Zumbs' Blog

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Commoners

Posted by Zumbs on December 8, 2013

Peasants, cobblers, smiths, masons, miners, butchers, bakers, fishermen, farmers, hunters, potters and many more were the commoners of the medieval world. Through their daily work the goods and services needed by medieval society were made. Their daily lives and outlooks are important parts of how a society works, and, consequently, a cornucopia of inspiration for adventures or simply backdrop to the action.

Most player characters will also come from a simple background, the life of the commoner will be their background as well. For inspiration, you may want to watch some of the historical documentaries by Terry Jones, notably the The Surprising History of Egypt, Rome and Sex are recommended.


It has been said that any society are three meals away from revolution. It certainly is true that before a group has secured its source of food, it can do little else than try to secure a source of food. Eating also has important cultural significance: People meet over a meal to build and maintain family relations, friendships or to negotiate deals. Often there are all sorts of rules that apply to the meal, e.g. the rules of hospitality.

How do they get their food?

Is it harvested from their own land? Purchased at the market place? In ancient Rome most commoners did not have a kitchen, so they purchased the food at restaurant and fast food bars on the street. This is likely to cause a lot of people being outside and on the streets at all times of the day. If, on the other hand, meals are cooked at home, streets are likely to be empty around dinnertime. Kitchens could also be communal in nature, so everyone in an area, e.g. a building block or a village, would meet and share a meal, while discussing the issues of the day, rumors, news or telling stories.

There could also be differences between cities and the countryside. Aside from the smaller population in walking distance, if you grow your own food, why sell it to someone just to buy it back?

What do they eat?

Do commoners subsist on porridge, or do they eat a more varied diet? What can one expect to find in a home or at the inn? How much do they eat? Is the fear of starvation real for a commoner? This can be used both as a backdrop and as a vehicle. Hungry people are likely to do anything for a meal, so they can be used as pawns by unscrupulous people, steal food, rob people with money, start a revolution or even eat corpses in desperation. Similarly, the fear of hunger can drive both individuals and groups to desperate acts. Mass starvation could also lead to mass migration, causing all sorts of political instability. If food comes from very few sources, there is also the real possibility that the source could dry out, e.g. due to sickness, over-usage, pollution or magic.


What sort of clothes do people wear? Cotton, linen, silk, fur or something different? Is it purchased at a shop or at a tailor? Usually, most cultures will make clothes that are suited to their climate and life style, however, it is also important to look spiffy to attract attention from the other gender as well as respect from others. Even if the culture is highly puritanical.

Clothes could be produced from local or imported produce, and raw materials could be both imported or exported, resulting in significant trade. Different color often had different prices in the real world depending on how the dye was produced. Tyrian purple was made from a secretion produced by certain snails, and was reported to being worth its weight in silver.


In ancient Egypt people slept on the roofs of their houses, looking up at the stars. With no street lights and little cloud cover, they must have studied the stars, making up and telling stories of the stars and the images they saw in them. Premodern homes were different from our modern homes, and it is one of the places where you must take care with your own misconceptions.

Homes are important to keep warm and safe, as well as living together as a family. What sort of home does a commoner have? Is it a house, a flat or a tent? The construction is also very important. In particular, what is in the house? As noted earlier, ancient Romans had no kitchens. How about lavatories? If people use a lavatory in the yard, you have chance witnesses to things happening in the yard or in the street. Bathing and cleanliness is also a consideration. Many cultures had public baths where everyone could go, negating the need for private baths. Such facilities are also a place where one can catch up on the latest gossip, scope attractive persons or get ready for an encounter. Lavatories and cleanliness also have direct effect on the general health and spread of disease.

Houses also have inventory, e.g. chairs, beds and closets. There may also be drapes and blankets for coziness, small alters for worship and various trinkets owned by the occupant(s), e.g. beautiful rocks or jewelery. The occupants may also have tools for their trade and various hobbies.

As visits to houses happen often, you may also consider the design principles of the culture. What is important to show to the visitor, and what is hidden? If it is important to show wealth, you have ample options for shame (of modest homes), jealousy, theft or competition.

The nature of visits can also be dependent on climate, so in cold climates visits will be indoors, where visits in warm climates may happen on a terrace. When designing the culture, it is a good idea to draw a few floor plans of common houses, so you can make up more on the go.

More spectacular layouts are also possible, e.g. in the ancient city of Çatal Höyük, there were no paths or streets between houses. The roofs of the houses effectively became the streets, and houses were entered by holes in the roof using a ladder.

Hopes and fears

Even in the most static of societies, there are those who reach above the station of their births. Alas, it is also possible to fall below the station of ones birth. Often there is a general dynamic in a given period in a society. During the Roman expansion, peasants were pushed off their land into poverty. The black plague caused severe labor shortage, resulting in better conditions for commoners (and women) until the population gap had been closed. Organized labor has significantly improved rights and living conditions of commoners in the 20th century.

From the view of the commoner, what are the chances of falling into poverty, and what are the chances of improving ones lot? And how does one go about it?

Falling into poverty is disturbingly easy. An accident could make a commoner a cripple, unable to work his or her profession, reducing the commoner to a beggar. A home and shop could be lost in a fire, causing the commoner to lose family, home, tools and savings. Peasants can be pushed off their land, anyone can start drinking too much. Consorting with the “wrong” type of people can cause the commoner to loose respect or business. Depending on the society, the result can be the life of a beggar, a slave or even worse, with different kinds of rights and options.

Commoners may try to get some insurance against these issues, e.g. by joining a guild or placing themselves under a powerful patron. Someone may play on anothers fear of sliding into poverty, and use this to get power to themselves. They may even go so far that they spread fear to make people more gullible, e.g. by sponsoring a crime wave or selling liquor on the cheap.

This also makes for a number of adventures or campaigns. Maybe a local monastery are hiring a group of bandits to harass or even murder families in an area that they covet. A friend could fall in with unsavory types, or end up owing a lot of money. Any organization of commoners is likely to generate resentment or downright hostility from the ruling elite, so they will try to break such an organization – or to corrupt its leaders.

