Worldbuilding: To Call the Lightning

Given the chance, lightning will strike twice. Electricity follows the path of least resistance (pun intended), so once one bolt has ionized a trail through the atmosphere others are likely to follow.

What would happen in a world where people control lightning; magically or technologically?

Despite people referring to modern electricity as “tame lightning” – no, no, it’s not. That’s like referring to a kitten as a tame tiger. We have better defenses against the real stuff than a thousand years ago, and sometimes we can influence it a little. Control it? No.

One thing likely is a widespread adoption of lightning rods. Ben Franklin’s experiments with kites and keys notwithstanding, for a long time there were plenty of people unconvinced that grounding the charge would spare a building. Difficult to say how many of them believed you couldn’t thwart the wrath of God versus how many didn’t grasp exactly how this metal rod was supposed to work. Con men working the Western frontier promising deliveries of lightning rods and skipping out with the advance payments did not help.

Keraunomedicine (the study of lightning injuries) would also be more advanced, simply because there’d be a lot more victims. The best stats I’ve found say maybe 90% of lightning strike victims survive. What most people don’t know is that besides the fernlike burn scars (Lichtenberg figures), survivors often have a host of odd neurological effects that can stump the best doctors. Everything from personality changes to temporary or permanent sensory loss to partial or full paralysis and many, many more. The nervous system runs on electricity, and even if you’re lucky enough that it doesn’t stop your heart permanently, a lightning strike overloads your whole system. Like plugging a 120V device into a 240V system, only much worse.

The neurological effects can blot out the memory of getting hit, making treatment that much harder. One survivor needed weeks to put together that she’d been shocked when lightning hit the wire fence she was working on. She was lucky. Muscle spasms flung her away from the fence instead of locking her fingers in place, and (her doctors later deduced) she hit the ground at just the right angle and force to restart her heart.

The canon depiction of Aang getting hit by lightning in Avatar the Last Airbender? Fairly close to reality, including the scarring and exit wound through the foot. Although he recovered much faster and more thoroughly than most. Thank goodness for spirit water.

BTW, if they’d wanted to make it a much darker show, the neurological damage would be the perfect excuse for a descent into villainy. One of the historical figures on record as being hit by lightning as a kid was Mithridates VI. That’s right, the creepy king out of Roman history who was constantly taking low doses of poison to build up tolerance, who among other lovely exploits married his sister and declared some of his daughters were of such pure noble blood they couldn’t marry anyone but dear old Dad.

…Let’s all be glad AtLA didn’t go that route.

A third thing that might happen is getting rid of all possible metal armor and weapons, or making sure anything metal has grounding straps. Which would be an interesting look on a paladin.

You guys are creative. What else do you think would happen?

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20 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: To Call the Lightning

  1. A lot of very nasty law cases. How do you prove that you didn’t call lightening to hit that person/building/tree?

    I could see iron wood trees and other really dense hard woods being a careful investment in a fantasy setting. You could have literal wood’s magic used in the shaping of the armor so you would have the same effect as the surviving plate armor we have today, just wood. Maybe ceramic plates, Kevlar like, only a bunch of tiny scales because again, presuming more magic then weather. A lot of gambeson, which actually did a really good job against slashing attacks. Then again, might just stick everyone in non-metal gear and teach them to feel the ozone buildup so they can dodge.

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  2. Not sure how to use it, but I have a very cool image in my head to justify the “stand there for a while, maybe a little lightning is striking nearby but not much, then raise your staff to the sky, and the lightning comes down allover” scene.

    They’re building up a negative charge. (Well, or a positive one, and you could play with that, too.) The staff gesture is to extend that charged field up to where it can trigger strikes, which will of course depend. The aiming ability would be… pretty much non existent, although presumably the caster wouldn’t generally be hit, maybe something like the opposite charge is drawn into him, which would make it match the lightning, thus no strikes but justification for pretty sparks on him.

    **********

    For strange neurological effects, happens with normal electrocution, too. My husband did the chicken dance for at least five seconds before his watcher figured out he wasn’t joking, and while there were no serious burn marks– he got several odd after effects, including suddenly having allergies. (One of them is to marijuana, which was extremely “fun” when we were living in Washington state.)

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      1. *heh* Given your allergies, I’d put it the other way around– he can imagine what you deal with, and I can’t really, beyond a bad cold metaphor– but I’m sure he appreciates the thought. 😀

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      2. “Bad cold”, GI pain enough to keep you up days straight, infections from heck, rashes out of nowhere certain times of the year – and that’s not even counting “avoid inhaled wheat or court black hole depression”.

        Allergies suck.

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  3. I’ve been thinking about that incident in Avatar.

    Feels like a wasted opportunity, especially given that Fire, Korra, and other canonical material leave me varying degrees of apathetic.

    See, Shield Hero has a couple of interesting features. One is that the other world is a result of an evil entity who is the process of destructively merging worlds for personal gain. Second is that the four summoned heroes are sometimes dead first.

    My takeaway is that the hero summoning rituals can also be carried out in some sort of underworld.

    Such an underworld could be a setting for a story that replaces that flash game episode that canonically took place between Earth and Fire. Aang could take a different journey between life and death, to do what the canon story did in terms of healing him and the Avatar spirit, and set up character changes for a different end to Fire.

    Of course, me being crazy, I also think this is a good excuse to do Aang as the protagonist for the first x Ultima games. Haven’t played them, but there are features that I think might be good for Aang.

    I’ve tried to throw in Super Robot Wars and new XCOM, so the whole thing ought to be filed under the stress of 2020.

