Key Points: Building a setting based around a magic system? How can someone obtain magical powers in a non-traditional way? Think of options, then explore those. Push them. What kind of unusual power could they gain? Think of the expected ones, then go on. Consider how this affects the society, history, interactions. What limits does it have? Time, resources, geographic? Consider different variations. Make sure people are proactively involved! What has changed?
What's an odd way to set up a government? Religion? Why are people chosen? What drives this? What are the problems? What are the taboos and the accepted things? What's different? What are the different classes? Are there rebels, and why? How do they act? Are there minorities, and what sets them apart?
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season 6, Episode 27, Fantasy Setting Yard Sale.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And everything must go!
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] Get this thing out of my yard!
[Brandon] What we're going to try and do... This is kind of an experimental cast. I'm going to throw questions at the podcasters. We are going to build a couple of fantasy settings for you. It'll show you how we build settings. It'll also just give you a bunch of writing prompts for your fantasy setting. These are... You can just take these and go with them. They are free.
[Dan] Please write a whole book with these.
[Brandon] Yup. Please go ahead and do it... And then make sure to acknowledge how awesome we are in your acknowledgement. If indeed we're awesome because we don't know if we're going to be yet. All right, guys. Question number one, for our fantasy setting, I want you to build a setting based around a magic system. All right? My first question to you is I want an unusual way that someone becomes a practitioner of this magic. In other words, they're not just born with it, and you don't get it just by studying real hard. You don't become a wizard by just learning it or having it be genetic. How can someone obtain magical powers in a non-traditional way?
[Mary] You have to be hit by a comet.
[Brandon] Hit by a comet? Okay, that's one option. What else do we have?
[Mary] Not a comet, since those don't actually hit the earth.
[Brandon] Yes. Meteor?
[Mary] I went to LaunchPad.
[Mary] Meteorite. Thank you. Sorry, LaunchPad.
[Brandon] Nice save.
[Dan] Specifically, spaceborn or just any falling rock? Like if a stalactite falls on you in a cave, will that do the same thing?
[Mary] No, no, I think it has to be spaceborn.
[Mary] The question is whether or not it can have originated in space and have someone throw it at you, or whether it actually has to drop out of the sky.
[Brandon] Okay. To make this more...
[Howard] Oh, yeah. Meteoric iron in a stalactite that fell on you in a cave might give you a different set of powers.
[Mary] There you go.
[Brandon] I'm going to go ahead and try and take this a little bit away from the silly and I'm going to say, "Okay. Spacedust. A planet where there are a lot of meteor showers. At certain times... these things burn up in the atmosphere. If this stuff falls on you, it has an effect on you." Okay?
[Brandon] All right. Let's go there. All right. Let's make the magic that you gain have some different sort of power. What's the power we're going to have? What does this give you? Something that you haven't seen a lot of.
[Howard] Oh, gosh.
[Mary] Something you haven't seen a lot of? See, that's the hard part.
[Brandon] Yeah, that's hard.
[Howard] Magic... Telepathy, telekinesis...
[Mary] Being able to [inaudible]
[Howard] Being able to shoot magic from your hands...
[Dan] It's a magic that will give people cancer... It will screw up with cell division inside of somebody's body?
[Mary] So it's destructive magic.
[Brandon] Destructive magic. Let's call...
[Dan] I guess in some ways that's just radiation.
[Brandon] Let's call... Let's do forced mutation. Okay?
[Brandon] I haven't seen a lot of that. You have the power to mutate...
[Howard] Somebody else?
[Brandon] Not yourself, but somebody else. You can kind of control and steer forced mutation. Okay?
[Brandon] So you can create all sorts of weird abominations or you can maybe give somebody some powers, but they're going to come at great cost.
[Dan] Well, and the better you are at this...
[Howard] Let me stitch this together a little bit. Because we're world building here. So you've got a world on which there are meteor showers, whatever, happening a lot. When space dust hits something sapient... I say something sapient, usually a person, but maybe there are other creatures here... That person gains the ability to affect the flow of the evolution on that planet by forcing mutations. So you have a mixture of... The life on this planet, a mixture of what evolved naturally and what people think might be a good idea to have plants do.
