Inventions in Fantasyland

“There’s something terribly weird about the standard fantasy setting, not least of which that ‘Standard Fantasy Setting can be uttered completely without irony. Look at us; we’re a civilization so steeped in escapism that we’ve managed to find mundanity in something that doesn’t exist and never will.” –Yahtzee, on Dragon Age.

As Yahtzee points out in his review of Dragon Age, there is a particular ossified fantasy setting which has become popular in the wake of Tolkien. We’re so collectively familiar with this psudo-medival, pan-European setting (which Yahtzee describes as a “time-locked period of medieval England”) that it’s become perceived as a default setting, if not an outright requirement of the genre.

One of my issues with this default, of course, is the unexamined assumption is that the strange pan-European/Anglo-American mashup culture is not only the default  ‘normal’ culture in real life (see: the concept of ‘white people’ as monolith), but ‘normal’ in entirely different universes,  and somehow also existed as an identity in medieval Europe.

However, the more interesting unquestioned assumption, however, is the technological stasis. Even Tolkien, who was a meticulous worldbuilder, does not show any part of Middle Earth making substantive technological advances (except for the bad guys).  There are any number of fantasy settings where both sociological and technological change seems to have stalled circa 12th century France.  In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing, provided there’s a reason for the lack of new inventions or serf rebellions*.

One obvious reason would be that magic use has taken the place of technological innovation.  This means you have to answer several questions:

  • Who are the magic users in your world? If the answer isn’t ‘everyone’, then how is magic use distributed and why? Does this create systemic inequalities?  Are there gatekeepers?
  • What tasks are completed by magic instead of technology?
  • How is daily life effected by magic? Does this reduce work hours? Allow innovative tools for people with disabilities? Spawn new industries?

Another possibility is that there is a powerful organization or set of individuals who benefit from stalling progress. To make this scenario work, it needs to establish how this power structure came to be, who is involved, what their goals and motivations are, and why there hasn’t been a rebellion already.

There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to these questions as long as your world is internally consistent, but logical explanations will probably give you a setting that’s distinctly different from Generic Medieval Fantasyland. Go play and experiment, and see what works for your story.

*The fixation on royal/noble/wealthy characters in these settings deserves its own post. Stay tuned.

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