Podcast Episode 14.2 – How to Create Sovereign Powers


Episode 14.2: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson concludes our talk about how to create sovereign powers by understanding government types like federations, unitary states, kingdoms, dictatorships, authoritarian states, oligarchies, republics, and more, including how they rise and fall.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Why world builders should care about government types and how to use them
  • Why each type rises, falls, and what life is like for people in its territory
  • What authoritative states like a dictatorship are
  • The difference between a federation, confederation, unitary state, and more
  • The difference between constitutional and absolute monarchies
  • What an empire is

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Episode 14.2 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirteen, part two. Today’s topic continues out talk about how to create sovereign powers by understanding government types like federations, unitary states, kingdoms, dictatorships, authoritarian states, oligarchies, republics, and more, including how they rise and fall. This material and more is discussed in chapter 5 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Government Types

Most of us probably think that a subject like government types is going to be kind of dry, and maybe a little bit boring, but I have found that it’s actually one of the more interesting subjects when it comes to building a world, and even creating a setting for our stories where it can impact the story that we are telling. One reason we might think it’s not interesting is that we just don’t know some of these things. And so, one government type is kind of the same as another to us, unless we have looked into this or we’ve recently taken something like a high school or college course on the subject.

You could do a lot of research on this, but one of the things that I’ve done with this entire series is done that research for you. Now, I won’t cover absolutely everything because there are literally entire books written about government types. And, in fact, they’re probably entire books written about one specific government type, such as a monarchy. But what I have done is collected all of what I feel are the relevant, high-level details about what we need to know as world builders. And that’s part of what we’re going to discuss today.

If you really do want extreme detail because you’re going to write a story kind of like Game of Thrones, where the details of how government works actually matter to your story, there are many resources out there that you can find. But, for most of us, we are really just trying to decide what the government is like because of how this affects life for our characters. And we really only want a high level of detail on this. So, that’s what I’m going to cover here. It’s not because I’m lazy or I don’t find it interesting. It’s partly because I’m trying to teach and reach the widest audience here. One thing I’m hoping that may happen for you is that you become more interested in this and then you go ahead and do the deeper dive into it on your own.

In quite a few episodes, I’ve talked about using analogues, which is basically when we invent something that is based on something here on Earth. Government types is a good way of doing this and we can even use things that have happened with governments here on Earth to model something on. For example, in recent times, the government of Somalia has kind of fallen apart and been destabilized and, as a result, pirates have sought a better life through attacking ships that are sailing near. And this is something that we can use ourselves.

If that seems like it’s too recent an example and someone, a reader of yours, may realize what you’re basing it on, then you can look through Wikipedia on any country and find things that have happened in that country’s history when one government type or another fell, or rose, and different things that happened within that country. We can take one of these, modify it a little bit, and it’ll be something of our own. This is also a good way to get ideas.

On that note, with Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin did not invent much of what is there. He’s actually based it on real life events in England. Now, this is not taking anything away from him because he has admitted this and it’s basically a point of inspiration. It’s funny how if you plagiarize someone’s words, people have a big issue with that, but if you take an idea like what happened in England and then turn it into a book series, like Game of Thrones, people will actually appreciate the fact that you’ve called their attention to something that happened in history. So, it’s not only not considered bad, but it can actually be considered a plus and you can be given more esteem because you have taken something from the real world and turned it into an intelligent story. So, don’t be afraid to use an analogue.

Something else I should mention at the start here is that sometimes a country has a name that is misleading and is actually wrong. For example, we could call something the Empire of Kysh when it’s really a federation if we looked at how it’s government works. But maybe the people in that country decided it sounded better to call themselves an empire. This is not a scenario that I am making up. This is something that actually happens here on Earth. So, as world builders, we should try to use the correct name for something, but we can get away with using the wrong name. It’s just one of those situations where you should know the rule before you break it because there’s always going to be that guy who comes along and says, “Hey, that’s incorrect. You’re using the wrong name. You don’t know what you’re doing.” Well, make sure that you do know what you’re doing, and then, if you’re using the wrong name, do it on purpose, for a reason. And it can be as simple a reason as I like the way that sounds.