It is also possible to better ones position. Through hard work and skill, one may be able to attract more business, make more money and maybe expand the shop. Bravery and loyalty may get the commoner on the good side of a lord or an influential businessman, which could lead to more trusted positions, titles or land. Someone rising could generate resentment from others who believe that this nouveau riche person is taking a post destined for someone born for that position, foiled their plot or are simply bad mannered and foul.


Every now and then even the commoner will have some time off to relax. During this time, the commoner can play a game. Boardgames like chess or nefatavl could be popular in winter or among the infirm. Sports are also likely to be popular. You may be tempted to look at the Olympics for sports, but they have a significant drawback: They are competitive spectator sports. While that certainly can be fun, team sports are also quite popular. Sometimes they can be quite violent as well, and the rules are not always well defined, as described here. Another related source of entertainment can be local competitions that are mostly there for fun, like sackraces, possibly with multiple people in the sack, e.g. parent and child or a young man and woman, or to show off prowess in cooking or agriculture. Such celebrations can be a wonderful way for players to get to know an area, and can be a part of an adventure, like We need to win the best shepherdess competition to get the magic mirror.

Another source if entertainment is to watch a play or go to the circus. Unlike today where plays and circuses often become quite sombre affairs, the spectators took a much more active part in plays in premodern times. If the play was bad, they could throw stuff onto the scene (or maybe even if it was good), and they could shout comments. Much fun could ensue if the actors would react humorously to the comments.

The troupes could be traveling from city to city, so they would be strangers. As the locals have not known the troupe for their entire lives, they would not be considered trustworthy, with all their traveling they may even be considered to be shifty, thieves and almost criminal. This would make targets for (youthful?) infatuations as well as scapegoats for all sorts of crimes. Some of them could also be criminal. They could also have a reason to take up life on the road, e.g. to escape a powerful enemy, a crime, debt or just to see the world. Indeed, the start of a campaign could be that the party decided to travel the world with a group of actors.


Depending on how magic works in your world, it will impact commoners in different ways.

If magic is something dangerous, practiced by secluded witches and wizards, commoners will tend to be afraid of magic and magic uses and try to protect themselves, e.g. by painting an Eye of Horus or similar. These protections can be more or less effective, or may have a root in something that was effective.

Magic could also be as common as any other tool. In this case commoners would tend to use magic themselves, e.g. to improve the quality of their goods. Commoners may also utilize body art, e.g. tattoos, to protect themselves from magic, or to improve their ability or something similar.

In both cases, the magical service may not work quite as the commoner is lead to believe. It could have side effects like being addictive, causing accidents, draining the user of life or will, or do something quite different.

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Shardowrun Returns by Harebrained Schemes

Posted by Zumbs on November 30, 2013

Shadowrun Returns LogoShadowrun Returns is a computer roleplaying game in the style of Arcanum, based on a pen and paper roleplaying game called Shadowrun. It was funded through a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign (36,000 backers, $1.8 million raised) and is available for Android, iOS, Linux, Mac and Windows, and sold on Steam, iTunes and Google Play. Harebrained Schemes has recently announced that they plan to make Shadowrun Returns available DRM-free, through gog.com.

All in all, I consider this a good game. I’m looking forward to the future campaigns and games from Harebrained Schemes.


I only actually played the Shadowrun RPG once, and it was back in the 90s, but I got to know enough to get the cliff notes on the world. Shadowrun is set in a dystopian future (2054 to be exact), where coporations have taken over from the nation states and pollution is rampant. Technology has advanced to the point where human beings can be enhanced by having technology (called cyberware) implanted, e.g. to get better eyesight, hidden weapons or more resistant to damage.

So far, it sounds a lot like your classical cyberpunk world, inspired by works like Neuromancer or Hardwired. But Shadowrun comes with a twist: A few generations ago, magic returned to the world. Imagine the surprise of regular parents when their children are born as elves and dwarves – or the horror of teenagers carrying orc or troll genes grew into … well … orcs and trolls! On top of this, there was the surprise of wizards and shamans alike that their ancient rituals suddenly had a tangible effect.

The player is intended to take the role of a shadowrunner, a mercenary hired by wealthy people and entities to take on missions of a shady character. The shadowrunner can have varying morals, but they typically live on the fringes of society, even if they make a lot of money.

You can find a lot more info on the world here.


The game comes with a single campaign – Dead Man’s Switch – but at time of writing Harebrained Schemes is working on a larger and more ambitious campaign, Dragonfall, situated in Berlin (sometimes also called the Berlin Campaign).

Shadowrun Returns location

The bubbles above some of the characters imply that they have something to say to you.

Dead Man’s Switch is set in Seattle (incidentally, the only Shadowrun PnP book I have, is the Seattle source book), where the player is contacted by Sam, a former shadowrunner ally that the player has not seen since a run went South. Sam is dead. Given his line of work, he assumed that he would end up dead, so he had a chip installed that would activate the message on his death. Sam wants the player to go to Seattle, find and punish the killer. The reward is 100,000 nuyen (a shit-load of money).

As the player investigates the murder, it becomes clear that the murder mystery is like the outer layer of an onion: Every time one issue is resolved, a new layer appears, adding a new mystery.

The campaign is well written, with many memorable characters and locations. In a similar vein, the player is given the option of some quite witty responses to NPCs. However, the campaign suffers from being very linear with locked doors used to herd the player in the “correct” direction.

It is also the game that controls when combat is entered and left as well as who can be attacked and who can’t be attacked. This reduces the freedom of the player. This is intended to minimize non-essential branches (making the campaign more robust), but it is a bit annoying at times.

At time of writing, it is also the game that controls saving: The player cannot manually save his or her progress. This is a bit annoying as there can be a half hour between save points. It should be noted that Harebrained Schemes is working on making a save game system where the player can save the game during missions. Even though we are used to all games having manual saving, it is not a trivial task to do well.


