A Scene from the Unityverse

“Wait, the federal judiciary has it’s own military?”
“Kind of, yes. Legally, the marshals are restricted to enforcing the decisions of the courts, and the only reason they’re so heavily armed is due to the possibility of an armed force – whether independent or planetary – could be a litigant in a legal dispute. As for the possibility of the courts overstepping their bounds, well, all law depends on people…and most of Orion’s military power rests with the worlds.”


Earlier this week, I did something strange. I made a distinction between the author revealing things about the characters of the story, and revealing things about the world they inhabit. But the characters should be shaped the world they inhabit, it’s history, geography, and culture should reveal themselves through their actions. Their shouldn’t be any difference between using the characters to disclose the world and having the characters disclose themselves.

Except that fictional worlds are inherently incomplete.

I do not mean that imagined universes are unfinished; I mean that they have parts missing. Even if the author has a few firm concepts in mind, these concepts are always underconstrained, there are empty spaces where they should link to other things. In the real world, these empty spaces would be filled with things the author would have no knowledge of, but that’s not possible with a fictional one. The end result is that author must find themselves deciding things, sometimes during writing, even when those things involve the basic laws of physics.

This is how the story the author chooses to tell shapes the world of their story, and not the other way around.

World Building and Narrative Structure

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how narrative structure, how what kinds of scenes and narrative beats are used to create meaning for the audience, affects and constrains what kind of magic and superpowers a story can have. Obviously, different kinds of stories need different kinds of magic systems. The distinction I want to consider for the moment is between rule-based systems that bring the focus of the story onto the world and society as a whole, and “one person, one power” systems where each individual has their own idiosyncratic power set, which focus on the interactions between characters.

By rule-based systems, I mean magic systems where the rules hold for all users of a magic. What magician A does is basically the same thing as what magician B does, either can explain anything the other does, and you can even take the magic system and give it an encyclopedia entry of it’s own. Think of the ‘Ars Arcanum’ bits and the end of Brandon Sanderson’s books. Because there are many users of the same magic, experimenting with it and finding their own applications for it, these systems pull the narrative focus outward, with the characters being the camera by which the world is revealed to the audience. The question these systems bring up is “how does magic fit into this world, and how is society built around the fact of its existence?”

“One person, one power” systems work like a superhero comic. Each user has their own magic, the magic is never mentioned apart from the user, and if you see the power in an encyclopedia, it’s in the entry of the user. These systems pull the narrative inward, away from the world and towards the characters themselves, and their interactions with each other. These questions don’t make the viewer ask how society deals with magic, but rather, it make them ask, “What do the characters do with their powers?”

The story the author is telling determines how the magic system acts. If the author starts out with a “one person, one power” system but keeps going into the history and cultures of the world, their going to find themselves explaining how the powers interact with each other and how the underlying rules link together. Conversely, a story that starts out by laying out the rules of magic and then goes on to focus on characters interactions, including violent interactions, is going to have an extraordinary number of exceptions to those rules. There are times when these are exactly what the author is going for. Sometimes you want to write a story about how seemingly unrelated phenomena are deeply linked to each other. Sometimes you want to tell a story about the limits of human knowledge and shattering all preconceived limits. But if you know that your medium or publishing house is going to push you to on style or the other, you should be aware of that.

Shattered Worlds: The Gap Between

There are conduits connecting the nine worlds. Some are marked by natural arches or buildings mortals have made, others have nothing marking their presence. Sometimes, the link between the worlds is sudden, engulfing the traveler in a flash of light before leaving them in the new world. Other times, the change is so gradual that it’s impossible to tell when on leaves one world and enters another.

These conduits are vulnerable. When the worlds shattered, the demonic legions of Chaos were trapped between the worlds. Somehow, the fiends have found a way to use the conduits to enter the Shattered Worlds, bringing suffering and death. Every day, their prison grows weaker, and the day may come when reality as we know it shatters.

The servants of the dark gods are coming for you, for your friends and family. Lords, gather your troops. Soldiers, arm yourselves. War is coming, and none can escape its fires. May the gods have mercy for you the day it comes.

