Power without Responsibility: a Real World Example

I generally shy away from real world politics on this blog. My fiction writing has a fair chunk of political content, which I live, but modern politics is often too adversarial, extreme, and entrenched in tedious repetitive rhetoric; it is also a bad way to make friends. In American and Canadian terms I would be considered a left wing liberal type, but I tend to get along quite well with most people until the talking points start surfacing.

That said I cannot resist writing about the current US shut down. It is a near perfect illustration of one of my earlier blog post: how nearly everyone in a position of power seems obsessed with avoiding blame.

Many people want power, or at least the perks and benefits that come with being powerful. However, power comes with responsibility. This can be a bit of a bummer if you do something that makes people angry and have to deal with the consequences. Many people in power, when faced with difficult situations will attempt to blame others people, the system, or other external causes when the situation goes south.

The shutdown of the US government is an excellent illustration of this.

  • The Shutdown started over the implementation of Obamacare. The Republican controlled US House of representatives has refused to fund the Government if Obamacare is implemented.
  • The Shutdown may run into the debt ceiling negotiations. The fight over Obamacare and the fight over the debt ceiling raise should not be confused despite the fact that they get bundled up in all the deal making.
  • The Democratic Party and President Obama have repeatedly caved in to the Republicans in this fight, most recently cutting the budget again. This is the first time that they’ve really taken a stand.
  • Obamacare is a polarizing issue in the US. However, the President did own the Law and in fact ran his last presidential campaign on it and won. Normally that would have been the end of the issue.
  • The Republican House hates the Obamacare law so much that it has voted to defeat it fourty-one times in since it was passed. (pointlessly)
  • Having no normal recourse to prevent the law from being implemented the Republican House has decided not fund the government unless a deal is made. They blame President Obama and the Democrats for not wanting to negotiate over Obamacare.
  • The current offer on the table is to shelve Obamacare for a year. Coincidentally 2014 is a midterm election year.
  • The Republicans are negotiating from a position of bad faith. Everyone knows that after a one year delay they would just start the fight over again and demand more concessions. This knowledge is based on their past behaviour; the recent and ongoing battles over the debt ceiling and the sequester should be evidence enough of that.

Not supporting Obamacare is a personal preference. Personally I think the US should move to the same sort of single payer coverage that the rest of the civilized world has adopted. While Obamacare might be unpopular with some, it is now law. The voters had their chance to reject the president and his plans in 2012. They chose not to. This is significant. The law even survived a supreme court challenge.

The Republican House, despite losing seats in the 2012 election (a majority of seats are held despite not having a majority of the popular vote), is set against the implementation of Obamacare to such an extraordinary degree that it is unwilling to drop the issue. However, instead of taking up legal recourse against it and fighting it out in an election they have decided to hold the funding of their own government hostage. It is an extraordinary step. Some may think them noble for it, others may see it as quixotic to say the least.

Regardless of your stance on Obamacare and US party politics it is hard to deny that the Republican House is the active party in this action. They picked this fight. They are using their political power, every once of strength and influence at their disposal to roll back and defeat a law that they don’t like. They may even use the debt ceiling again, threatening to default on the US government’s obligations if they don’t get their way.

However, despite their use of power, they refuse to take responsibility for their actions. They blame anyone but themselves for the government shutdown and the potential havoc it might cause. They will certainly claim victory if their political manoeuvre succeeds but they are unwilling to take responsibility for any harm that it causes, hoping that their constituents will blame others instead. This would be like President Obama vetoing every law that congress passes until he gets new regulations on banks, and then blaming congress for getting nothing done because they refuse to negotiate with him on getting new regulations on banks.

As a writer, regardless of how you feel about this situation, it is an excellent example of how rough politics can get, The Republican Party is attempting a risky, crazy political move. It may even work out for them. However, they are also trying to avoid responsibility for their actions if it does fail. This is the scourge of modern power, those who wield it often try to avoid blame for using it wrongly.

Fantasy worlds have their own power structures, from feudal systems to complex empires to fledgling democracies. Regardless of the setting, there will almost always be different factions competing for power in a single nation. The King will fight with the Barons over taxes. The border provinces will set themselves against the capital in the empire. Democracies, of course, are constantly arguing. Even the Sun Court of absolute monarch Louis the XIV had different groups of nobles fighting for the king’s attention. Regardless of the intentions and morality of these groups, some of them are sure to be the type of people who hedge their bets and try to avoid responsibility for negative consequences when they use their power.


World-Building: Magic, Power, and Economics using Magic: The Gathering Lands as an example.