When you start a campaign in Shadowrun Returns, you also create a character. You can select name, gender, race and skills. Aside from the necessary nouns, gender has only aesthetic effects on the game. Race has little effect when you start out, but it sets a max on how good you can get at something, e.g. humans can get to 9 in everything, elves can go to 12 in Charisma, but trolls can only get 6.

Skills and stats are increased by expending Karma (rewards for doing quests). To increase a skill or stat by one point, you expend a number of Karma points equal to the next skill level. This means that as you get better, you need to spend more points.

One nice effect of this is that the first few skill levels are quite cheap, and, thus, you don’t have to worry so much about wasting a few skill points. For instance, I took a point in unarmed for my first character. Never used it. Better yet, it also means that you are actually encouraged to invest in supporting skills. Raising a skill from 9 to 10 costs 10 Karma, the same price as raising another skill from 0 to 4.

Followers and Combat

There are a lot of hard missions where you really, really need backup. Sometimes you will have friends, allies or people with similar interests who will follow you. Other times you will have to hire backup.

For the most part it works quite well. Combat is turn based, and when your side gets their turn, you control your main character as well as your followers.

There are some annoyances, though. One is that you cannot move equipment around between followers. The only time where you can give them equipment is just before going on a mission. And if you give them something, they do not give it back, even if it is not used.

Another issue is that you cannot use their skills to pass skill tests. So, your hired decker cannot hack into a computer system. You have to spend skill points to do that.

The game has resurrections called Doc Wagons, where dying characters can avoid dying. Your character can use them, your followers can use them, but they cannot use them on the player, which has failed me a few missions.

The enemies do not play to the hilt on the default difficulty. As I understand it, the AI will try to make the fullest of the NPC only if the difficulty is set to max. But be ware: Without the ability to save during missions, the likelihood of failure rises sharply with difficulty.

Art and Music

The art looks good. The view is isometric, similar to computer roleplaying games like Arcanum or Fallout, but with much more sophisticated engines and graphics. It is not top-of-the-line, but definitely good enough. And, to be blunt, once the graphics is of a decent level, Harebrained Studios really should move their focus to the story. I find the music quite good. You will be listening to it a lot while playing, so it really needs to be easy on the ears.

Editor and User Generated Content

Shadowrun Returns ships with an Editor that allows players to create their own stories and share them with others. I have not used the Editor much, but it seems quite easy for such a powerful tool.

If you press New Game followed by Find More Stories in the main menu of the game, it will open a browser with info on how you publish and find ContentPackages. User generated ContentPackages are sometimes called User Generated Content (UGC), story or mod, depending on which part of the community you are in.

shadowrun-returns-avatarThere are two major hubs for content packages: Steam workshop and the Nexus sites.

When it comes to Shadowrun Returns, Steam Workshop is by far the largest and most active. At time of writing, it has 234 files and it is my impression that it has x25 more downloads per file than Shadowrun Returns Nexus.

This is not surprising: Tablet users do not have access to mods, so Steam is the place where people get Shadowrun Returns (aside from some 35,000 backers). Furthermore, it is very easy to install content packages from Steam Workshop. Press the big, green Subscribe button, and the UGC will autoinstall and autoupdate. Steam Workshop is also integrated with the Editor, making it easy to create a content package and upload it to Steam Workshop.

However, Steam Workshop requires that you have purchased the game through Steam, so I suspect that if sales take off from gog.com, things will pick up at Nexus.

Nexus is a family of sites that grew out of the Elder Scrolls modding community. It is also quite easy to install mods from Nexus, but there are a few more steps:
1) Download the file.
2) Extract the contents of the downloaded file to \Shadowrun Returns\Shadowrun_Data\StreamingAssets\ContentPacks. For Steam games the install path will usually be something like C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common.
And … you are ready to start playing. For convenience, you can make a shortcut to the ContentPack folder.

I have played a number of UGCs, and they are generally of high quality. It is clear that the authors have put a lot of soul and work into their creations. As it is long and hard work, many of them are partitioned into chapters, where each chapter may be 1-2 hours of play. Alas, the authors do not always write that much of a description of their stories, so you don’t always know what you get. It also seems that some of the changes in the 1.1.0 patch broke some UCGs. Usually, that will be clear from the comments section.

It is fortunately easy to import characters from a saved game to a story, so you can easily play the same character through multiple stories. However, many stories are balanced to characters of a certain power, so you want a challenge, you should keep that in mind.

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Fantasy Worldbuilding: Religion

Posted by Zumbs on September 23, 2013

In the real world religion comes in so many different variates that it quite simply boggles the mind. Every little area has its own spirits, gods, myths and beliefs. And even the largest of religions will have its own dialects, large and small. In this post, I will use the word divine to refer to the god(s) and mythology of religions.

This post will focus on the effect of the divine on the world, and not so much on the mythology. For the mythology itself, I recommend reading up on real world religions that are similar to the religion you want to create. As with my other posts on fantasy worldbuilding, these thoughts are intended for roleplayers first and everyone else second.

Knowledge vs. Faith

Is the existence of the divine a known and verifiable fact, or is it based in faith? In the real world, there are no proofs for the existence of the divine. Thus, real world religion is based on faith, not knowledge.

Faith is the crucial strength of real world religion. Faith can help the individual to find strength in times of need, but it can also be used by religions organizations to manipulate the masses, e.g. into accepting that a ruler has a divine right to rule or that a certain group of people is the cause of the plague. Often this faith does not need to be logically consistent or even make sense. An example could be the Christian notion of Trinity, where God is one, but also three. In fact, this will often be the case, because if you can make someone believe something that contradicts itself, you can make them believe anything.

Most (if not all) real world religions hold to the notion that their religion was inspired by the divine, and that the divine wants us to act in a certain fashion. But even almighty gods do not tell humans how they want us to act. Instead they inspire a prophet to inform those around him, instead of letting all of us know in our hearts. Priests will tell you all sorts of reasons that their god does not work like that. Strangely, their explanations are similar to the ones you could expect to hear from someone trying to convince you into believing in a god that does not exist.

