Teaser Tuesday

This week’s teaser is from Bloodlust: The Shield Maiden, third book in my Domains of the Chosen Series.

Bloodlust TSM cover

At its heart, The Shield Maiden is a tale of imperialism, strangers in a strange land, and people making the best decisions that they can when the shit really hits the fan.

Most of the book takes place on Ithal’Duin, a ‘lost’ continent that the people of the Domains have rediscovered. After an initial exploration, Chosen Brightloch, the newest of his kind besides Gavin and Sadira, forms an alliance with the people of Kirif and decides to make his Domain in Ithal’Duin. Vintia, fresh from retiring as a Gladiatrix becomes a Warbound with the Ninth Legion which joins his expedition.

The Domains are meant to be the reader identification culture in the series. The Cultures of the Domains are strange. The Kirifans frolic in the waves and live in strange towers of living coral. The Fologi are vicious man-eating Dolphins who live in Kirif. The Deoman are unknowable behind their masks, driven by strange impulses. The vast Empire of the Vvath is populated by slaves and ruled by Swords that bear the spirits of the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim.

But the strangest of all of the creations in the book is the sentient magical disease known as the Shugothoth. This creature is inspired in part by Lovecraft and in part by Everblight (from the Warmachine miniatures game, a Hordes faction). Once the Shugothoth infects a creature it can spy on the world through them and attempt to take over their body. It can then mutate the creature if it desires. The Vvath hate the Shugothoth and are engaged in the genocide of the Niyiki to stop it from spreading. We learn that Dwarves are immune to it, but only later find out why.

“ENOUGH!” snarled the First Shield. “Your demands do not matter. We have discovered this disease. We also know about your swords. We are the Ninth Legion of Krass. We have claimed this land and paid for it in blood. We will not surrender our arms to a foreign power. If you wish to make war on us, do so at your peril. Even if you kill the last of us others will come.”

“The Vvath do not fear your petty Empire,” said the Blade-Bearer. “As for your deaths, we could just leave you here. Shugothoth is no simple foe. It will starve you out until you are too weak to resist and then add your men to its ranks. You have no hope of survival but us. If you surrender, we will negotiate safe passage, under escort, for any uninfected men. Ithal’Duin belongs to us. Your skulls will decorate our walls before long.”

“Then come for us,” said the First Shield. “The Ninth Legion is ready for any foe. If any of our men wish to join you now, I will not stop them.”

None of the Legionnaires moved.

“Your leader is a fool,” said the Vvath loudly. “Your Kirifan allies have been ruined by our thralls, the Deomen. Surrender to us and you will live, if you are not infected. The alternative is to stay here and die. Our armies can fill the horizon.”

“Perhaps they can,” said Strategos Teven, stepping to the fore, “but unless I miss my mark, you won’t risk exposing most of them to this disease. Just how many Shugothoth-resistant soldiers can you afford to lose before you can no longer contain it?”

This happens to be true.

Alarmed, Shugothoth reacted to this new threat. The head of the great serpent and the beady eyes of all of the remaining Crocodilians snapped towards the Shield Maiden. A keening sound rose above the din of battle and, as one, they all charged toward Vintia.

While the Crocodilians were slowed by Vintia’s ice, the great serpent was far too massive, cleaving through the frozen water like an ironclad. Drovers and Legionnaires fired spiked guns into the beast, but these seemed as pinpricks to such a creature.

Vintia raised her shield as the serpent reared back. She could see something else, hateful and alien, staring out at her from behind the window of its eyes. She did not flinch, but returned that hateful glare with a look of defiance in her eyes. The head of the beast twitched and then dove toward her, maw gaping until it seemed about to swallow the sky.

I like the idea of looking into the eyes and seeing something else in there, something unexpected…


Structures and Systems: The Grand Championships in the Domains of the Chosen (part two)

One of the running themes of my musings on this blog are how structures and systems can become the enemies of people, and how this can make for great genre fiction. I find it interesting how modern escapism is often apocalyptic in nature: in some ways we often end up pleased when the Zombies or that Meteorite come along and finally wipe out the monumental systems that dominate our lives. No matter how horrible the walking dead gets at least they don’t have to worry about debt, work, taxes, or unrelenting boredom.

One of the problems with my early D&D games, and other works is that when I put effort into world-building I often created these clockwork societies and systems that never changed. Much of this is because I wanted to preserve my work. Sadly, I found that these eternal structures were lacking because they did not change. Imperfect beings create imperfect things, and that includes institutions, cultures, and even beliefs. Only those that acknowledge their imperfections and take steps to adapt and change can really stand the test of time. (Change just for the sake of change doesn’t count — that is just another system in a way. I’m looking at you new WordPress UI.)

Last week I outlined the basic system of the Grand Championships. This week I will illustrate the sort of corruptions that have changed this system over time. Think of this as an example of how systems can change over time. There are exploits, and then regulations put in place to halt those exploits, then there are corruptions that become popular changes, almost an evolution of the system.

