Worldbuilding: Venomous Little Details

Much as I love many Chinese historical costume dramas, some of them may be a bit light on worldbuilding. Usually little details like, where do all these bad guys get their ninja-esque training, deadly composite poisons, and hidden weapons? Much less all the Mysterious Ancient Texts that heroes and villains alike end up consulting. Someone had to write those books! Meaning someone had to do research into hundreds of ways of formulating a four-component deadly poison that’s totally harmless if you’re only exposed to one component… eep.

In short, your bad guys are the tip of a very pointy spear, and there ought to be a lot of support forces behind them.

Of course, they could have stolen a lot of it. Training, weapons, and all. Previously legit soldiers, apothecaries, and mercenaries going rogue happens.

And yet. There’s always such a variety of bad guys, and they’re generally well-supplied with knives, swords, needles, smoke bombs, etc. It almost makes you wonder if there is an Evil-Mart out there. (And if the gluten-free bread is good.)

In your world, where do your villains get their weapons, training, and other elements of Doom? You don’t have to explain it all, sometimes readers just want a pulpy Adventure fighting the Forces of Evil. But if you do put some thought into it, that could lead to whole new stories in the world to explore. Consider the skills involved in making undetectable poisons, and whether or not any crimelord is dumb enough to stiff them on the bill. Can your hero track a bad guy to his suppliers by the metal alloy of the paralyzing needles? Are certain components for flash-bombs and the like expensive, or downright illegal, because the reigning monarch has just had it with yet another Caped Avenger prowling the capital?

Also consider the possibilities for involuntarily dragging in some Average Guy to heroic adventures by way of their day job. Say, polishing needles, or grinding specific herbs – or making suspiciously, awfully hard steamed buns.

There’s a scene in Enchanting Phantom where the poor scholar tries to eat a bun, fails, tosses it away – and it knocks someone else in the bar out cold.

Bad enough in most places. But this is a jianghu bar.

“Hidden weapons!”

Cue bar brawl, and a dazed scholar slipping out the back – to wind up in even more trouble, of course….

(I dunno if his pen was ever mightier than the sword, but his steamed bun sure was!)

25 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Venomous Little Details

  1. “How long have you been supporting the Evil Assassin Organization!?”

    “What are you talking about? I don’t support any Evil Assassins!”

    “Yes you do. We tracked their poison to you. It’s an ingenious weapon. Not only does it kill them, but it makes them go insane first. And you make it.”

    “That’s slander! My Mercury-Lead-Bleach concoction is the latest in disease prevention! How dare you call such a life saving miracle a poison!”

    “…has anyone ever survived taking it?”

    “Absolutely! Those nice young men in dark cloaks assure me that it works perfectly!”

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Consider the skills involved in making undetectable poisons, and whether or not any crimelord is dumb enough to stiff them on the bill.

    Yes, absolutely they are.

    No question.


    The fancy way to say it is “evil will oft doth evil mar.” The common way is to say “stupid criminals.” There is no honor among thieves– just people who haven’t decided it’s worth screwing with you, yet.


    I like the light-hearted spins instead. “Bloodbath and Beyond, homicidal, happier– can I interest you in an automated razor tornado?”
    “Home Despot, more slaving, more doing.”
    “Evul-mart, we’ll get U here!”

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Those fic bits were a lot of fun, but the problem was I ended up going down the flippin’ rabbit hole with all the ‘More you might like’ things. There is a reason I try not to end up on Tumblr too often, it’s like a fic version of a wiki crawl.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What if they buy from a farm somewhere, where the livestock is venomous, and the workers are immune to the venom? The venom has to be milked, and they don’t realize that others aren’t immune to it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Or you’re getting a 100x effective limit dose of a medication.

      There’s a lot of stuff where what I’ll simplify to drug interactions make a big difference in outcome….

      Oooh! My mom can’t eat cabbage when she’s on blood thinners (vitamin K), a place that has chronic vitamin K deficiency would thus have higher tolerance vs stuff that works on the same principle. That could be a route for discovering the “alone, they’re fine, combine them and it’s a Problem” poisons.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And those dual poisons are so useful, plot-wise! E.g.:

        Refa: Why would I [do as you ask]?

        Londo: Because I have asked you. Because your loyalty to our people should be greater than your ambition. And because I have poisoned your drink.

        Refa: [silent look of astonishment]

        Londo: Yes…and it is very interesting poison. It comes in two parts. Both are harmless on their own. But when combined…quite lethal. The first settles into the bloodstream, and the intestinal walls. It stays there for years. Silent…dormant…waiting. When the other half of the poison enters your system the two meet, have a little party in your cardiovascular system … and suddenly, you are quite dead.

        Refa: Why? Why did you do this?

        Londo: To guarantee your cooperation! And because sooner or later, you would do it to me! As we are returning to the old ways, Refa, and poison was always the instrument of choice in the old Republic, being something of a sentimentalist, I got here first.

        Refa: What do you want me to do?

