World Building Tips Volume 1: Excerpt

 

STRUCTURE TIPS

 

1 TECH LEVEL

When creating a fictional world, it’s easy to target an era very generally. We think of knights and dragons, and call it “Middle Ages.” We think of gunslingers and cattle rustlers, and call it “American West.” Or we envision starships fighting and near-magical spiritual forces in play and call it “science fiction in a galaxy far, far away.” Then we start our design work and off we go–or do we?

The less we’ve defined the development level of our setting, the easier it is to unconsciously put in elements that don’t make sense for the era at hand. At the very least, this creates a setting where elements don’t work well together.
For instance, a Late Iron Age/Early Middle Ages type setting (500-1000 AD) will not have carracks (like Columbus sailed) voyaging across the sea to trade. That kind of ship came from the Late Middle Ages, and was beyond the construction capability of Early Middle Ages shipbuilders. It was also beyond the navigation skills of European sailors, who did not have the navigation tools for long cross-oceanic travels in the Early Middle Ages.

Yet it is very easy to mix up things from different eras–and different levels of tech development–in one setting. Other things not present in the Early Middle Ages include clocks, buttons, glass mirrors, distilled alcohol and spinning wheels. Introducing one or more of these items creates a ripple effect, changing how people live, work, and produce goods, that can seriously throw your world out of whack.

If there is a mix of late and early technology developments in a setting, you either have to bite the bullet and reconcile the implications of this coexistence, or go the alternative route: let things go unreconciled and live with anachronisms and mis-cues that can ruin your audience’s suspension of disbelief.

There is, though, one step you can take that greatly reduces this problem or avoids it entirely, and that is to plan the level of technology in your world before you begin your substantive design work.

TIP: When creating a world, first carefully define the technology level that is present. Do this for the world as a whole, or, if there are many diverse levels of development, focus on the setting where most of the story or adventure action takes place.

The term “technology level” first got a lot of traction in world building in 1977 when the science fiction rpg Traveller introduced the concept to define exactly how primitive or advanced the civilization on a given world might be. The principle holds true for any world building work, though when dealing with low-technology settings the word “technology” is used in its broadest possible sense.

It is always useful to have a good idea of what the level of technological development is in a setting. Do people live in the Stone Age? Bronze or Iron Ages? Is it an agrarian setting, or an industrial one? Does “industrial” mean home-based manufacturing, or does it mean factories? What have people created for tools and machines to assist in daily tasks? Questions like this are important to help pin down the state of development of your setting.

If your world is an analog of an Earth-based time and space, your task is much easier: do some research on the web, and especially look at the developments in a given period of time that interests you. In the American West, for instance, in 1868 it took 6 months to travel across the country, but in 1870 you could go from Omaha to San Francisco in 7 days. Why? Because the transcontinental railroad was completed by then, and rail travel altered everything from travel time to the nature of the cattle industry and where towns developed.

In the end, it is much more useful to know that you are developing, say, an alternate reality inspired by London in 1320 AD than just “someplace European in the Middle Ages.” And if you wish your setting to be even more original than that, then you must be meticulous about the tech level and its implications.

BONUS TIP: Take two pieces of paper. Label one “Has”, and the other “Has Not.” On the first sheet write down quick one-liners about tech features of your world (“plows used for farming; spinning wheels to make thread; river barges help inland trade; long-distance travel done by foot, horse, wagon or ship; coastal navigation dominates,not much far ocean travel,” etc etc). Do this to whatever level of detail you like.

On the “Has Not” page, line out the things your world lacks. Here you want to focus on things that could exist in this setting, but don’t , because they haven’t quite gotten there yet. (“No clocks, no navigation aids like compasses, no postal or courier services for regular message carrying over long distances,” etc etc) This is your “upper limit” of tech development and helps create a boundary for what you can do and have happen within the limits of this setting.

Between brainstorming and some research about what technologies existed in different Earth-eras, you’ll be able to create a setting that hangs together much better. Remember, the way people live is related to what they’ve developed–and what they haven’t.

Pictured: Replica of Columbus’ s carrack, the Santa Maria. (Source: Miguel Angel, 2007/Wikimedia Commons.)

Replica of the carrack Santa Maria by Miguel Angel 2007

 

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