Here are some examples, using the structure of the Grand Championships from last week’s post

  • Location: The Grand Championships are always held in the City of Krass. How can this be exploited? well for one, any Gladiators who have easy access to the City of Krass have a kind of home-field advantage. While people come from all over the Domains for the Grand Championships, the largest significant group in the arena crowds will be from the City. Gladiators who spend time wooing the people of Krass thus have a significant advantage in a show of thumbs.
  • Selection Part One: Part one of the selection is a general vote open to any citizen in Krass. The system here is the same as gaming the system in any Democratic election. Skilled Gladiators will often lose out to more interesting or popular fighters. In a sense this is the original corruption of the games. It was supposed to pick the best fighter, but popularity soon became a factor.
  • Selection Part Two: This part is utterly corrupt. The Factions and the Chosen trade favours and butt heads over the previously selected candidates. The only oversight is that the people will riot if a favourite is left out. Exploits here include getting rid of fighters who might be a danger to your Gladiator, changing patrons, and so on.
  • The Parade: On the surface the parade is the least important part of the Grand Championships, merely a way for the Gladiators to present themselves to the people. And yet it becomes surprisingly important, since Gladiators who make a great impression here can sway the crowds of Krass. I like The Hunger Games for understanding the importance of presentation in a contest of this sort with Katniss and her flaming gown. There are other exploits in the parade as well. Most importantly: who gets to provide food and drink and who gets other important contracts for parade day. The parade is a huge holiday in Krass, and very few places are open. Those that are given contracts to provide services during the parade gain wealth and reputation, at least if they don’t mess up. Getting these contracts becomes a matter of great importance with all sorts of wheeling and dealing.
  • The Qualifying Round: Each Gladiator faces a monster in the qualifying round. Judges score how each Gladiator fares and the lowest eighteen fighters are eliminated. Judging is fraught with corruption, of course, just look at Olympic figure skating. However, it is also possible for a Gladiator to be put up against a monster that is too easy or too hard.
  • That One Little Wrinkle: Ut Nex, the challenge to a Deathmatch forces the other Gladiator to make a split second decision on whether or not they will put everything on the line. Deathmatches tend to gain the attention of the crowd, which allows a less skilled fighter willing to risk more a secondary path to victory. Few Gladiators will turn down Ut Nex, mostly due to pride, so one must make sure one can win. Interestingly enough Ut Nex in the qualifying round is another way for a Gladiator to show show mad courage.
  • That Other Little Wrinkle: Assassinating the other Gladiators is just plain ol’ cheating. However the politics of such a manoeuvre would likely be very interesting
  • Cheating and Exploits: Anything that can be abused to gain an advantage will be abused to gain an advantage. The Gladiators have to be on guard. The Deliberative have to monitor everything. And yet all of these people are human with desires and needs that can be pried at to gain advantage. A lusty Gladiator might be lured into a late night dalliance before a crucial match that leaves him strangely drained. A lucky pre-fight meal at a favourite restaurant might be drugged. Last minute advice on how to exploit an opponent’s fighting styles. An accident on the training grounds. The sudden death of a loved one. There are many possibilities for exploitation, and the best of them are the head games that mess with the psychology of individual fighters. After all, at the highest levels of competition, it is often focus and the will to win that carry the day.



Structures and Systems: The Grand Championships in the Domains of the Chosen (part one)

One of my favourite subjects to write about is how systems, especially broken or corrupted systems, can define a character or a conflict. My favourite example is Javert from Les Miserables, an unrelenting, scrupulous Paladin of an utterly dysfunctional system of Law.

In my next Domains of the Chosen novel, I am delving into how the systems that have evolved around the Grand Championships of the Great Games can draw a series of characters in and change their lives. The novel begins with how these people react to hearing that the event will take place, their feelings, the plots they hatch, and the hopes they have and follows them through to the end.

For those of you who have not read my books, the Great Games are a mixture of bloodsports, magic, and politics, and the Grand Championships determine who is worthy to join the Chosen, immortal rulers of the Domains. (You can read a bit about the Great Games in my free short story.)

The Grand  Championships are a huge event, on the scale of an Olympic games or the Fifa world cup. They are usually held every fifty years, but if a Chosen dies they are the tournament is held sooner to find a replacement. In my new book, a Chosen has died very soon after the previous  tournament was held, and everyone is caught off guard and left scrambling as the new Grand Championship is held. Over the years tradition, politics, corruption and plain old opportunism have led to an elaborate set of mechanisms surrounding the games. Let me break it down:

The Core of the Grand Championships (the basic system)

