiology and its reaction and proximity to magic.

That relatively simple idea sparks a new series of questions, then:

Can they be used as detectors?  Do they have different reactions to different “flavors” of magic?  Where do they live?  Can they be domesticated?  What is their life cycle, and are they only sensitive to magic when they are adults?  Do they feed on magic?  How do they interact with magic users or “spells”?

Where does their energy come from to light up?  

That one spawns even more questions, like “if they tap into the surrounding magic, how would that affect their behavior?” or “if lighting up drains their own energy, would that mean they avoid magic instinctively purely as a survival mechanism?”, and answers to those would modify the answers to other questions, like using them as detectors.

Or maybe this one:  Why are they called geistflies?  Have they been linked to ghosts?  Are they most prevalent around battlefields, creepy old buildings or graveyards?  They aren’t exactly pyreflies, but maybe there are echoes in there somewhere?

I haven’t decided on answers to all of these, and really, it’s possible to dive down the rabbit hole and chase a lot of different aspects of these questions and their implications.  To me, that’s one of the great parts of creative writing and worldbuilding.  I love asking and answering those questions, and finding out how different ideas play off of each other.

This is also why I love games, where some of that incredible potential can be given to players, making for all sorts of interesting effects.

I’ll work geistflies into the stories somehow.  Even little things like this, the details that aren’t the spine of adventure, but rather the spice, are sometimes extremely useful and even important.

P.S. I just ran into this today:

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/01/bioluminescent-beach-maldives/

There’s a lot you can pull from real life weirdness for fictional worldbuilding.

bio-beach2

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No, I don’t actually have Guild Wars 2 yet.  I’ve just been perusing the wiki, getting a sense of what’s there and what I might do for my set of characters.  I was reading a fun article from Rakuno over at Shards of Imagination, wherein he writes a bit about offbeat race/profession combinations.  This is the sort of thing I love, and something I think is sorely missing from World of Warcraft.  Yes, I would make a Pandaran Druid.  And a Gnome Hunter.  Just because.

Why Gnomes Can’t Be Hunters

(That’s a bit of art I did for BBB a while back.  Too much fun.)

I therefore took a matrix of races and professions in Guild Wars 2, trying to come up with Twitter-sized role playing backgrounds for each possible combination.  Some are way too easy and obvious, others are more esoteric and interesting.  I won’t play all of these, but it was fun to imagine “what if”… if only for a short time.

Now… I should preface this by noting that none of these are actually professions.  It seems to me that the profession of every player character in pretty much any MMO is “mass murderer”, the difference only being in the methodology.  This is key when considering something like the Thief profession (which awesomely, actually involves something almost like theft in GW2).  I imagine these characters as actual, y’know, thieves, not “mass murderer who uses thief-style killing tools”.  Maybe that’s a failure on my part when considering role playing, but I do like to think of these things as professions, if only because it makes writing character fiction more interesting.  Every one of these characters will wind up as mercenary assassins of one sort or another, trying to selfishly gain power and loot.  That’s just how these DIKU MMO things work, for better or worse.

Asura

  • Guardian – Tinker’s Guild guard on remote assignment. Secretive, stern, strict.
  • Warrior – Napoleon. Must fight anyone and everyone to compensate for ego/size mismatch.
  • Engineer – Absentminded professor. Tinkerer with little direction.
  • Ranger – Studying animals as golem inspiration/substitutes.
  • Thief – OCD kleptomaniac. Simply must have at least one of everything.
  • Elementalist – Scientist, systematically exploring elemental magic.
  • Mesmer – Con artist, pulling one over on other races to prove Asuran superiority.
  • Necromancer – Technomancer, researching corpse/golem similarities.

