On Writing: Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies

One of the oddest game supplements I’ve ever run across, that I’ve held onto for the sheer novelty and possible bunnies, is a D20 supplement called When The Sky Falls. It was about dropping a meteorite on your game campaign.

…No, really. It has damage charts for HP depending on how close you are to the strike, effects of debris, and a whole host of other things.

It also, because it is a fantasy D20 supplement, has a host of options for what the meteorite actually is, from purely mundane rock to magical ores to a piece of a fallen evil god. (Rather nasty, that one.)  And, of course, there are ways intrepid adventurers could either profit from investigating the crater or come to horrible agonizing deaths. Possibly both. You know GMs. 😉

But as I’ve poked and re-read that supplement over the years, I got to thinking: Why is this an oddity? Fantasy universes have all kinds of world-ending spells and monsters thrown around in them all the time; to the point that it’s hard to pick up a fantasy in the bookstore and not find the Fate Of The World Is At Stake!

…Which has actually led me to start looking for fantasies where it isn’t, just for the novelty, but that’s another story. Back to sky rocks.

Why aren’t meteors thrown around in current fantasy more often?

I have two main thoughts; I’m wondering if people will come up with others. First, in these modern days, meteorites are strongly associated with space, other planets, and Science, so people may feel they have no place in fantasy. Which is kind of odd, because if you look not that far back in history, meteorites and meteoric iron were considered Heap Big Magic in a lot of places. Heck, even New Agers today (and some people who aren’t, who just squee over the unique) think anything from outer space is Really Cool. I’ve seen polished meteoric steel, and even tektites cut as unusual smoky gems. They are neat.

Second – the major thing that makes a meteorite so scary is there is very little we can do about them, even with all our vaunted Science. Yet. If we knew a planet-killer was headed our way, we’d have to find some way to deflect it, or blast it into bitty enough pieces that they’d all burn up harmlessly in atmosphere. But first and foremost we would have to know it was coming.

And yet, that’s the very thing a fantasy world might be able to handle that we can’t. We’d have to have a telescope looking in the right place at the right time. In a magical world, someone might cast a divination of Ominous Horror, or spy it through a crystal ball, or even get a sympathetic vibration from their own meteorite pendant. And once you’ve got the threat fixed, all you hopefully have to do is apply enough force in the right place.  Which, yes, might be tricky for a mostly medieval tech-level civilization (if that’s what the fantasy is), but I’m confident humans would be creative enough to think of something.

So… anyone have other thoughts on why people don’t drop more rocks in fantasy?

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46 thoughts on “On Writing: Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies

  1. They are used to thinking of magical battles as restricted to line of sight / general close vicinity of the wizards in question?

    Spells that get rid of meteors would need a greater range than that.

    Power level restrictions? In some settings, wizards might not have enough power to deal with a threat like that – either not enough to blast the thing into any size pieces or not enough to reach it a distance where blasting it to pieces doesn’t equal Earth is bombarded with several big chucks of meteors or asteroids instead of one huge one. Or not enough not blast it into small enough pieces that they will burn up in our atmosphere.

    Thinking about it, it might be more sensible to nudge the asteroid / meteor to miss Earth rather than try to blast it.

    They don’t want to be accused of crossing the streams of Science Fiction and Fantasy? So must avoid saying such sciencey words. If space stuff is mentioned, it must be presented in fantasy way – like calling meteoric iron “star iron” or “star metal” even when the story is set in present day . . .

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    1. *Thoughtful nod* Though if you look at folklore, one of the reasons magic-workers were feared was because they could affect things at quite some distance, through the law of similarity and contagion.

      A nudge probably would be a better idea if they could pull it off!

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  2. Power restrictions: to summon a meteor takes a lot of power, for example FF7 Black Meteria. It’s need the worst main villain of the game to summon it. And it took the Plant/LifeStream to magic it away.

    Also, the travel distance. It had to travel unknown miles in space to get to the wizard/magic person’s target.

    Usefulness: a meteor is great and all but how and why would you summon one when you can just summon something else that less like to kill you as well. The time it takes to summon a meteor could be time setting up a trap.

    Location and Allies: Summon a meteor too close to your settlement is great way to kill everything within kill distance of the impact zone. Wide area of effect may also effect your allies and yourself

    The chance of getting a meteor of a good size that a) takes out your enemy, b) doesn’t kill you or your allies in the process and c) doesn’t set off a chain reaction that would lead to the end of the world.

    That’s all I could think, through. Magic is weird.

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    1. Heh. I wasn’t exactly thinking of summoning a meteor a la the Black Materia; more dealing with one that had turned up.

      And actually, given some things can only be slain by “no weapon made by mortal man”, there might indeed be reasons to summon a big hunk of rock!

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      1. This all leads me to wonder if dropping a meteor on the Armies of Mordor would have been a trump card for Gandalf. How often did Sauron look up? The volcano probably would have survived; our intrepid heroes could visit once the dust has settled.