Something else to bear in mind — and this is something that can really enrich our world — is that no government type lasts forever. Now, if it’s relatively young, such as a couple decades, then maybe it does. But in the case of something that’s been around a thousand years, most likely the form of government has changed repeatedly. And it can go kind of in any order. We’ve got all these different options like a constitutional monarchy, an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship, a federation.

So, these things change. We’ll talk a little bit as we go along about how things can change from one type of government to another. This is something that can make our setting a little more interesting, and certainly the story that we’re telling somewhere, because any government type that came and went is going to leave some sort of impact. And it could be just something like a dictatorship creating these hulking, brutish buildings that are intimidating to people, and that architecture still being around.

The type of money that is around, or some of the laws, could come from a previous government type and still be considered just part of the way things are now, even though there’s a new government type. Obviously, some things will not stand the test of time and will be abolished, but sometimes things do remain. And this is also true when a sovereign power is conquered by another sovereign power and occupied for generations. Eventually, that conquering sovereign power may leave, but they may have had a permanent impact on the setting that they had formerly occupied.

So, with all that said, we’re going to start talking about different government types. And these can be organized in different ways, such as by the power structure or the power source. And the latter is what we are going to use here. So, the first thing we’re going to talk about is authoritative states.

Authoritative States

The first authoritative state we’re going to talk about is the autocracy. This basically means one person is in charge and they can do whatever they want without any consequence. This is the sort of leader who can kill someone in broad daylight rather than having their guys go and kidnap someone and do it in a back alley somewhere. We tend to really like this idea for fantasy and science fiction villains who are running a country because this gives our hero someone to destroy.

We don’t even need good reasons for this person being so evil because we can always fall back on that idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We may not want to say that because it’s a cliche, but the idea still holds true. We can give this person any reason to be the way they are. It could be their ego, it could be their personality in some other way, or it could be the fact that they have witnessed that sort of abuse by their predecessors. It could also be fear of someone taking over and doing the same things to them.

We’ll be discussing these more in a few minutes, but absolute monarchies, like Brunei and Saudi Arabia, and dictatorships are the main forms of autocracy. There’s almost not that much to explain to this because it’s relatively simple in that one person has so much unchecked power. The simplicity of this also makes it somewhat appealing to us if we haven’t taken the time to research more complicated forms of government. This could even be expected in the genres, and that might be one reason to avoid it in favor of something that takes a little bit more research and skill to depict.

The next authoritative state we’ll talk about is the totalitarian government. In a totalitarian government, the state has total control of everything, which is, of course, why it’s called that. This means military, communications and even the infrastructure, like your water source and your electricity. There’s only one political party and they use a lot of propaganda to remain in power and control the minds of the citizens who have no power at all. And there’s not going to be any law to protect people or get them what they want from their lives.

You have few, if any rights. If you try to speak your mind in this sort of regime, the punishment could be really brutal. We’re talking about not only death, but mass killings and long prison sentences, or even hard labor. The military is also used to enforce the will of whoever is in charge. And this can also mean that there is a cult of personality where everyone is supposed to worship this person. This is the sort of government that has a secret police, and they use the state to terrorize people into submission. If you’re looking to create the good versus evil sort of dynamic, this is the sort of government that many of us would consider evil.

If you live somewhere that has this government type, or if you are visiting, it’s going to have a major impact on your stories. So, you should have a pretty good understanding of what life might be like there in order to set your story there. And if you don’t want your story to be that impacted by the government, then you probably should not choose this. Maybe you should choose something a little bit more generic, like a monarchy.

One of the ways that this government type arises is after a war when there has been a lot of destruction, and the existing government type might have been destroyed during that war, such as many of the people leading a democracy being killed or the political party being destroyed in some way, or just upset enough that a balance of power shifts too much in one direction and one political party seizes all control. So, if you’re trying to figure out how such a regime can come to be, this is one option.

A totalitarian government can also form after anarchy when there is no government at all. What these scenarios have in common is a power vacuum that is filled by someone with a lot of political allies supporting them. This is part of why in the United States the founders created different branches of government to try to prevent anyone from getting that much power, or even one political party gaining that much power. That sort of power leads to abuse.