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Shattered Worlds: Celestia, the World of the Heavens

In the middle of her domain, Celestia, the goddess of the sky, works at her anvil, reforging reality as the flow of time grinds against it. In orbit around her, islands float in orbit around her, where Celestia’s people live and give glory to her. Bound together by skyship and faith, the Celestians stand ever ready to be transformed into whatever their goddess desires, be it worker, priest, or warrior.

As Celestia taps her hammer on the substance of the universe, sparks fly about her like comets. Sometimes these sparks land on an island, bringing devastation and a small piece of Celestia’s power with them. These sparks are holy things, leaving whatever their light touches irrevocably changed.

Once, a spark landed on a nest of rats. These rats grew larger and, slowly, more intelligent. One day, they began to walk upright. Blessed the rats with both startling curiosity and an aptitude for machines, the rats have built a wondrous city. In the center of the city is a great temple, glorifying and honoring the great being whose power gave the rats the ability to understand the world and their place within it.

Deep within this temple, there is a chamber. The rats do not speak of what is in this chamber, and even then, only those that have been inside know what is inside. But what has happened to those that come out can be seen by everyone. The rats are reforged, larger and stronger, a piece of divine essence placed within them. A few of them grow great wings, like the eagles that preyed on their ancestors, and still frighten the mortals around them.

With wing and blade, they stand against their goddess’s enemies, and then will not be content to merely protect those around them.

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Shattered Worlds: Ichotlan, the World of Sacrifice

Ichotlan is a world forsaken by the sun. Where there should be fields and forests, there are only barren rocks and cliffs, lying still underneath a black, yawning expanse of permanent night sky. Without the nurturing light, nothing living can grow, and no new life can emerge. Unless it comes from somewhere else.

There is a reason for the inhabitants of other worlds to come to Ichotlan. There are strange substances here: metals whose shape changes with the beliefs of those around it, strings like silk that are freezing cold to the touch, black glass that can glow like the sun. It is that last substance that allows a tribe of reptilians to survive, even thrive, in Ichotlan.

When properly charged and placed on high, a disk of that sunglass can replace the sun, providing the light and heat that crops need to grow. The reptilian build great stepped pyramids to house their disks, with channels falling down the sides to carry away the blood.

For it is the blood of mortals that powers the sunglass. The reptilians constantly war with other peoples, looking for supplies and sacrifices to ensure that their artificial suns will rise each day. Once their victims are captured, they are brought to the top of the mound and their necks are slit. Then, the reptilian priests cut open the victims chest, reach in and tear out the heart, which the presiding priest then eats. Finally, the now-dead corpse has its limbs cut off, and the torso is discarded. The limbs are later roasted and consumed in a meal following the sacrifice.

The reptilians have never limited themselves to one world…

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Shattered Worlds: Ainsophor, the World of Knowledge

All of the knowledge of the Shattered Worlds finds its way to Ainsophor. Every book, every letter, every rumor whispered on the wind appears there eventually, sometimes because it was brought there on purpose, sometimes because the one carrying the information got lost and stumbled in there, and sometimes by a mysterious process that no one understands.

The peoples of Ainsophor have built vast libraries to hold all of those words, buildings so large that entire civilizations can live within them. Entire citadels and prisons have been built for no reason that to hold the stores of knowledge of those that live inside them. The thick walls of these buildings are of great use to those that fear the raids of the goat-headed Hrothgors.

The Hrothgors also desire knowledge, but they do not simply read books. Instead of writing things down, the gors carve great stone idols, and place them on high hills. These idols can store knowledge itself, waiting for the gors to place experiences and memories directly into their heads. The gors soon forget what they learn from the idols, but it’s enough for them to build siege engines that can crack the walls of a library-citadel.

And cracking those walls is needed for the idols to work. Each idol is inert until it is filled with knowledge, and this can only be done by spilling the blood of the learned upon the idols. The gors do not raid merely for food and materials, but they also tear scholars away from their work and their homes, all to increase the wisdom of the gors.