        Also, incoming meteor of doom greatly reminds me of the concluding movie for the Danny Phantom series, where they turn the earth intangible so the meteor passes right through.

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      1. Hmm. Problem with that one was that by reflecting accurately Celtic-type and Mongol-type cultures, I couldn’t wholly sympathize with the characters as much as you’d really want to. There’d need to be some major alterations.

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  3. Interesting observation. I’m thinking back over all the fantasy I’ve read and I can’t think of *any* that have the sort of depersonalized enemy that a meteor or earthquake or volcano represents. Everything has agency. Even Caradhras in Lord of the Rings is spoken about as if it were alive and malevolent. About the closest I can come is Barbara Hambly’s Darwath series, where the planet is slowly freezing as it’s sun dies (she hasn’t come up with a solution, the books are still good).

    I read shiori_makiba’s premise about crossing streams, but this is the age of genre mashups: Paranormal romance, SF romance, Paranormal detective stories, etc. so I’m not sure it’s politeness. Is is possible that magic and fantasy are thought of as being too personal, too small? Other than something like Magi, most magic users are not that powerful. I’m trying to think of books where a mage stopped a small army – there is Magic’s Price, the Blue Sword, the Book of Atrix Wolfe, that’s about it on my shelves.

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    1. Hmm. I’m wondering if it’s the same sort of thing that made D&D’s Spelljammer setting never really take off.

      I think you have a point on “agency”, though. One of the interesting things about Griffin’s Star Commandos series is that so often one of the things the team has to fight is the natural environment – including floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes.

      I’m going to save this for further poking; bunnies think it might be interesting if approached the right way.

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    2. *nods* Personally, I like genre mash-ups if done well.

      But sometimes people act like magic and science are mutually exclusive – like some people think you can have only ONE so you somehow must science!* anything that could be considered magic. Nevermind that your explanation might make little or no sense and/or prompt cries of “X doesn’t work that way!”

      *Or magic! anything that could be considered science.

      Nonsense I say.

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    3. I dunno if Mahouka is like Magi in your eyes. There is a Strategic Magician in that series who could a) solo an army b) probably redirect a meteor c) quite possibly do very evil things to an inhabited planet.

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      1. Tatsuya is a scary, scary guy, indeed. I can’t get behind the author’s “We must have not only victory, but Crushing Victory!” theme, but I do like the magic-redefined-as-programming idea.

        And the fingersnap. The fingersnap is pure genius.

        (It’s on Crunchyroll – The Irregular at Magic High School. It’s Awesome.)

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  4. It’s probably worth mentioning that the Final Fantasy game franchise spectacularly averts this is many ways. For starters, the ultimate attack magic that the player has access to is usually Meteor or Comet. Then there’s all the times that meteors are used in the plot… FFVII has probably the most famous meteor in gaming history with a weeklong period of it coming down. FFV has meteors act as interplanetary transport. Even games without meteors have weird planetary stuff going on. FFVIII’s moon drips monsters down onto the planet becasue of gravitational attraction. FFVIX has two planets nearly colliding with each other (one’s trying to gobble up the life-force of the other one). FFXIII has an artificial moon that’s in danger of crashing into the planet.

    Then again, magic and science are pretty much the same thing in the Final Fantasy series, so…

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  5. Science Fiction doesn’t seem to have the same hangup as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Apocalyptic and post apocalyptic are a flourishing sub-genre

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  6. I have an incomplete outline for a project based on ‘Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies’, where pretty much every named character is killed. Gimmicks being doing that while being positive, an improvement, not a bash fic, and maybe awesome.

    Some Xianxia have the MC’s absurd power up fall from the sky.

    New York publishing may be artificially narrowing the genre. If the authorearnings dot com numbers are correct about probable future changes, we may see indy widen things.

    How are the natives of the fantasy world going to have the math and physics to appreciate the impending menace? If they have the math and physics, what does that imply about the setting?

    It can absolutely be done. Take Year of the Griffon by Diana Jones for an example of something similar.

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    1. I’d definitely say NY publishing has narrowed the genre a lot. I remember the variety that showed up on the shelves in the 1980s; now, going into bookstores is frustrating. If it weren’t for Amazon I think I’d be tearing my hair out.

      And heh. If Galileo and Newton can come up with the math and physics, why not a fantasy equivalent?

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  7. Gregory Keyes wrote a historical fantasy trilogy(?, IIRC), first one being Newton’s Cannon, featuring Louis XIV trying to drop a meteor on Britain, and Sir Isaac Newton & Ben Franklin trying to avert it. Uses magic-science. i believe he succeeded in dropping it and the rest of the series… a quartet, if I can believe Amazon… dealt with the (ahem) fallout. But I’m not sure I actually read to the end, I may have stopped with book 3. Must check the shelves. Anyway, it’s sort of fantasy, and uses an asteroid.