As religions are not based in knowledge, divine intervention is not required for religions to spawn, spread and evolve. Indeed, one could speculate as to how religions came about in the first place. Are they creations of humanity, or inspired by the divine? One could argue that for the faithful, the divine does exist, even if it is only inside their minds.

In a magical world, one could take the notion of religions created by humanity further. What if there was a magical power in faith and worship? That gods draw power from faith and worship, or even materialize into existence, created by worship? What if that god could only really interact with the faithful?

Good and Evil

The notion of good and evil is both interesting and complex. Not only is it likely to vary by religion and sect, it is also likely to take very different shapes.

In many polytheistic religions, gods are representations of the forces of nature. These are sometimes benign, e.g. Zeus sending good weather, at other times they can be a scourge, e.g. Zeus sending a hurricane. It is, however, important to note that the god is neither good nor evil; the god has benign aspects and harmful aspects. In such religions, the notions of good or evil are seldom important, as it is understood that gods and humans contain both. Worship is often used to try to get on the benign side of the god being worshiped.This is an important point as many of us come from monotheistic cultures, and have a tendency to divide our divine pantheons into good and evil gods.

On the flip side, the notion of good and evil are a central part of monotheistic and dualistic religions. There is one truth – the truth of God. Anyone following that are good, all others are evil. This gives the ability to define a foe, an adversary, who can be a powerful entity, group of entities or even a part of the population.

Divine intervention

When gods act directly in a fashion that changes the world, it is called divine intervention. Divine intervention can be more or less visible, but if gods act directly in your world, they are the main characters. Humans and, crucially, players are not really important. So you need some way of limiting direct divine intervention. Examples:

  • Divine intervention requires a lot of power.
  • Divine intervention requires physical presence, making the god vulnerable.
  • Gods really do not care what happens.
  • Gods don’t really exist.
  • Gods only act through mortals.

An alternative could be to go into the other extreme: Gods are behind everything, pulling the strings, like powerful rulers, playing an elaborate game of chess. A game with rules that could bar direct intervention, or allow it in some circumstances. Humanity would simply be the playthings of the gods, used for their pleasure. This idea is quite prominent in Homers stories and some of the Discworld novels.

Are they real?

The divine may or may not be real. The religions may or may not have got it right. And it may not be as clear cut as a yes/no reply. Truths, partial truths, misconceptions and outright lies can very well exist side by side in religious mythology. It really is up to the worldbuilder to decide. However, these choices can have a lot of consequences.

If the gods of the religions exist, they may want to intervene. Or they may actively push misconceptions and outright lies to further their own power. On the other hand, some more or less powerful entity could be manipulating the followers of said religion for its own end, or even claim to be the worshiped entity. Either way, the agenda of these entities will be important when shaping the world. On the one end of the spectrum, one could look at the very fallible and human gods in the Greek pantheon, on the other the inhumanly strange entities of H.P. Lovecraft. Gods may be so powerful that they neither notice nor care about worship or humanity.

Another interesting question is if these gods can die. And what happens to their power if this happens? Will it be up for grabs? Disappear? Come back at some later time, like Demeter or Jesus? Some worlds let mortals gain divinity, sometimes by taking a vacant spot.

Gods and Worship

The relationship between the gods and worship is also of some importance. What do the gods get from worship? Do they get anything? Or is worship merely the way that the religion keeps itself together?

In some worlds gods gain strength and power through worship. Does this power come from the sacrifice, time usage or even by draining the worshipers? Does it follow that worship created the gods, and not the other way around?

And what does the worshipers get in return for their worship and sacrifice? A bountiful harvest is a classic, but does it actually come true? After all, doing stuff like making the land more fertile is likely to take a lot of power. And if the god does not get the same power influx from somewhere, the god will drain its power over time. An alternative is to make such effects more subjective, e.g. that the peasants believe that they have been blessed and work better due to being more confident. Or the god could simply rain ails down on those that do not worship the god.

The relationship could also be symbolic. Worshiping a fertility god could be a symbolic action linked to respect for the land and cattle being worked on. The bountiful harvest follows from taking care to do sustainable agriculture.


In the real world, priests can get away with not being able to perform miracles. In a world where wizards can heal wounds or build castles, not being able to perform miracles will make it really difficult for priests to argue that their religion is true.

However, the powers of priests does not need to be divine in nature. Some alternatives are:

  • Priests are magic users
  • Priests are witches/shamans
  • Willpower can bend the fabric of reality
  • Humans in large numbers hold magical power that priests harness
  • Priests get their ability from some other source

The source of power does not need to be the same between religions, or even inside the same religion. There could be all sorts of power struggles and theological controversy between different branches over using different powers that may have different sources. Priests may also not know the actual source of their power, accepting on faith that it comes from the object of their worship.

Discovery of the actual source of this power could also be very controversial, sparking accusations of heresy and blasphemy, or even religious wars.

It should also be considered that faith in itself holds significant power. The placebo effect is well established in the real world, so a magical placebo effect could give some interesting dynamics. Indeed, sermons or blessings could have real, in-game effect on the receivers without actually being supernatural in nature.

Religious practices

All too often, worldbuilders use a lot of time describing things like gods, interactions between gods, creation myths and similar, but very little time considering the religious practices. But from the point of view of the population of your world, the mythology and theological arguments are of little consequence; they get their culture by ritualized interaction with the priests of the religion.

  • How often do the worshipers meet to worship?
  • How does this worship happen?
  • Where does it happen – in a dedicated temple or in the
    homes of the worshipers?

Often worship is communal, and its functions can include binding the worshipers together, enforcing social norms, introducing children to the religion and so on.

Many religions will have special holy days that are related to the mythology of that religion. Often these days will also be related to astrological events and carry significant symbolism, e.g. Christmas is placed just after the winter solstice, celebrating both the birth of Jesus and the rebirth of the Sun (and has become a consumerist orgy on top of that). Rituals for holy days may also differ from the regular worship in some way.

Another important question is the intensity of worship of the commoner. Is it expected to come to all sessions of worship? Or is it more common only to go to the special holy days, or not at all? How about religious taboos and shame?

