What makes the Princess Bride hold up so well?

Princess bride

My favourite quote.

I am ashamed to admit this, but I have never read the Princess Bride.

Perhaps it is because I love the movie so much. Just last night, after our monthly Shadowrun Game, we were searching for something to watch. In our household this leads a protracted debate over the enormous smorgasbord of options, which I tend to stay out of. I am by far the least versed in movies and television in the house so I don’t mind letting others choose, with the exception of a few favorites. Besides I will just go off and play a computer game or do some writing if they choose something I am not interested in.

This week, however, The Princess Bride popped up. By then the discussion had been raging for fifteen minutes, and I was already creeping toward my laptop, eager to try the two League of Legends characters that I had just acquired that day (Braum and Yorick, if you know League). This is somewhat ironic given how the book begins.

Nostalgia held me to my seat on the couch. I was initially curious to see how a classic that I had watched so often held up now that Fantasy had hit the a-list. Needless to say I watched the whole damned movie, eagerly, enjoying it greatly. However, for the sake of argument, let’s start with the bad.

The Bad

  • The rodents: Let’s be honest, the giant rats in the fire swamps never really looked good compared to the rest of the movie. Now they just look dated and somewhat awful, like Wesley is wrestling with a particularly hoary blanket. I’d love to see a version with these replaced.
  • The real world intro scene: While it is still topical, the intro scene with Fred Savage and Peter Falk just feels a little awkward to me now. Maybe it is the 80’s decor or perhaps I just feel that modern audiences are familiar enough with Fantasy that they don’t need that kind of trope. It feels a little rushed as well. Grandfathers tend to be less hurried in my experience. I’m not sure how to fix this considering how integral it becomes to the movie.
  • Passive Buttercup: Modern audiences demand more from female characters. Buttercup is just too passive for my tastes. I liked the bit where she jumps out of the boat early on, but that seems to be the only active thing that she does. She just stands there while Wesley wrestles with an enormous Rat, only picking up a log to defend herself (poorly) when it gets close to her. Given that this is her true love being mauled I would have preferred to see her woman up, overcome her fear, and smash some skull. I mean seriously, Buttercup used to be a farmgirl in this world…

The Good

  • A love of intelligence: The Movie overflows with wit, even the “lowlife” characters are always armed with a ready quip. I find that modern fantasy often focuses on dark and vulgar humour, which is fine, but I sometimes miss the wit that comes with a lighter style. In The Princess Bride, even the “dumb giant” make jokes and laughs, trying to quip wise. Intelligence also plays a role within the movies conflicts with prince Humperdink’s Machiavellian plan for war and Vezzini’s famed poison game with the Drad Pirate Roberts. I also love that intelligence is not portrayed as odd or somehow warping. If anything Geek Chic has fallen for the view that smart people are somehow always odd and socially awkward, which I find really aggravating.
  • Great acting: The casting choices for The Princess Bride are peerless. The main cast are all able to switch back and forth between quipping wise and acting with resolute seriousness when necessary. Andre the Giant, in particular was a surprisingly awesome Fezzik, suitably majestic every time to see his enormous hands and yet strangely lovable at the same time. You rarely see that in big men in fantasy movies these days. These performances lend depth to the movies in a way that the Hobbit often lacks (so far) in everyone but the main characters.
  • Colourful Palette: The Princess Bride belongs more to the pastoral than to the gritty style that currently dominates Fantasy. Bright colours, bright costumes, and bold scenery combine well with the larger than life personalities of the characters. While costuming had certainly advanced, I find the colours of the old pastoral movies evoke a sense of wonder that is often lacking in modern fantasy. People tend to remember the bright colours of nature and the flashes of the storm more than the shades of grey on a cloudy day or the vagaries of muck for a reason.
  • Darkness when it is called for: While it is bright and witty most of the time, The Princess Bride does have dark moments. Wesley’s torture, Inigo’s difficulties in confronting the six fingered man, and Buttercup’s misery after she hear’s of Wesley’s death are all deep emotional lows. Even knowing that everything turns out in the end, I did not ever feel that the characters escaped unscathed or untested, which is the oft cited flaw in pastoral works.

In the end, I think with a few minor touch-ups the movie would appeal even to people who aren’t looking at it from a nostalgic perspective. It is quite striking that this movie holds up so well in an age where we can conjure up giants, dragons, and massive armies with electronic wizardry. I guess that charm and wonder are a different, more difficult form of magic.

Advertisements

Classic Villains: Jack the Ripper.