[Brandon] Okay. That's awesome. That is really awesome.
[Howard] Because suddenly the shape of this world... I mean, you could roll historically...
[Dan] Is incredibly malleable.
[Howard] Yeah, you could roll back and have amazing, amazing, horrible, horrible sorts of things happening. Oh, yeah. Man eating plants? Remember when that fifth-grader got hit by the rock in the third century?
[Brandon] And decided that these were cool. Okay. We need to limit this magic some more. Just as you're talking, we need to limit it. It needs to either run out or something, because if too many people have this, you're basically going to quickly create a world where humans just can no longer exist.
[Dan] Well, our...
[Brandon] Wait. Mary? Mary, go ahead.
[Mary] I was going to say... Actually, if we go back to the comet idea, that if it's actually the tail of a comet that they pass through periodically, so there are only certain phases in their history when people have this power...
[Brandon] Okay, I like that. Yeah, because then you can have a period of several hundred years during which these weird mutations and things have happened and no one has the magic for most of that. Then 200 years later, it comes again and someone tries to fix all of these mutations and things.
[Dan] Well, now, we could also take this... This might be altering the direction away from actual wizardry. But this dust does not grant you the magic ability to affect mutation, but it's just the dust itself? If you possess it, you can use it almost like an alchemist.
[Brandon] Okay. That could...
[Dan] In which case, it could be saved from one cycle to the next, it could be hoarded...
[Mary] It becomes a commodity.
[Brandon] I'd go ahead and say if you're world building this that you kind of... That you do all three. The dust can just cause mutation, it just hits people. For certain times the dust gives the people the power to influence it because having characters proactively be able to do this is going to be really useful. Or save the dust and use it. All three things actually achieve different roles in the plot and give you more tools to play with. So...
[Howard] Maybe the people who are collecting the dust to try and use it... Perhaps they discover that the dust... Oh, gosh, it doesn't work. Man, it never works. Oh, we can only make it work during this particular astrological sign when the stars and the planets are aligned with the current position of that comet.
[Brandon] That could... That's a cool limitation that's certainly a possibility.
[Mary] Then my practical brain is going "Exactly how are they collecting this dust?"
[Mary] I can see getting hit by it.
[Brandon] Well, we could say if we're going to go with the meteor shower thing...
[Mary] That's true.
[Brandon] If a full meteor falls... Meteorite... You can take it, grind it up, and you've got the dust.
[Howard] The problem with cometary tails is that they hit so seldom. I mean, it's already hugely limiting.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think we're better off doing some sort of asteroid belt with a long... Long orbit.
[Dan] Well, an asteroid belt that has an elliptical orbit perpendicular to the planet.
[Brandon] Right. [Garbled -- orientation passing through?]
[Dan] So you pass through it.
[Howard] If for some reason the planet is a... And now we're getting into science fiction a little bit, but if the planet is a one face world that is always facing the same direction, you have the ability to say, "And this side of the planet is where we are regularly getting bombarded, and it's not safe to go there because you're as likely to get killed as not."
[Brandon] Oh, that's a clever idea.
[Howard] But if this actually shower... So then you've got a planet on which one side is teaming with horrible horribly-thought-out lifeforms, and the other side is just peppered and hammered and barren and whatever else.
[Brandon] Wow. That's really brilliant. I like that a lot, because what it does is, is it adds a nice geographical limitation on this. So you can have cities that this sort of thing is forbidden, on the one side. That will keep them from... They've bunkered down and like, "No mutants here. No mutations. None of these wizards."
[Dan] Pure strain people.
[Brandon] Then you've got borderland places where things are creeping across. You've got all sorts of really cool geological features for this.
[Howard] The cataclysm could be that the comet... The comet's path is such... Assuming that it's a comet, it might be an asteroid belt, it might be any number of things. But something has happened, and orbits have shifted, and the stuff is going to start coming down the other side of the planet. There is our Ragnarok, there's your epic cycle.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's awesome, too.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead and cap that one there and do our book of the week. Then we'll do another one.
