Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
The ersatz Middle Ages world filled with dragons, swords, mages, and castles is one of the most beloved settings for fantasy fiction and RPGs. But all too often they're poorly thought-out, questionably executed, and filled with too many authorial fiats. So, here's a list of ways to avoid the some of the more common pitfalls and things that don't quite make sense.
Table of Contents
- Stay as far away from Medieval Stasis as possible.
- Don't throw in every old-fashioned or fancy weapon and armor that happens to catch your eye.
- If magic is awesome, don't make it widely illegal and persecuted (without a really good reason).
- Magic is not an excuse to halt technological and scientific progress forever.
- Give your fantasy races/species some biological and ecological sense.
Stay as far away from Medieval Stasis as possible.
Many fantasy worlds have been in a state of static pseudo-Medievalism for thousands of years. In the real world, the Medieval period lasted from roughly 400 AD to 1400 AD, and it was anything but static. Contrary to the belief that advances in science and technology completely ground to a halt thanks to an oppressive theocracy, all kinds of neat things were invented and refined throughout the entire Medieval age. In fact, a large part of the reason the Medieval period ended was because of the inventions created during the Medieval period!
The castle is actually a pretty good example of Medieval progress and innovation. The first castles appeared in the tenth century. Early castles were made of wood, which while cheap, was not without its weaknesses and drawbacks. So people started building castles out of stone (as money and resources permitted). Better-built castles meant that people had to find better ways to breach them, and better breaching techniques meant that people had to find better ways to build and protect their castles. The Medieval castle eventually lost its usefulness as a defensive structure with the development of gunpowder and artillery weapons (IE, cannons).
If you plan to have a 10000+ year old legendary weapon of ultimate smitage, tread carefully. In the real world, people made advances in metallurgy and metalworking over the years that allowed them to improve upon the sword. The earliest known swords (dating from about 5300 years ago) would be outmatched by later iron swords, which would be outmatched by steel swords. A legendary sword forged by a master swordsmith a thousand years ago may have been cutting edge (if you'll pardon the pun) technology back in its day, but is no longer anything special now. (And speaking of swords, swords were never the most common weapon on the battlefield. Spears and spear-type weapons were far more common.)
Starting around the 17th century, the use of melee weapons (non-firearm weapons) began to taper off as firearms became more effective. By the early 20th century, melee weapons had all but disappeared from the battlefield because quite simply, guns were better. Not only were they more effective killing weapons, but it was also easier and cheaper to train soldiers to use guns than melee weapons.
"Maybe the whole world believes in an ideology that hampers technological progression," some of you might venture. Not plausible. An anti-progression ideology would be highly detrimental to people's survival, and people want to survive. It's a hard-coded instinct. So, good luck trying to get everybody everywhere to stop trying to figure out how to more effectively stop themselves from dying from famine, disease, and invading enemies en masse. Sure, there have been some people in the real world who believed in (or still believe in) ideologies that don't exactly foster technological progression (eg, Luddites, the Amish), but these people tend to be in the minority, and their views never tend to catch on in the general populace.
"Maybe they never discovered gunpowder/steel/whatever?" Nope. Even granting this, people will still find ways to innovate. Lacking gunpowder, people might find ways to further refine and improve their bows, or even invent pneumatic guns. Without steel, there are still metals such as aluminum and titanium, and barring even those amazing things could be done with glass, clays, and ceramics. True, ceramics don't have the flexibility of steel, but they can be used to make rocket motors, and hobby rockets like the type sold by Estes are capable of travelling over a thousand feet vertically - and they're just made of cardboard. And if your world has magic, any shortcoming in materials might could be that much more easily overcome.
If you really want to make a pseudo-Medieval world, then go ahead and make one - but just set it in a time period that happens to mimic Medieval technology right now, rather than setting it in a world where it's been the Medieval period since time immemorial for no other reason than because You Say So.