Charr

  • Guardian – Samurai-like with grudge against Raven Norns.
  • Warrior – Distilled Klingon.
  • Engineer – Weaponmaster, searching for best weapon tech.
  • Ranger – Alpha male. Seeks to dominate all animal kingdom.
  • Thief – Interhouse chessmaster for hire. Intrigue instigator.
  • Elementalist – Pyromaniac. Unhinged and obsessed with Ascalon’s FoeFire.
  • Mesmer – Mind game tactician. Compensating for childhood by manipulating others.
  • Necromancer – Boneyard caretaker; Grudgebearer avenging those under his care.

Human

  • Guardian – Royal guard washout trying to prove himself.
  • Warrior – Mercenary. Purely available to highest bidder. Medieval melee Jayne.
  • Engineer – Sparky mad scientist. More Tarvek, less Gil.
  • Ranger – Circus trainer grudgingly playing the hero.
  • Thief – Artful Dodger with little long-term aspiration.
  • Elementalist – Sailor with wild talent, primarily Air mage just starting to branch out.
  • Mesmer – Carnival entertainer; two bit stage magician with debts to repay.
  • Necromancer – Accidental hero. Only defeating bad guys to forestall rivalry.

Norn

  • Guardian – Mama bear. Do not cross.
  • Warrior – Berzerker, Wolf devotee. Lone wolf because he’s too dangerous.
  • Engineer – Civil engineer. Raven-like focus and mental discipline.
  • Ranger – Grizzly Adams. On steroids.
  • Thief – Enforcer. Mobster. More robber than thief.
  • Elementalist – Ice/Water shaman. Specializes in defense and healing.
  • Mesmer – Psychiatrist. Norn tough love.
  • Necromancer – Preparing heroic spot in afterlife for friends… by any means.

Sylvari

  • Guardian – Pale Tree Rootguard. Just wants to stay home.
  • Warrior – Photoinsane bloodlusty nut. Only calm in the dark. Avenging vegetable slaughter.
  • Engineer – Researching how to make technology useful to Sylvari plant physiology.
  • Ranger – Experimenting with animals. Fascinating things.
  • Thief – Shiny! Ooh, another one! Squirrel! Mine! ADHD? What’s that? Sounds like fun!
  • Elementalist – Earth mage hippy.
  • Mesmer – Dancer out to see the world.
  • Necromancer – Golgari “circle of life” kind of guy. Just helping the circle along.

I’m not quite sure what I’ll play once I actually get my hands on the game.  Apparently, without buying extra, I’ll have only 5 character slots.  That means one per race, but not all the professions.  (Or some other mix, sure, but I’d like to have one of each race to see the stories.)  I’m leaning to the following: Asura Ranger (the bigger the pet, the better), Charr Mesmer (tricky kitty), Human Elementalist (or maybe Thief), Norn Engineer and Sylvari Warrior.  That last one could be especially fun to role play, as light and dark in the environment would alter his mood, and his psychotic penchant for avenging vegetable slaughter could have shades of HK-47‘s “meatbag” commentary.

I reserve the right to change my mind on any of this… but it was fun to play with the ol’ imagination for a while, no matter how it all finally settles out.

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It looks like Professor Beej‘s Birthright novel’s Kickstarter project has reached its funding goal.  Of course, while there’s momentum, the good Professor has extended a new mini-goal to pay for some more sweet cover art.

If you haven’t investigated Birthright yet, it’s a perfect time to do so.  Professor Beej wrote this article on it a while back, and he has other commentary over at his site.

For what it’s worth, I chipped in on the Kickstarter, but even before that, Beej let me read a bit of his earlier draft for the book.  While I didn’t have much time to read it, I was left itching for more.  It’s interesting, well written, and is curiously founded on a conceptual conceit distilled directly from games.  I’m really looking forward to the final book and whatever else Beej winds up doing with his pocket universe(s).

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I’ve written about this before, notably in these two articles…

Merely Magical

Thinking Magic

…and Professor Beej’s article last time reinforced some of my thoughts on rules and their function.  I think rules are important to creativity.  You can’t think outside the box until you know where the box is.  If nothing else, thinking about how things work leads to story hooks, like trying to figure out what happens when death breaks, as I did in my Death Unhinged article.  I’m firmly in the camp of “magic should have rules”.

