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I’m imagining a post-apocalyptic scenario as a thought experiment. It takes place 500 years after a nuclear war on the East Coast of what was the US, and is meant to roughly be a recreation of a high fantasy setting. I will lay out 5 prerequisites for what I will be defining as traditional fantasy:

1. Magic Let’s say that some people known as Mages “Radiants” somehow developed supernatural abilities. Radiancy is on the weaker and harder sides of the Magic spectrum. It’s loosely based on the electro-magnetic spectrum.

2. Fantasy Creatures While we’re at it, let’s have fantasy Creatures mutants. As many before me pointed out, realistically the closest thing you’d get to a mutant would be some living aberration. But I wouldn’t have Magic if I wasn’t liberal with radiation, so let’s let that slide and assume radiation will speed up evolution. Bonus points if you can come up with equivalents to fantasy races; so far I can only come up with Dwarves and cannibal Elves from Appalachia.

3. Medieval-ish Social Structure I want something similar to a feudal society. With analogues to kings, nobles, knights, and peasants.

4. Medieval-ish Technology I want the post-apocalyptic aesthetic to be relatively subtle but noticeable. Basically no technology that couldn’t exist in the 19th century.

5. Adventurers We need people to go on adventures, different types of adventures, and reasons to do so.

How close could we get a fantasy world from a nuclear holocaust with as little suspension of disbelief as possible?

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    $\begingroup$ 19th century technology is not medieval-ish. In the 19th century they had steam engines, railways, telegraph networks, newspapers, and so on. And anyway this level of technology is incompatible with a medieval social structure. (And the United Kingdom still has a Queen, nobles, knights and dames; but this does not make its social structure medieval-ish.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 30, 2022 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ “Medieval-ish” wasn’t the right word. What I was trying say was “how could you keep technology from seriously advancing past the 19th century”. But in my defense, you could make the case that the life of an English coal miner during the Victorian era was probably closer to that of a peasant under William the Conqueror then a Cashier in England today. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2022 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe 17th or 18th century Russia could be a model? Some advanced technology in a few centres, owned only by the nobility, with a vast wasteland empire that's backward, technologically but especially socially? $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 30, 2022 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ The Russian empire is close to what I’m going for. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2022 at 0:36
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    $\begingroup$ Suspension of disbelief has to do with how you approach the writing as much as the construction of the world (think Terry Pratchett's creations, bizarre yet absorbing). We have a Writing stack for questions focussed on the writing side. If you can disentangle the two aspects, then we're happy to help with the worldbuilding aspects. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2022 at 12:51

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Frame Challenge - Once You've Got Magic, Cause is Irrelevant

As you've pointed out, you've got magic in play, because "Radiants" don't make any sense inasmuch as real radiation is concerned. (Also, it's highly unlikely that gamma emitters are going to be your big problem w/r to post-nuclear apocalyptic scenarios, so having them be based on the EMR spectrum is also weird.)

Moreover, fantasy creatures as mutants - also unlikely in the extreme, as you've already observed.

The rest of it is... partially feasible. The major problem is that it's really hard to squash knowledge without also squashing the population. So guns, metallurgy, manufactory processes - they're all available to your population.

Feudalism makes a fair amount of sense, in that the people with the resources could effectively be kings, but it would be much more late-stage-capitalism and oligarchs than kings and knights, as one of the effects of modern weaponry was that it didn't take decades to master.

But, you're already bending the rules into something that doesn't remotely resemble the actual effects of a nuclear war, so if you want to make the result a fantasy setting, it's just a small shift further.

I would suggest, rather than "Radiants", have wizards effectively be hackers (which is, admittedly, a different trope). Through diligent study of dead languages and ancient texts, they are able to manipulate the relics of the old world. Your "mage" has a semi-functional smartphone they've cobbled together a power source for, and enough access codes to be able to reactivate bits and pieces of the ruined urban environment.

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  • $\begingroup$ Addendum - I am aware that the capacitors for electronics would be long-since dried out after 500 years, but maybe, Fallout-style, by the time the apocalypse happened, electronics engineers came up with ways to harden them further. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Apr 29, 2022 at 23:48
  • $\begingroup$ When we discuss radiation, think of a perfectly competent, well written essay about how Hannibal helped the Confederacy win the space race against the Mongols in 1492. Without taking many liberties with radiation, we can’t have a true fantasy setting. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2022 at 0:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Icreamforicescream - that's kind of my point. You're making radiation magic by another name. Suspension of disbelief is already blown - it isn't remotely realistic. So you're free to do what you will, unless you want it to be more plausible, in which case abandoning the idea of "Radiants" is definitely the best first step. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Apr 30, 2022 at 1:37
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500 Years of Prep

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You have 500 years to play with. Fill those 500 years with whatever developments help create your setting. Then blow it all up in the apocalypse.

