(intelligent) magic

I’ve been reading through one of the Forgotten Realms series– not a particular favorite, but since D&D is a hobby of mine, and because some of the aspects of the books are interesting, I’ve been slogging through them.

One of the things that annoys me is just a little detail. Anyone familiar with the D&D magic system knows that the spells are geared to be balanced game mechanics, and doesn’t really hold a lot of internal consistency, or even any economic sense. I can accept fireballs, I can accept bolts of lightening flying from wands, teleportation, shadow-stepping, slow-falls, ect.

But I can’t accept an enchanted whip.

Not just any whip, either. This whip is fashioned to have snake-creatures instead of lashes, which will occasionally speak to their wielder, warning of poison, eavesdropping, ect. And when she uses this whip, the snake heads will sink their fangs into the victim, poisoning them.

I’ve seen this whip in action for three books now. And every time the snake heads bite down, they inject poison. So you have long, extended battles with this weapon in use, and all I can think of is ‘where do they get all that poison from?’.

Since the snakes never eat, never drink, never diminish, I can only assume that they somehow repeatedly conjure poison up from nothing, expending no energy or resources to do so: a never-ending supply of venom, by nature of the design. Nothing else in the book does this. I don’t see good, cheap poison readily available. It’s a ridiculous mental image, but I keep picturing the characters getting into financial straights and trying to figure out how to milk this amazing whip.

CHARACTER: “Here, you guys each grab a head. Now, whip, when I say ‘go’, start squirting poison.”
WHIP: “F*** you.”
CHARACTER: “Hey, you always contributed this stuff before…!”
WHIP: “I demand death first. It turns me on.”
CHARACTER: “Hmm. So you’d say that you’re rather ‘limp’ right now?”
WHIP: *attempts to murder the character*
CHARACTER: *holds up the vial, tries to hide behind it* “The tube, not me, the glass tube!”

Please, fellow fantasy writers. Do not do this. Please think carefully about your magic/magical items/magical effects.

world building: the mordache art

The Mordache Art is the biggest reasons that the Mordache rule the cities; their monopoly on what I’ll call ‘magic’ here for the sake of simplicity. It is a very limited set of skills, and there are only three ‘spells’ that can be performed.

The first, and most common use of the Mordache Art: almost all noblemen are trained in this. Thread refers to the string that ties a person’s body to their soul. This is a long, usually very tangled string specific to one’s body. It dissolves after the man dies, and their soul disappears beyond the Mordache’s field of vision. They also need to be able to visibly see the person to be able to see their Thread, so it isn’t useful for knowing how close people are either.

Threading is an offensive attack where a Mordache will mentally pluck at the Thread of someone else. They may simply grab it and remain still (an icy, tight, painful sensation to the victim, and lethal if they try to move), tug gently (intensely painful), or sever the Thread, which will kill the victim almost instantly. The only advantage to using Thread instead of a ranged weapon is that humans won’t be able to see what’s happening, and may not know who has them. Like a weapon, a Mordache who also knows Thread will be able to counter or block once they’re aware of their danger.

An expert at torturing and killing with Thread may eventually develop the skills to be able to half-kill; to pull the soul partway out of the body and trap it there. This leads to paralysis, a disconnection with the body, until the soul can be put back. Even an expert risks killing their victim when attempting this.

A short lead-in to ghosts and spirits in my world. This is considered common knowledge among the educated: this is an explanation that would appeal to a superstitious commoner.

Ghosts, when they appear, sometimes wear the clothes they died in. Why is that? If they are returned souls, then what makes their clothes or their killing blows an intrinsic part of their being? Do they appear like that out of choice? What binds them to the world?

The truth about ghosts is that any spirit visible to the naked eye is no longer a person. The most fundamental part of their being has gone insane, driven beyond their most basic instincts to return to the Black, beyond the sight of even the Mordache. They are memory and thought, spirit and soul, no one part distinct from any other. Therefore, to see a ghost is to see their soul, their mind, their memories and their nature all at once. Ghosts manifest in clothes that their crippled minds imagine for them, yes, sometimes the clothes they died in, but not always. They come accompanied with music inside their heads, with even fainter images of people that they had once known, which float like lifeless dolls. They carry things that might be important in some way, or are tormented by beasts manifested. Ghosts are to be pitied and mourned; they are lost, and can not go home.

But what one must keep in mind is that they are all crazy. If a spirit can look past their own dementia and see you, if they grow strong and solid enough to know where they are, run. Run, and don’t look back, crash through the darkness if need be, and know that to fall to one’s death is preferable to being drawn into their world.

A man who dies, whether Mordache or human, very good or very evil, and no matter how tragic their death, will ordinarily fade. The Mordache have a presence on the spiritual aspect of the world, but not one so deep or strong as to see what happens to a man after he dies.

Necromancy, the study of the dead, is almost entirely a theoretical branch of the Mordache Art, with one exception. If a Mordache can not perform the Art correctly, if they are sloppy or make a mistake, they will drip out life. Usually these amounts are minuscule (else they would die quickly) and what they leave behind will fade. Their life force is too strong, though, and it’s been known to kill plants that touches it. For this reason, Mordache are never used as farmers or doctors. Even the highest-ranking doctor, surgeon to the king, is and will always be human.