Still, I wanted to add a couple more links to articles that I’ve seen lately on magic and the rules behind its use in fiction.

First, there’s this ranty gem from N. K. Jemison, titled “But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?“.  I boil it down to “magic isn’t science, so why play by science’s logic and rules?”  This is one school of thought, appealing to some, but not really all that interesting to me.  I consider it to have a fatal flaw:  it’s way too easy for authors to metamagic themselves out of writing errors by just handwaving away their solutions by saying “but, but, but, it’s MAGIC“.  In this style of magic fiction, magic is a tool the author uses to write the story.

In the sort of fiction I prefer, magic is a tool that the characters use to solve their problems within the story.  Brandon Sanderson has a great article up thisaway on this, ultimately boiling things down to his “first law” thusly:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

This is a critical difference, I think, albeit perhaps a subtle one.  Magic can and should let weird things happen in stories.  That’s sort of the point of fiction, exploring “what if” questions that come with powers that we as readers don’t naturally have or situations we’d not normally encounter.  Magic fuels a lot of those crazy circumstances.  Still, for me, magic should feel like it’s part of the world it inhabits, even if it’s a weird part.  The effects that magic has on a world need to flow from how magic works, or else the world risks being completely arbitrary, with no sense of consequence for actions.  When cause and effect are decoupled, there is little learning that characters can do, and little that they can do to enact their agency and make choices.

If magic doesn’t lend itself to comprehension, it serves little purpose in the story but to impose the capricious will of a mad deity, whether that’s the author or something in-universe.  There’s certainly a place for that in the body of fiction on the whole, but I find it makes for unsatisfying storytelling, since it’s often all too easy to see the author’s hand in events, the chicanery behind the curtain, as it were.  That, or the story is so random that it doesn’t satisfy my desire to see characters grow instead of just live through a story, marking time by hitting the plot points.

One of the examples I often point to is, of all things, a comic book.  I imagine myself as an author on Marvel’s X-Men comics, specifically, looking for things for Iceman or Magneto to do.  Iceman is apparently an “Omega level” mutant, with incredible, nearly god-like powers.  Magneto isn’t quite at that point, but his power to magnetically manipulate metals can have a lot of curious uses.  I’ve seen authors have him slow the flow of blood to a character’s brain by controlling the metal in red blood cells, thereby making that character pass out.  It’s a remarkably subtle use of magnetism, and a reminder that as ubiquitous as metals are, Magneto can and should be able to do a great many different things, all from one simple, core power.  Iceman, on the other hand, far from his humble beginnings as a goofy guy who wore a self-made suit of snow and threw snowballs, has wide ranging powers that let him affect material at the subatomic level, which has an even wider range of applications.  Authors exploring what he can do keep coming up with new tricks for his mutant powers, like being able to use a body of water as an extension of himself to travel far distances nearly instantaneously, or his “organic ice” form that can be broken and reformed at will, effectively making him immortal since his consciousness and control aren’t linked to any particular given assembly of material.

These characters function according to known scientific rules, yet wind up doing things that are more or less “magical” simply by being something that most mortals can’t do.  The storytelling potential is still huge, but because of the built in limits, the characters are grounded in plausibility.  That goes a long way to selling the “what if” in my mind, simply because I can actually place myself in the character’s position and try to see how they might solve problems.  That empathy is a big part of why I like fictional characters, and is important for keeping me engaged in the story.

If, on the other hand, characters just function like pawns in an author’s storycrafting, going where they need to and doing what the story plot demands, I’m far less satisfied in the story.  To be fair, magic isn’t the only way this is a problem.  Stories that only function if the characters are complete idiots are also pretty annoying.  Still, if magic is the glue that keeps characters working like good little cogs in a story, they come across less as characters, and more like, well… tools.  This isn’t always going to be the case when magic is capricious and/or arbitrary, but it’s far easier for an author with rule-free magic to just pull what they need from their bag of tricks, plausible or no.  This “Deux ex Machina” solution to narrative problems is generally unsatisfying, denying characters the chance to carry the day because of their choices, determination or other assorted heroic stuff.