Don't throw in every old-fashioned or fancy weapon and armor that happens to catch your eye.
Remember: In the real world, weapons and armor aren't designed to look cool and stylish when wielded or worn, but to work.
Weapons and armor are essentially tools. And when toolmakers design tools, they don't design them for a hypothetical scenario that might happen under contrived circumstances. Instead, they look at the problem they have and design a tool to tackle it.
You should not see a weapon originally designed specifically to shatter wooden shields being used in a setting where there are no wooden shields to shatter, nor should you see a type of armor designed to resist a type of weapon that doesn't even exist. Research the weapons and armor you want to use, find out what their history is and what environments they were designed to be used in, and ask yourself whether they actually fit into the world you're trying to create.
And while it might be tempting to throw in the type of fancy, fripperous weapons and armor you see in fantasy JRPGs or put unique twists on traditional weapons to make them different, remember that weapons and armor developed and were made the way they were in the real world because those designs worked. Don't make unnecessary changes if you want your designs to hold up to scrutiny and be taken seriously. And remember that while detailing on weapons or armor might look pretty, it also costs extra money to commission and gives no actual advantage in combat.
If magic is awesome, don't make it widely illegal and persecuted (without a really good reason).
The trope of persecuted witches and wizards seems to frequently stem from the misconception that people were persecuted for performing (or trying to perform, or allegedly performing) traditional spells and charms. The misconception itself comes from the mistake of assuming that the people involved in the witch hunts used the words "witch" and "witchcraft" the same way we use these words today. They didn't.
During the witch hunts, witches were by definition someone who had made a deal with the Devil in exchange for power. When it came to traditional folk charms, people understood there was no Devil involved, so - not witchcraft. Trying to divine the name of your lover with apple peelings, mixing up an herbal remedy, or putting up a talisman to ward off the evil eye wasn't seen as diabolical - it was just part of the natural order of things or the way the world simply worked, or even as a way to fight the diabolical.
Those who were tried for witchcraft tended to be scapegoats for local misfortunes or disasters, and those seen as likely candidates for devilry were often those who behaved in a manner considered incongruent with God's natural order of things. A couple examples include a woman being too talkative or opinionated (women were "supposed" to be submissive to men), or a woman living alone and unmarried (marriage was considered natural and proper). Accusations could also be motivated by greed or envy - for example, a man might be accused of witchcraft so that someone could gain his possessions should he be found guilty. Accusations could be politically motivated, as well - those with rank and influence might be accused in order to eliminate them as rivals.
With that all out of the way, if there existed people with magic that could clearly provide a military advantage or provide for people's needs in some way (eg, conjure water during a drought), most rulers wouldn't be passing legislation to outlaw magic - they'd be asking themselves, "Holy wow, where can I get some of that working for ME?" Sure, there might there be some people who condemn magic as some kind of unnatural abomination, but these people wouldn't be railing against it for long after being properly toasted with a fireball from the king's new best mage friend. Those who had the sense to utilize the advantage of a powerful mage would quickly rise to the top, while those who didn't would have a very short shelf-life.
Magic is not an excuse to halt technological and scientific progress forever.
People occasionally cite the existence and use of magic in their worlds as the reason that the world never progressed beyond a Medieval-like state. On the surface this can sound compelling enough - why would you need cars when mages can just teleport anywhere? But think it through a little, and it usually falls apart - in many of these worlds, mages need years of dedication and training before they can create portals anywhere, whereas someone can learn to drive a car in a few weeks, and there's no sign of a public transportation system anywhere in the fantasy world. Until mages figure out how to facilitate mass transit, magic cannot be said to serve in place of cars, trains, planes, etc.
Likewise, magic cannot be said to have taken the place of modern firearms when it takes years to learn to cast offensive spells effectively while it takes only a few months to learn to use a gun effectively. Magic can only take the place of modern firearms when mages figure out how to make magical weapons that the average person can learn to use in a short time, and make them cheaply and quickly enough that they can be issued to an army's infantry.