[Brandon] Our book of the week is by a brilliant author named Brandon Sanderson. No, I had a new book come out. It's been out for a little while now. It's called Alloy of Law. It's a new Mistborn novel. It is a fantasy, but I've taken the Mistborn world and advanced it several hundred years. So technology has rolled... Progressed along. It's not something I've seen done often in fantasy books, is take an epic fantasy and turn it into an urban fantasy instead. So that's what I've done. I think it's really fun. I think you guys will love it.
[Howard] In this magic system, it's got people who like eat minerals and stuff in order to gain magical powers?
[Brandon] Yeah, they eat minerals and gain magic powers. It's really weird, but it's awesome. I think you'll like it.
[Dan] Which becomes especially interesting in an industrialized society.
[Brandon] Yup. Guns plus the ability to affect metal that is around you is pretty fun. If you never read one of the Mistborn books before, this is actually a new starting point. It's a quicker, shorter novel for me, about 100,000 words. I think you guys will enjoy it. It's a new starting point, doesn't spoil the previous ones too much at all. So, Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. Howard, how can they get it?
[Howard] Head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can kick off a 14 day free trial membership. Downlloyd... Download Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson or any other of the fine titles... Millions of titles? Hundreds of thousands of titles audible has? I don't know how big that library is...
[Mary] Huge. Let's just say huge.
[Howard] Huge. Very huge. For free.
[Brandon] Yup. All right. Since our previous world building element was very physical world oriented, let's go culturally oriented now. Let's... Let me ask you guys, let's have an odd way of government. An odd method of government. Whoever's in charge is chosen because of attributes or a type of thing that...
[Dan] Extreme flatulence.
[Brandon] Okay. No.
[Howard] We didn't want to be silly.
[Dan] Don't say we.
[Brandon] I'll give you an example of this in Xenocide War by Orson Scott Card. People with OCD, legitimately have OCD, are considered sacred and have a special place in this government and religion. What's a new type of government we could have?
[Mary] We all stare blankly at each other.
[Brandon] Oh, come on.
[Howard] Polydactyly... If you can't count to 11 using your fingers, you can't be president.
[Brandon] Okay. Okay. You're trying to relate this to our previous one, because you could... You're saying people who have interesting mutations could be...
[Howard] Yeah. If you've mutated... Some physically visible mutated defect...
[Brandon] Okay. That's kind of interesting.
[Howard] I'm not married to that idea, but...
[Brandon] No, no. This is an interesting one because... We'll let the others think of something else.
[Dan] Or it could be even simpler, like just being ambidextrous. If you can use both hands, then obviously your brain is more advanced and you should be in charge.
[Brandon] Okay, okay. Can people be trained to be ambidextrous?
[Dan] They can.
[Brandon] That's a problem then. A little bit of a problem, but not completely a problem.
[Mary] No, because then you suddenly have schools where people go to... And not everybody can be trained to be ambidextrous.
[Brandon] But it seems like if a large percentage of the population can be trained to be ambidextrous, we have a problem with government. You could make a requirement that if you cannot be trained to be ambidextrous for whatever reason, you cannot serve in the civil service. Make it kind of a Chinese sort of civil service thing is a big deal...
[Dan] Very strict caste system.
[Brandon] You want to be in the civil service, but because of whatever magic thing or whatever cultural thing, you need to be able to use both hands at once. Why would you need both hands at once?
[Mary] Ah. It's a nonverbal language.
[Brandon] Okay. Nonverbal language. Or...
[Howard] Written on juggling balls.
[Brandon] One thing I'm going to twist this because... If it's a nonverbal language, then everyone is going to be naturally ambidextrous. What if to communicate with the gods quote unquote or some other race or something, you need to be able to use their language which requires not just using your hands but you've got to even be able to use your feet?
[Howard] Oh, there we go. It's a... If we're...
[Brandon] They have four arms, and you've got to be able to communicate with four limbs.
[Dan] You're polydexterous.
[Howard] So, a spin on this... Science fiction... We've got a science fiction setting where a planet full of humans is the low-tech culture. High-tech aliens have showed up and they decide that anybody who makes noises with their mouth... If you're just flapping meat at me and burping noises, that's very, very uncivilized. We speak through visual cues and through radio. So, yes, you have to be ambidextrous and be able to talk with your hands and your feet in order to communicate with the aliens. So governance falls upon those who are able to talk to the aliens. I'm not saying that this is a good setting.