Lands for Magic: the Gatherng

Last week I scribbled about the idea that magic could have a drastic effect on the economics and power structure of a fantasy world. The example I gave were fairly simplistic and I wanted to follow up a longer, more interesting example. I chose the idea of taking power from the land which is well represented in fantasy. Examples include Magic: The Gathering, where players use land cards to generate mana to power their spells and the Fallen Enchantress series where players capture elemental nodes on the landscape to increase their spell power. The basic idea is that the magic user draws the power needed for their magic from the lands they control. Lets say I like this basic idea and want to use it as a magic system in my game world or story. I’ll start by defining the fundamental characteristics of the system and then move on to how I think those will inform basic world building.

Mystic Lands Magic System

  • It takes time to attune to a land. Only one magic user can attune to a land at a time. Other magic users have a vague sense of who is attuned to a land.
  • The characteristics of a land make it useful for certain types of magic, Mountains are good for earth and fire magic, swamps are associated with death and decay, while forests are good for healing and growth.
  • Because the characteristics matter, not just any land will do, areas worth attuning to are relatively rare and require a certain archetypal quality.
  • A Magic user has some small talent for magic on their own, but to do any complex magic they must have access to the raw power they can channel from their lands. The more powerful the spell the more land they must be attuned to.
  • Lets assume that mages are common enough to have an impact on politics and economics in our world.
  • There are a wide variety of spells but most magic-users stick to one or two specialties based on the lands they control.
  • Since this is inspired by, and not base on Magic: The Gathering, we’ll leave out the MTG fluff like planes-walkers and such.

Our Magic: the Gathering inspired system now has enough characteristics for me to extrapolate some ideas of how it will influence the political and economic environment of  standard fantasy world.

  • Heightened Feudalism: The foundation of feudal power was the ownership of land. If control of land directly increased the magic-users power it becomes even more important to them. We therefore know that control of the land is central to our world, especially to the magic-users. Territorial disputes will be taken very seriously, which will lead to a fair bit of conflict. Mages without access to lands become a sort of magical under-class, unable to fulfill their potential. Ideas of ownership and inheritance of land are central to the laws.
  • Conservation and Protection:  Since the characteristics of a land influence what type of magic can be drawn from it, you can be damned sure the controlling magic-user will be watching over his or her lands and trying to keep them as pure a possible. This might mean that they come into conflict with others who may wish to use the land for more mundane purposes, which would alter their bond to it.
  • That man reeks of the swamps!: If control of lands is important, it is likely that the magic-user will spend a far bit of time near their power base. People will judge a magic-user base on where they live and develop prejudices and generalizations about those who dwell in certain areas based on the type of magic that can be drawn from them. Mountain fold are more warlike, swamp-dwellers are morbid, and so on.
  • Land Destruction: Total warfare in such a world would often entail destroying an opponents places of power. (MTG actually delves into this) This sort of nuclear option could have nasty long term consequences with bitter wars between magic users leading to cataclysms as magic-users destroy each others lands. Even common people could wage war against the magic-users in this way,
  • Mage Lords: Because of their need to control the land magic-users would want to have a fair bit of temporal power as well. After all, an army could really come in useful if a horde of orcs decides to use your forest for firewood. Mages would likely be powerful landowners or warlords in order to keep tight reign over their lands.

Those are nice, simple extrapolations, but delving further into it we can come up with some really juicy ideas.

  • The Problem with Cities: Urban sprawl and human habitation changes the characteristics of the lands where it occurs. Some mages in the world might be very interested in population control as measure to keep their power base safe, This makes for an interesting tension between the magic-users and those who wish to make different use of the land, The problem could be exacerbated if some new-fangled type of magic-user draws power from urbanized lands or some sort of unknown power starts staining the land.
  • Concentration of Power: Even if the magic-users avoid confrontation with the mundanes over land use, conflict can arise as more and more land falls becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Landless mages will always be on the lookout for ways to get their hands on some power while those with great power will have to guard their territories zealously from each other as well as the landless.
  • Land ho!: Imagine the discovery of a new land-mass, unclaimed by magic-users in this scenario. The land-rush would be intense. Magic-users already have a big incentive to explore, given that undiscovered lands are a ready source of power, Colonization in such a case would take on the worst aspects of imperialism, with the powerful competing with the desperate in a bit to come out on top in the mad rush to gain control of all that land…

World-Building: Magic, Power, and Economics (Primer)

“Comfort and habits let us be ready to forgo, but I am not ready for a creed which does not care how much it destroys the liberty and security of daily life, which uses deliberately the weapons of persecution, destruction and international strife. How can I admire a policy which finds a characteristic expression in spending millions to suborn spies in every family and group at home, and to stir up trouble abroad?”  John Maynard Keynes from A Short View of Russia (1925). Reads rather like a certain, more modern problem.

