Worldbuilding is not Mapmaking

Campaign Cartographer
Campaign Cartographer

A well crafted map is a pleasure, making you feel as if you are a character in the world as you puzzle over it. But contrary to some websites on world-building, map making is not the main part of world building. It isn’t even a very critical element early on. So for all of you who despair of your free-hand drawing or CAD skills, all is not lost. Maps are a small part of the art of fantasy story telling, one that, like a book cover, can be out-sourced.

What’s wrong with starting with a map on your fantasy project? It can work but there are multiple pitfalls. For one, you might end up spending many hours working on your map (or mastering a CAD program then working on your map), hours perhaps better spent on the story itself. Worse, you might find that the map you created doesn’t work for your story. You might need an extra city, kingdom, wood, or what have you. If you drew your map by hand, plan to start over. If you used a CAD package (like Campaign Cartographer from Profantasy, a fine way to do maps), it isn’t quite the same nuisance but even so, fiddling with your map as your story evolves can get old: it’s distracting and it’s time spent on something other than refining your story.

A map I did a long time ago and have reused for several campaigns
A map I did a long time ago and have reused for several campaigns

The real problem with starting with a map, however, is that its existence can mask the more critical elements of world building. There are better places to start, unless you are consciously doing a story in a world populated entirely with fantasy tropes. Such a world might have your friendly, reclusive elves here, your irascible dwarves in their mountain there, burgeoning human population on this coast, wilds kind of in between it all, and so on. It might also make for an extremely hard to sell story, because what little interest me-too Lord of the Rings novels enjoyed was long ago. Most successful speculative fiction is going to start with a premise, something I mentioned as one of my own epiphanies in Things I wish I’d Learned Sooner.

From premise, some writers may go straight to the characters, theme and plot. Or you might flesh out the setting a bit, knowing you will come across some interesting stories as you do. For instance, your basic concept might be: what if the gods of your world were mortals in other worlds? From there, you might start thinking about how such a world might unfold: maybe there was an age where the ‘gods’ were just powerful immortals frolicking in this new playground of a world, before  a second age where some came to crave power and a third age when they moved to the heavens. You keep asking yourself questions: what made them go to the heavens? How about safety: it was a place where they could not be assassinated. How did they find this “heaven”? One of the gods explored the path. Where was this path? In the far north, where the tree of light stood (stealing a page from Tolkien here), etc. Hmm, I might like to write a story about that: a god-like immortal who wants to escape from his fellow beings. What would make him do that? What sort of person would he be?

All you really need for a map while writing
All you really need for a map while writing

There are still other ways to kick around a story but most of them start with things other than a map: the characters, flaws and turning points, etc. Once you have a good idea of what sort of story you want to tell, then it might be appropriate to flesh out culture, technology, magic, religion, society, etc. After that, is it time to make a map? It depends on the story but for most stories, even then, you might be better served by a “spaghetti” diagram rather than a real map. The example here is from a recent short story, although to be honest, I did it after the story, just for this blog. I didn’t need the diagram to write the story. Novels will be more complex than this example but note that there is no attempt to be artful and only a rough spatial relationship is sketched out.

The spaghetti diagram is all you’re going to need for most stories, perhaps several if your story takes place in different regions (say one for a city or palace, another for the kingdom, and a third for a dungeon half-way through.) As a writer, you need to know how far things are so that your travel is plausible and the rough spatial relationships so that you don’t have the fastest route to the palace be Acerton then Pleasanton one scene and the reverse another scene. Other than that, unless you have a very particular type of story where the exact days and geography matter, that’s all you need.

But what about creating a map for the inside cover of my fantasy novel? When the time comes, you can draw it from your spaghetti diagram. Or if you don’t care to do that, there are many, many fine artists who will draw the map for you for about $200 (seems like a steal to me.)