Feudalism: Doesn't need much explanation. It is believable that a world that reverted to medieval-era technology also reverts to medieval-era governance.

Adventurers: This is a tricky one that has little to do with the apocalypse setting. There are many questions on this site about why small groups of roaming adventurers would be allowed to exist -- even in the standard fantasy setting. They did not exist in the real medieval world.

I suggest the apocalypse setting also provides a reason for adventurers to exist. In the medieval period all land was owned and most was full of farms. But in the apocalypse, the civilisation is young. Most land is wasteland dotted with settlements and ruins. There is a lot of opportunity in finding and plundering hidden caches from the old world.

Baron SkudBane may claim ownership of everything a thousand miles either way. But he simply cannot defend it all at once. He has sent out men to plunder. But there is too much space for him to cover. Loads left over for small groups of crafty adventurers to strike it rich.

Find a cache, plunder it, and sell what you find to the other side. Or sell it SkudBane and claim you found it in enemy territory.

Fantasy Races: Before the holocaust, genetic engineering had (cough. . .) evolved to the point where people could make themselves taller, shorter, more or less hairy, longer lived, or more emotionally volatile or calm.

These mods were all hereditary, but that's okay since you just go to the clinic and choose which mods to activate or deactivate for your foetus.

When the apocalypse hit, all the clinics were destroyed. Every short, burly, hairy, grumpy woman has short, burly, hairy and grumpy children. But it turns our being short, burly, hairy and grumpy is good for survival in the apocalypse. So these woman also have more children than otherwise. These are your dwarves.

Your Homework: Why is being short, burly, hairy and grumpy good for survival? Why is it good to be an elf? (Hint: Check other questions on this site.)

Magic: You need more details before I can answer this one properly. What can you do with magic and how hard is it?

Putting that aside I suggest magic is just technology in disguise. Mages are people who know how to use the surviving technology from before the apocalypse.

Again you can invent new future tech (and then blow it up) if you cannot think of how to cast a fireball using a smartphone.

Go all the way to nanomachines son if you want to go full parody. Nanobots already work by magic.

I did not "read your mind". All I did was inject you with a serum of concentrated nanobots that scanned your genetic memory and then transposed the relevant bits of the genome into mine easy peasy.

Coming up with silly solutions to even sillier problems. That's what being a fantasy author is all about.

enter image description here

Gosh this one really came full circle. Sometimes I amaze even myself.

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Starting with the easiest to explain and working to the harder to explain

3. Medieval-ish Social Structure

I want something similar to a feudal society. With analogues to kings, Nobles, knights, and peasants.

Allow me to introduce you to your feudal lord ... er ... the CEO. Considering the power of corporations in America it would not be too big of a stretch to see that after the apocalypse a feudal structure based not on noble titles, but ranks in a corporation.

Interesting enough as corporations are basically people now, it would not be too far-fetched to imagine that the corporation itself becomes something more than its name and guiding principle once the world goes tits up.

Admittedly the corporations of today would have to diversify into doing a bit of everything. In a theoretical future before the end, maybe they did. Corporate towns of old came back into being with a government that allowed it, basically making people serfs in better clothes. After the end, with nothing to stop them, the corporate leaders basically became kings of their fiefdoms.

But really, you'll have corporate CEO-kings that demand everything of their worker-serfs and strive to take as much from them as possible without killing them outright. Bonus dystopia points if being fired in this world is literal.

Side Note: It might be interesting how much, or more accurately how twisted, the US Constitution will end up being in a world like this.

4. Medieval-ish Technology

Basically no technology that couldn’t exist in the 19th century.

Large-scale access to technology needs to go anyways -- we can't have the newfound worker-serfs have anything that could possibly put them even one step closer to the elites. Conveniently, with how much of our technology is based on other technology, it may take a long time to build everything from scratch depending on the level of destruction, decay, and radiation.

