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.

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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.

Fantasy World-Building: The Kirif

Pillar-Coral

Pillar Coral. Picture these the size of a fifty story building to get an idea of the spires of Kirif.

As I delve deep into my third book (wow), I find myself at a juncture where I am expanding upon the world. Much of Warbound: The Shield Maiden takes place beyond the borders of the Domains of the Chosen, on the “lost continent” of Ithal’Duin. I am going to share some of my initial 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.

Goals: Ithal’Duin and Kirif

My starting point in this endeavour, other than the world I have created thus far, is to outline a few goals for each civilization and the continent as a whole. Some of these are based on flavour and history, while others are very, very story driven. I will share some of my original goals regarding the civilization of Kirif on Ithal’Duin.

  1. History [general goal] All of the civilizations on Ithal’Duin 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 Ithal’Duin is to create something more exotic.
  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. On Ithal’Duin I want to explore more alien realms, where people learned to live with the wild magic.
  3. Motive [Kirif goal] Kirif is the friendly realm on Ithal’Duin; a society that seeks to ally itself with the Domains. They are willing to cede territory to one of the Chosen and act as a base of operations on the continent.
  4. Appearance [Kirif goal] I want Kirif to be a beautiful, trade oriented society with a style of architecture and cultural traits that are immediately striking.
  5. Politics [Kirif goal] I don’t want Kirif to be a monoculture. The Domains (and the Wyrn) are the grindstone of my world. I also need a fair bit of internal and external strife for story reasons.
  6. Language [Kirif goal] I want the language of Kirif to be a little wierd.

Outline of The Spires of the Kirif

This is a very general outline of Kirif, each point corresponding to a goal above. I realize that this takes a lot out of the romance of world-building, but it is meant only to be a general overview. For me, the real world-building is in the details that I “discover” during the writing, hence I prefer to go in with a strong outline, but leave space for growth.

  1. History [general goal] Kirif is made up of refugees who took shelter in a series of sub-tropical coastal caves during the worst of the Reckoning. These caves were close enough to water that the people could survive by sneaking out to fish, hunt, and gather. They would have been reduced to basic subsistence if not for magic; eventually they learned a form of symbiotic biomancy that allowed them to gain control over their environment, such as a type of coral and some fungus that were changed by the reckoning. Kirifan magic is thus very specialized and not nearly as powerful as the magic of the Domains. However it is so evolved that the species that are in symbiosis with the Kirif respond to those who do not have the gift. Almost all Kirif bond with a parasite that breathes underwater for them.
  2. Alien Flavour [general goal] The Reckoning changed the Kirif. They have odd eyes and their skin is covered in tiny scales, giving them a slightly reptilian look. Most Kirif have very loose kinship bonds, based around their Spire. Children are raised communally by the spire and basic family structure is replaced by relation to the King and Queen of the spire. Those who have no spire make up an undercaste and are always clamouring for new territory.
  3. Motive [Kirif goal] The Kirif are powerful, but they are surrounded by many enemies. The coral with which they build their cities is slow to adapt to new areas, while their Allegiance with the Domains gives them an ally who can support them against the rest of the continent, and also change the internal political balance in Kirif. They value trade and are hungry for friends, but also understand the need for might if they wish to grow. The don’t understand land warfare, particularly attack and siege warfare, nearly to the extent of the Domains.
  4. Appearance [Kirif goal] The Kirif created their own Islands by manipulating the growth of coral and fungus. Eventually they learned to grow huge Spires and shape them into buildings and even fortifications. They are like coral skyscrapers now. These Spires became central to their culture and organization, similar to the castle of a noble house. The Spires have “Kings and Queens”, Bloodlines with whom the symbiotic coral are most attuned to, giving them tremendous power within their home. Individually their clothing is meant to be worn in and out of water and mostly consists of bathing suits. There is less of a nudity taboo, which is not unusual for sub-tropical coastal cultures, and might heat up the story a bit. They love jewelry and consider beauty and art to be of great import. Also they have carnivorous guard dolphins who have rights similar to the Spireless.
  5. Politics [Kirif goal] The Spires are at odds with each other. This is partly based on the strains of coral that each spire is based on. As the coral spreads and grows it comes into conflict with other spires. Wars can occur and some Spires can be destroyed or forced to move. Those without spires are always seeking to start new spires, but the spires gang up to stop them and keep space for themselves.
  6. Language [Kirif goal]  Kirif has basic words can be spoken underwater, it includes unusual sounds like chirping sounds designated by * and clacks designated with a !. To the people of the Domains it sounds like singsong gibberish.
  7. Most importantly, the Kirif have a very different attitude to the magic and the Gift, at least to start off 😉

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…

Roman Gladiators and Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale

For death, when it stands near us, gives even to inexperienced men the courage not to seek to avoid the inevitable. So the gladiator, no matter how faint-hearted he has been throughout the fight, offers his throat to his opponent and directs the wavering blade to the vital spot. (Seneca. Epistles, 30.8)

My fights have spells. And more blood.