  • Location: The Grand Championships are held in the Grand Arena of the city of Krass, only during the summer. Krass is the Capital of the Empire, an enormous port city analogous to New York/Rome/London as the focal point of a dominant power. The Grand Arena seats over five hundred thousand spectators, a truly fantastic amount of people crammed into one place. This last part is more important than you might think, unless you understand food services, event planning, or sewage. Since the event is always held in the same place, the Grand Arena is the focal point of the Games, almost a place of pilgrimage for true fans.
  • Selection, Part One: Before the event is held the Gladiators must be selected. Selection begins with fans from all over the Domains coming for the cast their votes for their favourite Master Rank (50+ fights & 10 ranking tests passed) Gladiators. The Hundred Gladiators with the most votes make the short list. It is important to note that this is at least partially a popularity contest. A skilled, but boring Gladiator will often lose out in the voting to a fighter with a more compelling story or more fan support. This works to Gavin’s favour in Bloodlust: Will to Power, one of my earlier works.
  • Selection, Part Two: The short list of one hundred Gladiators picked in the open vote must now be narrowed down to fifty fighters. The voting for this part of the selection is limited to members of the highest Popular Assembly and the Council of the Chosen. The politics and horse-trading at this stage is intense, as each faction tries to find the candidates that have the best chance of winning while trying to sabotage the efforts of rivals both in and out of their factions. They must do so without annoying the people as a whole, who will riot if a big favourite is dropped from the shortlist.
  • The Planning and the Parade: Once the final selection is made and the event is booked, preparations for the Grand Championships begin. The people of the Domains are so mad for the Great Games that work more or less ceases, especially in Krass, around the time of the event. This means that anyone doing anything important, such as shipping ammunition or even waging war, must plan around the Grand Championships or suffer some disruption. The event itself begins with an enormous day-long parade winding through the streets of Krass and ending in the huge parade ground in front of the Grand Arena. The Logistics of this parade are impressive, and also surprisingly important (more on that in part two)
  • The Qualifying Round: Most of the matches fought in the Grand Championships are against other Gladiators. However, many fans consider the very essence of the Great Games to be their favoured fighters facing ferocious monsters. Also fifty is an unwieldy number for a single elimination tournament 😀 Thus every single Gladiator must face off against a monster in the qualifying round. The devil is in the details in this round, where some competitors might end up facing tougher monsters than others and the scoring system is often criticized.
  • That One Little Wrinkle: The rest of the Grand Tournament is surprisingly simple. The remaining Gladiators face off against each other in single elimination matches. However, various exceptions and rules can change the nature of each match. A Gladiator can declare Ut Nex before a match, forcing his or her opponent to agree to fight to the death or forfeit the match. Some Gladiators use this as an intimidation tactic, although you can see how it might backfire.
  • That Other Little Wrinkle: It is not impossible that someone is killed or drops out of the Tournament. If this happens a new Gladiator is taken from the selection. Often this causes a riot, and the Gladiator added to the tournament is sometimes picked just to appease the rioters. Sometimes the riots are goaded on purpose for just this reason.
  • Cheating, and Exploits: It is very hard to just cheat at the Great Games, especially at the Grand Championships. But, with so much riding on the line, it is more than worth the risk. Illegal weapons, bribed officials, banned substances, and everything else you might think of can and will be tried. Much worse than overt cheating, however, are those who exploit the rules of the arena to their advantage. More on that in part two.

Stay tuned next week when I will cover the rest of this subject, going over the corruptions and unforeseen changes in this system.WillToPower_Icon

Fantasy World Building: The Vvath

A Doom Reaver from Warmachine.

A Doom Reaver from Warmachine.

For this week’s post I wish to return to the subject of world-building. Much of Warbound: The Shield Maiden takes place beyond the borders of the Domains of the Chosen, following the Ninth legion as they travel the long route home. I am going to share some of my world-building ideas here. There is a long list of does and don’ts for fantasy world-building. If you are looking for direct advice I would try the worldbuilding and fantasywriters pages on Reddit. Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson also have great podcasts and other material on world building. I’m not going to expound on those, but rather go through my own process, which is decidedly utilitarian.

Inspiration and Goals: The Vvath

With the Vvath I started with an idea stolen shamelessly from one of my favourite games; Warmachine by Privateer Press (with some influences via Michael Moorcock and others). In the Iron Kingdoms, one of the warring factions has unearthed blades enchanted with ancient dark magic, covered in gibbering faces. These blades turn the wielders into homicidal maniacs. Rather than recoil at the discovery, Khador decided to put these powerful, dangerous weapons to good use. The blades are given to convicts and condemned men who are then shipped off to the front and used as shock troops. What could go wrong?

The troops are called Doom Reavers, and they look more or less like a mystical version of a serial slasher from an eighties horror movie crossed with a decidedly evil knight. The idea of corrupt blades intrigued me, especially with the idea of the Reckoning, the great magical war that spiraled out of control and devastated the Domains and tainted the rest of the world. I can see these sort of weapons being created as part of the the war of the Reckoning and then becoming central to one of the new cultures that arose from the ashes.

  1. History [general goal] All of the civilizations in Warbound: The Shield Maiden must be juxtaposed against the Domains of the Chosen. For various reasons the Domains are a very familiar society, early America as settled by the Roman Empire if you will. The names are all easy, based around the Chosen, with only a few hints of the civilizations that existed before the Reckoning and the reconquest. The goal with the Vvath is to create a little blister of culture that helps define the Domains from the outside.
  2. Alien Flavour [general goal] The Domains are mostly free of the after-effects of the reckoning. The walls of Krass never fell before the wild magic or the hordes of tainted. The people of the Domains consider themselves the last bastion of civilization and have a very imperialistic past. I want the Vvath to be a harsher reflection of this — a society bent on conquest and domination.
  3. Dwarven Heritage [Vvath goal] I have always had a soft spot for dwarves in Fantasy fiction, and the idea of using a nation of imperialistic Dwarves as the basis for a set of antagonists really appeals to me. The archetypal dwarven penchant for smithing makes the blades an ideal weapon for them.
  4. Intelligent Blades [Vvath goal] The blades themselves have to be interesting, with a unique enchantment process and look. Obviously I don’t want to just copy the Doom Reavers; inspiration is one thing, outright plagiarism is another.
  5. All is not as it seems [Vvath goal] I want there to be something cunning and insidious about the Vvath.
  6. Ideology  [Vvath goal] The Vvath are a competing ideology to the Domains. They must present a view of the world that is at odds with the Krrassian Empire, yet understandable to the modern reader.