Short of every library catching on fire, the theoretical knowledge of technology will remain and hopefully be passed down. In relation to the society, it may be that only a certain class of people get the education that could rebuild technologies and because of that, there is a marked difference in technology based on class and/or it just takes longer to rebuild.

Remember the elites will want to keep their power and will only have an interest in technology insofar as it increases their profits without endangering their situation.

In addition, scavenged relics combined with post-apocalyptic jury-rigging could be the aesthetic. Retained technologies will vary based on available resources and usefulness in daily life.

And since it is America -- yes there will be firearms. Even if they have to hand-forge muskets, they will have guns. The big question is if they could effectively forge bullets. If the skills survive, you may have 19th century firearms.

5. Adventurers

We need people to go on adventures, types of adventures, and reasons to do so.

It's not inconceivable to think that trade wouldn't happen between corporation-states in this after-world. While the caravan might not be adventurers, the guards of the caravans might well be, adventuring to find a place to call home or just because it pays better.

In addition, given that the apocalyptic trigger is nuclear war, there may be areas that fared better than others because they didn't get bombed and the winds were on their side.

A story of a group of adventurers, knowing there might be resources elsewhere that can't be gotten within their lands, venture out into the wilds of the end of the trail known as I91 on the old maps to do trade with the northern mountain people with their strange language and customs.

Today, we call that driving through Vermont to Quebec but after the end, it may be an undertaking.

1. Magic

Fundamentally, your second point of Fantasy Creatures is based on this one, so I have to deal with this first.

Ultimately there are two broad ways to handle this -- magic as lost technology, or magic is trying to exist. As others have touched on the first, I'll hit the second.

Say that the damage caused by the bombs themselves create breaks in the ley lines of the Earth that lied dormant for a long time, allowing that power to seep into the world. But it is not unlimited power, and it too may be tainted by the radiation of the bombs.

With the nuclear war came magic, but we humans don't believe in magic. Even as society regressed, we still did not believe in magic except for one thing -- the invisible force that kills you if you venture into specific areas. Usually the largest ruins and the lands around them.

Because of that one crack in our rational worldview, magic can work on that and that alone. This is why the limited magic in the world works on the EM spectrum and is fairly rigid with rules and the like.

One might think that with enough religious belief, there would be divine miracles but there are not. But even if you have faith in your deity, it is common knowledge that your miracles do not come from ordinary humans. As one example: Christians are told of the miracles of Jesus, but they are also told that Jesus is a demigod of an immensely powerful deity. So no, they will not be miracles from the Churches ... probably.

2. Fantasy Creatures

The world's newfound magic does interact with the radiation from the war and strives to keep as much alive as possible. It's not pretty, but ultimately it is effective.

For us humans, well who knows what's been cooking with our sciences between now and the war? Dwarves could have been one Megacorp's idea before the war to use "precise genetic recombinations to achieve enhanced underground suitability and extended employable time frames". After the war, they live on as what we would consider dwarves.

The smaller peoples started as the suburban kids that were forever changed by the bombs that went off, orphaning many as their parents died in the nuclear fireballs that engulfed the cities. Stunted by both radiation and magic, they either wander or end up exploited by the corporate lords for their small size and physically weaker stature.

In the end, your basic formula is Animal + Mutations + Magic = Fantasy creature. There is even room for much subverting of ideas such as the unicorn's horn only have healing properties for the unicorn because it contains the radiation from the animal's food. I do not want to know what the marine life near and north of Boston would mutate into.

Extra Notes

When planning your nuclear war, do make note of what cities get bombed and what ones may avoid a nuclear fate. While they might be hit by a potential nuclear winter, they might avoid a lot of the actual fallout.

It could end up that smaller cities will be the heart of corporate feudal power.

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One point at a time.

1.magic: most nuclear bombs don't have any supernatural component to them so They probably wouldn't produce this effect.

  1. Magical creatures. Another no, Unless some other factor is involved here, Then no radiation does not produce this effect contrary to what comic books have tried to teach us.

  2. A historic feudal system, Definitely possible maybe even likely. Feudalism, Has developed in a variety of cultures around the globe Throughout history. Society would have to rebuild Itself entirely after nuclear war. It is possible that something like a fuedal system might take shape.

  3. Middle ages technology: another likely Again it would definitely be some technological degression after a nuclear war This probably wouldn't be permanent but there would still be some.

There will be some technology left hanging around and probably some few people who could produce some technology at the old world. You're probably looking at something closer to medieval Tech barbarians.

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