Now, if we like the idea of a totalitarian government, but we find it a little bit too extreme, we can go with another type which is known as an authoritarian government. Power here is not so absolute and all-encompassing. There will still be one political power, and that could either be an individual or a group. But one of the differences between an authoritarian government and a totalitarian one is that the latter has a cult of personality designed to worship the leader, who is usually very charismatic. But in an authoritarian one, the guy may actually be disliked. One of the reasons this still works is that he is not in as much control of the government.

Another difference is that in an authoritarian government, the state is mostly concerned with aspects of political life, not everything else. So, it’s possible for someone to do things like own a business and have a certain amount of rights, or at least the illusion of control. However, that control is mostly over their own lives, not the political establishment. That is being tightly controlled by those who are in power. There will be a legislature in this kind of government, but there is so much corruption and red tape that, basically, those who are in charge can stall any progress on something that they disagree with and they don’t want to see it go forward.

This is, again, part of the illusion of what life is really like there where they allow people to think that they have more freedom than they do. Someone may be able to introduce a bill that would change the way the state works, but the state would basically kill it. In a totalitarian one, you wouldn’t even be allowed to do that, and if you said anything about it, you’d be killed. Some examples of an authoritarian government include Laos, Egypt, China, Vietnam and North Korea.

The last authoritative state we’re going to talk about is the famous one: dictatorships. When one person or party rules a country, that’s a dictatorship. And that does bear some resemblance to some of what we were just talking about. But one of the things to keep in mind here is that this is almost a role in government more than a type of one. One basic reason for this is that it’s basically impossible for one person to rule everyone. They’re going to need a whole bunch of people to support them. And sometimes that leader is nothing more than a figurehead of a party or a small, elite group of people who are actually in charge. And this person is the public face of that dictatorship.

So, that begs the question, “What type of government is it really?” And the answer is it’s either authoritarian or it’s totalitarian. So, to reiterate, a dictatorship is not a type of government, it’s more of a role in an authoritarian or a totalitarian government. This means when you are creating a dictatorship and you’re calling it that in your notes, for example, you should still figure out which type of government it really has, and the answer is not “dictatorship.” When we say it’s a dictatorship, we’re really talking about the authoritarian or totalitarian governments that are run by a dictator and his inner circle, and that’s why we’re calling it a dictatorship.

On the other hand, if we want to be vague and not make a decision about what the government type really is, then a dictatorship is a good way to imply a certain level of brutality. One reason we may want to do that is so that we can make up our minds later. Like some of the other brutal regimes, a dictatorship can arise when there is a government that has collapsed and either a leader or a military group exerts control. Sometimes it is actually elected presidents or prime ministers who seize power by crushing the opposition and then creating a one-party rule. All we really need is a power vacuum and someone to seize control.

One last note on dictatorships is that a new dictator may want to prove to any surrounding sovereign powers that they are a force to be reckoned with and, as a result, they stage a series of attacks and wars. On the other hand, if the dictator has been around for 20 or 30 years and has already established himself, then he may not want to upset the balance of power in the region. And it’s not because he’s trying to be nice. It’s more because he’s protecting his own status quo. After all, what if he attacks someone and he loses, and then attacks someone else and he loses? Then he starts to lose stature and be seen weak by his own people. And, as a result, he may be taken over by somebody else.

So, part of what we’re getting at is that dictators can act differently from each other, and it’s going to depend, in part, on how long this dictatorship has lasted. Keep this in mind when creating one. Finally, some examples of this are the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and, of course, Nazi Germany.

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Let’s talk about democracies. One of the basic ideas of democracy is that people are allowed to participate in government and they have influence over what becomes a law. Now, you may not have heard of this, but there are two versions of this. One of them is called direct democracy, and the other one is indirect democracy. The direct kind means that people vote directly on the initiative that is supposed to become law. The indirect kind means that we actually appoint people, such as senators and congressmen, and they do the voting for us. Many of you will recognize this because that’s basically the way the United States is set up. However, it is possible in the United States for people to vote directly on some initiatives. Many of those direct initiatives are voted on at the state level, or even at smaller levels like the county.