Case study:  the backlash against the ending of Mass Effect 3, where Stuff Just Happened (that link is a really great video review, by the way) in the narrative at the last minute to make the prebaked Dramatic endings work.  Yeah, it’s not just magic that has this problem.

This all underlines the core problem I have with rule-free magic.  It’s a useful tool for authors to wiggle out of awkward writing, a cheap solution to a situation that doesn’t make sense.  The narrative becomes less about the characters and the world, more about how things work out to where the author wants them to be.  That sort of story can work, sure, it’s just not the sort of story that I like all that much.  Naturally, this means I have to be careful to keep my fiction writing from slipping into territory where I’m using characters as tools, not letting characters use the tools within their world.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as seeing how characters work in a world is fun both when writing and reading… but still, though I’m ultimately in control of my own fictional worlds, I want to let characters exercise their agency as much as possible, and for consequences to flow logically from their choices.  I know, anthropomorphising them that way is kind of silly, but, well, that’s what I do when I get creative.  I suspect other authors do as well.

Speaking of other authors, though, this fellow thinks that rules are useful, too:  Erik Robert Nelson’s Does Magic Need Rules? (spoiler:  he answers in the affirmative)

Thusly and thenceforthly, for those characters to have agency, there need to be clear choices to be made and consequences for those choices.  This requires rules for comprehension for how the choices and the consequences correlate.  Meaningful choices cannot be made in completely capricious settings with no comprehensional cohesion.  As we see with language itself, rules facilitate understanding.  That doesn’t mean rules can’t be broken, but if there are no rules and Stuff Just Happens, figgledy barglesnipe verbiage into# abnarwt bthppp!

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Professor Beej, a professor, a Beej, a writer, a gamer, and an all-round good guy, is writing a series of novels that I’m really looking forward to, starting with Birthright.  He has a Kickstarter page up and running, which he describes over at his place at this link, and he’s been making the blogging rounds writing about his writing, like this post over at Syp’s Bio Break and this one over at Ferrel’s Epic Slant.  He has graciously offered a great post on writing for me to share here, which is just the sort of background analysis of the production process that I love.  So without further ado, Professor Beej, class is in session!

Three Rules of Worldbuilding and Design

When you’re a kid, and you think about authors and writers and how they get to tell stories and make stuff up it sounds awesome. Because that’s their job. To make stuff up.

Then, when you’re an adult, and you think about authors and writers and how they get paid to make stuff up, it sounds even awesomer. Because, come on. They’re getting paid to make stuff up. And you think to yourself, I can do that.

So you sit down to write your novel, to make stuff up. And you do. You have rocketships and dragons and wizards and bugbears, but not one single, eency-teency thing you’ve written down makes a bit of sense.

Because you made stuff up. You made it up good. You just didn’t make it up well.

You see, there’s something you didn’t think about when you were fantasizing about how awesome making stuff up for a living could be: fictional worlds, even science-fictional and fantastical worlds, have to be governed by rules. And you have to be the one to enforce those rules.

Kind of sucks the fun right out of it, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t. It’s a bit of work, sure, but I came up with 3 guidelines that helped keep my characters, technology, and narrative on track when I was working on The Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy that starts with the novel Birthright).

They worked for me, so I think they will for you, too.

1. Write in Limitations from the Start

Alan Scott’s Green Lantern ring couldn’t affect anything made out of wood, and Hal Jordan’s was baffled by the color yellow  In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic only works by characters burning flakes of metal in their stomachs–no more metal, no more magic. In Dungeons and Dragons, wizard spells are often one-offs and have to be relearned for each new use.