A Political Cartoon about the Ripper, circa 1888

A Political Cartoon about the Ripper, circa 1888

I am not a huge fan of fantasy murder mysteries, unless the murder works alongside/into a larger plot. I feel that this is because much of the focus of more modern mysteries is on the procedure and police-work, which would not work well with medieval notions of justice. Part of the true brilliance of Game of Thrones is in how a certain Stark follows a path very similar to the modern police/rational detective stories but is violently derailed by the notions of medieval justice and a very medieval crime; it is Mr Martins way of driving home, very effectively, that modern notions of justice, fairness, and law do not apply in his world.

Meanwhile it is hard to find a killer that holds up well to the scale of fantasy, or the magic. What are mere criminals compared to the likes of Smaug, Elric, The Bloody Nine, Conan, or Arya Stark? Only a few killers seem worthy of a fantasy stage, which usually deals with a grander scale and more spectacular action scenes.

One real world killer who fits the bill is Jack the Ripper who holds still inspires a macabre fascination, even over a hundred twenty years after his crimes. Just today I was shown an article about how they finally, potentially, sort of, may have “solved” the mystery with DNA evidence (link). The Ripper murders make for very compelling modern fantasy fare, and the Ripper himself would make an excellent villain in a fantasy novel with little allowance. Here are a few reasons why:

1) The Ripper is Bloody: Modern fantasy tends to be fairly violent, and the Ripper murders fit right in with this trend. Grisly evisceration, performed with surgical precision in some cases, was the hallmark of the Ripper. The Ripper was, above all, brutal, which makes for a good villain in any genre.

2) The Ripper preyed on Prostitutes: Modern fantasy, at times, seems obsessed with prostitutes, particularly those who work the streets and who lead troubled lives. As a villain you could do far worse a person who preys upon unfortunate women who are forced to sell themselves to survive. The connection between poverty and street prostitution is pretty clear, and a villain who preys on the poor hits home in days of growing inequality. Score that for the Ripper as a good villain.

  • Interestingly enough the cartoon that I included at the beginning of this post comes from a period piece trying how Jack the Ripper was symbolic of the “social neglect” problems surrounding places like Whitechapel. Some feel the Ripper murders helped galvanize support for early social justice movements. They certainly shone a light on the seedy underbelly of they city.

3) The Supernatural Element: The Ripper was never caught, and over time, his abilities and prowess became exaggerated to the point that supernatural traits and great skill were attributed to the killer. Partly this is because forensics at the time were still iffy — many of the coroners and investigators could not agree on the man’s surgical skills or which victims were his. The list of suspects was also enormous, all with varied skills and reason. Eventually all of this got packed in and blended into a legendary character who grew larger than life. A legendary murderer makes for an excellent fantasy villain, one that may require epic means to track down and confront.

4) The Taunting Letters: A letter, with part of a Kidney was sent to the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The letter is often assumed to be a hoax in modern times, but became a canonical part of the Ripper’s character. Taunting the police is a frequent trope in serial killer stories, and certainly would not go amiss in in a fantasy novel. However, it would be much better to add an interesting twist, such as a duel of wits a la Moriarty, or perhaps something magical like a necromantic Ripper animating his victims and sending them to carry the letters to the watch (I may do this for my next Shadow Wolf saga).

5) The Missing Organs: Several of the Ripper’s victims were missing organs. At the time this fact led to both scientific theories, and occult theories. The occult view lends itself well to Fantasy. What if the Ripper is a powerful sorcerer out harvesting ingredients for a particularly nasty spell?

6) Politics: Several of the Ripper theories have taken the view that the murderer was never caught because of his political connections. Some even point to a Royal connection. This is perfect fodder for a Fantasy villain, of course. Imagine, the Queen’s son, a Necromancer, stalking the downtrodden, with royal agents covering his tracks to prevent embarrassment…

The Ripper character fits so well as a modern fantasy villain that I am surprised that he is not mined for inspiration for more often. Of course it may also be that mainstream fantasy is currently dominated by books where the hero is essentially a Jack the Ripper type, a cloaked figure with strange powers who kills with impunity from the shadows.

Classic Characters: Roland, the original Paladin

Roland's last, defiant act.

Roland’s last, defiant act.

Roncevaux n many ways the Frankish king, Charlemagne was the King Arthur of the continent. He was a real historical figure, a man of great accomplishments, both military and civic. Those can wait for another day, however, since for discussions about the Frankish hero, Roland, the body of legend that surrounded king Charlemagne is more important. In these legends Charlemagne is a figure of surpassing benevolance, the king who saves all of Christendom from the Saracens, and establishes a shining perfect court that is every bit as impressive as Camelot. Roland is one of the figures who spring from from this legendary court, immortalized in his own epic cycle, the Song of Roland.