Outlines of the Vvath, the Sword-Lords of Khazak Krim

  1. History [general goal] Khazak Krim was once part of a larger Dwarven Kingdom. It was a border trade city overlooking the only land route between the continents of Sudra and Ithal’Duin. When the reckoning began the wealth of the Dwarves was a tempting target to the Gifted, and Khazak Krim quickly found itself cut off from the rest of the kingdom. Never numerous, the Dwarves of Khazak Krim realized that they did not have enough people The original blades did not originate from within Khazak Krim, but the Vvath saw their potential and used them to create an army which helped protect them throughout the Reckoning and expand afterwards.
  2. Alien Flavour [general goal] The Vvath believe in slave labour. All races are seen as inferior to the Vvath and Dwarves in general. Khazak Krim is a wondrous paradise that overlooks an empire of squalor where non-dwarves are, at best, seen as potential hosts for a Vvath blade.
  3. Dwarven Heritage [Vvath goal] Aside from the swords and totalitarian society the Vvath are very similar to a regular society of Fantasy dwarves. Slave labour does  make them less inclined to be miners, however.
  4. Intelligent Blades [Vvath goal] When a Vvath comes to middle age they craft a Vvath Blade. Their consciousness is transferred into the blade in a dark and crazy ritual which I have not thought up yet and possesses the living, but mindless husk of their own body or whatever body wields the blade. When the Vvaths original body is slain or destroyed, a new body is sought out. Obviously, this changes their psychology somewhat 🙂
    1. Soul Eating? I also toyed with the idea of the Vvath blades being able to animate the dead that they kill or to eat souls to heal the wielder. Not sure yet.
  5. All is not as it seems [Vvath goal] The Vvath hold contests in the far flung regions of their Domains and among their slaves. (Maybe even some Gladiators) The worthy are gifted with a Vvath blade. The blades have a reputation of making the wielder invincible in battle, gifting them with supernatural strength and toughness. Of course this is true, but the blades also erode the consciousness of the wielder and allow the Vvath in the blade to take control. Bodies that are possessed long enough start to take on the features of the Vvath — hence many of the hosts wear copious amounts of armour and masks to hide their growing deformities. At Khazad Krim host bodies wear a mask that resemble the original face of the Vvath.
  6. Ideology  [Vvath goal] The Vvath are a totalitarian society, ruled by ancient sword lords. The sword lords are the opposite of the Chosen in many ways, since the contest to choose new bodies is a ruse. The idea of slavery is one that readers will understand but generally find repulsive.

Fantasy Villains: Cults

“The second is the structure and source of cults. They have always haunted me, and I wanted to explore the fundamental notion of giving up responsibility to an outside power.” Katherine Dunn

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Can your cult do better?

One of my favourite use of a cult in a work of Fiction lately is in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the second book of the MaddAdam trilogy (which is now apparently finished, don’t spoil book three for me!) God’s Gardeners, the cult in question, is the organization that serves as the common background for the main characters of that work. I remember the local indy book shop, The Bookshelf, having a reading at one of the downtown churches. The people organizing the reading acted as if they were members of the Gardeners, using the phrases and ceremonies that Atwood described in her novel. It was quite a production, with quite a few members of the audience going along with it. Part of the joy of that book is a serious but relaxed look at the attractions of cults, sects, and monastic life; it is not as hard-hitting as Atwood can be, at least on the surface.

In Fantasy, strange cults are a common antagonist. The combination of fanaticism and mysticism makes for a fearful foe, both monstrous and human at the same time. Cultists, while not as popular as zombies these days, do offer much of the same spice. Detailing the fantastic rituals and mad temples of the cult allows the writer to go wild playing with symbols, icons, and ceremonies. Cults are flexible as a story element. The cult can be benign, mistaken, or truly villainous. Benign cults might have useful information that the protagonists need, requiring them to pretend to be true believers. The evil at the heart of a villainous cult can be human, or even monstrous.