A dramatic depiction of the end of a deathmatch.

As regular readers have probably guessed by now, I am a big fan of the classical age. I love all things ancient Roman and Hellenic with a passion.  As a child, before I had any understanding suffering, slavery, and death, I was really into Gladiators. The pictures of these athletic, imposing fighters with their iconic weapons and gear caught my interest long before I developed the critical faculties to question the morality of Bloodsports. Years later this interest would resurface when I was looking to create a faster, snappier alternative to GW’s Bloodbowl (a tabletop football game with fantasy elements) for my local games club, which led to a Bloodlust role-playing game (unpublished) and then finally to Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale, my first novel.

Roman Gladiators are the most famous of the Bloodsport traditions. The Colosseum  the archetypal arena, still stands in modern Rome evoking memories of bloodthirsty crowds and desperate battles. Livy dates the first use of Gladiators as 264 BC, a fight to the death in a forum, held as part of the funerary rites of an important personage. Livy emphasizes the theatrical tone, even then, but it is doubtful that it bore much resemblance to the decadent public spectacles of the late Republic and the Roman Empire. Likely it was closer to pit fighting at this stage. It is known that these commemorative rites with their ritual and sacrificial elements did continue and later gave rise to the greater Gladiatorial games. Famous examples of these early games include a Munus put on by Scipio Africanus during the Punic Wars to honour his family members, killed in the war against Carthage. Over twenty pairs of Gladiators fought by some accounts. It is possible that the cunning Scipio used this spectacle to raise morale. These early games were far more lethal, thought to always end in the death of one the fighters.

By the first century BCE, Rome was getting a taste of State sponsored fights, put on by the consuls for the express purpose of entertaining the public. These are the true beginning of the Gladiatorial games we see in movies and television. They were part sport and part circus, but all vicious. The political aspect of these games, which had consuls and later, Emperors, cynically using the bloody entertainments of the arena to manipulate public opinion are one of the things that I find most fascinating about the games.

Here are a few brief notes about the Roman games and how they compare to my use of Gladiators in Bloodlust.

1) Gladiators were divided into distinct types: Roman Gladiators, at least those who were trained in Ludi, each fought with distinct gear and a particular style. Some of these types began in imitation of the fighting styles of the early enemies of Rome, such as the Samnites, but in the end it seems to me that they were more about style and variety. Creation of distinct categories of fighters allows even modern fighting sports to mix it up and create a multitude of different events from wrestling to boxing to MMA. I expand upon this a little bit in Bloodlust with weight class, training types, and magic types but instead of following this rigid structure the Gladiators in Bloodlust choose new specializations becoming more an more individualized throughout their careers. At some point I will have to do up a separate post of all the Gladiator types from the Roman arenas with all of their interesting armour.

Fall AWAY from the sword, dude.

A Mosaic depicting two Gladiators fighting

2) Gladiator were a mix of free men, slaves, and prisoners of war: We all know that the Romans, like many ancient peoples, were cruel to those that they fought against. Rome just took it a step further institutionalizing their imperialistic humiliations as a sporting event. Conquered peoples who survived often ended up in the arena as fodder or if they had potential, as trained fighters. Interestingly, not all Roman Gladiators were slaves or prisoners of war. At the height of the games, there were professional, volunteer Gladiators who earned fame and fortune facing death in the arena. Some even estimate that these volunteers made up around half of the trained Gladiators. In Bloodlust the Gladiators are all magically adept people (called Gifted) who choose to fight in the games so that they can keep their magic and have a chance at becoming one of the Chosen. Magic is considered too dangerous to just let the Gifted use it freely and so they are kept under control until they earn the right to use it or give it up. That’s the surface theory, at least. The truth behind this is that it is a power play and an institution that has vastly outgrown its original purpose. This is similar to the Roman games which very quickly outgrew their origins and became very hard to control; even the reformist Christian Emperors had trouble stamping them out until Chariot Racing overtook them in popularity.