The Song of Roland is loosely based on  Battle of Roncevaux (778). Very loosely. In the real world it was a battle between two Christian forces, in the mythic version it is a grand conflict between Christian and Muslim. The Mythic version is far more interesting, especially to Fantasy enthusiasts. Here is a basic outline of the Song of Roland.

  • Roland is a mighty, fearless warrior, one of the twelve peers of Charlemagne. Interesting side trivia, the term Paladin originally refers to these exemplary knights (first as companions of Roland, then Charlemagne), but comes from a later work than the Song of Roland itself.
  • Roland has a great horn, called the Olifant, and an unbreakable sword called Durendal. Both of these names crop up in fantasy fiction. In Michael Moorcock’s work Elric seeks out the horn to signal the end of his age, IIRC.
  • Roland also has a treacherous stepfather, Ganelon.
  • When Roland nominates Ganelon to bring an important message to the Muslim King of Spain, Marsiles, seeking peace. Ganelon accuses Roland of trying to gte him killed. Ganelon then uses his position as messenger to plot with the Saracens and ambush that pesky Roland.
  • After the peace is signed, Charlemagne’s army leaves. Roland leads the rear-guard, with a hand picked force of kinghtly badasses, including the Archbishop Turpin a warrior-priest who wielded a mace to avoid shedding the blood of his foes (And thus doomed Clerics in many versions of D&D from ever enjoying the awesome might of the d8/d12 longsword).
  • A huge horde of the enemy attack the rear guard, but Roland refuses to blow the horn to signal Charlesmagne, feeling that his men are more than a match for the Saracens.
  • Roland and his men fight with unsurpassed valour, but in the end they are overwhelmed. Roland recognizes his mistake, and blows Olifant so hard that his temples burst, killing himself instantly. His body is born away to heaven by angels.
  • Marsiles, wounded by Roland in the battle, later succumbs.
  • Charlemagne arrives to find his rear guard dead and sets upon the Saracens who killed them, killing most and winning a tremendous victory.
  • Ganelon is put on trial, convicted of treason, and pulled apart by horses

From the Song of Roland, other authors added details to Roland’s early life, fleshing out his friendships with other characters in the tale and adding to his deeds and adventures. Eventually mythical enemies began to appear in his tales, such as Ferracutus, a giant who is invulnerable all over, except the belly-button.

As a historical character we know almost nothing about Roland, other than his listed death at Roncevaux, perhaps this lack of lore unfettered the imaginations of all those who ended up embellishing his tale. Who knows?

Roland, aside from being an example of how a popular character can grow throughout the ages, exemplifies several interesting features of classical characters.

  • Duty & Virtue: Not all knights are virtuous in the old tales, but the good guys shine far more brightly than modern heroes often do. Rolan embodies the virtues of the aristocratic warrior.
  • The fatal flaw:  Unlike Lancelot, who is undone by his vices, Roland is actually defeated by what is arguably a strong point. His courage boils over in over-confidence, and his predictable adherence to duty allows Ganelon to set a trap for him. This is a little more modern, but it is presented with a great deal less cynicism than one might expect.
  • Certainty: Like most pastoral heroes Roland is possessed of certainty. His faith and his loyalty to the King are unshakable. Even his realization of his mistake is quick and he does not angst over it. Of course his certainty might seem like prejudice if viewed from an outside perspective, but that is another trait common to pastoral fantasy.
  • Martial Perfection: Roland is a peerless fighter, nearly able to overcome a terrible trap simply through strength of arms.
  • Sacrifice: Roland unflinchingly sacrifices himself in the name of faith and duty, the antithesis of more modern heroes. The symbolism of his last act, blowing Olifant to warn and summon the King, defiant unto death is perhaps what seals him in the ancient imagination.

In comic book terms Roland is more of a Superman figure than a Batman figure. In direct confrontations he cannot be overcome, and thus his enemies are reduced to scheming and treachery to defeat him.

The influence of Roland extends deep into gaming culture. The term Paladin has be synonymous with the kind of good, divinely inspired knight exemplified by Roland. You can find Paladins not only in Dungeons and Dragon, but in World of Warcraft and other computer games. Always, they follow the same archetype, making it one of the more consistent Fantasy tropes out there. Roland is at the heart of this, firing imaginations even in an age when the assassin is a more common protagonist than the knight.