With the indirect kind, we are voting for people to do our biding, and if we don’t like the way they have done things, we end up voting them out of office. This gives rise to a scenario where a politician tells us what we want to hear in order to get elected, and then they don’t necessarily follow through and then they end up losing the next election. Because we can vote people in and out of office, this has eliminated the need for something like a revolution. We can create change in a more peaceful way. And government is supposed to reflect the will of the people, not some all-powerful leader.

Democracy as a concept, and even a reality, has existed for thousands of years, but it’s really only been in the last couple hundred years that it’s become one of the major forms of government. Before that, there tended to be a small group of people known as an oligarchy who were running a country. Now, just because we create a democracy, that does not mean that our characters who are experiencing that form of government, whether they live there or they’re traveling through it – it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to run into problems.

For example, even though equal rights are supposed to be one of the things that happens in a democracy, we all know that there is bias, whether it’s gender bias or racism. There can also be bias against immigrants, whether they are legal or illegal. If there’s a lack of freedom in someone’s home country, that could be the reason they have journeyed to the country where the story is taking place, like the United States if it was happening here on Earth. As we all know, the United States has been looked up to as a place where people can come to for greater freedom in their lives. But, of course, so many people have done so that we have a pretty strict immigration policy, as do a lot of other countries that have a better standard of living.

When we are creating sovereign powers, we probably want to create multiple types in a sense that some of them have a good standard of living, like a democracy, and some of them have a terrible one like in the dictatorship. One sovereign power will be a place to avoid and another one will be a place that is sought after. This is a truly great reason to have a better understanding of government types and use them for variety. Characters will be well known for having originated from one place or another. There’s a tendency in fantasy and sci-fi to just say that someone is from so-and-so country and not only not mention what kind of government type it has, but – and we don’t necessarily want to get into explaining that to people, but another character should have an opinion of what life must have been like for that character.

If they’re from the Kingdom of Kysh, and that’s an absolute monarchy where people have almost no rights, then someone should say, “I can see why you left,” or something to that effect. Or they might just assume that this person’s relatives are living in a harsh world, or maybe they’ve even been killed. On the other hand, if I’m the person from a dictatorship and I found out that you’re from a country like the United States, I might assume that your life has been really great, and maybe I’m jealous.

Now, when it comes to the rise and fall of democracy, usually something must change in order for this significant level of change to occur. This is true of any government type. They don’t just suddenly end for no reason. If there has been a dictator, for example, who has been abusing power, and this person is killed in some way, or just dethroned, then the people could have been fed up for so long that they go ahead and try to create a democracy. If that sounds too simple and farfetched, well, that’s exactly what happened when the United States formed and threw off England as its ruler.

But a democracy can also fall when things become too heavily sided in one direction or another. Right now in the United States, one political party has more power than the other. And if that continued to go in that direction, and the people in that party were willing to give up democracy, then we could actually move away from a democracy towards a more authoritarian government. This could not only happen from things becoming too one-sided, but it’s possible that the government wasn’t setup with enough checks on balances of power. If there weren’t enough laws to stop a leader from doing something, then maybe you could get away with it.

In extremely recent times, such as this year in the United States, in 2018, we actually have a president and a political party who don’t seem to care as much about threatening this balance of power. And people have even talked about supreme court nominees potentially pushing things even further in one direction. And some people are rightly worried that this could ultimately lead to a destruction of democracy to at least some degree.

There are some additional details in the Creating Places book, but I’m not going to cover those today.

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Let’s talk about federations. As it turns out, there’s more than one type of federation, but one of them is actually called federation. The others are a unitary state, the confederation, and, of course, the empire. Let’s first cover the federation.

This is a union of self-governing states or regions that give up some of their freedom for a national government and some other advantages. There is a constitution and it outlines the status and the division of power, and this cannot be altered by political powers, the federal government, or any of the regions in the union.

