An old radio setup from the 1950s

Image by Seattle Municipal Archives used under CC BY 2.0

Fantasy settings are usually some version of history with extra elements added. Those extra elements may be dragons, magic, firearms, or all of the above. Whatever’s added, it will change the setting in ways authors don’t always consider, which is why Brady sent us this question:

I really liked the posts on how flight, magic, and guns change a fantasy setting. Could we get one on how fast long range communication would change a setting? Cause there are just so many ways to get that: an animal messenger spell, telepathy, being friends with fish-people who have discovered the sofar channel, and many, many more.

Rapid communication should always be considered during the worldbuilding phase of a story. Even something as basic as Game of Thrones’ ravens, which function like feathered text messages, would have drastic consequences. Let’s review a few ways rapid communication can change a fantasy setting.

1. Generals Lead From Behind

General MacArthur wading ashore.

Battles always have a degree of chaos, but that degree was multiplied many-fold in the days before radio. As recently as the late 1800s, it was all but impossible for a leader behind the lines to affect a battle’s outcome once fighting started. If they tried to issue an order, the situation would have changed before it reached the soldiers.

That’s why high-ranking officers would fight alongside their soldiers. Someone with authority was needed on hand to issue orders. Of course, sending generals into battle creates dead generals, which isn’t great for an army’s leadership. Improved communication allows generals to issue orders from behind the lines. Today, it’s rare for an army’s command staff to come under direct fire.

If your fantasy setting has rapid communication, through spell or magic raven, the same will happen. It’s foolish to risk military leaders on the front line when you don’t have to, especially if they double as political leaders the way monarchs do. High-ranking officers won’t need as much combat training, as they are no longer in the thick of things. In theory, this will leave more time to study strategy and tactics, but they might just spend their time smoking cigars and joking about the poor.

In addition to removing generals from the front line, rapid communication allows leaders to understand what’s happening close to real time. They can stay informed about the general state of their army, knowing when it’s time to advance or retreat. They might even recognize what the enemy is doing before they do it, something that’s near impossible when communication depends on runners and shouted orders.

How to Use This in Your Story

If your protagonist is a general, they should take advantage of message spells to coordinate their fantasy army. You can contrast the historical elements of swords and armor with a more modern command center, where analysts pore over reports from the front, looking for a pattern.

Or you could play up how how impersonally the generals see war now that they don’t have to risk their own lives. Sending a thousand elves to die by dwarven crossbows would have been unthinkable a few years ago. With the leaders of both sides now watching through scrying pools, the carnage seems like little more than a chess game.

2. Navigation Is a Cinch

A vintage compass on a vintage map.
Vintage Compass by Calsidyrose used under CC BY 2.0

Back in the day, navigating was challenging to say the least. Without reliable clocks, it was difficult to calculate longitude. Even if you could do that, your maps were about as accurate as a preschooler’s finger painting. If you were stuck out in the wilderness, you’d end up staring at a mountain for hours, not knowing if it was the one marked on your map next to “thar be dragons.”

Rapid communication addresses such problems nicely. A ship at sea can send a message back to its home port and ask the time, making it far easier for the crew to figure out where they are. Maps will actually resemble the land masses they depict, as cartographers coordinate across vast distances. And if you get lost anyway, why not call upon the God of Travelers to carry your call for help back to the authorities?

Travel across a world with rapid communication is easier and safer. That means more people are likely to travel, and all the unexplored areas on the map won’t stay that way for long. Unless there’s something actively preventing people from entering an area, it’ll soon be mapped.

How to Use This in Your Story

At first glance, this aspect of rapid communication makes exploration stories less interesting. The stakes are pretty low if your brave explorers can call for help whenever they run into a problem. But this gives you the opportunity to take away their safety.

If your protagonists are setting out into a remote area, they’ll expect that they can stay in regular communication with home and that they can rely on their maps. When their message spell fails and their map is useless in this strange land, it kicks the tension up to eleven. What will your heroes do now that the tools they relied on no longer work?

3. Commerce Explodes

A Jewish camel driver leading a caravan of pack camels carying building gravel from the Tel Aviv sea shore.
Jewish Camel Driver by Israeli Press Office used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Back in my post about flight, I mentioned how dragons and airships would facilitate trade, but moving cargo is just one aspect of commerce. Information is just as important, perhaps more so. Without rapid communication, it would be foolish in the extreme for a merchant in Elf-Town to pay for a trade ship to Gnomeville. The journey is long, and the merchant has no idea what sort of goods the folk in Gnomeville want to buy. The ship might arrive and find no one interested in its contents.

But rapid communication fixes that problem. It allows buyers and sellers to exchange information across the world, leading to a boom in trade. Caravans and trade convoys are much surer bets when they know what to pack. Real-life history is already full of trade, but rapid communication would increase that exponentially.

Rapid communication also makes trade more efficient. If you’re trying to sell a basket of +1 swords, you’ll want the best price. Normally, you’d have no choice but to sell them to the local blacksmith, Cheapy Mc’Smith, for whatever he feels like paying. But if you can send a message spell to the next village, you’ll learn that its blacksmith is offering much better prices. In real life, this kind of pricing information is so valuable that stock-trading companies spend huge sums of money to get access to it just a few seconds before their competitors.

How to Use This in Your Story

Rapid communication provides the impetus for trade, but someone still has to get the goods from one location to another. A caravan master or trade-ship captain is the perfect protagonist for such a world. The cargo they shepherd represents the economic health of entire cities, and those merchants that supply the trade routes will always push for greater profit, even if it means taking greater risks.