P.S: the use of Roland in Borderlands II is quite excellent, both using the tropes, adapting them, and subverting them.

Roland from Borderlands, as Roland...

Roland from Borderlands, as Roland…

Classic Characters: Caesar as an inspiration for Fantasy works.

Caesar

Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar is an obvious favourite for any young lad who is excited by Roman history. Love him or hate him, he is certainly a figure that has inspired a vast body of literature. This is  partially because Caesar is a far more complex character than his own (professed) hero, Alexander the Great, which allows an author to portray him in a variety of ways and partly because one can come to know Caesar in his own voice, since he wrote several works that survive to this day, and many more that are discussed in surviving sources. What I wouldn’t give to read some of his lost poetry or his Anticato (a sort of written insult to a senatorial nemesis, Cato).

Caesar was famed for his skill as a commander in the field and in maneuvering the corridors of power during the era of civil strife that marked the end of the Republic. His early life rarely gets mentioned but is fascinating and engaging. Here are a few examples.

  • By the time Caesar reached adulthood, the Republic had already experienced a fair share of Civil strife. His aunt was married to Gaius Marius who contested against another favourite Roman of mine, Lucius Cornelius Sulla in a civil war. At one point Marius and his faction even nominated a young Caesar (sixteen?) for Priest of Jupiter. Naturally when Sulla defeated Marius for good, the young Caesar was on his list of people to purge, but influential relatives managed to save Caesar and he quickly made himself scarce in Rome. Given Caesar’s talent for politics it is quite likely that this stint outside of the heart of the empire was good for him in many ways, as is the fact that Sulla confiscated much of his inheritance, forcing him to work all the harder to achieve his ambitions (conjecture on my part, Caesar was very clever to begin with, but I have always felt that circumstances prevented him from resting on his laurels like many of his peers).
  • After Sulla died, Caesar returned to Rome, living in a poor suburb and making his living as a Lawyer. He became renowned for his oratory. Interestingly he gained favour for exposing the corruption of others.
  • Caesar was captured by Pirates as a young man, impressing them all with his demeanor. When his captors wanted to ransom Caesar famously pointed out to them that the ransom was too low, an action that provides many insights into his character and situation. He also told the pirates that if he survived he would one day return and have them crucified, which they took as a joke. Sadly for them, it wasn’t.
  • As a young Roman without a lot of wealth and bad connections Caesar was forced to move on from easy posts and take military assignments all over the empire. Although he complained about these, famously weeping (supposedly) when he saw a Statue of Alexander the great who had risen to rule the known world at an age when Caesar was just a minor officer, the body of experience he accumulated in his endeavors served him very well in later life.

Young Caesar make an ideal model for a classical character. Because he is such  a complex character, open to interpretation,  his life can serve as inspiration for pastoral styles or even grimdark. Many of us are familiar with the events of his middle years, the constant struggles with politics, debt, and his military triumphs, ending in a consulship and then the Governership of Gaul (all of it) where he gained his greatest fame (to modern audiences) as a military commander, and eventually becoming Dictator before he was assassinated. Along the way he meets Cleopatra, shows magnanimity to his enemies (a mistake? perhaps, given that they were attempting to conserve a system that he was a threat to), and crosses both the Rhine and the English Channel. However Caesar was a man of surprising talents, and did quite a few things which are often forgotten. Here are a few.

  • Caesar was entitled to a Triumph, one of the grand processions that were accorded to Rome’s great generals, for his victories in Spain. He wanted to run for the Consulship however, and the Triumph would have delayed that. He asked for an exception of sorts, the vagaries of Roman politics are very interesting at this time, but Cato blocked him. Caesar was forced to choose between Triumph and running for the Consulship — he chose the Consulship, looking to the future instead of resting on a sure thing.
  • Caesar was rumoured to have had an affair with a king of an allied province early in his career. He vehemently denied this, but it is interesting and adds more meat to the story. Mark Antony also said that Octavian used sex to gain Caesar’s favour, although this is often called out as slander.
  • Caesar was directly involved in class warfare. He supported Pompey’s land reforms (forcefully). Ronald Syne has an excellent book about the Roman Revolution, showing it as a case of class warfare of sorts. The love that the poor, and the military class bore Caesar may have rubbed off on Octavian, giving him the base of support needed to become the first emperor.
  • Caesar introduced the Julian Calender in 46 BC. The calendar was 365.25 days long with twelve regular months and an extra day every four years. We use a corrected variation of this calender, reformed later. Interestingly the calender was reformed partly because political meddling was throwing off the years. As a result of this reform the year 46 BC was 455 days long in Rome to bring it back into proper alignment with the equinoxes, which raised a few eyebrows. The adoption of this calendar and subsequent reforms and confusions outlasted the man himself by quite some time… Caesar’s most important contribution was seeing the problem and imposing a solution where others would have just been content to continue taking advantage.
  • Caesar essentially made Rome into a province to counter the view that those who were born and lived outside of Rome could not really be considered for high office. This reform was completed by Augustus, and was considered essential to transforming the Empire into a cohesive whole instead of a network of linked semi-states ruled by Rome. It also alleviated the complaints of many outside Rome who wanted to be seen as true citizens. I would guess that this reform really pissed certain people off — some people always resist change, however fair.