By having magic or technology be intrinsically fallible, you can avoid Superman or Luke Skywalker syndrome. Kryptonite is cool and all, but when Supes can grab an entire continent made of the stuff and fly it into outer-space, that limit ain’t so limiting. And Luke Skywalker…well, you tell me where the glass-ceiling is when size matters not.

In Birthright, the technomages get their power from nanotechnology. The really powerful technomages have had their blood replaced by nanites, while newbies have to wear a thin sleeve of nanites like a second-skin. What this distinction did for me as an author was rein in the power-levels between various characters so that their interactions and conflicts actually meant something.

Where one character might be able to Conjure wings and fly himself or herself out of trouble, the newbies in the sleeves simply don’t have enough nanomachines to do the job. They can try, but they can’t succeed because the rules of the universe forbid it.

2. Find a sweet spot between technobabble, pseudoscience, and good-old-fashioned analogies

Birthright is a difficult project to describe because I try to blend multiple genres into the conventions that make up the narrative. There’s a fantasy plot in a science-fiction world–kind of like how Firefly is a western in space. As awesome as that is, it also presents a number of problems in terms of marketing and comprehension.

Namely, will fantasy fans know what I’m talking about when I mention hyperspace? Will science-fiction fans rage if I simplify this theory to make it fit in my universe?

With that in mind, I had to make a compromise. I wanted Birthright to read like a story, not a mathematical proof (I’m looking at you, Ringworld), but at the same time, I didn’t want to be accused of “teching the tech” with scads of meaningless technobabble. So every bit of technology and “magic” within The Technomage Archive is based on some kind of real science–proven or theoretical. Whether it’s nanotechnology, pocket universes, or even hyperspace, the world of the novel is based on science.

Note the key phrase there. “Based on science.” Like fan-favorite movies and made-for-TV crime dramas, I’ve taken the science and boiled it down to its consummate parts. Because damn it, Jim, I’m an English teacher, not a scientist.

And neither are you (unless you are a scientist, in which case, I’m sorry for making hasty generalizations). I had to find that sweet spot between verisimilitude and narrative accessibility.

For instance, when one character is trying to explain hyperspace travel to a group of disoriented and frightened technomage recruits, he can’t very well start throwing around PhD-level jargon. He breaks it down into a rudimentary analogy so the recruits–and the readers–can understand.

Here’s an excerpt of that scene:

“Right now, we are traveling through hyperspace—“

“What are you talking about?” asked another voice from the crowd.  “Hyperspace?  Did you just make that up?”

Roman was nonplussed.  He was used to that kind of disrespect during these initial moments.  This was a lot to take in, so he forgave the kids a little rudeness.  “No,” he said. “I didn’t.  Hyperspace is pretty easy to understand.  Think about it like this.  Have you ever rubbed your hands together and felt heat build up, that burning sensation?”

The student said, “Well, yeah.”

“Well, it’s friction doing that.  Now, have you ever rubbed your hands together with something between them?  Like some water, jelly, anything like that?”

“I guess.”

“Does it make it easier to rub your hands together?  Does it stop the burning and make you not blister?”

“I guess.”

“Well, think of that jelly, water, or whatever, as hyperspace.  If we were to move through normal space, we’d be slowed down by what you can basically think of as friction.  There’s a limiting force to how fast we can go without destroying ourselves, kind of like that burning when you run your hands together too fast.  However, if we coat ourselves in jelly, so to speak, we can move far more quickly and far more smoothly to where we’re going without burning ourselves up from too much friction.  Does that make sense?”

“So we’re in a spaceship that’s covered in jelly?” the student asked.

“It’s not a perfect metaphor,” Roman said.

“It’s a stupid metaphor.”

3. Screw it.

Just make sure that you keep some perspective. Worldbuilding can be frustrating and thankless. But you’re the one in control. You make the rules, and by that same logic, you get to decide when to break them. Just make sure that whether you are making the rules or breaking them, there is consistency and logic in what you do. Your readers will thank you.

