I read a lot, as any person interested in writing should. It's primarily fantasy/urban fantasy, but I read some fiction and sci-fi.; I also like to watch sci-fi TV shows and movies (I like Killjoys and Dark Matter). I've been reading Jean Johnson's Theirs Not to Reason Why series (good read, though the MC is a serious Mary Sue), and something about all the alien races made me think: if you wanted to do non-human races in fantasy, you would do worse than thinking of them of them as "aliens". I also started replaying the Mass Effect trilogy a few months back, and that made me think of something else: fantasy and sci-fi are simply two sides of the same coin.
You probably just rolled your eyes and said "well duh" - it's pretty obvious when you think about it, right? Simply put, sci-fi is fantasy writ large. Observe:
Setting: Fantasy generally takes place on a single world; rarely, it can cover a few different locations on different planes. Sci-fi takes place on anything from a single world to an entire galaxy, and sometimes even multiple galaxies. Instead of hopping on a ship and sailing across the sea to the next continent, you hop on a ship and fly to the next star system.
Races: Both genres range from "humans are the lone race" to "the setting is home to several dozen races". As I mentioned earlier, if you want to make your fantasy races really unique, think of them as aliens. This is especially effective if they originate on a different plane or a continent/location that's never seen humans. Aliens don't think like humans - that's why they're aliens. They have a different set of morals, culture, standards of beauty and bravery and whatever. Sure, they can be like humans, but I think it's be better to start with something far away and adjust them to bring them closer to a human viewpoint, rather than vice versa - that way, you can retain a lot of the "alienness" that makes them unique, instead of making them seem like "humans with pointy ears" (or fur, or sharp teeth, or whatever).
Magic: In fantasy, it's magic. In sci-fi, it's psionics. Either way, it's almost a given that you'll have one or the other. Magic is often genetic and sometimes taught at schools/academies, while psionics is also often genetic, but can also be granted through science (genetic alteration, advanced tech, or some powerful alien being/race) and can also be taught/developed. Magic can exist in a sci-fi setting, but that turns the genre more toward cyberpunk, steampunk, or magitech, which I'll discuss in another post.
Religion/gods: As a rule, gods don't exist in sci-fi. You can, however, have god-like beings - creatures or races who are so far advanced that they're beyond the human ken (Clarke's Third Law takes effect here). Religion is pretty well a constant among all intelligent races, though: if you're self-aware, you tend to wonder where you came from, why you're here, and where you're going, and religion is a good way to explain that.
Civilizations: In general terms, sci-fi and fantasy are nearly identical. A nation is still a nation, an empire is still an empire, you still have governmens and trade and laws and customs... but again, sci-fi does it on a grander scale. A nation in fantasy is equivalent to a planet or star system in sci-fi; an empire that spans a continent in fantasy could span an entire galaxy in sci-fi. Both genres feature lost civilizations, old races that turned to dust long before humans came on the scene, and ancient artifacts whose function and purpose have since been lost to the mists of time.
Want to do something fun? Try converting your favorite sci-fi story to fantasy. Or vice versa. Take Star Wars, for example - it just begs to be made into a fantasy story. The Jedi are an order of martial artists who use ki power instead of the Force. They still fight with swords (which are not lightsabers), but these can vary depending on the user, or maybe Jedi can change the sword's form at will. Their role: let's say they're a group that transcends race and nation and works toward peace and harmony. The Sith, obviously, want to do Bad Stuff (tm) - destabilize governments, take over the world, crush the Jedi, etc. Droids could be replaced with clockwork constructs or just non-human races (depends on the tech level). The Death Star is still a massive engine of destruction, but its appearance and makeup could vary widely - anything from a monstrous sea-going ship to a massive land-bound vehicle to a mobile fortress carried on the backs of 10,000 undead slaves. Planets are turned into cities, the Empire becomes smaller (but no less of an Empire), and the Resistance remains as it is - a ragtag group of people fighting the Empire. Hell, file off the serial numbers, make a few alterations, and you've got a full series right there.
On the flip side, you could take, say, Game of Thrones and make it into a space opera spanning worlds or even star systems. Most it's about war and politics - that stuff is universal. The White Walkers become an interstellar threat looming over all (see Jean Johnson's books). The Faceless Men? Easy - that's just advanced tech. The sorceress (her name escapes me now) would need a little tweaking, but she could be a psionic priestess. Since we're not going for an exact conversion, you can play around with it.
If you write fantasy, one of the things you'll hear (probably over and over) is "magic should have a cost" (or, often, must have a cost). I saw it many times when I was looking at magic systems for my story, and I've seen it plenty of times on this forum too. While I don't necessarily disagree with the sentiment (it makes for an interesting story), it's become something that people parrot without any real comprehension, like "show don't tell", or that whole thing about dialogue tags. (Hint: for the first, it's not that important; for the second, as long as they're used in moderation, it's fine.)
What it all boils down to is "balance" - people think that magic is too powerful on its own, so they want to see a "cost" so that mages can't just up and take over the world, or deus-ex-machina their way out of everything. Of course, if your magic system is designed well enough and the story is written properly, this will never happen, but that's a topic for another post. What I want to discuss, here and now, is the concept of balance.