Myself, I do like to create maps and have done so for my D&D campaigns for decades. But while some of my maps have more merit than others, in the end, I’m not a great artist. When I need a map for a published novel, I will be using a third-party. It will look better than anything I can do myself and, just as important, I won’t have to spend 20 or 40 hours on it that I could better spend on a revision or a new story.

If you are looking for someone to do your map, the Profantasy forums have postings, if you like the Profantasy look to maps. But a quick Google can find other artists. I’ve listed one that I know of through a friend but you can also try your local college’s art department where there are many starving artists eager to help for a pittance. If you do use a third-party, just be clear what the end-use for the map is. If it is meant to go into a monochrome page at the back of your book, you don’t want the artist to make a gorgeous, full color map: it will look muddy and hard to read once you reduce it to grayscale.

Fantasy Stories that Inhabit the Setting: Settings that Matter

The Chronicles of Amber (omnibus)
The Chronicles of Amber (omnibus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ash’s excellent post on good fantasy settings got me thinking about fantasy settings, which made me realize that while I like a well constructed setting, it is not the most important aspect for me. In fact, constructing a detailed setting can be a trap for the fantasy author.

What really works for me is not a setting where every last detail has been considered nor one that takes advantage of the latest theories in history, science, sociology, etc., although, I must confess, that is my own personal tendency. What works for me as a reader is a unique setting with a story that illustrates and inhabits that setting.

I look back on some of the fantasy classics that I love and what stands out for me is a story with a great setting-premise where over the course of the story, the setting comes to life. Here, I would put Dragonriders of Pern, The Amber Chronicles, and The Lord of the Rings. To be honest, these stories vary in quality and include some cringe-worthy moments (yes, even LOTR) but I still come back to them year after year. Why? Because they have a fascinating setting that is well illustrated by the stories.

I read fantasy to experience stories I like to dream about. That’s probably why I don’t care for gritty stories, low-fantasy stories, political intrigue, etc. Actually, I do like that type of story, but not in the fantasy genre. When I read fantasy, I want to experience a place that, sorry GRR Martin, isn’t inspired by sordid Earth history. I want to read about something that is very different from Earth and, then, I want to get to know that special place.

So in Dragonriders of Pern, we have a world of telepathic, bonded dragons. How cool is that? Who wouldn’t want a taste of a world like that? Frankly, the time travel has always rubbed me wrong for the obvious reasons of paradox and the science fiction under-pinnings I don’t find terribly satisfying. I wouldn’t actually characterize it was a well constructed world but the setting is adequate to the story and the stories are wonderful. The stories are all about the dragons and  how the bond works. By reading them, we learn about everything that is important about this setting. Of course, the characters are memorable and lovable, too.

From inside on of the hobbit holes, on locatio...

In The Amber Chronicles, here is another story where you have a wild premise and a modest amount of detail to that premise, yet it works for me, although not my wife who found it horribly edited 🙂 Again, we have memorable characters whose story explores a fantastic setting. Who wouldn’t want to explore a multiverse of possibilities in the company of the princes of Amber?

Lord of the Rings, is in a bit of a different class. Middle Earth is a very well-defined, intricate world but I think it resonates for me, not just because it is well-defined and has memorable characters but because the LOTR novel explains and resolves that setting. The ring and Sauron go back to the roots of the world. The elves and their role again are very much a part of the history. The story is essentially the climax of the entire  history of Middle Earth. I  guess as proof, I would offer that I was very disappointed with the recent Hobbit movie. I think it is because while it has all the cool Middle Earth setting and characters, nothing really important happens. It’s just about some fairly foolhardy guys going off on a treasure hunt, which leads me to a rule I have for evaluating fantasy settings:

If the same story could take place in another setting, then it’s not a great fantasy story premise.