Caesar, with all his greatness and his flaws, is an exemplar of classical civilization, and his life could serve as inspiration for many different types of fantasy characters. Caesar appears in several guises in my works, as inspiration for Gavin and Marius, and even Sadira.

Battle Tactics: The Roman Camp and The Legions of the Domains of the Chosen

The Remains of a marching camp in England.

The Remains of a marching camp in England.

When I was a young lad, I was always fascinated by the Romans. The splendour and the efficiency of the Roman Republic and later, the Roman Empire with its colourful uniforms, grandiose architecture, gladiators,  and history of conquest were of great appeal to a kid who like to play at battles and read fantasy. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to understand the ugly side of that ancient civilization; the politics, slavery, the brutality of the arena, genocide and Roman imperialism. I still love Rome, but that love is tempered by a realization of its deep and abiding flaws, and in some cases my flaws as well.

The Domains of the Chosen Series, currently the novels Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale, Bloodlust: Will to Power, and the short story Bloodlust: The Great Games, flow from my interest in that great classical civilization. The Domains could be seen as  the Roman Empire with magic, fantasy races, and a great apocalypse thrown in (Tolkien, a little bit of Jordan, some Earthdawn, and a pinch of steampunk).

The Roman Legions are of particular interest. One of the few truly professional military forces of pre-modern times, the Legions were the catalyst for much of Roman politics, colonization, and efficiency, as well as the cutting edge of their scythe of conquest. They had their hands in many of Rome’s grand accomplishments, particularly Roman roads and Roman fort towns. I wanted the Legions of the Domains to be similarly involved in the politics of the Domains, a sort balancing factor  between the Chosen and the Popular factions. I also adopted many of the conventions used by the Legions, just for the sake of familiarity. One of these tactics, in particular, has ended up changing the principle action in my third book Warbound: The Shield Maiden.

My assumption was that the Legions of the Domains would create the same sort of camps (Castra) on the march. Keep in mind, as I discusssed last week, Warbound: The Shield Maiden is partly based on Xenophon’s Anabasis, a story about a Greek mercenary army on the march. This mix was all fine and dandy until today, when I realized that the idea of building a camp, on the march (they did it even when under attack!) would completely change the dynamic of such a journey. Let me break it down.

The creation of a temporary, fortified camp at the end of a day’s march changes dynamic of conflict in a number of ways

  • Safety: The obvious difference between an army with a regular camp and the Roman system was that the Castra was far safer. Attacks from larger forces and surprise assaults would be blunted by the fortifications. This ensure that the whole army was better rested and able to operate for longer. While the Castra is hardly a fortress, or even a Roman fort, it is certainly more than a speedbump. In particular it makes harassing attacks on the army less effective; the Castra was even built to foil ranged attacks against sleeping units. Being able to rest and arm in relative safety, in hostile territory, is important.
  • Safe Supply: When operating the Romans could use their Castra to protect the supplies they brought with them, and even the booty they looted. Supply disasters were the bane of medieval and tribal armies, which often could not fight for more than a few days without secure supply. The Roman system gave the Legion a great deal more endurance in this aspect as well. Even with an army surviving off forage, it makes a significant difference — you have an organized system to protect the vital supplies needed to make war, as well as the equipment to carry it.
  • Engineers in the Field: The Castra system demanded that the Romans bring engineers with them. These soldiers were immunes, not subject to regular duties and were in charge of making sure the camp was set up properly. They could commandeer labour as required. Because they brought these specialists with them, the Romans had a tremendous advantage in other forms of warfare. Their siege techniques and feats of battle engineering were beyond almost anything seen on the battlefield until the Rennaissance. Examples include the siege of Alesia where the Romans surrounded an entire town (~20km encirclement), very rapidly, with this:

    You wake up one morning and there it is. How would you feel?

    You wake up one morning and there it is. How would you feel?