Here are the key attributes of a fantasy cult:

  • Public Purpose: How does the cult describe itself to outsiders and potential recruits. Most cult members will believe that the public purpose of the cult is its true purpose — fervently.
  • Secret Purpose: The real reason the cult exists.  If your cult is ultimately benign, then its actual purpose is probably pretty close to the public mission statement or not blatantly illegal. If the cult is villainous then the secret purpose is likely something nasty that the cult will go to great lengths to keep to itself and only lets members of the inner circle know. The true purpose of the cult will gradually be revealed to the faithful as they progress through its mysteries, or if the inner circle has use for them.
  • Beliefs: What does the cult believe?  Most cults are spiritual in nature or heretical offshoots of larger religions. Some are a pseudo-scientific. A club or fraternity with too much power and indoctrination  could easily blur the lines into becoming cultish. Most cults are centered around some great revelation, an all encompassing path to truth that sets the believer free if followed correctly. Cult belief systems tend to be less complex because they avoid debate with outsiders and have a shorter history. The core belief can be quite ugly, as long as what is presented to the public is compelling. (We will remake the earth into a paradise… through Cthulhu!)
  • Symbols: Cults are often into symbols and iconography. This is an area to get creative. Does your cult have a secret symbol? do they have temples full of bizarre statues? are they austere. Are their symbols only apparent as mannerisms?
  • Indoctrination: How does the cult recruit new members? How are they taught the beliefs of the cult? Brainwashing, ritualistic sex, captivity, and drugs are all common to modern cults and make for great trappings of a villainous organization.
  • Rituals: Rituals are the bread and butter of such organizations. From chants and songs, to ceremonies and catechisms, every cult has its rituals.
  • The Leadership: Cults are often based around a Charismatic leader. If the cult is villainous then the leader will likely be the first place the protagonists will look to as the source of whatever rot is at the heart of the organization.
  • Who Cares?: Finally what exactly is the cult doing that gets the attention of the protagonists? is a relative taken and indoctrinated? is the cult close to bringing back the elder gods to consume mankind? Are they raising a zombie plague? are they a front for a league of vampires? If the cult is villainous, make sure the reader knows they are truly nasty.

Here are some more specific examples:

  • Demons and Devils: There’s something to be said for the classics. Demon worshiping cults are not unknown in the real world. In Fantasy fiction however the author can have them actually commune with infernal powers, perhaps seeking to bring their masters to the mortal realm.
  • Doomsday Cults: A doomsday cult can be benign if they just gather to discuss a particular end to the world. Chine Mieville’s Kraken is my favourite work of this nature. A villainous doomsday cult actively works to bring about doomsday, in the hopes of gaining power after the world is “remade”. Often combined with elder gods.
  • Elder Gods: Lovecraft is the undisputed king of weird fictional cults. Most of them want to gain power from the Elder Gods, ancient monstrosities of unfathomable power who don’t really seem to like people. The Elder Gods are generally portrayed as sleeping, dreaming, or busy and bringing the world to their attention is bad. Often when the cult invokes these beings it backfires on them, and everyone else.
  • Sacrifice: Older religions placed a great deal of faith in the power of sacrifice, both of animals and of people. Perhaps a fantasy cult could truly gain power from blood and death. In a fantasy world with blood magic a cult with sacrificial practices could merely be a front for a powerful and charismatic blood mage.
  • Splinter Cults: Splinter cults begin as factions from other cults or religions. They are often antagonistic towards the parent group.
  • Transformation: Cults often seek out those who want to start a new life. The promise of transformation is a great lure. In this care however, the transformation that is bestowed is not metaphorical. Werewolves, vampires, and possession work well with this idea. I love the idea of a nature cult that is actually a front for werewolves.

Cults make for great enemies, and can also fill in more benign spiritual niches in your world-building. In Fantasy the most important part of creating a cult is how that cult relates to the elements of magic and the supernatural in your world. Magic can make the strangest beliefs real, or real enough to engender belief. Peeling back the layers of intrigue and indoctrination, framed with exotic rituals and strange symbols, can be great fun for readers, especially if you manage to make the final layer of that inner circle truly interesting.

Zombies in Fantasy

Zombies are the bacon of genre fiction.

Knights vs Zombies. Lazy Zombies…

While I was attending a short panel on Dark Fantasy at Gencon this year, the subject of Zombies came up.  The undead, including zombies, have long been a staple of Fantasy fiction; with the popularity of zombies showing little signs of abating I expect to see them in more works.

In my two Bloodlust books Zombies (called the stitched), are frequent fodder for the arena. They have several advantage in this regard: they are relatively cheap, especially since the rest of the industry is great at providing corpses (I just wrote that O.o); they are versatile, providing different levels of challenge with artifice/magic add-ons and different bits; and they are easy to control through necromantic magic. I also hint that zombies have their own fans, which is a bit of a shout out to the various zombie walks that I’ve seen. I even discuss the idea of Zombie labour, something I may explore further in future bookss.

Honestly I’m not sure why Zombies are so popular. I don’t really consider myself a huge zombie fan (I don’t have a zombie apocalypse plan, for example), and yet I will watch almost any Zombie movie that comes out without hesitation.  Zombies are an extremely versatile story ingredient, a term that I do not use lightly. If you think of a story like a good sandwich (don’t ask me why), the zombie can

  • Bread: The zombie apocalypse makes for a great background for almost any tale. Want to tell an epic war story? Have your kingdom invaded by huge hordes of zombies! Want to tell a claustrophobic tale of the breakdown of social norms in a crisis situation? how about people trapped in an inn surrounded by zombies? You can tell a story about the folly of delving too deep into dark lore with the tale of the necromancer who unleashes the zombie plague or you can write an ultra heroic tale of saving the world from the undead menace.
  • Meat: While zombies are often a key ingredient in world-building, they can also fill a more direct role in the story. The trauma of seeing loved one return to life as a zombie is perhaps the best example of zombies providing a lovely dramatic moment.
  • Garnish: Zombies are great for action scenes. They are messy, they are mindlessly violent, and no one really feels any sympathy for them. Zombie based action allows us to indulge our lower impulses in a guilt free fashion. 
  • Condiment: Zombies can be added to just about any already existing story. I’m not only thinking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, here. You could use zombies to spice up your wilderness survival tale or add an interesting twist to your detective story.