The Hobbit, both book and movie, could take place in 90 out of a 100 D&D campaign settings without any major changes to the story. This means, for me, it isn’t in the same class as the other stories mentioned, even though, I would venture that both the writing and the movie making are top-notch. (Before your hackles rise, I do realise it helped set off the genre. It’s on my short-shelf. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. But it’s good, not great.) )

Maybe this is also why I like faerie tales and Disney stories so much: these stories are all about illustrating a premise with great characters. The fantasy elements aren’t just tacked on almost as an after-thought.

In conclusion, I’d have to say an intricately crafted setting is not the most important aspect for me as a reader.

Before the stones and arrows start flying, I come at this more as a matter of self-realization. You are reading the blog of someone who spends six months defining the setting for D&D campaigns that typically only run only 18-24 months. I love creating detailed, intricate settings. I don’t think it hurts in the least. But I’ve also come to the realization that in books, movies, and fantasy role-playing games, it is not required for an enjoyable experience. And for the budding fantasy writer, I would caution spending too much time on intricate details. I think premise and characters matter far more than knowing where the gods came from or what was happening 3000 years ago. That can be a bit of a trap.

Look at it this way, your premise and characters will be in your agent-pitch or on your cover blurb. Your intricate, detailed setting will not. Start with premise and characters, add a plot that illustrates both, add setting detail only as needed. Add more setting detail as you like, for personal enjoyment, but if you are spending six months on setting, that’s six months you could have spent completing a first draft.

The Griffin

Griffin fresco in the "Throne Room",...
Griffin fresco in the “Throne Room”, Palace of Knossos, Crete, Bronze Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Griffins feature prominently in my current project and have long been a favorite in my D&D campaigns. But where do they come from?

The name, alternately griffon or gryphon, appears to come from the ancient Greek gryps meaning “curled, curved, having a hooked nose,” according to Joe Nigg’s Wonder Beasts (see below for full title). When I first saw that, I was a bit puzzled: yes, the griffin has a hooked nose thanks to its eagle beak but the wings and fore-talons seem to be a more prominent feature than the nose. The name makes more sense when you realize some of the earlier representations, circa 1400s BCE, mate an eagle head to a lion body, as in the picture above of the griffin fresco in the “Throne Room” of the Palace of Knossos. Even as late as the classical period, the double griffin beam supports at Persepolis depicted something fairly similar. However, a cylinder seal from Susa, circa 2000 BCE, depicts the more familiar forebody of an eagle, including the wings, mated to the hindquarters of a lion. By the Middle Ages, the griffin was most commonly depicted in this familiar form.

English: Achaemenid Griffin at Persepolis فارس...
English: Achaemenid Griffin at Persepolis فارسی: شیردال هخامنشی در تخت جمشید (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout history, the griffin has been associated with royalty (although the Knossos “Throne Room,” may not actually have been for the King). This is not surprising since the griffin combines the eagle, lord of sky, with the lion, lord of the land. It soon moved into heraldry where it can denote strength, leadership and military prowess. In British heraldry, both wingless male and winged female forms are used. Similarly, it can be rampant (standing on one hindleg) or passant (walking). Seems like if your going to have something as fierce as a griffin for your symbol, rampant might more appropriate but perhaps a griffin passant would suggest a wise war leader, rather than a ferocious one(?)

There are many references to griffins from Herodotus to the present. Though they seem to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean in Crete or Egypt, they came to be associated with the further east, Bactria and India. There, they were said to have a fondness for gold, scrapping it from their ground with their beaks and guarding it fiercely. Herodotus  (5th century BCE) also has them procuring gold but in mountainous northern Europe. Pliny the Elder moves this to Scythia, north of the Black Sea, a region known in the Roman Era for its beautiful gold-work.

English: or a griffin sable
English: or a griffin sable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gold association seems to be more a feature of antiquity, although those stories were collected and repeated in Medieval bestiaries. In the Middle Ages, griffins also acquired additional aspects: their talons were said to be a measure against poison, with some historical figures supposedly possessing cups made from their claws. The cups probably existed but as with unicorn horns and other fancies, crafted from a more mundane creature than a mythological beast. Their feathers were also said to cure blindness and some tales have the hero on a quest to acquire one to cure his father or the king of his land (the classic hero “faces horrible beast plot.”)

