Worldbuilding 101 – Warfare and Technology

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Warfare and technology plays a role in any society and any world you will create. Whether you are writing about pre-industrial “Middle Earth” type worlds or laser-gun equipped futuristic societies in galaxies far, far away, your societies will typically have some form of technology and weaponry. How much warfare comes into play in your story is a variable you can certainly control, but the level of technology available is a vital component of any society and a required component of any successful attempt to set readers firmly in your world.

Technology and Warfare go hand in glove. They are so closely related, in fact, that they have a symbiotic, chicken-and-egg sort of relationship. Which came first, warfare or technology?
Have you ever played Age of Empires from Microsoft? It’s a fascinating, high-level overview of the development of technology and warfare and societies. When you play the game, the first societies available are hunter-gatherers. The first soldiers you can create run around with big wooden clubs which they use to bash their enemies.

Technically, if you think about it, the first weapons available to mankind were hands, teeth and muscles. Then came bashing tools such as rocks and clubs. Then cutting tools, starting with branches that could be shaved to a point, rocks that could be shaped into sharp-edged tools such as hand axes and scrapers. Then came the discovery and control of fire. The airborne missiles such as spears and arrows that could deal a grievous wound while allowing the user to maintain a safe distance from his target. Then metal.

Warfare drives many a technological invention and many a technology drives advances in weaponry.

Here is an approximated partial anthropological timeline of key technological advancement on earth from dawn of time until the early 1800’s.

  1. Early tools. Hand axe, scrapers, wooden spears (2.5 million bce)
  2. Discovery and utilization of fire, which was used for both food and improvement of weaponry (1 million – 400,000 bce)
  3. Development of clothing and shelter
  4. Flint tools, bone tools (250,000 bce)
  5. Advancement of fire usage. Furnace and bellows.
  6. Metallurgy, smelting and forging of metals such as gold, copper, silver and lead. Copper age of weaponry. (8000 bce)
  7. Development of metal swords, knives, axes
  8. Irrigation (7000 bce)
  9. Development of the wheel (6000-4000 bce)
  10. Wheel and axle combination (5000 bce)
  11. Development of alloys – bronze and brass (4000 bce) Bronze Age.
  12. Writing (3500 bce)
  13. Development and use of sails for boats and ships (3500 bce)
  14. Chariot (2600 bce)
  15. Development of iron alloys – steel (2500-1500 bce) Iron age.
  16. Currency (2000 bce)
  17. Simple machines (level, screw, pulley) (300-200 bce)
  18. Discovery of gunpowder (800 AD)
  19. Forceps, Scalpel, Surgical needle, Suture thread (1000 ad)
  20. Rifled musket barrels (1400 ad)
  21. Steam engine (1698 ad)
  22. Steam locomotive (1814 ad)
  23. Revolver (1835 ad)
  24. Steel plow (1837 ad)

For a complete list, take a look at Wikipedia. One of the bits I find most interesting is the pace at which different cultures advance. Just because one culture is advanced, does not mean another (even neighboring) culture shares the same level of advancement. You can use this variance in technology and weaponry to great effect in any novel as a source of conflict.
 

Technology


Start by thinking how technologically advanced your society is. Many people use historical earth societies as a basis for a fantasy world’s development? Why? For two reasons: (1) it gives you a starting point you can research, with instant credibility, and (2) it provides immediate “accessibility” to the reader. Whether we remember it or not, most of us have had exposure to historical earth cultures through World History classes and such in school. That provides readers with a built-in sense of “realism” they can connect to.

Remember, the level of technology needs to be commensurate with the other aspects of your culture. Hunter-gatherers, for instance, would probably not have internal combustion engines. Medieval knights would not have light sabers.

Consider travel technology – how do people get around? How do they transport goods? Horse and wagon? Donkey pack trains? Locomotive? Ground-skimming hovercrafts?
Consider machines – what types and what is the availability of machinery? And if they have machines, what powers them? A windmill is a machine powered by wind. Historical uses for windmills include milling grain, powering well pumps, etc.

Consider technology used by common man – the printing press changed the world. How are homes plumbed? Is there running water? Are there toilet and bathing facilities? What sort of cookstoves are used in a house? What sort of communications technologies are available?

Other types of technology to consider: industrial technology, medical technology, manufacturing capabilities, etc.
Whatever level of technology you choose, make sure you are consistent within that culture.

 

Warfare


The more advanced a society’s technology, the more advance their war-making capabilities. The type and complexity of available weaponry depends entirely upon the resources and technologies available to make those weapons.

Pre-industrial weaponry includes swords, arrows, slingshots, spears, axes, crossbows. Catapults, battering rams, and trebuchets (an advanced form of catapult) are also possible. The ability to add some sort of incendiary device (fire arrows, burning “mortars” delivered by the catapults, etc.) adds damage to these weapons, and therefore makes them more effective target. Also consider other possible weapons, such as boiling oil to pour down upon the heads of attacking armies, avalanches (wood or stone) to close a pass and crush an army, etc. You can get very creative with pre-industrial weaponry.

With the advent of gunpowder came even more damaging weapons: guns, exploding mortars, rockets, etc. Gunpowder was a huge advantage to societies that possessed and knew how to use it.
Among some of the first guns were muskets, the barrels unrifled, which typically mean the accuracy of the shooter was hampered. Rifling the inside of gun barrels provided for a truer, straighter trajectory of the fired missile (bullet). The next significant advance after rifling was repeating shot weapons, which cut down on reload time and made shooters more effective. After repeating shot came semi-automatic and automatic weapons, etc.

Beyond the type and availability of weaponry, also consider military strategies and tactics. What types of “troops” are available in your country’s armies? Calvalry? Infantry? Archers? Navy? What tactics do they use? You can look to widely available historical sources for all manner of ideas. I love to read up on Greek and Roman battle strategies, and the tactics of Alexander the Great are still studied today for military relevance. Be creative, but also avail yourself of the vast array of detailed historical military studies for ideas and suggestions on how to create believable military forces, conflicts and campaigns.

And remember, don’t only consider weaponry and military tactics. One of the reasons the Roman army was so effective a conquering force was the well-maintained condition of the roads which allowed that army to travel very far, very fast (for their time). Logistics are hugely important for all armed forces. If you cut off the supply of troops, food, or weapons & ammunition, you severely hamper the effectiveness of the fighting force.

The next article in this series is going to be about building credible Magical systems for use in fantasy novels.


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