Which means, basically, that magic should have drawbacks. Not necessarily a "cost": the word "cost" brings to mind something the caster has to offer or risk to use their magic: sacrifices (blood, flesh, lives), side effects (this one's popular - pain, physical disfigurement, mental issues/brain damage, illness, etc.), death (by various means), backlash (the Wiccan's threefold rule), and on and on.
Drawbacks, however, are another form of "cost" that many people overlook. Time is a big one - if it takes ten minutes to cast a spell, that's a huge drawback - magic is severely limited in its use, if not its scope. Having to draw symbols and/or diagrams, chant words, use ingredients, make gestures or a series of movements (like a full-on dance); these are all costs. Having items that are expended upon casting the spell (not necessarily ingredients, but actual sources of the power) is also a good cost. The book Masks had an interesting concept: magic is a physical thing that bubbles up from underground like oil and can be mined or harvested; you have to have some to cast a spell, but once you do, it's gone (obviously, more power = more "magic" used up). If the caster has to make a pact with an otherworld being to gain power, that's a drawback (or a cost, either one) - only those powerful enough and/or crazy enough (depending on the being) will undergo the risk for the potential profit.
Public perception (mages are shunned, reviled, or outright outlawed) is another, though I don't recommend using it on its own unless it's a central part of the story. Similarly, you could use "time to learn magic" - it could take decades to master anything beyond the most basic spells, so very few bother (again, not a great example, but I threw it in here anyway).
A foil - some way that magic can be negated or otherwise circumvented - is also a drawback, though it's better used as a plot device. In the Wheel of Time, for example, Channelers could shield each other, cutting off your opponent from the source of their magic. There was also an herb called forkroot which, when ingested, prevented use of magic for a length of time. In the Avatar TV series, benders could be prevented from using their magic by surrounding them in elements besides their own - drop a firebender in an ice cave, suspend an earthbender in a wooden cage in the air, etc., and they're useless.
Basically, what you're looking for is something that will make your story interesting. Look at your world and your magic system - what makes sense as a drawback, given the world's history and the way magic works? What would make for a good plot and situations where your hero - assuming (s)he's a mage - will have to struggle to proceed, or may even fail outri\ght? Answer those questions, and you're on your way to making a unique magic system.
Since my characters are going to be travelling to various nations, I did some research on coins and currency. Coinage is one of those things that seems really minor, but it's the minor details that more verisimilitude. There's an amazing variance in the kinds of coinage used throughout history. The first coins were created in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE in Greece, India, and China (aka, the earliest civilizations). China even had https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiaozi_(currency) paper money about a thousand years ago.
Coins can take a surprising number of forms. The most ubiquitous is, of course, the round coin, but we also have square (in modern times, they have rounded edges for vending machines), 8/10/12-sided, and oval (common in the Orient). The edges can be milled, scalloped, or notched, to prevent clipping. Oriental coins often have holes or squares punched out of the middle to permit them to be strung on a lanyard. Coins are always stamped with some sort of design - often it's the likeness of the ruler who commissioned them, or a god/goddess; other common themes are animals, landmarks, or simple designs, often with a legend (writing, often a phrase of some sort).
90% of coins you seen in fantasy novels are copper, silver, gold, and (rarely) platinum. While these were in use in the real world, there were also a variety of other metals used: electrum (a naturally-occurring silver/gold alloy; rare), cupronickel (a copper/nickel alloy, sometimes used to debase silver coins), iron, lead, nickel (used since ancient times), brass (the Romans), and bronze (not that common, surprisingly). Your world could have other materials that are more or less common or valuable. Just keep in mind that we used softer metals for a reason - they're easier to stamp. It just so happens that many of them were also precious metals.
Cultures don't always rely on coinage as currency; many use livestock (chickens, goats, horses, cows), random silver items, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacksilver, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knife_money knives (ancient China), food (salt, cocoa beans, or cheese), or other odd items. Cultures for whom metallurgy is impractical or impossible (undersea races, or those who live in a metal-poor world like Dark Sun) could use tokens of ceramic or bone, or beads of precious/semi-precious gemstones (agate, garnet, jade, pearls, coral, etc.), which could be pierced so as to be strung on a line.
And finally... denominations. Most nations have a base amount (like the Dollar or Euro), which they can then subdivide into smaller units (as coinage) and multiply into larger units (as larger bills or, rarely, also coinage). Coinage typically appears as one or more of the following:
1/100, 1/20, 1/10, 1/5, 1/4, 1/2.
So, for example, you could have the gold Mark as the base currency, then copper (at 1/100 mark), bronze (1/10), silver (1/2), etc. Or you could switch it up and have 20 coppers to the bronze, 15 bronze to the silver, and 3 silver to the gold. It's all up to you.
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coin Wikipedia entry on coins. A central page where you can check out all the currencies of the world.