At the end of the day, when you’re irritated that your characters aren’t playing nice with each other and the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, just remember that people are giving you money to make stuff up.

And that’s pretty freaking awesome.

B.J. Keeton is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the first book in The Technomage Archive series. He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness atwww.professorbeej.com.

 

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I’ve written about magic and its function before, most notably in my Merely Magical and Mix and Match Magic articles.  I’m a scientific fellow by nature, but magic is so useful for fiction that I’d be remiss in ignoring it.  Beside that, it’s fun to think of the intersection between magic and science.  Cue Arthur C. Clarke’s quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So lately, I’ve been wondering… how do magic spells with conditions work?

I work with computers all day long, as an artist, true, but I understand a little bit of programming.  There are programs that are constantly looking for input that is then acted on.  The computer has to constantly run routines that ask “is anything happening now?” and “how about now?” or “maybe now?”… it’s always paying attention, ready to spring into action.  This takes processing power.

How about magic?

I’ve been watching the Pirates of the Caribbean movies again lately, so I’ll use those as an example (here there be spoilers!).  In the first one, the Aztec curse is lifted when the gold is returned and the blood debt repaid.  Is there an ancient Aztec spirit checking DNA?  Maybe it’s just checking with its fellow spirits in a vast Aztec post-mortal spy network.  They are always watching, dun dun dun…  The gold would be a bit easier to explain as it’s a simple count… but how to know if they are the right coins?  Again… Aztec ghost spy network, or maybe just a ghostly assayer working with the DNA specialist.

What about the whole Davy Jones myth (in the movies)?  He was cursed because he wasn’t faithful to his ladyfriend… but how did she know?  Maybe that one is easy to explain with a bit of mindreading and/or scuttlebutt, but what of the apocryphal Will Turner variant?  According to what I’ve read online (yes, I was curious, hush), Will isn’t stuck on the Flying Dutchman at the end of the third movie because Elizabeth was faithful to him, and he to her.  Who checks on these things?  Who or what is watching, and how does one get privacy in such a world?

Perhaps magic itself has a level of sentience?  At least enough to run simple “pass/fail” monitoring checks at a low level all the time?  If so, how much does magic think?  How smart is it?  Can it be fooled?  How much power does it take to run these checks?  Are there limits to its perception, whether temporal, spatial or something else?  Can it be blinded or deafened?

And what if the rules change?  Is magic capricious?  In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, why could Balthazar and Dave drive through their own reflection to escape a magical mirror trap, but Horvath needed external help to escape the same sort of trap?  Does one need a certain velocity to just blow out of the trap (shades of Back to the Future, where the tech may as well be magic), or some other quirky condition?

The Looking for Group webcomic is one I’ve wondered about lately in that regard as well.  The first minor arc in that comic has our central hero incinerated (into ashes!) and then revived by a local priestess, whole and healthy.  Later, that same priestess can’t revive her adopted father, merely because he had suffered some sword slashes to vital arteries.  Similarly, she couldn’t fix her uncle’s lost arm (though an artificer managed to make a perfectly functional magical metal one).  Did she lose power?  Are ashes easier to revive than a whole corpse (albeit minus some blood)?  Did magic’s function change?  Is this just the Power of Plot changing the rules in the name of Pointless Drama?

I know, this is overthinking things, but I believe there’s merit in having consistent rules that magic function by.  That sort of logical underpinning can make a world more interesting.  It need not be boiled down to a quantifiable science (though that might be interesting), but a bit of logic and consistency can go a long way in selling something as fantastic as magic, something that inherently goes against our intuition.  Even if the end player/reader/viewer doesn’t get these rules explained explicitly, just the fact that they are there and that the creators use them is a boon to the presentation.

