If my house burns down while I’m out of the country (touch wood) how soon would I know? In today’s world, pretty much immediately—probably a video call from my in-laws. At a different point in history, the news would travel by letter, taking perhaps days to arrive, or even months if I was far away, assuming it didn’t go astray altogether. In a magical world, I might be lucky enough to be friends with a mage, but maybe not. The availability of fantasy communication methods varies wildly from world to world.
Now imagine that instead of a house burning down, it’s an army at the borders. Or a disruption in food imports that will leave your nation starving? How quickly can your government or rulers mobilize?
Science fiction or fantasy communication is a great area of your world setting to expand, because it’s rich with possibilities. It offers opportunities for conflict and suspense, for enhancing the theme and mood of your worldbuilding project, and for great character moments—whether that’s in DnD games, novels, or anything else. It also furnishes you with plot galore, regardless of your genre or setting. Here are some things to consider in your worldbuilding and story weaving, whatever your media or genre.
Flow of information—who knows what?
Face it, information is the key to huge amounts of plot and conflict. From investigations to big reveals to heartfelt admissions, communication makes things happen between our characters.
There’s a reason all those Shakespeare plays—from Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night to most of the histories—have critical letters in them. Which character knows what, their access to plot-vital information, can force decisions, present opportunities, and drive stories all by itself.
The delivery of information—a letter, an overheard phone call—can be the inciting incident of your plot. Consider the letters at the beginning of Frankenstein, for example. And what characters know, and how they choose to convey that information, is the heart of every murder investigation, interrogation or reveal scene. Or consider Princess Leia’s iconic “help me, Obi Wan Kenobi” hologram, which delivers the plot-vital answer of how to take down the Death Star. Characters may give their lives to keep information safe, or make sure it gets into the right hands. Whistleblowers can topple governments.
And the delay in delivering that information can create dramatic irony, tension and suspense for your readers or players too. This is a great way to play with pacing and set up expectations.
Communication to reinforce Foundation, Mood and Tone
Introducing different kinds of science fictional or fantasy communication and languages makes your worldbuilding richer. And it’s a great way to add mood and tone to your world, or to double down on foundational aspects that are important to your worldbuilding (for more about this, see our article on the Worldbuilding Meta!)
For example, in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, a lot of emphasis is placed on the many strange sentient species, including humanoids with scarab bugs for heads (Khepri). He goes into great detail about the way Khepri communicate with each other (through sprays of chemicals) and with non-Khepri (through sign language) because the presence of many bizarre species is a foundational part of his setting.
Another great example of fantasy communication which reinforces foundation is the Shadowmarks in Skyrim. These unobtrusive symbols are used by the in-world Thieves Guild, helping members identify buildings which may be lucrative or dangerous to enter. To those unaware of these symbols, they look like decoration or random carvings. Or Thieves Cant, in the Dungeons and Dragons world of Forgotten Realms? Both of these languages are carefully designed to protect information—only those “in the know” understand the message. This rewards players who join those factions with a deeper level of information about the world. These kinds of coded languages are perfect for creating a sense of intrigue around rival factions, warring guilds, gangs, families, spy agencies or the like.
Or how about lost languages? From Atlantean in Atlantis: The Lost Empire to (of course) Lord of the Rings, lost languages reinforce the importance and mystery of the past. In fact, this becomes a minor plot point in The Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf gleans critical information about the One Ring in archives written in the ancient Gondor language, so old it is unreadable even to the archivists themselves. If history is important to your setting, consider throwing some in some forgotten languages—it’s a great place to hide plot points, too.
Communication for logistics
One of my favorite reasons for developing specific sci-fi or fantasy communication methods, though, is to deal with logistical problems.
Take, for example, the problem of long-distance communication. If you don’t have mobile phones, or something like the DnD spell “Sending”, in your world (or even if you do, but it’s not readily available to everyone), you’ll need another way of communicating long distance. We’ve already talked about letters. Methods like smoke signals, lighthouses, carrier pigeons, and rider relays (e.g. the Pony Express) are well known. So for examples of crazy cool communication, I turn of course, to the Ancient Greeks, who invented some pretty incredible things.
Fire signals and beacons had been used long before the ancient Greeks, but Pallamedes was the first to turn them into language transmission. A grid system—two columns of five torches each—meant that letters could be referred to through different positions lit or unlit (rather like semaphore or morse code). Whole messages could be passed this way, and it’s how the fall of Troy was made known to Mycenae in one night—that’s 250 miles away and across the Aegean sea!
And speaking of semaphore, that’s another fantastic way to send messages across long distances! Flag semaphore (flags are not required, they just make the signals more obvious), originated in 1866 and is probably the best-known kind of semaphore. It’s most often associated with ships, although it’s in plenty of situations where visual communication is easier than aural, among others, Canadian Mounted Police. The optical telegraph (developed in 1792, France) essentially followed the same principles. Towers used visual signals like indicator arms, which could be seen by the next tower along and copied.
What’s important about all these methods for us worldbuilders is that 1) they allow long-distance communication, at least for those with infrastructure and/or money. And 2) they have significant story potential. Understanding what can reasonably be conveyed (and when) allows us to have good internal logic for our world setting. And that’s critical. We never want a player or reader to feel cheated, so establishing these things is important. Even more so if a plot point relies on the delivery time of information.
And also, these methods of communication have clear limitations. They require good visibility (no fog, for example). They can be easily intercepted, if someone understands the code. Which can lead to interesting stories all by itself.
Limiting communication—the effects of isolation
On the other hand, what happens in your stories when you limit communication? There’s a ton of story potential there to play with, for character and plot and setting.
One great example of this is space travel. Although if you’re dealing with fantasy, that could also be transplanar communication. Or it might simply be an isolated group traveling far from home in a low/no magic setting.
Let’s imagine a space colony lightyears from home. It’ll have a very different feeling if “earth is far away, we are on our own” vs. “back up is an hour away”. This choice you make, defined by technology, affects communication and logistics. But it also affects the people themselves. Those in command—if they can’t expect some HQ to give them quick solutions or conflict resolution—will have more responsibility invested on them, raising character agency. And more is at risk when things go wrong, which raises the stakes. They’ll have to be more self-reliant in every way. And how will that affect the way they think of Earth?
Another way of limiting communication is more literal—the isolating effects of not being versed in the local language? This is another great way to introduce difficulties to a character, or make them feel in over their head. It might be simply that they don’t speak a second language. But it could also be something more significant. For example, they are mute and no one around them speaks sign language. These limits can isolate a character, but they can also force connections when a character finds someone they can communicate with, allowing you to throw mismatched characters together. They can also result in critical misunderstandings—whether funny or catastrophic is up to your setting, mood and style. The most memorable of these for me is from the Game of Thrones series:
Tyrion Lannister: For your baby. To eat. To eat. (trying to give money to a woman with a baby)
Varys: She thinks you want to eat her baby.
This is an important character moment for Tyrion, who uses words and wit as a weapon. He is effectively disarmed in this scene by his clumsy second-language speaking. (I think anyone who’s learned a second language feels this HARD).
How do people communicate with each other in your world setting? How are messages sent long distance? Do you have secret communication styles, like thieves cant or shadow marks? Let me know in the comments!