[Mary] Historically, that doesn't bear out. That just means that you have translators. Because historically, you have not needed...
[Dan] Except we have created a society where human speech is considered flatulence, and so we get right back to me at the beginning.
[Brandon] No, but you can spin this toward a government thing. By the way, Howard, you keep trying to get science fiction in my fantasy. [Laughter] Look what we stepped in. No, you could do this, but I think it has to go back to the idea I was saying before, that it's sacred. You make kind of a theocracy, and communicating... You could make them aliens. You can make them whatever. But communicating with them is sacred, so therefore you don't want to let the dirty translator intercede between me... You want... I'm in power, I go get the information. Mary, you have a revelation?
[Mary] Yes, but it's a story that I want to write in this world, so...
[Brandon] Okay. Oh, okay.
[Dan] So, listeners, you're in a race with Mary.
[Mary] Do you want to hear it?
[Brandon] I'd love to hear it if you want to give it away. If you don't want to give it away...
[Mary] I'm happy to give it away, because I probably don't actually have time to write it. But if you have a world where like sacred dance is the... What's going on...
[Brandon] Oh, sacred dance is awesome.
[Mary] Then if your religious leader has a stroke, and suddenly cannot use the left side of their body, then that creates an enormous plot... Driving...
[Mary] Problem and conflict galore, like both on a personal and societal level.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's... We've just got a few minutes left, but I want to...
[Dan] Try to do one more?
[Brandon] No, I want to build some more depth into this one. I want to come up with a few social mores that would be different in this culture. Things that they regard as taboo, or things they regard as just natural that you would do that we don't do.
[Howard] Talking with your hands. I mean, if you're talking and gesturing at the same time, that is a corruption of sacred speech...
[Howard] You should be...
[Dan] No gesticulating.
[Howard] No gesticulation.
[Brandon] When you're talking...
[Howard] If you're going to talk with your hands, your mouths are shut. If you're going to open your mouth, yeah, you make fists or you lock your hands behind your back.
[Brandon] I like that. It's awesome because I don't think it's the first thing that most people would leap to. They would leap to, of course everyone's going to talk with their hands in this. But you came up with a really good cultural reason of the opposite. And it's going to be really more interesting to sit and talk without moving.
[Howard] Ah. Street speak, where you've got the lower class of society, they adhere to this rule almost strictly. They put their hands behind their back, but they have sort of a shuffling step that they will walk and talk, and there is a second layer of communication happening in their walk. So they can actually talk and pseudo-dance at the same time, and they're mostly not getting caught at this.
[Brandon] That's pretty cool, too. You're pretty good at this, Howard.
[Mary] But then there would be also an underculture of... You take any... Well, marionettes started as little Mary, it was a nativity scene. Then it became Punch and Judy eventually. So you would have this underculture as well of people who deliberately take the sacred movements...
[Dan] The kind of very irreverent dance halls and that sort of thing?
[Mary] Yeah, exactly.
[Dan] Now, the thing that comes to my mind is people who are deaf, when any other culture would communicate with sign language. In this culture, would they be sacred because they can't use the filthy speech? Or would they be completely anathema because they are forced to do mundane communication in a sacred style?
[Brandon] Or you take... Have the parents... Have a deaf child who put them in the clergy to hide it. There's a person who's grown up never being able to hear. But everyone just thinks they've been trained since childhood not to use that filthy... Filthy speech.
[Dan] Normally a deaf child would just be killed, but these parents tried to hide him in the clergy that way.
[Howard] The other side of the same coin, you've got a blind child who cannot partake in the sacred and must always be vulgar, profane, whatever.
[Mary] Then you would have partner dancing.
[Brandon] Eew. There you go. There are a lot of places you could take this. We just wanted to throw some of these out for you and maybe get you...
[Howard] This whole episode's been like a big writing prompt, hasn't it?
[Brandon] So we don't have to...
[Howard] Does that mean we're all off the hook?
[Brandon] I think we're off the hook for the writing prompt.
[Mary] Go write.
[Brandon] This has been great. You guys are totally out of excuses. Now go write.