And then there is the question of which ceremonies are carried out by the religions. Are rituals surrounding birth, marriage, or death controlled by the local religions or are they carried out by the relatives and friends? Today we may be used to the idea that they are religious, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that Christian priests became part of the wedding ceremony (and only much later that their attendance became required).

Indeed, the push to get all the important parts of life (and death) into the hands of a religious organization, is very much a sign of one dominant religious organization, e.g. the Christian church. And history shows us that these things are not as permanent as some may like; the push to change a certain custom could very well be a part of a campaign, possibly as a backdrop.

Religious Organizations

Most of us are used to religion and worship being organized. However, this is not necessarily so. Worship could also be carried out by the leader of the household, town or country.

Assuming a religious organization, there can be some head organization for a given religion with one or more sub-organizations with a relationship that can range from close to distanced. Usually, the main organization will require sub-organizations to mirror the basic truths of the main organization, but can give some leniency to different ideas.

Priests are the people met by the common worshipers at temples. They carry out the day-to-day affairs, live in the communities. Being a priest may impose restrictions on what lifestyle a priest can live, even though the real restrictions often are more dependent on the income of the priest.

Some religions also have people who seclude themselves to dedicate their lives to the worship of their chosen deity or philosophy. These people are often called monks or nuns, depending on gender, and can have all sorts of limits on their life style. They may or may not honor those limitations, and it may be more or less acceptable that they do.

Theology and Practice

Many religions have rules that the adherents have to live up to. However, over time some of these rules can be modified, bent or even broken into something entirely different. This may spark anger or resentment among the pious who could break out and make a new order or even start a new sect.

One example could be the Jewish/Christian commandment of Thou shalt not kill. It sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it? However, if a powerful baron was not allowed to kill, how could he take the land of his neighbor? How could a king wage war on another country? Or a judge convict someone to death? So, the rules were bent and broken into something else with all sorts of exceptions. Most of which were likely already intended by the original authors of said commandments.

When the Normans invaded Britain, the commandment was understood to be literal: Any killing was a sin and would cause the murderer to go to Hell. There were, however, a loop hole: If the killer prayed for 40 days, the killing would be forgiven in the eyes of God. For the generals this could be quite a long time, so instead they hired monks to do the praying for them.

Indeed, this sort of divine forgiveness became a large industry that made the monks very, very wealthy, causing monks to bend the rules of their orders until they were unrecognizable and the monks could live very lavish lives. Sometimes monks even resorted to thievery, robbery and even murder in order to get what they wanted. This made monks both hated and ridiculed by many contemporaries, as some of the early ballads of Robin Hood show.

Naturally, some monks got fed up with this lack of piousness and went off to found their own monasteries, only to discover that the more pious the order, the more sponsorships would they get from people terrified of an eternity of torture. And with more money coming in, they would attract the type of people that tried to bend the rules.

Relationship with rulers

Like any other organization wielding power, religious organizations will attract people who will try to grab more power, both for themselves and for their organization. It follows that religious organizations will have agendas that do not necessarily have anything to do with their religion. They may even be incompatible with the tenants of the religion itself.

When building or expanding a power base, the religious organization will need to interact with the rulers of the society they live in.

The rulers can provide protection, advantages in law or taxation, even integrate the religious organization into the public life or state, e.g. by letting the religious organization handle marriages, births (and, thereby, population records) and coronations.

The religious organizations can give the rulers legitimacy or even divinity, by claiming that the organization of society has divine backing (or inspiration), and that the rulers are appointed (or sired) by the gods themselves. In a magical world, priests may be able to provide more tangible benefits to rulers, e.g. alternatives to wizards as a source of spell casters, supernatural equipment, and better morale.

The political power wielded by the religious organizations can be used to push for some of the tenants of the religion. Some of the most ruthless power grabbing priests can very well also be religious zealots, telling themselves that their power grabbing is not to satisfy their own lust for power, but in service of the divine. They may believe it. Naturally, a priest may also just act the part of a zealot in order to further his or her grab for power.

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Fantasy Worldbuilding: Magic

Posted by Zumbs on August 24, 2013

Magic is one of the great difficulties to handle when building a consistent fantasy world. Why? Well, because it is the one thing that does not exist in our world. Pretty much everything else have real world equivalents.

Fantasy worlds are often inspired by our own world, and it is possible (though sometimes challenging) to find a lot of information on different societies in different time periods with different levels of technology. To some extent, the different humanoid races can be viewed as different human cultures, and monsters as bandits, hungry predators or even natural disasters.

Magic, however, has a profound influence on how a world works. As a world builder, it is necessary to consider how magic works as well as the consequences of these choices. The most basic question is where magic comes from. However, in terms of building a world, the following must also be considered:

  1. How powerful is magic in terms of what it can and can’t do?
  2. How easy is it to learn and use?
  3. How safe is it to use?

These questions are crucial, and the following sections will try to give some ideas on how the repercussions of the answers to those questions can be found.

One very interesting notion is that in a magical world, magic can be everywhere, in everything, in particular if its real world counterpart can seem magical, strange or eerie. It could be music, creatures, faith, tools, spirits or whatever.

Easy and safe

Imagine a world where magic is both easy and safe to learn. Assume it is possible to heal wounds and diseases by whispering a few words and doing a hand gesture. If it is easy to learn, healers will not take the time to learn how to get the body to heal naturally; they are going to use magical healing instead. If the afflicted person survives until the healer can get to the scene, disease and wounds will be little more than an annoyance. And healers are likely to be nearby as it is so easy to learn magic.

This world will have no need to know anything about anatomy or disease, and these sciences will be the province of the curious. One could require a certain anatomical knowledge to be able to use magic for healing, making it somewhat more difficult, however, healing would be nigh instantaneous, not the long drawn-out process of natural healing.

If is possible to shape rock and stone with relative ease, the need for common laborers will also decrease, and much of the technology to get buildings into place will simply not be needed. Knowledge and understanding of geometry and architecture is still going to be needed, unless magic is being applied to keep the structure standing.