* http://listverse.com/2013/06/21/10-strange-forms-of-ancient-currency-2/ 10 Strange Forms of Ancient Currency
Everyone loves a good mystery. I'm not talking about the classic whodunnit, but the less common mysteries you find in fantasy worlds - the abandoned city, the ancient statues, the strange carvings lining the face of a cliff in the middle of nowhere. Who made them, when, and why? This is something that's often overlooked in fantasy stories.
Take our world, for example. Angkor Wat, the Nazca Lines, Macchu Picchu, the Cahokia Mounds, the Easter Island moai, Stonehenge... all of these are remnants of previous cultures and civilizations that left their mark. In some cases, we don't know who made them, how, or why, but they continue to excite our imagination. On the less tangible side, you have the myths and legends. Did you know that almost every culture on Earth has some variation of the Flood myth?
Sadly, many fantasy worlds are lacking in this respect. Sure, they might have long, detailed timelines with thousands of years of history, but they lack the evidence of all that history. Low fantasy is rife with them: Robert E. Howard's Conan series is a great example of ancient cultures - you can't walk ten miles without tripping over an abandoned ruin, old statue, or a tomb. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire also features lots of things that will never apepar in the books, or be explained - there's an entire continent (Sothoros) that is largely unexplored and has abandoned cities, old ruins, and strange creatures. Another way to go is Jordan's Wheel of Time series: back in the Age of Legends, people had much more advanced technology, the knowledge of which was lost during the war; now all that exist are scattered examples like the Tower of Genji, the Choedan Kal, and mentions of ancient wonders.
Of course, doing this is something like walking a tightrope. Look at the TV show Lost: it's rather infamous for tossing all kinds of random phenomena into the show, but in the end most of it was either poorly justified, or not explained at all. (FYI: "Magic!" is not an adequate explanation.) On the other hand, a good magician never reveals all his secrets: keep a few things hidden behind the curtain, and leave the readers always wanting more.
So you've created a world and populated it with various cultures. You've probably already decided long before now whether or not to add non-human races, and which ones they'll be, so let's take a moment to think this over. In the 80s and 90s, it seemed like elves, dwarves, orcs and such were pretty much required to appear in any fantasy world, thanks to the influences of D&D and similar RPGs. In the last 10 years or so, though, fantasy is becoming more human-centric, with the other races appearing less and less frequently. This can be a good thing - in the sea of human-centric worlds, one with multiple races will stand out. It's just a matter of whether or not readers will show interest in it.
Does the world really need non-humans? I.e., are you including them just because you think they're necessary, or do they serve a purpose? I'm not talking a purpose like allegory or metaphor, although those are fine. What I mean is, do they fill a niche? Nearly every creature on Earth today is here because it fulfills a role - from the smallest bacterium to the largest whale, they've evolved over millions of years to be where they are, and those whose roles are no longer important or who can't adapt go extinct.
Where did they come from? This is a huge question, and one that is often ignored. Granted, it doesn't usually have a bearing on the story, but it can shape a race's history - how it interacts with other races, its myths and culture, and even how members view themselves. Did they evolve from some lower life form, like humans did from the apes? If not, you should know how and why they came about. Did the gods put them down on the earth, fully-formed? Did they come through a portal to this world from another? Were they created by another race, or a single being?
How do they interact with other races? Are they open and welcoming, interbreeding with others (more on this later), or closed and xenophobic, attacking outsiders? Are they territorial, nomadic, content to settle in other races' lands, or something else entirely?
There are a lot more, like actual biology, but let's stick with this for now. In Earth's prehistory, there were dozens of different species of humans, most of which interacted with each other in some form - some were wiped out by competing races (either deliberately or through communicable diseases), and others died out because they were less adaptable, or because of environmental factors (climate change). And yes, there is evidence that our ancestors interbred - I'm sure you've heard that most non-African humans carry 1-4% Neanderthal DNA; scholars also agree that we interbred with the Denisovans, a group that lived in what is now middle Asia (Pakistan, up into Siberia), and another, as-yet-unknown group. So: Any time two races or cultures come into contact, they'll interact; if their biology is compatible, they'll mate, and if the genetics are close enough, they'll produce offspring. Which, of course, begs the question:
Are humans and these races in your world genetically compatible? If so, what do their offspring look like, what abilities (if any) do they have, are they sterile, and how do their parent races view them? How common are they, and where do they live (this leads back to how they're viewed/treated by their parent races)? Aside from RPG worlds, half-breeds, crossbreeds, and hybrids are seldom mentioned or dealt with. Sure, you could just say "they're all incompatible"; that's great, as long as you know *why*.
For the love of all that's holy, if you're going to add new races, please don't use the same tired old tropes. Elves, dwarves, orcs, gnomes... boooring. Give us something new - a race of lizard-like beings that live in the swamps; sentient spiders that inhabit the deep forest reaches; aquatic fish-men or cetaceans living in the oceans. Don't limit yourself to humanoids: dolphins and whales are generally accepted to be nearly as smart as humans (if not more so), and you're creating a fantasy world - the sky's the limit. If you really must use one of the tropes, give it a new spin - cannibal elves, desert dwarves, swamp orcs... or combine attributes of two or more races into something new. Be original. Have fun with it, as long as it all makes sense in the end.
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