There’s no reason for the Hrothgors to wait for scholars to come to their world…

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Shattered Worlds: Arwan, the World of Mists

Arwan is a world so shrouded in mist that even fire looks like a blur in the distance. Visitors often get lost here, and the shadows in the mists make maps all but useless. Some say that the land itself moves around, so that mountains can one day be replaced by forests or oceans. Those that grew up in Arwan, however, never seem to have trouble finding their way around.

But there are things in the mists that move around. Sometimes, the shadows of animals can be much larger than the actual beasts, and the currents of magic can even produce illusions from nothing in the fog. Stranger still is how things are sometimes smaller than they appear, or how one person can seem like many.

The mist ogres have found a way to exploit this. Entire warbands can hide in the mists. When their enemies draw near, they crouch down, and lie close to the ground. Their wizards can cast spells of deception, making it seem like the ogres are nothing more than rocks and trees. When someone approaches, thinking they are walking into things that are small and few in number, the ogres rise up and strike.

The ogres loom above their prey, eight feet tall and hungry for the flesh of humans or elves or even vermin. When ogres strike, whether with club or blade, they try to leave the body intact, so that it can be brought back to their fires and butchered into well formed slabs of meat. While ogres do fight for possessions and material goods, the thing they truly desire is to devour thinking beings, to place their bodies on spits and to roast them slowly until the meat falls right off the bone.

I don’t think the mist ogres will restrain their appetites to Arwan any time soon…

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Shattered Worlds: Tsinkhitastu, the World of the Wild

Tsinkhitastu is dominated by beasts, with whatever thinking life there is merely living out of the animals’ way. Great herds of deer, goat, and bovine wander the world, tearing down whatever artificial boundary is put in their ancestral path, while packs of carnivores and solitary hunters alike prey upon the herds, following them in their yearly motions.

Within this drama, smaller creatures make their lives. Squirrels and rodents flit about, grabbing at what seeds and grass they can find while dodging the jaws of serpents and eagles. Bugs, from the tiniest gnat to the largest ettercop, fly, crawl, and nest across Tsinkhitastu, as the waters are filled with fish and frogs and other swimming things.

But all of these are nothing to the great God-Beasts of Tsinkhitastu. All living things tremble at the God-Beasts approach, if only for the quaking of the ground beneath them. It is on the backs of the God-Beasts that the only cities of the Wild World are built, for only the God-Beasts, high above the rest of the animals, can protect civilization from the chaos below.

But even these mighty creatures can be brought down. The varg riders, the goblins of Tsinkhitastu, care nothing of the dangers their beasts pose. There are few among them that don’t bear the scars from being bitten by their wolves, and those are the ones that were not eaten outright. The shamans of the goblins will even let the ettercops bite them on purpose, for this is how they work their magic.

The venom of the ettercops does strange thing to the mind of the shaman. Divorced from its body, the mind is free to wander the world, seeing through the eyes of other life. This mind fusion can affect even the God-Beasts. While the shaman is one with the giant, he can make the beast stumble, as if he was doing little more than a tapping it on the knee, sending it tumbling, leaving the cities above to be attacked by the varg riders.

I dread the day that the shamans make the God-Beasts do more than stumble.

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Shattered Worlds: Nebru, the World of Memory

The surface of Nebru is an endless expanse of sunbleached sand, but it is in the darkness beneath the surface that the world truly lies. Endless caverns and catacombs stretch beneath the sand, haunted by the echoes of the once living. Some believe that in the deepest, darkest pit of Nebru, Shaldor himself holds court, attended by his shadowy servants and his favored servants among the dead.

But life, the sun’s power, still reaches that shadowy underworld. It is carried by streams of shining shade falling from the surface, trickling through tiny holes in the cavern ceilings. Sometimes, this sand collects near an underground oasis, forming mud and silt that plants can grow in. Sometimes, an oasis is even large enough to hold a farm.

The orcs of the White Sand clan farm nothing. Instead, they follow the ways of the rest of their kind, traveling through the tunnels and sand, looking for a weak settlement to raid for food and supplies. The responsibility of finding such victims falls to a strange caste of diviners called the necrolytes. These orcs know spells to trap a spirit with its name, and force those spirits to speak the secrets of their still living kin.

Hide your name well, and the names of your ancestors, for the White Sand ride, and they will not be contained to Nebru for long…

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