Mo Magic, Mo problems?

For me, magic is the essential element of Fantasy. Magic, even in its subtlest forms, invokes that sense of the Fantastic, clearly showing us that we have passed beyond the looking glass. Fantasy authors and gamers argue endlessly about what makes a good magic system. Many of them make excellent points, and I don’t really feel the need to put forth my own theory of magic system design (yet). The magic in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale and Bloodlust: Will to power is functional and familiar: I felt that asking readers to accept a long story about Fantasy Gladiators was enough of a departure point for a new author.

Stripping magic down to its bare bones, to the mechanics of the magic system  as a gamer would say, leaves us with the following necessary parts.

  • Internal Consistency: Magic is usually, but not always, supernatural. It does not have to follow the laws of science as we understand them. Because of this, it is doubly important for a writer to be consistent when using magic in their writing. If a reader catches a contradiction in the way magic is used their suspension of disbelief will often fail. Skilled world-builders create rules for their magic systems either beforehand or as they write. The reader does not have to be exposed to these rules, however. As always using folklore and tropes allows a writer to tap into rules that have already been set out in myth and fiction, but make sure to use them consistently.
  • Fantastic/Supernatural/Miraculous Element: Magic should, on some level, be obviously unreal. It helps acclimatize the reader to the idea that they are reading a story in which the impossible is possible. This does not hold true in all cases however. Some forms of Fantasy make good use of the device that characters and readers are unsure if they are facing mundane or magical challenges.
  • Definition and System: The Writer should know what the magic is. Is it the language of creation? Is it the magician tapping into the code of the simulation the world resides in? Is it bargains with Eldritch powers? Is it a gift from the gods. ETC ETC. Again the writer needs to knew these, the readers do not. Costs and requirements are important. Who can use magic? How does one learn?

Pretty basic stuff.  Keep it in mind as we move to what I really want to write about: the effects of magic on power structures and economics.

Much like how magical elements shift warfare, I find that the impact of magic on the rest of the world is often ill considered in Fantasy Games and novels. Here are a few simple example, purely chaotic.

  • Resurrection: In Bloodlust the Gladiators can attune to Keystones, powerful constructs that allow them to survive almost any injury. I am very careful to limit what the Keystones can do, however. They must be attuned to beforehand, they are heavy, and they have limited range. Certain spells and abilities can overcome the magic of the stone or inflict injuries beyond its ability to preserve the life force of a Gladiator. Without these restrictions, Keystones would become weapons of war, allowing the Gifted to engage in warfare without almost no risk.
  • Magical Resources:  If magic requires certain resources, then control of those resources becomes a major part of the economy of the world. Even if the resource is relatively common, a monopoly or speculation can create false scarcity. The nature of these resources can add interesting spins to the world as well. Think of how the nature of oil or steel and how it is extracted has changed our world.
  • Cure Disease: The cure disease spells found in most games are better than modern medicine. If easily available they remove one of the bigger pressures on population growth even in medieval settings.
  • Magical Crops: Magic is likely useful for more than fighting. A spell that enhances crop yields likely isn’t going to excite readers or game players, but it could certainly vastly increase the population of a kingdom. The same goes for magically enhance methods of gathering or processing other resources, creating a better economic base for a fantasy nation.
  • Knowledge Economy: If spells are lore-based, like most Tolkien style fantasy, then their is a definite economy in keeping spells secret. A powerful wizard might trade great favours for important lore, or kill for it. Spying becomes part of magic, and protecting one’s research is a full time job. And the poor fool who tries to share all of his lore with the world for free? the others would gang up on that guy.
  • Light: It is hard to imagine the modern world without a reliable source of light at night. The changes that could be wrought by even this kind of simple magic are profound. Less fires from lanterns and torches, more productive time in the day, and so on.

These are just simple examples. In general every change that magic brings should be thought through. The details make for excellent world-building and will really fire up a readers imagination. I know I am a big fan of Fantasy Authors who delve deep into the changes that magic creates in their world…

Logistics in Strange Worlds

“Lembas. Elvish waybread. One small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man.” – J R R Tolkien.

