Thursday, October 31, 2013

Travelling and defence

Movement and travel is constantly an issue when constructing fantasy or science fiction worlds.  People building such worlds love to create instantaneous travel options to allow characters to move about the world efficiently but regularly forget that this has real consequences for how the world should work.  As an example standard DnD campaigns have teleport as a normal option and yet somehow countries still spend enormous fortunes to build castles and maintain armies.  What good are armed goons or big walls when characters of modest levels can just teleport in, massacre anyone they want, and teleport out again?  The problem is that the world creators have failed to adequately understand the consequences of completely changing the nature of travel and location.

A similar issue exists in science fiction universes.  In particular I have read several books in the Old Man's War series by John Scalzi and the same sort of problems occur with FTL travel replacing magical teleport as the destabilizing factor.  In that universe military organizations spread their fleets out over many different planets to defend them.  Unfortunately even a cursory examination of the situation shows that any race could take all of their ships and just skip in to a system, annihilate the defenders just due to numbers, and raze the planet in a matter of minutes.  They then could skip to another system, blow that up, and repeat.  After a few days at most and perhaps even within hours they could have easily destroyed an enemy that had similar total military strength.  Every war story in this universe should be over practically before it starts and yet even though this tactic works (because a few people try it a few times) nobody really makes good use of it because that wouldn't make the story much fun.

Part of this is the issue that combat systems in these worlds tend to be very much like fisticuffs.  Ships and characters punch each other until somebody falls down and those with a numerical advantage win the fights.  In real combat this isn't the case because people and vehicles are so incredibly flimsy.  Bombers and fighters don't punch each other till somebody falls down - if the sky is full of enemy planes it becomes incredibly easy to blow them up.  The real world has an awful lot of instant death and very little of "Captain, the shields are down to 25%!"  In the real world the tactic of 'put all my stuff in a pile and drive it around to enemy bases' is suicide while in fantasy or scifi worlds it is usually unstoppable.

Of course most people don't care about this stuff.  They like fisticuffs in space and don't really care that the universe and the way warfare is conducted makes no sense.  They also like teleporting about and aren't so worried about the fact that castle and army based warfare is a hilarious joke in such a world.  I get that; internal consistency isn't what makes fantasy worlds fun.  It bothers me though.  I want to create a world that makes sense and reacts to what the characters do and I can't do that very well when important people are committed to monumentally stupid strategies.


  1. Decades ago I had this same concern. How do you build a defensible city in a world with magic? Especially when there are no real counterspells or "protection from rock to mud" spells?

    I never came to a satisfactory conclusion. I theorized things like magic building materials that prevent teleportation (eg. lead, the stuff they make cloud giant castles out of), warding spells that prevent access, etc. Or the city is underground, which takes out flying and may defend against dragons, but not teleportation. Teleportation in 1st and 2nd edition didn't allow mass teleportation that I recall, but it certainly seemed like terrorism was much easier.

    I fully agree - most worlds change key things and don't think them through. Or think through one key aspect which they want to tell the story about, but not the rest of it. And they all suffer for it.

  2. For ages, players have had the ability to do something called "spell research": to develop custom spells useful to them as adventurers.

    What do you think the rest of the magical community does? The reason "Craft Cleaning Cloth" isn't a PC feat is because it's boring, not because it's impossible for it to exist within the game world. Most PCs don't want to spend hours out of their day creating dainty little doilies for some spoiled noble to wipe their backside with; but NPCs who will do it if the pay scale and benefits are good.

    If a PC wants to spend weeks or months out of their lives casting defensive wards, they're taking a break from their adventuring life. If an NPC does it, they're just doing an ordinary job for a good wage: most people don't like to risk their lives on a regular basis.

    PCs, and PC magic, must be considered the exception, not the rule.

    In one world I designed, there are huge teleport circles in major cities that transport exotic goods to other cities within the realm. They have a full time magical support staff to support and power the ritual spells, magical and mundane security staff, as well as the usual clerks and bookkeepers to levy tolls and collect taxes for the Royal Treasury.

    Those massive teleport circles are specifically designed to transport goods, not people. Nobles rich enough to afford the gemstones and precious metals required to create one for personal transport still require permission from their superiors to create one, who in turn require permission from the King to expand their quota of personal transports. Teleportation except to any other sanctioned teleport circle is strictly forbidden thoughout the realm.

    The King does *NOT* want anyone (else) creating a teleport circle capable of transporting large bodies of troops, and has teams of magical investigators trained to scry out such threats to the realm. And so do all the Dukes, Counts, Barons, and Manor Lords, to the level that they can afford them.

    They have mages trained to ward against just about anything; fire, floods, insects, intrusive magics. They have forensic magicans who can follow a magical trail and reconstruct mystic events (an idea I stole directly from the _Lord Darcy Investigates_ series of fantasy novels), they have seers and diviners who can seek out and guard against potential threats before they happen, and they have detectives and enforcers who track down violators of the law.

    In any stable society, people, including PCs, can't just run amock without consequences. Greater violations of the social norms create greater consequences. Killing peasants won't cause too much fuss if the PCs flee the local area in time, but killing (or otherwise offending) someone with real power is a good way to end up hunted down by someone who can pay to find them, and bring them to justice.

    In war, magic gets complicated. You can't cast just "Rock to Mud" on a wall warded against it, or dispel a magic stone wall that's first been tempered against "Dispel Magic". You can still do it, but have to bring down all the wards and active counterspells first, and in order to do that, you need to be able to levy more magical power than was used to create the wards in the first place.

    Economics is still the key to power; and armies of peasants with torches and pitchforks are still useful because they're much, much cheaper than elite troops, not because they're they only game in town.

    Anyway, that's how I get around the whole "travel and distance" issue; it's not an issue to the people who are in power, and they control who gets to travel which amount of distance, and in which amount of time. :-)