3) Women fought in the arena and Gladiatrix is not a word that I invented: No one is sure of how widespread female fighters were in the arena, but their is direct and circumstantial evidence that they did exist. There are references to women volunteering to train at the Gladiatorial schools. There are murals of bare-chested armoured Gladiatrices locked in combat and account of fights involving women. Grave markers of honoured female fighters have been found as well. In Bloodlust the women are right out there with the men, with Sadira being considered the best fighter of her “generation” of Gladiators.

4) Gladiators would not only fight each other but also animals of all sorts: It sounds like animal cruelty, but its really just cruelty in general. Roman Gladiators killed and  were killed by animals in the arena. Beast fights were considered more sporting than fights against Noxii, untrained fighters, but generally far less interesting than a bout between two trained and well-promoted fighters. In Bloodlust I switch it up a little. While fights between Gladiators are still considered the most exciting form of the sport, the Gladiators are commonly pitted against monstrous foes from outside the Domains. These monster fights are a form of ritualized jingoism that allow the people of the Domains to see the horrors that exist outside their borders being dominated and destroyed by their favorite fighters. I leave it to the reader to decided if this is ugly, offensive  imperialism or just good old action porn. After all, Beastmen and Wirn are evil, right?

Funny looking lions IMO.

A depiction of Gladiators fighting beasts.

5) Gladiators were taught in Schools (Ludi): As the Roman games worked up into full swing Schools were founded to train the most promising of candidates. Gladiators would train hard at these schools, honing their skills between each match. I don’t really change this much in Bloodlust, although my Gladiators can train harder since they heal faster and do not owe allegiance to their schools.

6) In the later Gladiatorial games, lethality became less important than celebrity. It seemed that a brave, well-known fighter stood a good chance of seeing mercy if defeated. Some Gladiators fought in as many as a hundred and fifty matches, which makes me think that the fights were often wildly unequal. This is similar to Bloodlust, where Deathmatches are fairly rare. However in the imperial period, the lethality of Gladiatrial contests often varied by Emperor, with guys like Caligula wanting the bloodiest matches possible. Again, I follow this idea Bloodlust, where politics can interfere with the Great Games and a few fans always want to return to the good ol’ days where every fight ended with death.

7) There were some crazy match types: Roman Gladiators would sometimes re-enact famous battles in crazy set pieces. There are even accounts of the Colosseum being flooded to enact a naval battle. I expand on this Bloodlust with many usual match types and a bewildering variety of special rules.

I could go on. Roman Gladiators still fascinate me, despite the ugly aspects of the arena. There is so much to cover here, if you can stomach it. The ancillary aspects of the Roman games like the Factions and the sportsmanship also appear in my work. The stylized, sexualized armour. The crazy gear. Interesting topic, if a little grim. Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale  is at least in part my attempt to face my own guilty fascination with this heady mix of celebrity, politics and brutal bloodsport.

Fate and Causality in Fantasy, a primer.

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” – Socrates (attr)

It is hard to find a decent dictionary definition of fate. However, for the purposes of this article, which deals primarily with fiction and a little bit with politics, fate is is a deterministic outcome that defies rational cause and effect. Fate has a long and storied tradition in literature. The Greek playwrights of old preferred using fate as a device, possibly because they wanted to to focus on the reaction to an event and thus obfuscated cause. While the Greeks certainly understood cause and effect, their dramas were more about evoking an emotional reaction. It doesn’t matter how Oedipus comes to kill his father and marries his mother, is is prophesied that he will do so and that’s that. Indeed Oedipus journey seems kind of random when you read it: he keeps running into strange tests and wierd characters on his way to fulfilling the prophecy. I mean seriously, what does the Sphinx have to do with anything? you could mix up the individual scenes in the middle part of his journey and it would barely effect the story. There is no cause and effect beyond the prophecy. The idea was to invoke pathos in the audience, a sense of common human failing and helplessness against an uncaring universe. Fate is good for this, because if we could see cause and effect in Oedipus’ journey, we might feel less sympathetic. It is an interesting device.

