Worldbuilding: Hordes of Reasons

Sometimes you just want to give your characters something to fight and survive. No pesky moral questions, no politics, no negotiations; just kill or be killed. At the end you’re alive, someone or something else is dead, and you can just keel over for a while. To the modern reader who’s often stressed beyond bearing but has no good outlet to go take out all the rage and primal screams on, characters surviving can be very cathartic.

If that’s the fight you want in your story, then you probably want a horde. Individual threats are, well, individual. They tend to lead to character development, a la Dracula from generic undead menace, or even just the anthropomorphizing of a particularly vicious storm or cliff face. (If the characters don’t give such a threat hints of emotion and motive, the readers will. Humans are human that way.)

Hordes, though – hordes by their nature are a mass of threats, all blending together. A swarm of piranhas, a circling school of sharks, a stench of zombies. Everything comes at you at once, to overwhelm the senses and rational mind. If your body goes down into freeze mode with your mind, you’re dead.

This is another bit that differentiates hordes as a threat from individual predators or villains. “Freeze” is a perfectly legit survival strategy against most individual enemies; if they don’t see you, they might miss you, and go after something else moving. Which sucks for the other guy, but….

You can’t beat a horde that way, any more than freezing works against a march of army ants. The column spreads out so it hunts farther and more thoroughly than any one predator can. Freezing just means they find you faster. It’s run, or fight. Either one gets the reader’s adrenaline out, and usually you can have a mix of both, especially if you pull a scenario like “run from the zombies across a bridge, then blow the bridge at the very last minute”.

(At which point we all hope zombies don’t swim. Heh.)

So if your story needs a horde, where do you get one?

If it’s something like an insect swarm, it’s easy to explain. Either the horde normally tramps across the landscape munching away, or it does so under certain circumstances your main characters have to fall afoul of. Bees out to form a new colony are one example, army ants another, locusts yet a third. If it’s a horde of orcs or other monsters, you have some worldbuilding to do to explain how they built up enough numbers to switch to large-scale looting, burning, etc. And how they did it before humans wised up and nipped a potential horde in the bud, because we tend to do that when we get wind of man-eating threats. Demons or monsters from another dimension are a bit easier; “they were always there, they just couldn’t get over to this world to eat people.”

This may be why zombie hordes are often popular. All you have to do is worldbuild in your Patient Zero, and things explode outward from there.

(“All”. Heh. There’s a lot of worldbuilding that goes into whether or not you want this to be a zombie apocalypse or a beatable zombie outbreak. From what I’ve read Kingdom (2019 Korean historical drama, currently on Netflix) really pulls it off for a horror that can be beaten. I’m hoping at some point they’ll put out official DVDs so I can check it out – the TV Tropes page is interesting.)

And then of course there’s the option of a horde of robots. Which might act like any of the above critters, or possibly all of them. Imagine Skynet with our modern-day drones available. Brr.

When all’s said and done, shape your worldbuilding and your heroes so they’re smart and lucky enough to survive the horde… barely. Stretch your creativity; make it more than just being fast and strong enough to fight on. One of the integral parts of being human is tool use, and the environment around us is a host of potential tools. From Improvised Weapons to Combat Parkour to Badass Bookworms remembering one obscure fact about the enemy; hit all the facets of what it means to be human, the better to contrast against the inhuman hordes trying to kill them all. Your readers will love it.

Once they catch their breath, at least….

If you don’t mind spoilers for Kingdom – have a Last Stand against a zombie horde that works!

(At this point they’ve discovered the zombie-making effect is a parasite, and it hates water, so while full zombies can and do drown, if you get someone just bitten submerged fast enough….)

8 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Hordes of Reasons

  1. That was one of the really good bits in Log Horizon. A really nice simple _understandable_ reason for the goblins reaching critical mass and going on the march. Sure, it was started as game Lore, but now that the Isekai event happened it’s become “real”. Normal conditions are that the local (npc) Lords see goblin numbers rising, and call in Adventurers (offer quests) to go clear them out and kill their leaders before their leaders can get them together into a big Horde. And this has to be done regularly, because they spawn relatively fast. Que the Adventurers finding themselves Isekai’d, and spending a few months first getting used to the fact “we’re actually living here, dealing with danger with our own bodies, not just our characters on a computer”, and the (npc) Lords all focusing on “what are the immortal Adventurers going to do next? Are they going to rampage?”, and no one’s paying attention to the goblins until it’s too late and there’s a Horde marching.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. ” Imagine Skynet with our modern-day drones available. Brr.”

    This is where I put on my Professional Roboticist hat and play buzzkill. 😀

    All the consumer-grade drones would go kamikazi into people, and smash themselves to pieces. Well, the ones the everyone had charged, and weren’t in a box. Lots of hospitalizations for minor injuries, but very few fatalities.

    All the Predator and Reaper drones (less than a thousand total, worldwide) that are currently armed and fueled take off, take out 1-2 tanks/vehicles/buildings apiece… then fly home and wait for their human ground crews to reload them. ….yeaahhhhh, not gonna happen, drones.

    The Global Hawks fly around at ~80k feet taking pix of all the minor carnage until they run out of fuel.

    Skynet attempts to flush the ICBM silos… and is thwarted b/c (even if it could get a drone into the silo control) there’s no drone with the physical dexterity to insert an 8-inch floppy disk without wrecking it. 😛

    The SSBNs have no remote control linkages — SkyNet’s best bet there is to fake the correct sequence of launch codes, which the human crew still have to type in manually. And a launch command “out of the blue,” with no advance warning, will cause the SSBN crews to phone home for confirmation before pushing the Big Red Button.

    On the surface warships, SkyNet bounces off the ancient Windows 98 computers and can’t actually do anything. But even assuming it gets past that hurdle, if the chief engineer sees his weapons start acting on their own… he opens the main circuit breaker in the load center and everything goes dead.

    Any self-driving cars could do some damage, but would quickly wreck themselves in the process.

    Factory robots? Bolted to the floor and behind fences. Nuclear power plants? So many ways to SCRAM a reactor, deliberately designed to overcome runaway automation.

    Nah… 21st century SkyNet would covertly take over social media, and start whipping up the hordes of hypnotized zombies into wiping each othCONNECTION TERMINATED AT SOURCE

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Then there is the sensor processing/AI side.

      Seriously, good luck to Skynet in even having clue one about defining a mission, much less telling the difference between mission objectives and entirely unrelated things.

      Okay, current mess fits some of the WTF levels you would expect from throwing AI at random shit, but there is a lot of natural human stupidity involved.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Have you ever read Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series? A lot goes on in those books but one of the main conflicts is elemental bending descendents of a lost Roman legion team up with once enemy elves and giant wolfmen to take on an alien locust hord.

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  4. The problem with some hoards is when the author still wants their plucky hero to wrap everything up into a neat finish, which doesn’t always make sense for a problem covering the entire world.

    That can lead to some really contrived circumstances to explain how everything is all tied to one action at one place with a big button saying “press to fix everything” ready for the hero.

    The webnovel Solo Leveling spends about 80% of the story showing how the entire world has been invaded for decades, then the last 20% twisting things around so one person can fix it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron has a horde of Ultron drones appear in the final battle.

    Best thing about hordes like this, as mentioned in the post, is that the heroes get to go *all out*. No holds barred, no tactic too strong or vicious, no punch is too much. Damage – lethal damage – is not only okay but necessary for survival. You want to see the Hulk smash everything that comes at him or Steve Rogers demonstrate what the super soldier serum really lets him do? Throw an army of robots at ’em and pop the popcorn, because it’s going to be *fun*!

    Liked by 3 people

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