My sister works in the Canadian North, a defence attorney on circuit around the vast, rugged territory of Nunavut, which encompasses some of the coldest, roughest, and most remote places in our land. This week, as she ventured out on a new circuit for the first time, she ran into a cascading series of travel issues that resulted in her being late to court, missing baggage and clothes, and then stranded in a the small community of Gjoa Haven. While she was there she reflected on how different the inconveniences of travel made life in the North, especially for permanent residents. Here is an excerpt from her ruminations:

“In the South (In this case she is referring to southern Canada, Ontario to be exact), we have so much choice. So much cheap and abundant choice about just about everything, from where we shop to who we have as our dentists to how we wish to travel; plane train, or automobile. When I lived in Ontario, I lived in a small town called Shedden, west of London Ontario and more than 200 km from Crieff, where my parents live. To get home, I turned right on the 401 and then right again on Hwy 6 South. It took me about an hour and a half on good day, less on a really good day. I could pursue my profession where I wanted and still see my parents and grandparents regularly, all thanks to the ease and low cost of travel in the South.” – Deanna Harris.

This got me to thinking. Travel is something we take for granted in modern day, but often serves as a plot device and an integral part of world-building in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Magical and mundane methods of travel that differ from our can drastically alter the feel of a setting. If a science fiction setting does not include some method of faster-than-light travel then it will limit the size of any Galactic empires. Here are a few logistical considerations that I think are key in world-building.

1) Speed — How far can a person travel in an hour/day/month/year? This is perhaps the most important travel question in any setting. Towns and inns will often be set up along major routes at intervals based on a day’s travel by the dominant method of travel (or the dominant method of travel when they were founded) and where major routes cross. If you have instantaneous travel like warp-gates or planar portals you can bet your bottom dollar that the dominant powers will build some form of post to control travel there, if only to prevent their enemies from catching them by surprise. Even road quality can make a difference: the Roman Legions were able to exert control over such a large area partly because travel within the Empire was made easier and faster by their roads. These roads also encouraged trade because they were safe and faster than dirt paths. The legions were also disciplined enough to march for long periods which allows them to cover a much greater distance during the day than most armies at the time. Speed is essential to any narrative involves a lot of travel. If travel is slower it means that rare resources from distant places command even higher prices from those who need them. Slower travel also means greater regional variation between dialects, languages, and culture. It makes central education and control harder as well.

2) Cargo — A ship might be slower than a horse, and even have to take an indirect route to get to a particular destination, but it can carry a hell of a lot more. This obviously matters a great deal for trade. Extensive trade systems involve moving massive quantities of goods. In areas where ships are impossible it might mean a need for massive caravans. Caravans carrying precious cargo attract raids and need guards and so on. In the Terminator, the titular character is unable to bring anything back into the past when he travels, which means he has to search for weapons and clothing immediately. Lack of cargo capacity can make a big difference in construction: it is hard to build a palace out of imported marble if you can’t bring it in by ship or some other form of bulk transport.

3) Fuel/Limitations — Gas stations are a ubiquitous sight in modern day. Expect something similar for whatever fuel is required by your dominant modes of transportation. Helium and Hydrogen stations for Dirigibles. Fueling stations for certain kinds of space ships. Fuel, as we can see with oil and gas, can become a plot point in an of itself in narratives with large scale conflicts. This is true even of muscle-powered travel where food is fuel. Fuel can limit travel on extended trips, especially into areas where provisions are hard to come by; even foot travelers will have to carry more food while vehicles rapidly become useless if no fuel is available. Cargo can make a big difference in this case, as can means variation. Brandon Sanderson does away with conventional logistics of large medieval armies in the Way of Kings, with certain types of mage being able to conjure food if they have an uncommon, but easily portable type of resource in the gem-hearts. Other limitations, like a need for a landing strip for a plane or the difficulty of a magic ritual can alter a method of travel, and how it changes the world, significantly. A steamship has different limitations than a sailing ship, and so on.

4) Knowledge/Exploration — It helps to know where you are going. In some cases a map or special can be more important than a method of travel in a story. Treasure maps, knowledge of where the next oasis is in the desert, and even hints of what exists where you are going can really effect logistics. Language barriers also effect travel and while their effects on world-building may be obvious on other levels, it is not often taken into account with travel and trade. Knowledge is something we take for granted in the modern day, even in our well-mapped fantasies, but it posed a real challenge to people moving beyond the thresholds of their homelands in the ancient worlds.