In Fantasy worlds zombies can provide the same sort of spice that they do to horror and post-apocalyptic settings, however there are several additional factors to consider.

  • Lack of Guns: One of the major advantages that people have over zombies in more modern settings are guns. Few versions of zombies are able to use weapons, let alone guns. Guns gives survivors a definite advantage over the undead, at least until they run out of ammunition. In most fantasy settings guns are out of the question. Without modern weaponry things look even more grim in a standard zombie apocalypse situation.
  • Lack of People: On the other hand in a primarily rural world, a zombie plague can be less frightening. In most zombie fiction those bitten by a zombie become a zombie, this is frightening in an urban sprawl where one comes into contact with thousands of strangers daily and human contact is unavoidable and intrusive. It is an entirely different kind of story in a medieval rural setting where strangers are instantly noteworthy and your nearest neighbors live miles away.
  • Castles: Industrial warfare made castles obsolete, but they would actually be quite effective against most forms of zombies. Stone walls can withstand any attempt at damage and zombies would have difficulty scaling them, especially with a good moat. Castles that are designed to withstand long sieges would thus provide a formidable bulwark against the undead menace. Feudal societies were structured around such buildings, with hundreds in Europe alone. This would perhaps be the great equalizer for for the guns.
  • Formation Based Warfare: Strength based warfare is a staple of pre-modern times. A disciplined army could hold of many times their own number with a strong formation. Perhaps this could be translated into a method of fighting zombies in a fantasy world. Hey I’d watch The 300 with zombies…
  • Zombie monsters: Of course in a fantasy world there are a whole host of extra creatures that could be infected. Your castle wall might work well against human zombies, but what about zombie giants?
  • Magic of Mass Destruction: Spell-casters could be a potent force against a horde of zombies. A fireball could kill some undead, especially if it thrown from the safety of a castle wall where burning zombies can’t reach you. Holy magic would no doubt prove even more effective in some stories with mighty Paladins driving back the dead with strength of faith. Magic weapons enchanted against the dead would also be of tremendous value.
  • Necromancy: Naturally the number one question about a setting with magic and zombies in it, is the role of necromancy. A horde of Zombies is scary enough. A horde of Zombies under the control of an evil necromancer is capable of overcoming obstacles that require some cunning. An army that is absolutely obedient and does not need food is an excellent asset. Of course the necromancer becomes the personality behind the zombies, which humanizes them somewhat. Breaking the necromancer’s control would be an excellent story goal.

Zombies work as well for fantasy as they do in most other genres. The key difference is to understand how the differences in world-building and magic will change the nature of everyone’s favourite menace….

Battle Tactics: How Fantasy Elements can Change Warfare in the Age of Reason

About four p.m., the enemy’s artillery in front of us ceased firing all of a sudden, and we saw large masses of cavalry advance: not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass. They were the famous cuirassiers, almost all old soldiers, who had distinguished themselves on most of the battlefields of Europe. In an almost incredibly short period they were within twenty yards of us, shouting “Vive l’Empereur!” The word of command, “Prepare to receive cavalry”, had been given, every man in the front ranks knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers.
—Captain Rees Howell Gronow, Foot Guards — The charge of the French Cavalry at Waterloo ( One of the most poetic description of the battle. The charge was a failure: The English formed infantry formed up and repelled the charge. Ney did not support the charge with Infantry to counter this and is often blamed for the French defeat.)

Flintlock Fantasy, Steampunk, and other forms of Fantasy set after the middle-ages are gaining prominence. Part of this is that as Fantasy matures as a genre, authors feel more confident branching out beyond the traditional settings. I also feel that part of the service that Fantasy offers is to mythologize the past and that we are now distant enough from the conflicts of the age of reason to parse them, anachronize or grimdark them, and re-introduce them to a broader audience through the wonders of popular fiction.

The Renaissance  the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the early industrial age, which I will collectively and brutishly refer to as the Age of Reason, brought great changes to warfare as well as to the rest of society.  Introducing magic and other Fantasy elements to this volatile age is an exciting prospect, but one that is fraught with peril.

Take your standard Fantasy wizard type. We know he can change the classical battlefield or the wars of the middle-ages pretty easily (if you don’t read this and this). Fireballs could blast formations to pieces and hereditary magic could bump the knightly aristocracy down the food chain. But Gunpowder would change that, right? I mean muskets give a brigade of common men nearly equal footing with the great mages of Fantasy… could the Old Guard take down Gandalf?  the answer depends entirely on who is writing and how they define magic in their world. The problem is just dumping magic onto an age of Reason battlefield without considering the implications results in problems. A firing line of muskets or the Grand Battery could certainly rival a great mage for power, but what happens if he can call lightning down on your powder stores? and don’t even get me started on what a Napoleon figure could do with a guy who could summon fog or rain.

