A setting I've been planning for a while involves a function of magic that can animate objects using the magical equivalent of programmable functions. A wizard/witch/magic-user uses a magic language to define the shape of an object, then adds programs to make it move, and then strings together an array of if-then-else functions to make it perform those motions when specific conditions are met.

Anyhow, I've been having some issues keeping this brand of golem from being taking over every aspect of this setting since they are mind-bogingly useful. They're basically robots that require practically no material cost to make, just the time a magic-user needs to write out all their programs. They should really change the all aspects of society, so much so that I can't include them in a story without making the story all about them.

I need to balance these guys so that they are only used in specific circumstances. At the moment, I'm using golems to justify MASSIVE buildings and infrastructure in the medieval setting, have golems moving cargo in cities (garbage and trade goods, mostly), and golems being used by farmers to grow and harvest lots of crops for cheap. In short, I'd like for golems to be used like we use heavy machinery, but dial back their use throughout the rest of the setting.

How can I make these golems useful, but not omnipresent in this setting?

So far, the only idea I've had is making the magic animating these golems require habitual maintenance from magic-programmers in order to keep them from freezing up or moving incorrectly (which results in them falling over and/or breaking something). Checking for degradation and repairing their programs every few weeks is sufficient to keep them working. This would keep them from being totally autonomous, which seems like a step in the right direction.

I also got magic working like wi-fi in this setting, so fuel isn't really an option here. You just got to built a new conducting tower and connect the golems to the magic/power grid to get them moving. This limits their range, but it seems like a really minor flaw that doesn't lessen the use golems much.

Ideas for more flaws or criticism of the basic concept would be greatly appreciated.

  • Reminder to Close-Voters: the OP cannot improve the question without being made aware of its flaws. Please leave a comment explaining why you believe the question needs work. – Dubukay Aug 11 at 23:14
  • Wow, that's a tough one. For a while, I thought you were making a parody of cell phones. We can see how balanced that's going! – Cort Ammon Aug 12 at 7:18
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    Since these robots are so dangerous, maybe their creation and use is highly regulated, especially since some ~~intern~~ apprentice flooded the city by forgetting to add a stop clause. – alexgbelov Aug 14 at 22:30
up vote 3 down vote accepted

If you are looking at this from a programming point of view, most of the software would be functions that make it so the golem doesn't get itself killed and can function in society. Go through an average day and think about how much information you process subconsciously. Just sticking to basic axioms and information consider the following:

  • Do not walk into the ditch.
  • Walk on the right side of the road.
  • Stop at red lights.
  • This animal is a pig.
  • The city map is laid out as follows.
  • Do not throw children out of your way while walking.
  • Ring doorbell and wait before entering.
  • The three laws of robotics.

The final list would be exhaustive and we still haven't given the golem the ability to do anything useful yet.

You could speed up golem creation by having some method to quickly dump the needed base information into the golem, but perhaps there isn't much room (memory or HD space equivalent) left for it to do anything terribly complicated. So tasks have to be simple, which by definition puts golems into the background of the story.

Or maybe there is plenty of room for additional instructions, but that opens the door to golem sentience which almost always has negative consequences.

Smaller, man sized golems could be incredibly useful, but still limited enough to keep them in the background. Examples follow:

Farming with golems may require a lot of oversight. Okay golems, go plow the field. Now pick out any rocks over 3". Now plant 3 seeds every 12". Now go back in the shed.

A golem could serve food at a highly scripted formal dinner, but it would probably be a terrible cook as it couldn't tell the doneness of meat or whether the soup needed more salt. A golem waiter would also be useless at the local Applebee's as everyone wants their food prepared slightly differently and there is no way the golem could keep track of that.

A golem could deliver a letter to a specific address, but it has no idea whether the person receiving the letter is Count Githrev, his butler, his brother, his arch enemy, or mischievous street urchin. Maybe all it can do is put it into a specially marked mail box and ring a bell indicating a letter has arrived.

Golems in the army may be great at moving supplies, cutting down trees, or building simple structures. But they would be useless in combat as they are incapable of conceiving of any tactics beyond walk straight and punch the guys in the blue uniforms.

From a narrative point of view, think of golems as magical pieces of farm equipment, machine tools, or roombas. I think you could put them everywhere and they'll still just stay in the background of the story.