5) Means Variation — Different people have access to different methods of travel. If one group has access to a form of travel that others cannot match it can give them a tremendous advantage. This advantage can create Empires: think of British Sea power, Druids traveling between stone circles, or Dragon riders: their mobility is as much or more of an advantage than brute force because it allows them to leverage their assets over a much wider territory. Those with access to special forms of mobility will almost always be in the dominant classes, either because they can afford that rarer form of travel or because they can use it to gain power or wealth. Just think of the advantages that a man with access to a horse or cart-oxen would have in the old days over someone who did not. The navigators in Dune have tremendous power because they control much of the means of travel (though not the fuel)

6) Local Variation — Local variations in travel will change the way a specific place feels. A crossroads town that sees a lot of traffic will be more worldly than a mining town. A port will pick up some of the customs of the sea and attract faraway travelers.  You are unlikely to find a cosmopolitan place that is hard to travel to. Variation often depend on local resources. Terrain itself is the most important local variation. A desert is hard to traverse because of lack of food and water, as well as the difficulty of travelling on sand. Thus there are few cities in deep deserts. Mountains and swamps pose entirely different problems. In Science Fiction this often represented as planets/places that have access to space travel and those that do not. In Fantasy magic can make a difference as well, with magical barriers isolating communities or strange riding beasts that only live in one area. I was particularly enamoured of the Stiltwalkers in Morrowind, huge creatures that could traverse the island very quickly.

Other issues of logistics are equally important as the travel question, Middle-Earth or Westeros may be cool but we’d probably miss indoor plumbing after a while (Among other things). Crossing a desert or a mountain pass are rarely arduous in modern day, but can easily be the focal point of an entire book in a medieval fantasy setting.

1) Communications — is communication faster than travel? Instantaneous communication is still changing the modern world. The impact of being able to share information across vast distances is staggering when you think about it. If communications aren’t faster than travel methods it makes detecting invading armies more difficult, which leads to things like castles and stronghold to keep a permanent foothold in important territory. There are plenty of unusual methods of communication in fantasy and sci-fi each with their own quirks which influence the setting. Astropaths in 40k are living beacons that help guide ships and communicate over vast distances, but their rarity and the danger inherent in their powers inform the setting, making it isolated and grim.

2) Food and Weather — even if food is not the primary means of fuel, it is still a necessity in long distance travel. Water is an important consideration as well. Almost no cities were built away from convenient sources of food and water outside the modern era. Ease of travel has alleviated this, somewhat. Weather is another consideration for travel and local custom. In Europe, warfare was nearly impossible in the winter months, and “General Winter” is still credited with many victories even as recently as WWII.

In Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale the Chosen have access to many unusual methods of transportation. Steamships, magically enhanced horses, and even airships make an appearance. These methods of travel, combined with sophisticated communications, allow the Chosen to rule over a vast Empire. Gladiators are forbidden from using most of these methods of travel and communication because of lessons learned in past rebellions, which means they often have to travel by foot. The fact that the Gladiators have to travel with Grey-Robes also serves as a limitation. The Gladiators often feel out of sync and isolated from the rest of their world, and the limitations on their communications and travel are as isolating as the walls around the Gladiator’s quarters which separate them from the rest of the Domains.

The same is true for individual Domains in some cases. Chosen Eudora prefers to keep her Domain wild, which makes it very different than the rest of the Empire, and far less inhabited. Chosen Moltar’s Domain is isolated by cultural barriers and laws as well as mountains, very easy for men and women to travel to, but sometimes hard to leave. Because of their mystical prowess many of the Chosen are able to build and maintain structures in places that others could not, such as Brightsand Halls, raised on stone pillars,  Chosen Giselle’s garden fortress in the desert.

Overall the citizens of the Domains have an easier time getting from one place to another. The roads are excellent, and winter only limits travel for normal people in a very few places. Magical roads, steamships, and well organized trade routes make travel within the Empire much easier than in the world outside. Trade is very important within the Domains, and regional variations are such that goods are moved about with great frequency. I’d rank it as close to 19th century real world, but with much closer to the classical age in terms of contact with the outside lands and cultures outside the Empire. Other factors that influence travel are the dangers of the taint and frequency of attacks in any border area. One of the flaws of the first Bloodlust book is that I should have had an ambush or attack to demonstrate the occasional dangers of travel off the beaten path. Next book I guess.

In the timeline I am writing about the Domains are slowly adopting new technologies as the magic of artifice becomes more and more available. The Chosen are long-lived, which I have decided acts as a general hindrance to adopting new technology. However, they are now on the cusp of a revolution in travel with Steamships and trains and so on becoming not only possible for individual Domains but adopted by the people of Krass. The main effect of this will be to make it easier for the Empire to expand. New methods of travel make for better ways of bringing power to bear at distant borders. Of course, a new Chosen will need to carve out their own territory…

Edit: I have no idea why I originally wrote Brian instead of Brandon… oops.