Using History as Inspiration
Many of the best sci-fi and fantasy writers find a way to work history into their works. J.R.R. Tolkien used his experiences in World War I to write The Lord of the Rings, George RR Martin has used the War of the Roses as inspiration for Game of Thrones, and the list goes on.
As someone with a lifelong passion for the American Civil War and the resulting drive to minor in History alongside my English major, I find a great amount of satisfaction in using history to inform my writing. Sometimes it’s a very obvious inspiration and often more of a feel or sense of history.
Such is the impact of the American Civil War, and to a lesser degree the American Revolution, on my Gunpowder Fantasy. One of the first major conflicts with muskets and rifles, the first ironclad battle and one of the first major conflicts where railroads played a part, the American Civil War has had an obvious impact.
The world of Zaria is in a similar position to our own in the 19th Century. Railroads and rifles are a recent innovation and no major wars have been fought since their development. But all of that changes throughout the different series ilve been working on.
The rapid redeployment of troops swings battles, as it did in the battle of First Bull Run/Manassas, rifling and the accuracy and distance that it imparts result in casualties unimaginable before and maybe ever the first clash of ironclads are all events in Zaria that draw heavily from my research and knowledge of history.
With so many wars and technological innovations in our world, if your story involved conflict there is likely some historical event or battle that you can draw inspiration from. So read up on your history and you might just find something useful!
The Magic/Tech Formula
In the world of Gunpowder Fantasy, there is a fine line to walk between magic and technology.
Magic will necessarily impact how technology develops within your world. If magic is extremely common, useful and easy to use, why would people develop technology like steam power and rifles? On the other hand, a lack of magic will facilitate the advancement of these technologies much like it did in our world.
To that end, I’ve developed a rudimentary formula that can help you determine what your starting point should be so you get the most out of your world.
On the magic side of things, I have 4 scores: Commonality, Functionality, Difficulty, and Cost. All rated on a scale of 1-10.
Commonality, How Common is Magic?
For Commonality, you want to decide how common you want magic to be in your world. Can everyone use magic, either through natural talent or the ability to learn? Then you’re going to give your magic system a Ten for commonality. Is magic, inversely, very rare, either because it requires a rare natural talent or years of study? Then your magic system gets a One.
Functionality, How Useful is Magic?
For this score, you want to decide what areas of your world magic can affect. Can your magic users do anything they want with magic? Fireballs, teleportation, communication, etc. If you want magic to touch every part of your world, you’re going to give it a Ten. On the other hand, if you want magic to be very narrowly useful, then a One score is appropriate.
Difficulty, How Difficult is Magic?
If you want your magic to be difficult to control or learn, then give it a Ten. If you want your mages and wizards to be able to weave magic and cast spells without much challenge, then score a One.
Cost, What Does Magic Cost?
No cost magic that can be cast all day and without fear of repercussion? A Ten. MAgic that costs life energy and exhausts the mage, or even blood magic that requires a sacrifice to achieve? A One
Once you have determined these scores, you add them together for a maximum total score of 40 for a common, easy to use, very useful and low cost magic system. A very rare, marginally useful magic system that has a high degree of difficulty and cost will rate a minimum of 4.
Once your have your Total Magic Score, you divide it by 8. Why 8? Because that’s the sweet spot that I found for impact on technology.
Writing a Gunpowder Fantasy means that you have embraced that technology and society will be advancing beyond the stasis of Medieval Europe that many fantasies embrace, at least in some areas and at some rate.
Base Technology, What is your Starting Point?
For the most part, I would recommend giving your world a base technology score of Ten so that the modifications work the best.
Progression, How Fast/Far Will Tech Go?
This score is rated from 0-2, in .5 increments and measures how fast and how far technology will move over the course of your story. There are two determining factors in this score: how long will you be in this world, and how fast do you want technology to develop. The first part is fairly simple: do you want to write a Stand-Alone Novel? Then technology is not likely to advance very far. A series, especially focused on conflict, will typically advance beyond your starting point (See my Post Here on the Arms Race).
Inversely, if you’re writing a series you’ll want to see a progression of technology rather than rapidly leaping from one technology level to the next, so this will lower the progression score.
Final Tech Score
Now that we have the parts of our formula in place, we can put it to work as such:
(Base Tech)-(Progression)-((Commonality+Functionality+Difficulty+Cost)/8)=Final Tech Score
For what this score means, I have a 4 point scale for technology that impacts Weapons, Travel/Communication, and Society.
One – Worlds with a final technology score of 1 will be at the very basic end of the Gunpowder Fantasy Spectrum. Weapons will be in the mid to late Match Lock era with primitive artillery. Travel will be entirely beast of burden driven, with no steam-powered trains or ships. Communication will be messenger and courier based. Society will likely still be in the feudal stages or even despotism and there will be no collective labor groups.
Real World Example – Early Colonial Period of the United States; Europe from the 15th to early 18th centuries.
Three – As your technology score rises, so does the access to firearms and artillery. A world with a 3 rating will have smoothbore, flintlock rifles, moderately early smoothbore artillery and mortars. Travel will still be animal driven, though a high 4 score might be in the early stages of railroad development and communication will still rely on couriers or messengers. Absolutely monarchies will be replacing the feudal system but collective labor will still be a thing of the future.
Real World Example – Revolutionary War Period of the United States; Seven Years War in Mid-to-Late 18th Century
Five – A middle of the road score will see percussion muskets in use and the early stages of railroad travel coming to life in your world. You might also see the first stages of telegraph systems at a high 6 rating. Early representative and democratic governments start to replace the ancient kingdoms and empires as labor begins to collect under the banner of guilds.
Real World Example – The Mexican-American War of the 19th Century; Crimean War in Europe
Seven – Rifling has entered the world of firearms, allowing for more accuracy at longer ranges and a shift in combat tactics. Artillery will have started to implement rifling as well. Railroads, and even the early stages of steam powered ships, will be common in a world with a rating of Seven . Telegraphy will be common, allowing for rapid communication across entire nations with minimal lag. Democracy will still be a developing form of governments but labor will be strongly collectivized in Guilds and even the earliest formation of Unions could be seen.
Real World Example – American Civil War
Nine – The most advanced bracket of technology in a Gunpowder Fantasy, a score of 9 will see the use of repeating rifles and revolvers. Railroads will be extremely common and well-developed as will the use of telegraphy to communicate complex orders and news. Democracy will be the government de jour and Unions will have replaced Guilds as the most common form of Collected Labor.
Real World Example – American Imperialist Period of the late 19th Century, Industrial Revolution.
Beyond these technologies, you start to lean into Steampunk territory. In the end, no matter where this formula leads you, it’s your world to do with as your please. I hope that this proves helpful, however, in pointing you in the right direction for where your technology should start and where it can lead based on what your goals are and how far you want to take the Gunpowder Fantasy Genre.