To show how Fantasy Elements could change warfare in this period, I am going to discuss warfare what warfare in this period was like. Naturally this is extremely generalized and covers a broad swathe of history, and glosses over many of the more contentious arguments about warfare in this period. Don’t use this as research for your thesis 😉

Centralization of Power, Standing Armies, Conscripts and Drill: As the age of Reason progressed military power became more and more centralized, be it in the hands of a King or a president. Collections of feudal bonds were replaced by states. The old nobility with their personal armies were replaced by professional soldiers supplemented by militia and conscripts. The return of drill, more than anything, spelled the end for Knights of old.
  • Early in this period well-trained Pikemen become more and more common. Drilled to form up into a hedge (and later a square) against cavalry charges, these guys could even repel armoured knights. Some historians feel that well-trained longbowmen, drilled to shoot rapidly ended Chivalry. Courtly life at Versailles certainly did. As well trained footmen that could counter heavy cavalry became more common the knights in heavy plate disappeared and the role of Cavalry changed (see below). By the time the guys with guns show up Knighthood was a thing of the past.
  • Centralization of power and industrialization allow for uniform equipment of soldiers on a much larger scale.
  • Conscription and the return of the professional soldier led to bigger armies and reserves. The armies of these periods were often very large and some of the battles were colossal.
  • Skill at front-line fighting was no longer a necessity for a general. Leadership, Logistics, Tactics, and Strategy become more important. Keeping abreast of technological changes and adapting becomes increasingly vital.
  • Drill becomes extremely important. Well drilled artillery and musketeers fire faster and are less likely to break as men around them fall. Charging at the right moment or assuming the correct formation on time become pivotal. Discipline is king.

The Role of Infantry: Infantry gradually become prominent again in the Age of Reason. The Pikemen and Swordsmen of The Prince gradually gave way to musketeers, and then line infantry armed with “rifle” and bayonet. Gun technology progressed but the bayonet remained important throughout this period.

  • Early line Musketeers would fire at a short range and then charge. Gustavus Adolphus is said to have perfected this kind of warfare. He drilled his Line Infantry to fire en-masse , afix bayonets, then charge. The initial volley would shock the enemy line and make them more susceptible to the charge.
  • A rifle with a bayonet is as efficient as a spear in the hands of a well-trained soldier. Do not think of line infantry as weak in close combat.
  • With proper drill and discipline infantry armed with rifle and bayonet could assume formations that could repel Cavalry.
  • The famed square of the Napoleonic line infantry was a bayonet hedge on all sides with a hollow space in the middle. It was very resistant to flanking and charging. People would still shoot in and out of the square but the formations were so large that attrition could go on for some time. It was sub-optimal against line fire and really rather vulnerable to artillery though. They tended to drill so they could form up quickly when it was needed. The hollow area in the middle could be used to trap cavalry or shelter valuable personal/cannons/wounded, or the Emperor himself 😉
  • Skirmishers armed with rifles saw use, particularly as screens.
  • Grenades saw use later in this period.
  • Infantry started to become more and more specialized.

Firing from square formation. Not sure what this is depicting. Old Guard I think.

The Role of Cavalry: Cavalry still saw use well into the age of the gun. There were many types. Lancers, Heavy Cavalry armed with sword and pistol, Chasseurs armed with carbines, Dragoons that could fight with sabres or dismount and use rifles. They all had their uses.

  • Cavalry dropped the heavy armour in favour of speed. There were exceptions, like the Curassier, but even these were still not the Knightly tanks of old.
  • Proper use of Cavalry included destroying troops out of formation, artillery in vulnerable positions, or countering other cavalry.
  • Charging into cannons with proper fields of fire would result in dead Cavalry. Charging vulnerable cannons was key.
  • Over the Age of Reason the Cavalry charge stopped being a leading tactic and became a reaction tactic for the most part.
  • The use of Cavalry really ended with the machine gun, better guns, and trench warfare, somewhat beyond in this period. Cavalry still saw use in the American civil war and even in the World Wars.
  • Cavalry was absolutely vital in pursing the enemy and making sure units did not reform and rejoin the battle.

The Role of Artillery: Artillery gradually came to dominate the battlefield in this period of warfare. Cannons destroyed old fortifications, wrecked formations, ruined cavalry charges, and filled the air with thunder and smoke. Cannons, Mortars, and even Rockets saw use in this period. Specialty shot became common as well. Grapeshot was used to destroy massed of men who strayed too close or break charges. Cannon balls would streak through the air and blast through lines of men.

  • Most artillery was too heavy to move much during a battle.
  • Some smaller cannons could be moved bu horse and set up under fire, even during battle.
  • Cannons could be used massed or distributed through the ranks, varying by tactics.
  • I cannot imagine the terrible courage of men who stood in lines against cannon fire and massed musket fire. Perhaps being able to see the men opposite them struggling to reload spurred them to action. Maybe it was like a race.
  • Enemies would disable enemy cannons by spiking them, since they would often have to give up territory in the face of a counter-charge. Captured cannons were added to existing batteries after battles.