(Also remember: magical progress is still progress, and magical technology is still technology. A world where boats enchanted to fly at high speeds serve the same purpose that taxi cabs do in the real world cannot be said to be a primitive or "Medieval" society simply because their public transit system doesn't happen to involve combustion engines.)
Also, any technology or innovation that was rendered obsolete by sufficiently advanced technology will be rendered just as obsolete by equally advanced magic. Just as cannons helped render the Medieval castle obsolete, so too would mages and wizards lobbing magic shots with the same damaging power as an artillery squad. Just as plate armor became obsolete when it became more cost-effective to invest in guns than armor-clad knights, so it would if it were more economic to invest in mages who could do the same kind of damage (or worse damage) as an infantry unit armed with firearms.
In the face of such a threat, people would innovate and develop things to help them more efficiently combat and defend against magic-users. These innovations may be magical in nature, or technological, or even both. Sure, people might get their plate armors or castles enchanted to resist magic - but keep in mind, that would put extra cost on something that's already pretty expensive.
Give your fantasy races/species some biological and ecological sense.
Many fantasy worlds are comprised of any number of humanoid species plonked down anywhere. Typical fare includes humans, dwarves, elves, goblins, orcs, and halflings.
Elves are easily one of the most often-broken fantasy species ever. When it comes to figuring out why elves don't overbreed and overpopulate the planet, the best answer that many come up with is that they grow up very slowly and have a low reproductive rate. On the surface this looks good, but in reality, we probably now have a species doomed to extinction. While a low reproductive rate might keep elves from overpopulating during easy times, it would also keep them from replenishing their numbers after war or natural disasters. A population of elves decimated by such would be easy pickings for any species with a faster reproduction rate (eg, humans), as they'd recover their numbers much faster. Furthermore, a longer maturation rate only means more time for opportunities to die before reaching reproductive maturity. Yet for some curious reason, elves have existed with other species for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years and are still around. Either writers need to acknowledge that elves are doomed to extinction, or structure things differently to keep their population manageable and sustainable. (If you're in the process of developing your fantasy races, Fantasy & Science Fiction Creature Development Questions might help you think them through and develop them.)
Another oddity in many fantasy worlds is that most, if not all of the species can interbreed, yet despite the fact that each species has existed and interacted with each other for thousands of years (if not longer), there's little to no mixing aside from the very rare hybrid. In the real world, the only thing that can effectively keep two groups from mixing with each other sooner rather than later is geological separation. In a setting where people behaved realistically, one would expect to see cultures whose ancestors are made up of a mix of whatever races who came into prolonged contact with each other.
Also, don't be afraid to get properly diverse in racial diversity. Many fantasy worlds don't, and it's quite a shame. For example, some people variate their races of elves in various works of fiction by giving them different eye, hair, and skin colors… but that's pretty much it. Under the varying colors, the elves all fit the same mold of tall, willowy bodies and Western European features. But really, who says elves have to look like elongated Western Europeans? One of fantasy's great strengths is its accommodation for creative liberty, after all.
You might also be interested in:
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story
So You Wanna Mix Science And Magic?
Keeping Magic From Taking Over Your Story
Basic Tips To Write Better Chosen Ones
Tips 'n Stuff To Make Better Science Fiction/Fantasy Slang & Swear Words
Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
Creating & Writing Fantasy Armies - Things To Keep In Mind & Consider
Things Writers Get Wrong About Bladed Weapons
External Resource & References
Oldest Swords Found In Turkey
Top Myths of Renaissance Martial Arts
Hype... As Ancient An Art As Sword Making
Medieval Weapons For Beginners
Renaissance Warfare and Weapons - Siege Tactics
Medieval Weapons & Armour - Plate Armour
Top 10 Inventions of the Middle Age
Inventions of the Middle Ages
Who Burned The Witches?