Golems are immense.

huge golem https://hiunt.deviantart.com/art/Giant-robot-golem-432368561

The uses you have for golems (massive construction, cargo transport, agriculture) are all compatible with golems being extremely large. Maybe not as big as big boy here, but big. So big as to be unwieldy in a city or for any operation requiring any sort of finesse, maneuvering around people or buildings etc. Construction golems are the equivalent of large cranes. Cargo golems are the equivalent of ocean going cargo ships. Ag golems are almost too big to be useful because they stomp so much stuff up.

Why must they be so big? Smaller ones cannot accommodate the name of God necessary to animate them. It is a big name.


unrelated, but a great golem story from the SCP foundation. http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-1030

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    Will, I love the way you think. – JBH Aug 12 at 0:56

They're basically robots that require practically no material cost to make, just the time a magic-user needs to write out all their programs.

This is your fundamental problem. Everything needs a balance. Mind-bogglingly useful (like a big truck) means they should be mind-bogglingly expensive (like a big truck). There must be a cost to offset the profit or inflation occurs (e.g., even your neighbor Bob, living on welfare, has one).

Here's a list of candidates, listing the one you provided in your post first.

  • Costly maintenance
  • Costly production: Golems can only be made from J'enth Clay, which can only be obtained from Old Man Gordy. And he's... cantankerous...
  • Costly production: A mage can only make 12 per year 'cause it really knocks the wind out of them to do it
  • Costly production: How many mages are there in you world, and how many of them have been properly licensed by the Guild of Golem Manufacturing and Labor Rights?
  • Costly reprogramming: you can't just ask the gardening-bot to make dinner for you.
  • Costly reprogramming: Golems have a very limited amount of programming space (My thanks to Nicolai for this suggestion!)
  • Easily broken: infinite loop syndrome (deficient programming)
  • Easily broken: The crate that should have had feathers had nails instead (used for unintended purposes)
  • Easily broken: honestly, I didn't see it when I backed my car up (PEBCAK - "problem exists between chair and keyboard" aka dumb owner syndrome)

  • Easily broken: What do you mean he's out of warranty! That wizard showed me a guild membership card! No, it was blue! It looked real to me! What do you mean "black market reprogramming?" Of course his rates were reasonable! A crowbar, of course, what would you hit it with?! But it was taking my wife's jewelry!

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    Another easy limit you can add is the 'storage capacity' of the golems: they can only hold a given amount of (lines of) code, which makes them suitable only for very limited (= repetitive) tasks. – Nicolai Aug 14 at 13:39
  • was going to make it my own answer but would be better as part of yours. Working sensors are real hard to make as to properly magically code up eyes and ears would require intimate knowledge of how those work on a physical level. This means that most golems have to be given commands by either a person who can cast spells to trigger different behaviors in the golem or remote controls that have buttons that cause the golem to do certain things. Note a remote could easily be stolen and limits the total number of actions the golem can perform – SilverShadow Aug 14 at 15:49
  • @SilverShadow, that's a great idea. I'd recommend fleshing that out as its own answer and I'll happily upvote it! – JBH Aug 14 at 17:18

Golems take a long time to produce

Speaking as a programmer, there will be a significant time requirement to producing new code for your golems.

When programming a piece of software, you have to take into account every possible permutation in the local context in order to avoid bugs and ensure the expected behaviour, and that takes time to come up with, develop and test.

This can take even longer if there is no easy way to "import" or "copy-paste" pre-written code into your golems, meaning you'll have to recite the same movement code every time you create a new golem, taking up yet more time and risking a misspoken word causing a bug.

So whilst your golems may be of little material worth, you could easily have a few thousand hours of coding and testing involved. If one guy was working on it for ten hours a day, it could take him a year to produce a single golem. I imagine your magic-users are somewhat rare as well, so their time is very valuable, and you need a lot of it.

I can easily envisage apprentices reciting tried-and-true incantations from a source-book, before the golem is handed off to journeymen who would test functionality and fix any bugs before they are sold. The Master would spend his time developing new code-spells to improve his products further.

Thus, you mages won't be able to produce golems very fast at all, so even if a golem is way better than a human a what it does, there will be too few of them to take over every aspect of society.