  • The Mobile Republic: The Ten Thousand Greeks from the Anabasis are sometimes referred to as the mobile republic, or the marching republic. Removed from their homes, their leaders mostly lost, and perpetually on the brink of disaster the Ten Thousand made their decisions in a very interesting fashion, relying more on persuasion than chain of command. The Castra, and other facets of the Roman system of warfare, change this dynamic. With a camp system in place, non-combat personnel  are able to accompany the Legionnaires because they have a protected place to stay. Thus, these civilians become part of the discussions that form the stress points of the relationships in an Anabasis style tale. Additionally, the army is used to moving mass quantities of supplies very quickly, and will have its own supply train that can operate on campaign — something that very few traditional armies could match before the modern day.

On the downside, this revelation means that I will have to rethink several parts of the book because of this. Xenophon’s army was constantly harassed, fearful of larger forces, and always hungry for supplies. A Legion in the same position would be much more relaxed because of their camp structure and habit of bringing along a large group of pioneers, engineers, and other specialists like smiths to keep them operating in the field. On the plus side, I feel that the camp structure gives the Ninth Legion a better character. Modern readers admire endurance and intelligence, and the camp structure gifts the Legion with these qualities in abundance.

World Building and exposition: Xenophon’s Anabasis

Xenophon’s Anabasis is one of the key texts of ancient Greek literature. Not only is it a historical account of great importance; it is also a simply written tale of adventure that remains compelling to this day and has become the template for other works.

Xenophon was an officer in a mercenary force of Greek heavy infantry (likely hoplites) hired by Cyrus the Younger to help depose his brother, Artaxerxes II, and take control of the Persian Empire. They combined forces engaged the enemy in 401 BC at Cunaxa. (by comparison the battle of Thermopylae was in ~480 , and Alexander’s conquests of Persia began in ~334 BC). The leader of the ten thousand Greeks, Clearchus, arrogantly refused to follow Cyrus’ battle plan which led to the loss of the battle and the Prince’s death. After the battle Clearchus and most of the senior leadership of the Greek forces were tricked and betrayed when they tried to treat with Artaxerxes vassals. Xenophon is one of three leaders elected by the men to replace their lost leadership.

The main narrative occurs after the battle is lost and the Greek leadership is removed. The Greeks are deep behind enemy lines, no longer supported by friends, low on supplies, and with uncertain leadership. The Persians decide to let the elements destroy the Greeks rather than engaging them in a costly battle. Instead they harry them and force them into terrible terrain. And yet the ten thousand endure, marching North from Cunaxa to the Greek Colonies on the Black Sea, through desert and mountain, foraging, fighting, selling their services, and ultimately finding a way home. It is easy to see why this is a compelling tale, and how it can be used as a great template for militaristic fantasy. My favourite anabasis style work is Glen Cook’s Black Company series, although The Warriors movie  holds a special place in my heart as well.

Fantasy enthusiasts often create huge elaborate worlds with dozens of complex cultures, civilizations, places and so on. Take a look at this world building subreddit to see a few interesting examples of people’s imaginations run wild with world-building.

One of the problems encountered with this level of detail, when writing a novel, is that it is hard to download it on the reader without ruining the pacing that is expected of a good story. Games have a much easier time of this — especially open-world sandbox type games. The player being  free to explore and engage with a large world at the pace of their choosing is more or less the point, in that case. However the narrative structure of the novel is such that the author must dictate pacing, and paragraphs of exposition can really get in the way of a story. Nobody really wants to stop and read a long dissertation about where the Orc Barbarians who are storming the castle came from, and what their culture is like. Describing the culture of a people that the protagonists meet in passing, just once, in great detail can really make that escape from the oddly dangerous bandits that are tracking them seem a little less pressing. A lengthy discussion of history is also a great chunk of pacing issues, especially if it is not directly related to the plot. Exposition must be brought out organically, as part of the story in most cases, which makes it hard to show off s big, brilliantly built world.

The tried and true methods of allowing the reader to experience more of the world are

  • The Quest: In a quest base narrative the protagonists must travel to many different places to achieve their goal, often interacting with obscure arcana as part of the Quest. This arcana is a great way expose history and the journey is an excellent way to expose geography. The quest is the easy method of creating a journey that leads through many exotic areas  allowing the author to show off a lot of their world.
  • Multiple Character Epic: A multiple character epic allows the author to set different perspective characters in different parts of the world. In effect, each of those characters becomes the exposition for the part of the world that the author wishes to show off. This strikes me as the best way to showcase a huge world without ruining pace, but it seems quite hard to pull off convincingly.