One goal of that union is greater stability, which can be economic. One of the problems with that is that if one of the states has a serious economic problem, it can actually affect all of them. Suddenly, what seems like a good idea might not seem like a good idea anymore to all those who are affected. Another reason for joining a federation is that if there are territorial disputes, this will also be resolved with the agreement. In other words, a federation can put an end to war. Now, we may not like this idea because it could interfere with our setting if we are trying to have countries who are at war, or characters who are being affected by war.

In an earlier episode, we talked about the concept of sovereignty, which is basically whether or not you are self-governing. And when it comes to a federation, the individual states are self-governing, but they don’t have any power at the federal level or with any foreign power. And all states in the federation may not be equal because some of them may have joined before newer laws came into play and impacted later powers that joined. Of course, that sort of imbalance of power can also lead to problems.

The central government is tasked with trying to find a solution that will satisfy all of the states in the federation, so this can be a big task. And if we have a character who is in that federal government, they might have a lot of problems on their hands. However, this is not normally the sort of thing that people find interesting, so we’re going to have to make this really be character-based and impactful in the story in such a way that it makes it interesting to our readers.

If they fail to resolve these conflicts, this could lead to civil war. And there’s a really good example of this. It’s called the United States Civil War. I’m going to simplify the issue, but basically the southern states in the United States thought that the constitution gave them the right for slavery, and the other states disagreed with this. Now, slavery was a basic part of the economy in the south, which felt like it wasn’t going to survive very well without it. And, as a result, war broke out. The southern states tried to create the Confederation, which is another form of federation that we’ll talk about in a minute. But one of the problems that the south faced is that no foreign country would recognize that the south had sovereignty over itself. So, this was going to be a problem. The federal government in D.C. fought the war partly to bring the southern states back in line.

Now, a final note on federations is the naming convention. Sometimes they actually do have the word “federation” in their title, but a place like Canada does not. And there are other titles that can be used, such as a confederation, a federal republic, dominion, kingdom and even union. The only real problem for us as world builders with these titles is that we can’t always tell what form of government something is just by the word that we have put on it.

Let’s talk about the unitary state. This is very similar to a federation except that the federal government can completely eliminate the autonomy of the states. The way this forms is also a little bit different because a federation comes together when independent states join forces, but a unitary state originates from a preexisting central government granting more autonomy to those previously dependent states. For example, imagine that a country like the United States suddenly set free, so to speak, the 50 states making it up, and became a unitary state where those states now have more autonomy over themselves. But one of the things about a unitary state is that just as it can give that autonomy to the states, it can also take it back. The unitary state’s central government can literally abolish a state altogether at will.

This is an interesting scenario where a state could be existing for a long time, but maybe it’s doing things that the central government’s leader doesn’t like. And so, he simply abolishes the state altogether. The United Kingdom is an example of a unitary state.

Let’s talk more about a confederation, which I mentioned a few minutes ago. This is when a group of sovereign powers forms a permanent union so they can act together against other states. And membership is voluntary, which is very different from a federation. A state that’s part of a confederation can simply leave if they so choose. We once again may find this to be a little bit less interesting because we kind of like it when someone is being constrained by something, they try to do it anyway, that causes a problem because somebody like another government or part of their own government goes after them and we have this conflict. If you can simply take your ball and walk away or go home, there’s less drama to that.

A confederation usually forms by a treaty, but the agreements are not binding until the member states create laws that are in accordance with those agreements. Some examples of a confederation are Switzerland, Canada, Belgium and the European Union.


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The last one we want to talk about is the empire. This is a little bit different from everything we’ve been talking about because in this case we have multiple sovereign powers who are being ruled by a single power. For example, the Roman Empire conquered one sovereign power after another and absorbed all of them into its own Roman Empire. By contrast, France was only a kingdom when Napoleon decided it was an empire, even though they did not yet rule other sovereign powers. And he did this partly so that he could declare himself emperor. After all, why be a king when you can be an emperor? The British Empire included territories that were far across the sea. So, this is another option for us.

Empires always form as a result of coercion, which can be a war where you defeat the other sovereign power, or it can be something like economics. Sometimes a weak state is simply annexed by an empire for protection and other advantages such as trade, and they might be perfectly okay with this. It’s always better for even an empire to not go to war, so if they can coerce, in some other fashion, another sovereign power to join the empire, they will do so.