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    I came here ti say just this: programming takes a lot of time. And programming robots — even when they are not immense and a division by zero does not make them go stomp out your crop field, flatten the neighbour's cows, or fall over and crush your village — is hellishly difficult. – MichaelK Aug 14 at 13:45

Much like electricity or radiation, magic has some pretty unpleasant effects on people who are exposed to large amounts of it, and it takes a whole heck of a lot of magic to create and sustain a golem. These negative effects may be physiological or psychological, but they are received through chronic exposure to magical constructs. Part of a magic user's training makes them immune (or at least resistant) to these negative effects, but this process is too costly/time-consuming/painful for the general public to go through. This would lead to only magic users and limited other personnel being cleared to work closely with golems, making golems unsuitable for uses where they would come into contact with the general public.

If there's still a need for magic to do other things, you could just make the magic involved in golems much more intense than most usages. That way day-to-day magic would still be in the safe dosages.

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    A neat way this negative effect could manifest: the instructions drilled into the golem's "mind" slowly start to take effect in any other (thaumically unshielded) mind in close proximity (work more than a month straight with an agri-golem, and you'll develop an obsessive urge to plant things in rows...) – G0BLiN Aug 19 at 13:59

The key seems to me that you have to program them by hand.

With computers you can run the program and have it make educated guesses where the code goes wrong. But these Golems need to be build by hand down to the code. Even if you've written the right code, you might not have been accurate enough for the code to make complete sense. As a consequence you want to limit the amount of code so that debugging it or improving flawed writing is easier.

What this will mean is that Golems are absolutely wonderful for simple tasks that are easy to program, but even then would require input and guidance from humans to keep functioning. Complicated things like recognizing which soldiers are friendly and which arent and need to be pasted and which people might be civilians could easily prove hard to do, in fact current drones already suffer from this problem, so imagine how a medieval hand-drawn code Golem would fare.

Golems might also suffer from easily being manipulated for mischief. On a battlefield it becomes very hard to recognize which shouted orders are from friendlies and which from enemies who want to use those Golems against you. In an industry or economical setting it could also prove hazardous. Imagine a spy fom a rival company or city who gives orders to your own Golems to carry goods to an alley so it can be stolen or disposed off, or destroy equipment by ordering them to make nonsence additions like shoelace holes in the bottom of the soles or houses with broken tiles for roofs.

In the end, Golems would still be immense tools of economy, Industry and even warfare, but with severe limitations such as a single "owner" who can give them orders to limit the amount of problems that can be caused. Or that Golems require very very exact orders to function. The old idea of "go get 2 breads, if there's eggs, bring 6" and the Golem returns home with 6 breads because you werent clear enough.

A good way to limit the usefulness of your golems is to ask yourself, how does a golem see the world? You say the caster of the golem uses a magic language to define the shape of the golem. I put forward that that this language has no easy way to give the golems eyes, ears, or really any senses other than the ability to feel magic since that is what it is made of.

This severely limits the usefulness of your golems since they would need to have some form of controls since they can not easily react to outside stimulus. The ideal control method is to have a wizard feeding the golem constant magical commands that tell its programming what to do. However wizards are expensive and usually have better things to do than pilot golems all day so most golems come with a paired magic item that controls it. This item is often a stick with buttons on it that cause the golem to take actions. Some larger golems have these controls built in to them and act more like cars than big lumbering robots.

Having the golems limited like this means they are limited to operating at the level the user understands. How many controls can an illiterate farmer remember? What happens when the controls for a golem break? (oh no, my tilling golems control rod had the "walk forwads" button break off, I know have to reverse it everywhere)

This also allows golems to be stolen, and raises the question of when the controls break entirely is it more cost effective to get a new golem or pay a wizard to figure out how to make a new control rod since every golem is probably a ton of bad code written by some one who thought no one would ever have to look at it again.

How about memory problems? The golem needs memory to store its programs, so the more complex the program, the more memory it needs. At some point, the cost of creating a memory system dense enough is too high to justify their production, so that limits how complex the programs can be.

Also, as the spell ages, more and more of its memory is accidentally "leaked" (the spell can't keep track of whether or not certain information is important so it just leaves it there) and the program eventually crashes (maybe the golem literally crashes). That creates a limitation on the amount of time the golems can be running.

This is all stuff that really happens to computers in real life, so it's not too far fetched.

You could also have networking problems. How about the golems need to communicate with each other and with a network of magic system administrators giving them new orders, and the complexity of such a network makes it impossible to have more than a certain number of active golems in a given area.

Maybe their magical programs interfere with other magic, so they can't be operated near other sensitive spells for fear of causing an error. This makes them suited for construction, but not necessarily domestic use.

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