The Anabasis Story offers an excellent alternative to The Quest for world exposition. Here are the main advantages of such a story type for world-building.

  • Exposition without dissonance: In the Anabasis form, the protagonists are strangers to the area they are in, picking up local customs and history as they try to get home. They have a legitimate void of knowledge that needs to be filled and real reasons to fill it.
  • Realistic Exploration: The easy way home is, of course, blocked. The group must take the unfamiliar path, which will require them to explore just to find that path. Climate, terrain, and food scources all become of utmost import to a group trying to find their way out of a strange environment.
  • Immediate Political Involvement: A small band wandering through an area is hardly cause for the high and mighty to react, an army on the move ALWAYS elicits a political reaction, and not always a hostile one. Opportunities abound: the Ten Thousand ended up selling their services in the their travels, after all. This allows the reader to experience even the most Byzantine political systems with great validity, since the members of the travelling army have a real interest in it and it is directly related to the story.
  • Home: because the characters will constantly be comparing every strange thing, to “the way it is back home.” it is easy for the writer to create exposition for the home culture as well.
  • Structure: The Anabasis narrative provides a strong structure for exposition without wrecking the pacing of a story. The band will explore their options, act accordingly, and move on. The hardships they face, the places they go, and the obstacles that they must overcome are all legitimate uses of your carefully built world that will not derail the story. It is an ideal form for a writer who wants to immerse the reader in multiple parts of a large Fantasy world.

Battle Tactics: Military Organization in the Domains 1

It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience. — Julius Caesar (attr)

When I think of the Legions, I think of these two guys from the Rome series.

When I think of the Legions, I think of these two guys from the Rome series.

As I write Warbound: The Shield Maiden I find my self in unfamiliar territory. The action in my previous two Domains of the Chosen books, Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale and Bloodlust: Will to Power took place in the confines of the arenas of the Krassian Empire, but the Warbound books follow the Legions, and much of the action takes place on battlefields in and around the Domains.

The first big battle is chaotic and does not delves too deeply into the tactics of the Legions. It involves a desperate battle against a fleet of pirates. It tends to focus on the actions of two characters, both of them Warbound, and mostly serves to whet the reader’s appetite and develop a character or two.

I’m also somewhat shy about detailing the training of the Legions. Vintia, one of the perspective characters for Warbound: The Shield Maiden, spends much of her time out of camp for various reasons and is unable to join in the training sessions with her cohort. I do detail a mock battle, but even that is focused on the actions and emotions of a handful of characters (which is what most people want to read) and does not delve into the strategy and tactics of the world.

Today, while finishing up the first draft of the pirate battle, I realized I was shying away from writing about the tactics and organizations of the Legions. After some careful thought, I realized why. As an avid gamer, when I created Bloodlust, I also created a little RPG to play with my friends. This allowed me to detail the various aspects of the games, from  Gladiator training and arena life to crowd appeals and faction match points progressions, and see how others reacted to them. When gaming players tend to find flaws in both settings and systems fairly quickly, which helps flesh out something as unusual as the arena’s of Krass. Sadly, I have not had time to create a war game to explore the ideas of mass battles in the Domains, and even if I had my game group only meets once a month for some Shadowrun these days. 

Instead I will mostly develop the ideas in writing. Having a blog allows me to expose the ideas to my readers and get feedback that way.

Here are the basic elements of the Legions that I have to work with.

  • Roman Influences: I love classical history and the basic presentation of the Legions is very similar to the Roman Legion. As you see, I use much of the terminology, which keeps with the extended classical feeling that I am trying to invoke with Krass itself. It is a good starting point.
  • Magic!: The most important new element to consider is magic. How will the Legions use magic to aid them? How will they counter the magic of the enemy?
  • Steampunk Elements: Almost in spite of myself, I added steampunk elements to the Bloodlust series. This includes mechanical automatons, spike throwers, flame cannons, powder based cannons, and many other devices which have potential battlefield applications.
  •  Mixed Genders: I don’t think the idea of mixing genders in battle is especially controversial in Fantasy fiction these days (Women still face resistance in assuming combat roles in many places in the real world, mind you) and does not really present any conceptual problems. In the early, desperate days of the Domains only a fool would turn down brave women willing to fight the horrors of the Reckoning; the Legions thus have a long tradition of service from all genders.
  • Fantasy Races: The Legions are multi-racial. This presents slightly more difficulty then mixed genders. Two Legionnaires of wildly divergent sizes, like an ogre and a quickling simply cannot lock shields. It presents an interesting set of problems that I never expected: most cohesive fantasy armies tend to be made up of units of a single race. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the organizational aspects without relegating every non human phenotype to an auxilliary formation — formation warfare relies on direct physical teamwork where the differences between an Armodon and a Shadow elf are key.
  • The Warbound: The Warbound themselves are another factor. These former Gladiators have been retrained and re-equipped to join the Legions, where their skills with the more destructive aspects of magic can be put to use serving the Domains. The Warbound serve the Legions directly, without much interference from the Deliberative. This requires a set of mechanisms for control as well as a whole new set of tactics. How is having a supernaturally strong warrior with the ability to cast fireballs or a font of healing going to change the way the Legions fight?
  • The Enemies of the Domains: Part of taking the action and the story beyond the borders of the Domains is a chance to see other cultures and enemies up close. How these potential enemies fight will have a great influence on Legion Tactics. Imagine battles against the odd, graceful, magic eating Wirn, or the shape-shifting, spirit empowered Pale.