In such a world, magic ability is likely to be as common as being able to hammer a nail into a plank. Even if magic were jealously guarded, all it would take is a single person to let the genie out of the bottle. It would happen eventually.

Magic is similar to technology, so one could liken common usage of magic as having modern (or even future) technology in a much less technologically developed society. What sort of an impact would it have on the everyday life in this world?

Hard and dangerous

If magic is hard to learn and dangerous to use, it is much more likely to be the province of secluded mystics. Secluded because magic is dangerous. Usage of magic may also come with a hefty personal cost in terms of (in)sanity, biological transformations or expensive equipment. One could take a look at Lovecraftian horror and Conan stories for inspiration.


The central focus of any society is how it produces the goods needed to maintain and expand its current population and wealth. Humans (and likely whatever other intelligent creatures that exist in your world) are very adept at using whatever they have handy to improve their own situation. Naturally, that will also apply to magic and production.


Many fantasy worlds are situated in feudal middle ages or earlier. In that time period everything was centered around land and agriculture. Power and wealth grew out of cultivated land. Cultivation caused land to degenerate; bad weather or crop/cattle disease could cause the harvest to fail. Magic could be used to ensure good weather or stop the spread of disease. Or to cause bad weather and spread of disease on a competitor. In both cases, a class of highly specialized magic users could be trained to manipulate the climate. These magic users could be tightly coupled with the nobility, with a religious organization or even an autonomous group of great power.

Even if it is extremely difficult or borderline impossible to control the climate, someone would try to figure out a way to use magic to improve agriculture, simply because agriculture is so important. So, if magic is not used to improve agriculture, the worldbuilder should consider why. Who tried? Why did it fail? Did it have nasty side effects that caused natural disasters or war?

Industry and Construction

In most societies industry and construction play a significant role. As the society becomes more advanced, the focus shifts from agriculture to industry. The usage of magic in industry and construction can have profound influence on how a world works. If a handful of wizards can construct a castle just as fast as 1000 laborers, why not use the wizards? If wizards are able to transport large quantities of goods or people almost instantaneous, why go through the dangers of the high roads? Would large roads even be needed, or would they be replaced by a network of portals?


As noted earlier, magic can have profound influence on health care in a fantasy world. If magic is not as easy and safe as considered above, magic will most likely only be used to aid the rich and powerful. But even then the effect is profound: The rich and powerful will not succumb to plagues and the effect of poisons and war are likely not as devastating to the ruling class.

As the rich are safe, it could even mean that research into natural healing would suffer, causing regular people to have an even worse health in the magical fantasy world.

Politics and Trade

The ability to read someones mind or even some basic empathic ability to read their state of mind give an extreme advantage during any negotiation. Knowing if someone is telling the truth, how much they will concede or reading their deepest secrets can be used by a magic user to gain tremendous political power. As such, a magic user could be used by a ruler or another powerful person to increase their power and/or to protect them against similar use by rivals.

However, why would the magic user want to be wielded? Why not do the wielding, becoming the real power, possibly behind the throne? If knowing this type of magic is the only way to protect one self, rulers would need to know this kind of magic or become pawns themselves.

The sections below give some ideas on how magic can influence a world, but each magical ability should be taken under consideration. How can this be used? What sort of advantages would this give someone? How can it be used with other powers?


In some stories magic users are primarily seers, that is, they are able to see things that regular people cannot. This could be things that are hidden, someones personality, feelings or thoughts. Or even possible futures of some person or group. This would allow them to apply a little pressure at specific points in time to create the future they want. Using magic to directly changing the world could be very taxing, e.g. like Merlin in Excalibur (1981) or Asimov’s End of Eternity.


It should be clear that any ruler should consider magic and magic users potential security risks that must be addressed. Even if the ruler is a magic user. However, if rivals use magic the ruler will need magic for defensive or offensive purposes. If the ruler is the only one with magic users, the ruler has a clear advantage, that should be pressed.

Magic users are potentially dangerous, so rulers may want to enact laws to control magic users. This could be compulsory registration of magic users or even internment of magic users for use in the service of the government. This could have all sorts of (unintended) effects, e.g. if the interned magic users are grouped in one organization, said organization would become very powerful, and is likely to try to grab power at some point. Rulers could also order brain wash or even brain surgery on magic users, causing them to lose any notion of self, becoming human appliances. Nasty, but maybe effective.

Rulers may also construct a special police force to deal with magic users who are criminal or a danger to their rule. There will most likely be laws to deal with usage of magic to do crime. The punishments could be minded on stopping the magic user from performing magic, similar to the maiming punishments committed in medieval societies against thieves or poachers.

Use of magic to get evidence for a trial should also be considered. Is it admissible? And to what extent? If magic can be used to read thoughts, it would be pretty definitive to judge guilt. If the magic user can be trusted and it is impossible to doctor memories, that is. An alternative is to use magic as an aid during an investigation. There could also be all sorts of regulations, e.g. to protect the privacy of the citizens. But remember: Most rulers will have their continued rule as their central motivation, and are likely to only give those rights to their subjects that said subjects push the rulers to give.


If a wizard could destroy an army, wars will be fought between wizards. The role of armies will not be to invade or to defend against invaders, but to keep the population subjugated. If walls can be destroyed by a wizard, walls would be unusable to protect against an invading force. They could be used against bandits, to control trade and population.

Even if magic is not powerful enough to do that, it should still play a significant role in war, e.g. by smuggling a little elite force into the draw bridge control tower at a crucial moment, fast communication in the field (can it be intercepted?), gathering intelligence (magic user in bird form) or something similar. Countermeasures are needed. Defensive magic need to be considered as well.

There could also be international agreements on how magic can be used in war.

Overland spells

Overland spells are those powerful spells that change the face of the world. This could be an earthquake that cause a large city to collapse or an island to be eaten by the sea. Changing of weather patterns could be in a similar category. Magic users able to do such tricks are extremely powerful, and likely to be considered extremely dangerous, possibly even divine. Comparable to nuclear weapons in the medieval era: Likely to be used only as long as the other side does not have one.