But in some cases, their life will gush out all at once, into a pseudo-liquid that a human can not spot, but a Mordache can. Too much, and this liquid will begin to crystalize, grow and harden into a substance too sharp and strong to get near. The Mordache simply call this ‘Crystal’, and they destroy it whenever they can, partially because Crystal is a deadly threat to the humans who can not see it, and partially because Crystal is a strong substance linked to life. A soul that comes too near will begin to gain strength, and slowly loose their mind. Crystal creates ghosts. It gives them strength to remember what life was.

That is what the Necromancers are trained for. It is not a highly useful skill. Removing Crystal can be a dangerous proposition, and Necromancers are usually Bastards with little regard among the nobility, and can have a difficult time alerting the proper people if a problem appears that they can not handle.

The last branch of the Mordache Art. A Mordache trained in Desolidifcation can see the physical objects from their own memories, the spirit of those objects following and impacting those that they’ve been touched, used, or studied by. This excludes anything living: a person may not be manifested, nor an animal, but a man’s bones that have been seen can be. The Desolidifier can not read it in memory form, or study it any more effectively than they can study their own memories.

However, by taking the physical mass of an existing object, a Desolidifier can transfer the mass to something in their own memories. A rock may be discarded in favor of a grain of sand, replicated over and over until the mass balances. A small pile of sand may be transferred to a golden ring.

For this reason, Vastii uses a barter economy with no set form of currency. Money, to be effective, must be small, and the smaller an item is the more easily it can be replicated. This is also the reason that craftsmen are highly regarded. Any man that makes a new, original item makes something far more valuable than jewels, as pretty as they are.

Desolidification has harsh restrictions:

First, a desolidifier can not make food or drink. What they create is always laced with their life, and though it can be touched and interacted with, it is not something that one would want inside their body. Even as a poison, no respectable desolidifer would want to try creating food unless it was a last resort; doing so encourages Crystal, and if the source is discovered many who would not have gotten involved would hunt them down.

Second, the mass transferred must be exact. Even the difference of a fraction of an ounce will cause a terrible backlash on the caster. Desolidification is even more dangerous than Necromancy.

Third, the larger an object is, the more difficult it becomes to use Desolidification on. An accomplished Desolidifier might be able to replicate jewelry with ease, but will be at a loss if asked about a chair. Small knives are relatively easy to procure, but a sword is not.

Fourth, the object in question must be standing still. Desolidification is not effective as a weapon unless at very close range with a stationary target. Thread is a better choice, and failing that, a knife would do more damage with less risk to the wielder.

Fifth, a Desolidifer has a short life expectancy. They could kill themselves at any time even after mastering their craft.

Given these restrictions, most noblemen do not practice this art. Most of the city of Vastii is carved out of stone, and Mordache Bastards do most of the work, using Desolidification to turn stone to sand, which is carted out. These bastards are pampered to and given good lives. Their overseers know that they don’t have long to enjoy it.

writing chapter one

I’ve been writing the second draft (third version) of that first chapter prematurely to give to the artist I’ve mentioned. It’s gotten me thinking of what a really good first chapter is meant to accomplish, what it should contain ideally. What I’ve come up with is a bit different than what I’ve seen other writers discuss on craft, and I thought that I’d share.

Everyone talks about ‘hooks’. … You know what? Forget the hook. Forget the clever first line. You’re not working on a magazine ad. Write material that’s gripping and worth reading, something that starts strong and dives in without waiting for permission from the reader. Let your skill be a ‘hook’.

I say this because so much stress is always put into those first few lines, and all it’s done for me is to feel like some sort of gimmick. The purpose of the hook is very valid! But going out of your way to write a good ‘hooking statement’ rather than working on the composition of the book and chapter itself seems too much like a facade of elegance, a layer of costume cosmetics, and I think emphasis on this is misleading. First learn to convey an idea.

For this project, setting was drastically important. ‘Blue Crystal’ is so much unlike any other fantasy story that I’ve ever read. I worked hard to keep the setting and idea original. It’s worked. But it also means that people just coming in won’t know what to expect, and for that, establishing the setting (place, people, customs) is vitally important. If it were just another generic fantasy I’d stick in a dwarf and set it in a bar. No description needed. Everyone and their assorted relatives could fill in the details while multitasking. Excuse me while I shiver.

The first chapter should also hint at all the other elements that will be used in the book, not only the mechanisms, but also the scenery and themes. The reader should know what kind of story this is, and establishing everything well in advance means that you have very clear boundaries on why the hero is very restricted in certain ways, that he can’t just ‘solve’ his problems with magic. Just find a realistic way to accomplish this– don’t become a contortionist writer for a few paragraphs to show things off. Fine a way to make them work.

I’m almost done with the chapter, and unlike much of my craft I’m actually very pleased with it so far. It’s starting to come into focus.