        Londo: [gives instructions] If you do not comply, one of my agents in the royal palace will introduce you to the second half of the poison.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. The webcomic “Supervillainous” has a Con Con aka a “Convict Convention” where all the super-villains gather to give lectures on various topics, swap technology, renew old rivalries and reminiscence on past team-ups. The super-heroes kind of just let it happen since they’re not so stupid as to bother a whole bunch of super-villains who are for once not interested in them…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Xianxia has a lot of that problem, more broadly. I blame the PRC.

    Information shows up as needed to serve the plot, and there is a bunch of implication simply ignored.

    Recently, I’ve been down a world building rat hole.

    I was reading a story and went “That trope would only really make sense in a totalitarian hellhole.” Then I failed a saving throw against “make an original, turn up the crazy even higher, and figure out how to make it work.”

    The problem has constraints that make it interesting, but a) Ugh b) I have no plot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The relevant bit to this: If super powers develop based on a) blood inheritance b) where one grew up, than then replica clones that were prepared in a different polity might have different super powers.

      So far I know that at least one of the clones has twigged to this, and is investigating the polity that they were prepared in.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. If it was a story set in fantasy medieval europe the obvious answer for where the Mysterious Ancient Texts came from would be:

    “There was an ancient empire, far more knowledgable and rich than the current one. It collapsed, and left only memories of its glory as well as roads/transportation systems far better than anything build after.

    A few scraps of its vast knowledge were preserved in remote monasteries including tomes on medicine. ”
    And that is where all this knowledge of rare poisons and their antidotes is coming from.

    But this is such a western trope. It doesn’t fit in the Jianghu. Or dows it? Did China ever have an equivalent to the Fall of Rome?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Sorta.

      Archeology has actually vindicated a lot of the ‘mythical’ narrative of dynastic successions. Originally, western historians and archeologists considered the Xia,Shang, and Zhou dynasties mythical.

      Then they found evidence validating the Zhou. A bunch of bronzes.

      Then they found evidence validating the Shang. Oracle bones, etc.

      Basically, there is/was a bureaucratic gentry class that had skills at implementing bureaucracies that could ‘run’ things up until generations of corrupt officials knowing exactly what reports to send made the whole thing so dysfunctional that everyone could see that burning it all down in a bloody revolution made a little bit of sense.

      Basically, they have had many generations of insane would be totalitarian tyrants, who never had much regard for human life.

      tl;dr. The historical perspective is really weird when you come to it after a grounding in western history, and there is a huge bias towards ‘old book somewhere, inexplicably has information about topic, must be reliable’.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Put this way, I’m now giggling over the conclusion that: “so, the ‘Cultural Revolution’ wasn’t, really, anything new. Just more of the same old, same old, that they’ve been doing since time immemorial.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Maybe not that extreme.

        Tech may have been an enabler for that, as was as Zedong’s degree of nihilism.

        Most of the new emperors founding dynasties kinda wanted to establish control using the old type of power structure, just changing up the organization and the influence networks needed to manipulate it.

        But there was a /lot/ of year zero type revisionist history.

        Shang were the first definitely historical dynasty. We know that some of their religious concepts were passed down, and used in state cults later on. There was an ancestral spirit that the Shang maintained a ritual connection with.

        The story the Zhou told later, the last Shang king wanted to cut people apart, and see the good and evil in them by interpreting their entrails. This being super evil was why the first Zhou emperor or king was called to take over. The Zhou basically set up a bunch of Princedoms, and kept on Shang inheritors to do ritual stuff, sorta like a Pope. Because they were in theory not breaking the ritual power of the Shang.

        Anyway, the Zhou lasted a long time by Chinese dynasty standards, but was eventually pretty done. Late Zhou saw the development of a bunch of philosophies, Mohism, Confucianism, and LEgalism being famous. (I’ve actually argued that LEgalism was the least evil of these. Basically, authoritarian power worship to the degree that Sarah Hoyt would probably label it autistic. Arguing Confucianism as more evil was basically on economic grounds, and I find I am no longer persuaded.)

        The last stages of setting up the early status quo were the Qin and Han. Qin were Legalist. Qin Shi Huangdi was a psycho, and basically just about everyone who likes him is a psycho. Han were Confucian, and despite what they claimed, early Han law seems to have been as brutal as Qin law.

        Anyway, early status quo, I understand that they kept all the heirs of past dynasties around, and set them to ritual tasks.

        Then there were a lot of fairly normal dynastic successions resulting in similar patterns.

        Yuan Dynasty is slightly notable, it was the Mongols, Yuan means original, and they maybe put a bit more effort into the year zero revisionism.

        I’m up too late to string together a good summary of the changes in the pattern involving the most recent two. Zedong pulled off some serious changes, but I’m inclined to see them in terms of making an often horrible situation a lot worse.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. There are the Paleolithic folks. There are the Shang, who made weird cauldrons and knew magic (and were so evil they had to be totally destroyed). And there are the Mian, who allegedly are witches and raise poison pets.

    Liked by 1 person

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