Basic Legion Organization

  1. The Legion: The Legion is commanded by a Legate, who is advised by a Strategos. Each Legion is made up of 10 Cohorts and several support groups.
  2. The Cohort: Each Cohort is commanded by the Senior Centurion and is made up of Six Centuries. The Cohorts are identified by number, but often adopt formal nicknames and banner heraldry. The First Cohort is made up of the largest, strongest veterans and is commanded by a Senior Centurion, called the First Shield. The First Shield advises the Legate, and outranks all other centurions.
  3. The Century: Each Century is commanded by a Centurion, a Legionnaire with at least two decades of fighting experience.
  4. File: The file is a semi-formal grouping based on the position when the Century assumes basic 10×10 parade formation. The file is led by a senior Legionnaire called the Decurion, or the File Leader. Files are informally called tents, since the file will share a single tent on march.
  • The Eighth Cohort, Ninth Legion: The Engineers of the Ninth Legion are organized into their own Cohort. These are sappers, siege engineers, and artillerists who started out as Legionnaires and thus know how to put up a fight. Fighting engineers are considered a necessity in long distance operations. The Ninth Legion has several additional cohorts assigned to it when it was reformed to join the Bright Company. It does however lack cannon fodder forces like automatons and undead, which are unreliable in places which have not been cleansed of wild magic.

Basic Legionnaire Weaponry

  • Lorica: The Legionnaires of the Domains are equipped with armour similar in design to the Lorica that we associate with the Roman Legions. However, the Lorica of the Domains is made from steel alloys and treated with magic through a process known as spell-forging. The early days of the Reckoning required that the Domains pack as much power into a single Legionnaire as possible, and thus arms and armour are of excellent quality.
  • Scutum: The Legionnaires use a shield that is entirely made out of a specially treated laminate, edged with tough steel alloy and spellforged to resist magic and the elements. The shield is even higher quality than the armour, and allows the Legions of the Domains to put up a shield wall that can withstand cinematic levels of abuse from unusual sources.
  • Gladius and Pilum: Despite years of weapons advances the Legions stick with simple short swords and spears as their weapons of choice. The old dual javelins, thrown to break up massed charges of beastmen have been replaced with a single sturdy spear that can be used for close fighting or planted to ward off cavalry and large beasts. The spear is backed up by a sturdy short sword which excels up close. The Krassian short sword is a little shorter than a Roman Gladius, but balanced to chop as well as thrust. It is often used for construction (like a Machete — for jungle campaigns in the trials) and is exceptionally sturdy.
  • Grenades: With the advent of widespread artifice and infantry the Legionnaires have been equipped with grenades. These are simple devices that can be armed with one hand. Once armed the grenade begins to glow and vibrate and with explode after ten seconds. The explosion is not nearly as impressive as a modern grenade, but they are quite effective when thrown in volleys. The grenades are more effective at breaking up charges and formations than javelins, and provide another tool for killing monsters. Legionnaires drill extensively with grenades, including emergency procedures for when they are dropped or kicked back into the lines. Incendiary grenades are used in some engagements, and elemental grenades and more advanced types are being produced as well.
  • Specialist Weapons: several men in every century carry specialist weapons like spike throwers, weapon created by Artificers that acts very much like a rapid firing crossbow with a pressurized air component.  Spike throwers can use a variety of munitions. Grenadiers are common as well, breaking formations far effectively than javelin volleys. Other unusual arms include flamethrowers, elemental enchanted weapons to deal with exceptionally tough monsters, and so on.