Here are some of the more common uses of Fate in Fantasy fiction

1) Prophecy: Prophecy is the king of irrational causes and is very common in fantasy fiction. The prophecy contains information about an event that will happen in the future. It can be deterministic and unavoidable like the prophecy given to Oedipus’parents or it can be a sort of if/then statement wherein if a certain set of conditions is met at a certain time: BOOM payoff. This second form of prophecy is very popular in modern fantasy, as it sets up a sort of race to see who controls the outcome or if it can be foiled. Often much of the fun is in seeing how events line up in unexpected ways to create the effect predicted by the prophecy, no matter how much the characters try to avoid it.

The causality of prophecy is usually Prophecy –> doesn’t matter = Effect or Prophecy Conditions –> Conditions met (y/n) = Effect if yes. Some authors can be very clever with this device and part of the fun is how convoluted it can get.

2) The Gods: In the Homer’s Odyssey, the Hero Odysseus has offended several of the gods because of his role in the fall of Troy. They influence nature itself to rebel against him sending him to several seemingly unrelated places and hindering his journey. Again, the island of the cyclops or Circe’s domain could be moved in continuity without changing the story much, other than having to re-arrange the number of dead crewmen. Odysseus is gonna wander until the gods get tired of tormenting him, or a friendly god intervenes. In the end, he could have walked home in less time (Should have hitched a ride with Xenophon, I guess).

The Causality here is God Interferes = Effect, often in a series of semi-related events. The god might inflict some misfortune at point A, then another at point B, and another at point C in the narrative. Interestingly some modern authors have reversed this. I’m thinking of Victor Hugo here, where the priest saves Valjean and this little act of kindness ripples throughout the whole narrative, the idea being that God lives in that kind act.

In some cases a callous system can take the place of a cruel god. In these stories the tragedy is unavoidable and the system is beyond cause and effect, and largely ineffable.

3) Destiny: There are quite a few stories in fantasy that involve characters with destinies. They are destined to do a particular thing and are driven to fulfill that task. They rarely waver from their course, and because of this have rather fallen out of favour in the modern day. Rational causes and effect make for a vastly superior linear story because it is more relatable and engages our thought processes. Destiny can also be used as a positive form of Doom, a event favours the character without a sensible cause or effect. A boy randomly finding a magic sword that sets him on the path to greatness, for example. (Although you could follow causes for an even more interesting tale, just how did that blade get there?)

4) Doom: In normal usage, people lash out against fate when they feel that they are wronged by an event that they had no control over. If your arm gets broken by a falling tree branch on a perfectly calm day you would likely curse your luck or rail against fate. There is likely a rational explanation for the breaking of the branch, but not too many people would follow that complex layer of causes. Its just easier to blame fate, especially if that first bad event leads to a second, like losing your job because said branch breaks your arm and you are then late for work. Doom in literature posits an uncaring or downright hostile universe, where bad things happen for no particular reason, often randomly. People will always be poor. Wars cannot be avoided. Life sucks. Some authors use this device brilliantly, using savage chance to evoke the frailty of life or just write a wicked western. Other writers use it lazily and would be better off showing us why things suck so badly in their world. “It just does” only cuts it if you are really good.

In rhetoric “that’s just the way things are” is often used a smokescreen; people are often lured in by this because it is easier to follow than a complex chain of cause and effect.

Modern Fantasy also has plenty of novels that are based on rational cause and effect. Tolkien makes good use of cause and effect to tell the story of the fellowship in Lord of the Rings. The properties of the ring are well defined and the journey mostly makes sense moving from A to B to C in a rational fashion all the way to mount doom. One of the reasons that Tom Bombadil frustrates me so much is that he breaks this sense of causality, appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing entirely from the story for no discernible reason. I mean seriously Tom, we could use your help against Sauron over here bud.

More recently, the Dresden Files follow the style of detective novels where the narrative is driven by the main character following causal links from a catalyst event to the final confrontation. The main character, Harry Dresden, usually uses the event, often a murder or some weird magical happening (frogs!), to determine suspects, motive, background, and rationally predict outcomes (although he often fails at all three) in a very rational manner, despite dealing with supernatural elements. Because we can follow Harry’s line of reasoning, we are tied into to the story. This creates a very believable world despite the use of Fantastic elements.

Of course cause and effect also have their limits, especially in Fantasy. Many a great magic system has been over-explained, for example. More on this later.