If that’s not enough to keep your protagonist busy, increased trade also leads to increased piracy and theft. Your hero might be in charge of getting across a rugged desert without falling prey to bandits, or they might be a bandit themselves, watching a rich caravan with hungry eyes.

4. Diplomacy Gets More Reliable

Diplomats signing the treaty of Ghent.

Consider for a moment the War of 1812, a conflict where the largest battle was fought after hostilities had been officially ended. The treaty was negotiated in the Belgian city of Ghent, but the fighting was in North America. By the time word made its way across the Atlantic, thousands of people had died in a completely pointless battle.

Old-timey diplomacy was plagued with such problems. Diplomats and ambassadors would work tirelessly to draw up agreements, only to see everything fall apart in the time it took for the document to be transported to their governments for ratification. With long delays in communication, it was impossible for an ambassador to know if they had their government’s support.

Unsurprisingly, poor communication leads to a lack of trust, which in turn makes diplomacy less reliable. If your world has rapid communication, some of this distrust will be alleviated. When diplomats draft a treaty, they can send it to their respective capitals via clax tower and have it ratified within hours instead of waiting days for a rider to deliver the message.

No matter how many cell phones we make, war won’t disappear, but it will become a little more orderly. Battles are less likely to be fought after hostilities have ended, and agreements will have more weight.

How to Use This in Your Story

With communication absolutely vital to diplomacy, information security becomes a major issue. If your protagonist is an ambassador in hostile territory, they’ll need to deal with constant attempts to intercept their messages. If one of their top secret communiques gets out, it could mean disgrace or even death!

Alternatively, your hero could be working the other side, a spy who plants scrying stones outsides ambassadorial residents. Knowledge is power after all, and there’s so much more to be had than ever before.

5. Crime Gets Harder

Too men on horseback in a black and white, Old West type setting.

In the old days, an outlaw could rob a bank and then ride off into the sunset. Chances were good that they’d get off scot-free if they could make it a few towns over, where people hadn’t heard of the robbery. If they had, they certainly didn’t know what the outlaw looked like. Criminals could still be caught of course, but they had the advantage of anonymity.

With rapid communication, this advantage disappears. Messenger hawks carry the outlaw’s description to every town in the territory, and vision spells beam the outlaw’s likeness into the minds of every law officer.

Historians have documented this change in real life. At the dawn of the prohibition era, gangsters could evade capture by jumping into their high-end cars and racing away. As the 1930s drew to a close, this tactic stopped working. It wasn’t because the police got faster cars, but because they started carrying radios. If a suspect’s car looked like it might get away, the police used their radios to set up an interception further down the road.

This dynamic holds true whatever the law’s morality. Heroic detectives can use rapid communication to catch a murderer, and a despotic regime can use it to track down dissidents. Whatever the context, rapid communication makes it easier for those in authority to maintain their authority.

How to Use This in Your Story

If your protagonists are criminals or resistance fighters, you can use rapid communication to make their lives hell. Suddenly they have nowhere to hide because every constable in the city has received a message spell detailing a long list of their crimes. They have to figure out how to fool the new systems of detection even as they plan their next caper.

This works especially well if your protagonists are used to a more Wild West style of crime. They’re very competent, but they don’t know how to deal with a system that reacts so quickly. Rapid communication takes them out of their element, which is an excellent recipe for drama.

6. Cultures Mix Together

Bilbo and the dwarves from the Hobbit.
Culture shock depicted right here.

The modern world is an interconnected place. Americans love Japanese anime. French cuisine is enjoyed far outside Europe. Just about everyone watches Hollywood films. But this level of cultural mixing is a relatively new thing. In the pre-industrial age, when the only way to deliver a message was by hand, people knew much less about the world outside their home village.

In a fantasy setting, rapid communication would trigger cultural mixing similar to what we see in real life. Elven novels would be all the rage in dwarven mines, delivered by magic speaking-stones. Gnomish cooking would sweep through hobbit holes on the backs of fairy messengers. In addition to new information, increased trade would mean an exchange of physical culture as well. Dwarven steel would be shipped to every human kingdom, and pipe-weed from the Shire would light up every study.

The end result would be a society far more cosmopolitan than portrayed in most fantasy novels. Few cultures would be entirely dwarven or entirely elven, and old borders would lose importance. That doesn’t mean differences and conflict would end. In fact, with groups coming into closer contact with each other than before, it’s likely new conflicts would spring up. Well-dressed elves will shake their heads at the dwarves playing loud music next door, and hobbits will pine for the old days when the tall folk stayed away.

How to Use This in Your Story

Basically, just copy Ankh-Morpork from Discworld.* Joking aside, cultural mixing is the perfect backdrop to tell a story about a changing world. Set your story after an alliance of the races has defeated the great lord. What happens when the soldiers of that army don’t want to go home? They’ve spent years fighting in not-Gondor; now they want to settle down there.

Will the people of not-Gondor welcome these newcomers or turn xenophobic and isolationist? What about when elvish youths arrive, searching for a society that isn’t controlled by immortal elders?

Rapid communication is a little more subtle than flight or guns, but it has a powerful effect nonetheless. Consider this: you’re reading this article on the internet, the most powerful tool of rapid communication ever devised. How different would the world be if you couldn’t search for worldbuilding posts whenever you liked?

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