    Then there’s Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court quartet (fairies under London, starting in Tudor times) which uses Halley’s Comet twice, once to toss a dragon onto (after the Fire of London – guess what caused it.) that was in book 2, and then ..book 3, eek, the comet is coming back and what will we do about the dragon? I liked every alternate entry in that one.

    those are the only fantasy(ish) books I can recall reading that used space, astronomy, things in the sky.

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  8. I think part of the reason is a knee-jerk type reaction – which I’ll admit was the first thing in my own mind, too, hence why I’m mentioning it at all – is that the giant space rock is just Not Fantastic.

    By which I mean, fantasy settings – any fantasy setting – is, at it’s roots, about the Fantastic. The strange, the unknown, the downright magical. Whether that’s overt or covert, mages in the streets or secret hidden faeries, the basic hallmarks are the same. It’s not just about what strikes you as Cool, or Awesome, or even The Most Incredible Thing Ever. It’s about what is Fantastic, the things that just don’t happen in the real world. A meteor… That might be Cool or Awesome, but but fantasy-style Fantastic. We know about them. We know where they come from. We know how and why they happen. Things like that, playing with things we Know and making them Incredible, that’s the realm of Science Fiction. It’s in some ways similar to Fantasy, but they’re not the same thing.

    Basically: to most people, Wizards and Unicorns and Faeries are magical and Fantastic, the realm of Fantasy. Meteors are well-known and well-studied, thus the realm of Science Fiction. Even if you make it a magic giant space rock, that only changes so much; even the ways of reaching it to Do Something About It are more in line with Science Fiction than Fantasy.

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  9. I think one correlation is also the lack of astrology in current fantasy. I mean besides Sokka’s sword i haven’t (to my memory) heard of anything dealing with the sky or stars recently let alone straight up astrology. Harry Potter has astronomy classes…but not astrology? What kind of wizard are you??? Excuse me, Brian Jacques, author of the mossflower series, used the 2 bit astrologer/soothsayr advisor of Ye Evil Bad Guy to death.
    Depending on the fantasy, there could even be visions of the meteor hitting. Of course if it is medeival fantasy all i can see is everybody building a big shield to cover their town and huddling under it. Depending on the metal etc, that might not work.

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  10. We may know about meteors, but that’s fairly recent. Tales of rocks falling from the sky used to be laughed at by scientists until in the 1790s a meteor disintegrated somewhere over France and rained rock with 300 witnesses. Then scientists started to take the idea seriously.

    Writers could try to put themselves back in the mindset of people from such a time; or one where such an event would be the wrath of god, or something,; who don’t know they are normal and would think such phenomena are religious or magical, back in ‘a world without gravity’ as Sobel put it (in Galileo’s Daughter). Mike Flynn tried, fairly successfully in Eifelheim (20+ years ago), which featured dimension-crossing aliens shipwrecked in the Black Forest in the 1340s. Most don’t seem to want to try or are stuck in their own paradigms of what fits in fantasy or sf. It’s depressing.

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  11. Actually, meteors were fairly well-known up until about the 1600s. It was only with the Enlightenment and the rise of the Industrial Revolution that the mindset of “rocks can’t fall out of the sky, it’s not scientific” arose. Meaning even when people brought the meteorites to those of a scientific bent, they were accused of faking it.

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  12. Plotbunny: The Dark Lich Lord is capturing mages for EvilPlot!!!. Hero group frees mages! and go after Lichy! His macguffin plot is foiled! Lich reveals Divination in his rants about a crisis that needs every mage on the planet to avert… Nice Job Breaking it Hero! So Heroes need to regather all the mages…

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  13. “Future Falls” by Tanya Huff.

    Good things; the Family Seer sees the meteor coming, the Family Bard tracks the fate-lines to the people that know about it (at NASA) and Talks them into telling her everything, the halfDragon-halfUntutoredSorcerer (don’t ask him about butterflies) contacts the High Fae to inform them.

    Bad things; the High Fae can’t bother and decides to make mischief instead, and the Familys’ (Gale family – no, none of them is named Dorothy) Power comes from Earth, growing things, the Wild Wood. They can’t reach the damned thing.

    But read the first two books in the series before this. The second (environmentalist selkies) is my favourite.

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      1. Um… knowing you, you probably don’t want to. It’s the third in the Enchantment Emporium series – the one where the Gale family are huge promoters of incest for purposes of reproduction? And they’re supposed to be the heroes? I remember telling you about the first book, and firmly declared that I would never read another in that series (despite the fact that I like Tanya Huff).

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  14. Dropping rocks… makes me think of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein. 🙂 If you haven’t read it, it’s some excellent sci-fi.

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  15. If we’re going to the science fiction end of sf/f, I suggest also HAMMERFALL by Cherryh. The POV characters are being bombarded by rocks from space by the aliens who claim the planet. There’s a sequel which I actually prefer (for character connection reasons) set umpty-hundred years later, in the space station wherein people are observing the consequences, .

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