The Use of Terrain and Weather: The Generals of the Age of Reason used terrain to their advantage. A slight rise could shelter a line of men or hide a cavalry formation. The high ground could prove a decisive advantage. Fog could conceal troop movements and allow a surprise charge. Rain and mud could bog artillery down. Formation and Manoeuvre were of great importance in this style of battle.Naval Battles: This was the age of sail. Naval battles were thunderous, magnificent affairs. Ships would manoeuvre around trying to gain better fields of fire. Bigger, better ships, with more and more cannon became prominent. Naval warfare in this period deserves a post on its own.

  • A crippled vessel could be captured.
  • Boarding actions were prominent.
  • Naval power became exceptionally important in this period. Not only did it allow control of ports and colonies, it made moving and supplying armies easier.

Fortification in the Age of Reason: The old castles often could not stand up to cannon. City walls were useless against cannon that could fire over them or reduce them to rubble. However the fortifications that were actually built in this period were nigh impregnable. The star forts built by Vauban and others were so defensible that the generals of the period were loathe to attack the bloody things head on. This often forced long sieges and encouraged the smart general to seek out a decisive engagement in the field.

A simple star fort diagram (top down view) showing the overlapping fields of fire. Take one part of the fort and the rest could fire on you.

I could get into supply lines and the the goal of crushing the enemy army in the field as an expression of will, but you likely get the point. So what happens when you add magic to the field?Steampunk Elements: Steampunk tends to be Victorian but introducing some Steampunk tropes to the Age of Reason battlefield can be rousing good fun. The effect of Steampunk tech is generally to advance weapons technology a bit further on. Napoleonic era battles might look like a Flashier version of the American Civil war with Steamtech added in. Better rifles, machine guns, and cannon would end line warfare. Accurate long range rifles and cannon force the command structure back from the field. Exotic tech would have unusual effects.

  • Flight makes fortifications more vulnerable, and spying enemy formations easier. Gyrocopters and dirigibles would be superb spies.
  • Tesla cannons might replace grapeshot.
  • Knights might survive into this period with steamtech powered armour.
  • Coal suddenly becomes a burning issue for supply.
  • Steam Tanks would become a dominant force if introduces in significant numbers. They can survive cannon and rifle fire and advance through lines.

Fantasy Creatures: Fantasy creatures can have an interesting effect on the battlefield.

  • If a creature is large enough to haul a cannon around and can be trained for combat, mobile artillery can become way more fun. Ogres with cannons and giants with guns mounted on them are a popular staple of fantasy wargaming. I personally like dire trolls throwing gunpowder bombs myself.
  • Dragons might be vulnerable to cannon-fire, but gunpowder and slow moving artillery are likely more vulnerable to a mobile, fire breathing dragon.
  • Exotic Cavalry mounts are game changers. Napoleon made great use of camels in his Egyptian campaign, Imagine what a creative general could do with armoured crabs that could withstand cannon fire or some sort of mount that allowed amphibious operations.
  • Unusual races bring new tactics. Nightvision alone would change so much in this style of warfare. Generals could setup and attack with artillery at night, conduct superior night raids and watch enemy deployment. It would be a nightmarish (heh) advantage if your enemy had it and you didn’t.
  • Could the undead be taught to use simple firearms? Drill is fairly mechanical (early on at least). Their morale is unshakable, and they keep fighting despite injury. Those are both incredible assets in this style of warfare. Zombie line infantry… hmmm.
So cool

Dire Troll Bomber from the game Hordes (Privateer Press)

Mages and Wizards: The Common Wisdom  in gaming used to be that the gun replaced the wizard. This partly has to do with the pedigree of RPGs and Fantasy wargaming. The wizard essentially too the place of the artillery in some of these games. Lately Fantasy has progressed beyond this. If a cannon is nasty, what about a magic cannon? Wizards can also do much more than provide direct fire-power. Think about the interactions between your magic system and your battlefield. One of the reasons I enjoyed Promise of Blood, is that Brian McClellan thinks this interaction through. Read it and see why… he has powder mages!

  • Gunpowder is explosive. If a mage can introduce even a small amount of fire to something at a decent range gunpowder warfare changes dramatically.
  • Enchanted bullets cannons, and guns, could be serious fun.
  • Enchanted armour could resist the weapons of the period, this would radically alter the battlefield making the charge a more dominant strategy and possibly creating something like a knight.
  • The tactics of this age are much more complex, thus the ability to summon fog, illusions, and even simple communications spells can really change the field. Swordsmen might still have a role if they can get to the enemy without being seen. Spying on the enemy with spells to learn a battle-plan is even more effective when deployments are so vital.
  • Defensive spells could allow cavalry to charge right into cannon fire, making protecting the artillery more important.
  • Healing magic could prolong engagement times and make breaking the line an arduous task.

In general it is not enough anymore to simply add a Fantasy element to Warfare without considering how it will effect the battlefield (unless that’s not the focus of your story). Modern fantasy readers are more astute and less forgiving. Think it through, discuss it with other authors and readers. It is a rewarding aspect of world building, and when done properly it creates awesome books. Seriously get writing your Napoleonic Fantasy world right now! I want to read it…