One of the problems that an empire faces is simply the physical size of it. And it’s not going to have troops to maintain control over all of that. So, having a certain amount of peaceful interaction with the sovereign powers that it has absorbed is going to go a long way to making it stable. Another issue you can face is having, basically, racism going on where different ethnic groups that were part of different sovereign powers have now both been absorbed by one empire, and now they have to act like they get along. This may work for a time, but there could be simmering hatred. And if the empire ever falls, then those ethnic groups and their respective sovereign powers may go right back to fighting with each other.

It should also be noted that if you are being ruled by an empire, and you’re in a previously independent sovereign power, and then the empire falls and your sovereign power is suddenly freed, well, that’s no longer going to have its own government. Actually, that may not be true. It might have a government, but the point really is that there’s still a sudden change to the government, so this is another opportunity to suddenly change the type of government that we have in one of our sovereign powers.

So, if an empire falls, we could have one sovereign power that becomes a dictatorship, another one that becomes a constitutional monarchy, and another one that becomes a democracy. Generally, if an empire collapses, this is often catastrophic for any of the sovereign powers that it was ruling over.


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Time to talk about everyone’s favorite, the monarchy, which is what a kingdom is technically called. This used to be the most common form of government until the republic eventually took over. So, if you’re writing fantasy and you keep using this, well, maybe there’s a reason for that. A federation is arguably more common in science fiction.

In a monarchy, the person in charge, the monarch, is sovereign until death or abdication. As we all know, a monarchy is typically hereditary, with only the members of the family, such as the males, becoming a monarch. If we would like to be more progressive, we can have women also have this ability. The heirs are raised in a royal family and taught what is expected of them. And if the same family rules for many generations, that is called a dynasty.

Now, sometimes the path of succession, who becomes the next monarch, is not always clear. And that actually lead to the War of the Roses, which, in turn, inspired George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Some of the succession stuff is a little bit confusing, so I don’t want to go into the details here in the podcast, but the details are found on the website and, of course, in Creating Places.

What I want to talk about instead is the difference between an absolute monarchy and a constitutional monarchy. I briefly talked about the absolute monarchy earlier when I mentioned the authoritative states. An absolute monarch is one who is above the law and can get away with anything. Precisely because such persons abused their power, there were resistances that slowly built up in one kingdom, and then in another. And, over time, a new form developed and that’s called a constitutional monarchy. What’s happened in this case is that the monarch has become the head of state, which I explained in the last episode, and then there is a parliament with a prime minister, and that prime minister is the one who is the head of government.

What we’re talking about here is that all of this power that one person had has been disseminated to other people. One result is less abuse of power. The constitution is actually what exists to place those limits on the monarchy. Now, you may be wondering, as I often did, what can people get away with? What can a monarch do and what can the prime minister do? And the answer is that it really depends on the country, and the result is that we can do whatever we want when we are inventing a sovereign power that has a constitutional monarchy. This is one area where we don’t need to feel like we have to get it right because we can make it up.


Now, there is one last group of government types known as oligarchies. What they have in common is that a group of people is in charge. Anything can really be the basis for an oligarchy, such as a group that has unusual wealth or military power, status, family, higher education or even an ability like with wizards. An aristocracy is a form of government where a privileged class of people is supposedly the most qualified and, therefore, they are in charge. In a plutocracy, it’s a small group of rich people. In a military junta, as you would expect, the military is in charge and the government type is usually authoritative. Then there’s a timocracy, where only property owners can participate in government. And then there’s a theocracy, where a religious person or group is in charge. Although, the reason they are in charge is that they are supposedly given that position by a god, who is the ultimate authority.

Now, if you’ve ever wondered what a nation is, or a country, I do go into some detail in Creating Places about what these are and what these words really mean, and it might surprise you. They are not government types, however. I’m also not going to go into detail on how to choose a form of government or how to create the history, although I did mention a little bit of this. And another subject that I cover in the book is how many different powers you should invent.

In our next episode, we’re going to continue discussing the subject of creating sovereign powers.


All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album The Lost Art called “Loeillet de Gant, Sonata No. 1, Second Movement.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!