Bacon, Genre Mashups, and Valentine’s Day

Today the unthinkable happened: I ate something that tasted like Bacon and I hated it. I have long maintained that the kingly flavour of crispy bacon can improve any culinary creation. Maple glazed Bacon. Bacon sprinkles on ice cream. Bacon wrapped shrimp. Bacon wrapped bacon. And so on. Fortunately I am not wealthy enough to fully satisfy my appetite for the mightiest of porkmeats or I would likely have suffered some kind of bacon induced fatality (the tastiest form of death!).

But today I had my comeuppance in the form of a Bacon flavoured mint.

The bacon flavoured mint is an abomination, something dredged up from the twisted mind of a mad scientist who is overly fond of barbeque and pork based chemical engineering. Upon popping the tiny mint, I was greeted by a surprising burst of pure bacony flavour equal to a decently cooked slice of piggy’s finest. After a mere heartbeat this essence quickly changed, leaving an aftertaste that made me feel like I’d chugged a can of week-old bacon grease. Then the mint kicked in. Apparently bacon and mint are not friends. No sir, they do not mix well. It was absolutely terrible… I no longer have absolute faith in Bacon: may pork have mercy on my belly.

Now, what does this have to do with anything that isn’t silly or bacon-related?

The core lesson of my ill-fated encounter with bacon-mints is that just because I really, really like something does not mean that it has a place in everything I do. This is certainly true of writing.

Genre Mashups are big deal in gaming right now, and have started to have influence into writing as well. The basic idea of a genre mashup in gaming is to take a whole bunch of elements from different games, throw them together, shake until blended and then play. Kingdom hearts combines Disney with Final Fantasy and other Square Enix properties to create an epic adventure that is part anime and part classic Disney and somehow entirely original. The Shadowrun RPG blends a cyberpunk dystopia with the sudden return of magic including a large percentage of the world population mutating into Tolkien style fantasy races. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a book that mixes Jane Austen’s period classic with flesh eating undead.

Of course, for every good mashup, there are many failures or flawed works. I remember my own attempt to mix cool Space Marine style power armour and a pure fantasy world. The characters were cool, but the world ultimately lacked any real details that would explain the presence of powered armour. I mean if the people of that world can create that kind of awesome technology, which is beyond our present grasp, then why wouldn’t they have cars and the flu vaccine. If the armour was a rare lost artifact of a bygone age, and thus powerful and rare, why was it in the hands of a group of people who were, at best, adventurers: that kind of power makes kingdoms, if not empires. I didn’t think it through, and the setting fell apart in a hail of rune enhanced autocannon ammunition (poor kobolds).

Yet for all the challenges, the allure remains strong. Perhaps my favourite mashup is the Dresden Files which mixes pulp detective fiction with every single cool magical fantasy trope that Jim Butcher can think of. The Genius of the Dresden files is that mr Butcher somehow manages to make room for all of these in his world without it seeming crowded or silly. That’s quite an achievement when one of the books involves four different types of werewolves (I’m not talking sub-types like clans here, but full-on origins) and another has a character riding a T-rex. Then again the author did write another series that blended Pokemen with a lost Roman legion, and somehow made that work too. I think what Mr Butcher does is integrate each element of cool carefully, and fully consider the implications to his world. In addition each element is usually directly involved in the plot, which makes it seem less like window dressing.

Steampunk is an example of a whole genre that works well with Mashups. Mad clockwork technology and ancient mysticism work very well in an early industrial age setting, partly because they had some real world believers at those times.

So let’s say I love zombies, but I also love Hellenistic epics. I can’t just throw zombies into the Trojan war and call it a setting, I have to consider how the blend of these two elements is going to work. What would the introduction of Zombies do to the Trojan war? A bad mashup would just follow the outline of the Iliad thow in some undead and call it a day. If the Zombies were infectious, they could quickly overwhelm the Greeks who have no walls to protect them. Some of the Greeks could escape to their ships. Achilles, would of course be immune to Zombie bites unless they got him on the heel. The Zombies would indiscriminately attack both sides, and the survivors would either escape across the sea or take shelter in Troy. Then there’s the divine angle. The Gods took a great interest in the Trojan war, and Zombies would definitely mean that one of them was meddling, answering that question could lead to a great plot point…

Then again, just because I think zombies are cool, doesn’t mean I should try to put them in everything.

As an aside, I was walking home from the dayjob at 11 PM this evening and noticed a whole group of people dressed up for Valentines day. I saw a guy dressed as a teddy bear escorting a pack of young ladies in full costume. Is this a thing now? If so, I approve!