On the other hand, capricious, chaotic, unpredictable magic has its place, too.  I just think that authors, game designers and worldbuilders should put a bit of thought into how and why magic does what it does instead of just making random stuff up and changing the rules as they go.  Maybe that’s a level of Batman-crazy preparation that we typically only see in someone like Tolkien and his linguistic and historic backgrounds of Middle Earth… but I think it’s worth it.  It seems to me that having that sort of underlying superstructure makes a magical world cleaner and more interesting, if only because it’s easier to be immersed (you’re not always asking “wait, what?” as you play along) and easier to expand (known rulesets are easier to follow, or break as occasion demands).

If nothing else, looking at how things work can provide story hooks and opportunities to delve into a fictional world and issue exposition in new and interesting ways.  It’s a good thing to have readers/players/viewers wondering “how” and “why” if the answers exist and help build up the world… and it’s a bad thing if those questions just lead to plot holes and lazy craftsmanship.

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What would a world without death look like?

There are many answers, though, and as always, chasing through implications and ramifications and unintended consequences can make for some very interesting thoughts.  Story hooks abound, and fictional universes can be built around tweaking death, like nudging the cosmological constant or the boiling point of water and seeing how (or if) life evolves in parallel universes.

A few links to start with, though:

Merely Magical – An old article of mine digging a bit into magic and what sort of effects it has on storytelling.

Ravnica – Magic the Gathering’s city-plane where some of the spirits of the dead are stuck and cannot pass on, so naturally, many become politicians, er, gangsters, while another group embraces undeath as a way of life.

Valkyrie Profile – Where Japanese writers plumb Norse myths for RPG fodder, winding up with a game where most characters are introduced at their death, and only then does the adventure start.

Gameplay and Story Segregation – In a world with FullLife materia, why again did Aeris die and stay dead?  Because Story is inviolate, and CRPGs tend to be noninteractive movies gated by grindy gameplay.  Speaking of which…

Final Fantasy X’s Farplane – People who die in Spira leave their bodies and move on as spirits that eventually turn into pyreflies.  They populate this odd place, occasionally taking spirit form when loved ones come to call.  They aren’t gone, exactly, but they aren’t what we might call alive or undead either.  Oh, and if someone actually dies without accepting death, their stubborn spirits will likely become fiends, or monsters.  Interesting origin story for monsters, that.

Death is a significant component of our mortal life, so it’s understandable that fiction would experiment with it.  Even something like necromancy, a fantasy staple, has Sabriel (a fantastic book) standing in the wings, toying with expectations.  And then there’s the zombies.  Oh, the zombies and their amazing culture.  And let’s not speak of vampires and their form of undeath/immortality/inexplicable popularity.

And yes, there’s the concept of immortality.  What if there really is no death at all, instead of a multitude of mulligan mechanics?  Forget the Life spells, what if nobody could ever die in the first place?  Would there be population problems?  How in the world would assassins make a living?

…speaking of which, in a fictional setting where death is cheaply and easily overcome, it strikes me that skullduggery of all sorts, from political to passionate, could prove a tricky thing indeed.  Of course we don’t think of that instinctively, but really, there are implications that would change a lot of behavior, religion, customs and even art.

If you found yourself in a world where wars were literally unwinnable by human asset attrition, how would one actually get anywhere?  Would peace be more likely, or would truly determined fighters just find new fronts to fight on?

How would thrillseekers get their rush?  Would skydivers even bother with parachutes?  Would they have crater competitions?

Would ancestor worship change if one could simply talk to them instead of praying to them?  How would the ancestors feel about being worshipped?

Would people even have children or would the population be static?  Is age a component of immortality of this sort?  Would aged people wind up with dementia for millennia?

Would they want to die?

I’ll admit, death is a pretty big thing to change, but even just changing that single thing can have significant repercussions for a fictional universe.  Interconnections abound in any sufficiently complex world, and it can be difficult to track down all the tangents.  Life is complex.  So is death.  Perhaps that’s why they are so fascinating.

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