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    1. Shield Hero notion being that Aang is summoned as a fifth along side four OC/crossover weapon heros. The four weapon heros are explicitly aligned with four elemental magics.

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  4. Most depictions of lightning as a weapon are less “lightning” and more “static with an attitude” with power like a weak taser and they pop back up in a few minutes.

    This actually makes a certain degree of sense.
    Lightning works by building a charge until it has enough to jump the gap, whatever gap that is.
    So the gap between the ground and sky requires a big charge and the gap between a wizard and his target is much smaller.
    If a wizard wanted to increase the power, he’d not only have to build a bigger change, but he’d have to prevent it from jumping too early.

    It’s also worth noting that not all lightning bolts are equal.
    Someone might survive multiple weak bolts, then die from one that’s an order of magnitude stronger.

    It would be funny to have a setting where everyone is used to shrugging off tiny static attacks, then someone drops an actual lightning bolt on them.

    ***

    If you have a setting where they create a lightning by building a charge in the clouds, then they’d have to aim it by creating an ionized air corridor and hoping.
    The defense would be to create a powerful wind to blow away the ionized air before it fully form.

    I’ve seen a lot of authors fixate on wearing rubber shoes and avoiding metal as a defense against electrical attacks.

    A better system would be a Faraday Suit which has a metal exterior to conduct electricity away, and an insulator interior to protect the person.

    With a suit of armor, all you’d have to do it make sure the the metal pieces are connected with wire going down to the ground, and make sure your inner padding is high resistance.

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    1. If you have a setting where they create a lightning by building a charge in the clouds, then they’d have to aim it by creating an ionized air corridor and hoping.
      The defense would be to create a powerful wind to blow away the ionized air before it fully form.

      Ah ahahhah! Thank you, NOW I know why my air-element casters can fight! Translating it into not-science will be work, but “air= weather= lightning” was just not jelling right.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you allow for longer cast times there’s a lot of possibilities.

        A fire mage spends 5 seconds casting a spell, and throws a fireball.

        An air mage spends 5 hours tweaking air pressure and temperature and drops a tornado on the army.

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    2. With a suit of armor, all you’d have to do it make sure the the metal pieces are connected with wire going down to the ground, and make sure your inner padding is high resistance.

      Hobnail boots, perhaps?

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      1. Hobnail boots would take some adaption.
        You’d still need a path from the armor to each nail, otherwise they’d be isolated by the boot.

        If you use wire, it’d have maintenance issues.

        Considering the manufacturing, it might be easier to make a frame with cleats, then build a boot around it and connect the frame to the armor.

        Another possibility would be to bypass the boot entirely and have a cable from the armor dragging on the ground.

        It’s certainly a problem that can be solved multiple ways.

        Now imagine a protagonist who’s the first person to develop the Faraday Armor.
        Everyone else lives in terror of the lightning mages, and he gets. back. up.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. On the inside, yes, serious changes– I was picturing a sort of leather sandwich, with metal in the middle, for the boots.

        But it gives you a classic “symbol” (footprint of a hobnailed boot) that doesn’t require much explanation.

        Me, I’d want SEVERAL routes for electricity!

        Am now wondering about tabards that are stupid-long for a functional reason…..

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  5. Personally if there’s a way of calling actual lightning via “magic” or some other mechanism I can see a LOT of time and effort spent researching and developing ways to defend against lightning via that very same mechanism. Be it enchanting metal armor (because let’s face it, it’s too useful to give up and unless you’ve got magic that can grow trees fast it’s going to be easier to supply metal armor than it will wooden armor of similar or better quality) or having your own defensive mages.

    Similarly a shift to wooden armor will probably see a shift to more fire slinging or an evolution in lightning throwing techniques geared towards setting fires…and likely large scale deforestation as a way to both provide armor and reduce the supply of such armor. Probably all of the above knowing human ruthlessness.

    If there is no way to defend against lightning then I see a zero-sum MAD scenario developing as all the various powers that can do so, train up lightning slinging mages and threaten to use them against various strategic targets to cripple their neighbors if their neighbors deploy their own lightning using mages.

    …which might actually be kind of interesting to read about. How WOULD MAD warfare policies work in a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting?

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  6. One Piece has Enneru (sp?) who ate the lightning fruit. He does extremely controlled lightning at will, plus people/life tracking, big blots take some time to charge, and he thinks it makes him god.
    Then he runs into the hero, who ate the rubber fruit. It was more than I’ve seen done before with lightning control.

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  7. I should note that when lightning rods were first coming into place and electricity was really coming into vogue, there were lots of designs for outfits that included a lightning rod. Most of them were worthless at best, but there _were_ a few that were actually faraday-suits (usually via a layer of chainmail), and those did apparently work in tests (tho I haven’t heard of any actually being struck by natural lightning).

    And yes, I second the suggestion of faraday-suit armor, rather than “wood” armor or something worthless like that. See, the lightning _does_ follow the path of least resistance. Usually, that’s your skin, not the clothing you’re wearing over it. Sure, maybe if you were wearing _silk_ clothing, or certain types of fur (depending on whether the lightning is positive or negative charged), the clothing might be less resistant than your skin, but… Basically, wood and cloth are electrical resistors, but so is air, and usually the air itself is a higher resistor than a thin layer of cloth or wood, so if the magically generated/aimed lightning bolt is already able to get through the air to reach you, it’s unlikely to be stopped by the wood, and will probably just go along your skin _under_ the clothing/armor. Using a metal armor faraday-suit provides a _significantly_ lower resistance target for the lightning to flow along instead of your skin.

    Also, because it’s cool and provides a relevant example (not the best one for _seeing_ stuff, but still good enough)

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