Anti-wizard sentiment

Given the power of a wizard, it is very likely that some wizards will end up in a very bad light. Not to mention that the public will consider wizards dangerous. Rulers may even try to blame bad events on wizards, sparking anti-wizard sentiments and even outright attacks. Their practical ability to follow through depend a lot on alternatives to magic, as well as the ability to use non-magic users to combat magic users. In general, the view of the public on magic users hinge partially on the history and what magic users are capable of. But only partially: Jews were persecuted in Europe for a long time even though they didn’t do anything.


It should also be considered how religion views magic and magic users and why. They may think that magic defiles the perfection of creation and should be banned, that magic is a religious miracle and should be limited to priests, or something else entirely. Different religions and priests may very well hold different views.


In the real world, music is a powerful means of expressing feelings, spreading stories and even to manipulate the mental state of the listener. In a magical world, music could be magical as well. Skilled minstrels could use music to manipulate the masses, be that to support or overthrow the ruler, spread lies or uncomfortable truths.

Magical resources

Similar to iron or oil in our world, a magical world could have magical resources that can be extracted or produced in some fashion. There could be a tremendous profit involved in extracting, selling and using these resources, not to mention environmental destruction and slave labor. Similar to our own world, these resources would become a matter of contention between the powerful. Wars are likely to be started over them. These resources could even be necessary for the magic user as well, causing addiction or other nasty side effects, e.g. like melange in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Magic itself could be an exhaustible resource, only regenerating itself slowly.


Most fantasy is set in the preindustrial era. However, you may want to make a magical world in the industrial era, with an industrial atmosphere, like e.g. steampunk. There are a number of interesting options for magic in the industrial era. One is to have magic and technology be two distinctly different world views that are at odds with one another. After all, magic is about breaking the laws of nature, and technology is about exploiting the laws of nature, so mixing the two could be a recipe for disaster. This is explored in the computer RPG Arcanum. A profoundly different approach is to apply the scientific method to magic, measure it, make inventions based on magic, like in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. In such a world, magic and technology are intermixed in a powerful synthesis.

Specialization and Tools

Smiths make hammers and chisels that are used by masons. A mason does not need to know how to make hammers and chisels, only how to use them. Similarly, smiths do not need to know how to use hammers and chisels, only how to make them. This encourages specialization which increases the quality of work as well as the productivity of the workforce.

In a magical world, the person that makes the magical tools may not be the person that uses them. It may call for different skill sets. The user may not even know anything about magic. The classic examples are weapons, armor or items that allow the user to do wondrous things.

However, why not use magical items for more mundane tasks? One argument against could be the cost. If a 10% increase in productivity costs 20% of production the cost is not worth it (unless there is a time limit involved). Still, with determination, one might be able to lower the costs to such a degree that it is worth it.


Some items may be easy to enchant – some may even have magical properties of their own. A plant may be able to stop bleeding, a metal may become nigh indestructible after being tempered and a crystal may be able to receive and transmit sound. Skilled craftsmen may be able to expose and manipulate these properties, or they may require the help of magic users.

However, if such items can be constructed, they will have a profound influence on your world, unless they are rare, e.g. difficult or expensive to construct.

Magical items can also come at a high cost for the magician. Maybe the magician must sacrifice some of his or her own life force in order to make a magical item. It could also be very, very difficult to learn how, or just plain time-consuming.

But as noted earlier, some materials may have magical properties. Mixing iron with carbon creates steel, a very strong and durable alloy. For the smiths and alchemists at the time, it must have seemed like carbon had magical properties.

The Magic Shoppe

If magical materials and enchanted items exist, someone will consider buying and selling them. The easier these items are to produce, the more common such shops will be. If it is extremely easy, these things may be available at regular merchants.

World history

Whenever magic became available, people will have been using it to further their own agendas. For this reason alone, magic is likely to have had a profound influence on the history of your world. However, the influence does not have to be from direct use alone.
Like earthquakes, volcano eruptions, floods, hurricanes or even asteroid impacts can suddenly turn the tide of events, magic can play a similar role. Think of magical storms causing sudden leaps of evolution or some other wondrous/strange/nasty effect.
The power of magic could ebb and flow wreaking havoc on the status quo. It could even appear and disappear due to some strange alignment (like in Shadowrun).
Given the existence of magic, there is also likely to have been natural selection due to magical properties of the world, e.g. affinity for magic, resistance to magic or natural magical abilities. Some creatures may even have developed the ability to sense magic being used.


In a magical world, there is bound to be a lot of research into magic. How does it work? How can it be manipulated? How can it be used? Can it be made easier? Time spent trying to make better technology would be used trying to make magical technology, relying on the magical properties of the world.

In the early periods, magic could be difficult and dangerous, limited to the selected few, who could do marvelous things. But as time progresses, it could become easier and safer. Items that allow commoners to use the magical effects could become available for purchase and even mass production. As they would require magical resources that are not readily available, this could lead to all sorts of nasty competition to get those resources.

The inventions may need some source of power, e.g. life force or even magic currents drained from the world. Similar to the fossilized fuels of our modern world, one could consider fossilized magic that could be dug out of the land, with their own environmental issues. The real world can be quite inspirational!

Due to research into magic, the usage of magic will likely change as your world ages, as noted earlier. You may want to consider how this can happen in your world, what type of expression it can take. One option is to add abilities that entrepreneurial elements (e.g. players) can use to affect the infrastructure or production of your world. If they do not figure it out, you can always let an NPC do it. Or maybe have a race to modify the ability to be truly convenient.

Research into magic could also be used to construct adventures for magic users. You could create a theory of how magic works that is actually wrong, giving the players clues to that effect, leading to new discoveries as secrets are pried from the hands of the Universe.

How and why does magic work?

There are many types of magic in literature. Some examples are:

  • A magical resource (melange in Dune)
  • Alchemy
  • Celestial bodies
  • Divine intervention
  • Life force of the magic user
  • Life force of the world(Dark Sun), possibly created by all living things (Star Wars)
  • Manipulation of spirits (shamanism)
  • Mind over matter
  • Pacts with demons or other powerful entities (witchcraft)
  • Soul force or Mana of the magic user (very common in RPGs)
  • Speaking words of power (Wizard of Earthsea)

Often the different types of magic are mixed. Some magic effects can be gained by speaking a few words or making a gesture, whereas others require complex rituals or particular objects. Use of magic can also change the magic user physically, e.g. in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where eyes turn black while casting magic. Some of these effects can be permanent and cause magic users to be easily distinguished.

The specifics may also have other effects, like the long/short-term effects of using magic. Is it like radiation, that cause people to die slowly? Does it extract a price from the magic user? Some effects may be due to using magic the wrong way, e.g. an assumption that you must drink a little vial of poison before casting magic, that really isn’t necessary, or a vow of celibacy. Often the world builder will start with limitations, and will need to find explanations for it.

Education of magic users

How much can a magic user do after 3, 5 or 7 years of training? What sort of support skills are needed (language to read musty tomes, anatomical knowledge to heal, geometry to build etc)? Where and how is this training administered? What sort of facilities are needed to teach magic? In essence, it is a reflection of how easy magic is to learn and how powerful it is.

There can be some limits as to who is able to learn and use magic. This could be a matter of:

  • Coincidence, like being born under a certain celestial sign.
  • Genetic trait, such as faint traces of elven or even dragon ancestry. In this case, the ability may come “naturally”.
  • A particular mind-set.
  • Continual drug use, like the spice in Dune.
  • Or something else entirely.

One could also let everyone learn magic, but some simply has better talent or flair for it. There could also be a rite of passage or graduation, where the student becomes the master.

If this world is to be used as an RPG world, the role of the player magic user must be considered. Magic must be useful for a newly created character. The character may not be very powerful, but should be able to do something. It is also important to have some sense of progression; that the character is getting better. On the other hand, the magic user needs to be balanced with other character choices. If not, everyone will want to be a magic user. An alternative is to simply bar players from being magic users.


There are many, many different rule systems to handle magic. Depending on your choices on how magic should work, you may want to create your own. Most RPGs require the character to learn a spell before it can be used, even though some also allow characters to create their own.

In the early days of RPGs, the magic user memorized a number of spells (the number depended on the level of the magic user), and once cast, the spell had to be memorized again, but only after a nights sleep.

One reason for this system was to limit the amount of spell use, enforcing some sort of balancing. However, the system were very restraining, and gave way to the usage of a Mana system, where each spell cost some amount of Mana to cast.

Many Mana systems also require some sort of skill check to cast a spell, or change the Mana cost depending on skill; others view each spell as a skill. A middle way between these options would be to partition spells into a number of groups, e.g. fire magic, where each magic skill allowed casting of spells inside that group.


Deciding on how magic works is no easy task if a consistent world is the goal. It is my hope that I have sketched some of the issues, and given you something to help you figure out how you want magic to work in your world. Hopefully, you will anticipate the consequences before your players. Thanks for reading!

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Cleaning scanned pencil drawings

Posted by Zumbs on March 28, 2013

Like many other role-players, I habitually draw illustrations for my games. As a player it could be an atmospheric drawing of my character, the party or some situation. As game master it could be a map, an illustration of a location, a symbol or something else entirely.

These illustrations can be scanned and used for a variety of purposes. However, when looking at the scanned drawing, it soon becomes clear that there are all sorts of artifacts on the image, not put there by your pencil. This could be due to the texture of the paper, using an eraser or even coffee-stains gained by the rigors of play.

Cleaning the drawing up by hand is a long and tedious process, so some way of automating it would be very useful. Fortunately, sophisticated image processing programs are able to automate some of the work and assist in the rest.

In this post, I will be using the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) as it can do the job, is free and available on multiple platforms. If you do not already have it, please download and install it for your platform. GIMP 2.8.2 is used in this post, but I’m sure the same functionality will be available in later versions of GIMP.

The image below is comprised of three images, a part of a map, a drawing and some text to illustrate how to clean up. The image is black and white, but the technique discussed below can be used on color drawings as well.


It should be noted that the drawing contains a lot of dirt from eraser usage in the text portion. This will result in manual work later, however, if your drawings do not contain all that dirt, the technique shown below will be both easier and the result better.

After opening the image in GIMP, select the Colors drop-down from the toolbar. The tools we will be using in this tutorial can be accessed by selecting the Levels… and Curves… items.


Start by opening the curves tool. This results in a window popping up:


The colored graph to the right shows the dirt in the image. If you grab the curve with the mouse cursor and move the cursor to the bottom right corner, you will note that the image turns very dark, with the paper texture painfully obvious, as seen below:


Press Cancel to close the curves dialog. Select the levels tool from the Color menu:


Again, you see a graph that shows the dirt in the image. With the levels, you can remove most of the dirt by moving the white slider at the top to the left of the dirt. Note that if is moved too far to the left, you may loose important details.

The tool changes the color level so that you can redefine where white should be. All colors to the right of the white marker are treated as white, and all colors to the left are made brighter. The point is that much of the scanning artifacts are very bright, i.e. close to being white, so by redefining where white is, you can make them go away.

Press OK to accept, and open the curves tool again.

Like before, grab the curve and pull it to the bottom right. The lines and pencil strokes become very dark, but the paper texture has disappeared. In fact, you can now see the remaining artifacts clearly as shown below:


These are few and can be removed by hand. Also note that you can manipulate the darkness of the image to your own preference. If the drawing is a map, you may want to make the lines as clear as possible, so it should be dark. On the other hand, if it is a drawing, you may want to keep as many of the gray tones as possible.

If you want to remove the remaining noise from the not-so-dark image, you can add the dark image as a separate layer and use this layer to decide where to use the eraser. There are numerous tutorials on layer manipulation in GIMP out there, awaiting to be perused at your leisure, if you want to investigate that avenue.

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