Traditionally, griffins hate (and ate) horses but the mating of a mare and a griffin was said to produce a hippogriff, which seems to be a relatively late addition to the bestiary.

Around the world, there are similar mythological aerial creatures although many are more over-sized eagles than a mix of eagle and a terrestrial animal. The Rukh (or Roc) of the Indian ocean was said to be able to carry off elephants. A creature similar to the Rukh terrorized in the China Sea, according to Benjamin of Tudela (who preceded Marco Polo to China by a century).

In the modern era, griffins are still quite common. You find them on corporate and sport logos and all over the fantasy world from books (Harry Potter’s Griffindors) to MMOs (you can hop on a griffin in World of Warcraft). They were one of the earliest creatures defined in Dungeons and Dragons, where they are depicted as a fairly tough opponent, weaker than a dragon but still requiring a seasoned group to face. Players prize them for the griffin eggs, typically valued at 2000 gold pieces, or as mounts.

In my current project, griffins were created by an Archon, a great wizard, who wanted a mount so his companion could accompany him when he rode a dragon. At the start of the book, the protagonist is a member of an order of griffin riders based on a floating fortress.

For further reading, Joe Nigg’s book (below) provides a good survey of various references to the griffin.

Leg of Lamb (-ish)

Español: Ternasco de Aragon DO
Español: Ternasco de Aragon DO (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A little something for my D&D players. Not for the squeamish.

Swords and grocery shopping don’t usually go together. But how many people keep an Excalibur replica by the garage door? And how often does a shaking bush signify anything more than a cat on the prowl?

Tomorrow was D&D day. Naturally, D&D players like meat, lots of it, at least my group does. I’d told everyone we were going to have stew. No complaints there. But something caught my eye while perusing my cookbooks: leg of lamb, a seven hour braise to be exact. That sounded beyond succulent and as luck would have it Zuppan’s had a leg of lamb at the meat counter earlier in the day. Alas, legs of lamb apparently fly off the shelf. Or is that run off? In any case, it was no longer there and my shopping list was most leg-of-lamb oriented.

Settling for beef and some ad hoc veggies it was back home to flip through the monster manual for something appropriate for a Valentine’s themed game. Since I can name the monsters better than my children, I wasn’t looking forward to that exercise. There’s not too much lovey-dovey in the monster manual, except maybe nymphs. Or a succubus, perhaps that would do. My wife was playing a succubus in a live-action-role-playing game when I met her. But that’s another story.

I set the grocery bag by the front door and fumbled at the door lock. Whoever had designed my house had cleverly made sure the only shadow cast by the porch light covered the lock. The key finally slipped in. A bush at my right rustled. Was it a cat? Or maybe a skunk? We don’t really have many ornery critters in Oregon. Had to be a cat. A cat with big, glowing red eyes. My throat tightened. Whatever it was, it could stay outside. The groceries and I were going inside.

I popped the door open a crack, snatched the bags and darted in. So did the… the thing. Bounding on thick legs, it snapped forward, pried the door wide with spidery fingers and jumped past me. It only came to my waist but it looked, well, mean. And if it was a monkey, it was a green, hairless one with a toothy maw that might take a small pumpkin in one bite. It had spindly arms and a big, round head that seemed too heavy for its skinny neck. It opened its mouth and chortled: a wet, bubbly chortle.

The groceries fell from my hands.

Snap, snap, snap, went its teeth as its smacked its mouth. Its big, red eyes narrowed. It made a grin wide enough to slice its head in half. It looked, well, it had to be a goblin. Yes, I know there are no goblins, not outside the monster manual. But lest you assume I was thinking of goblins at the time, the exercise at hand for my D&D game was a Valentine’s Day-ish critter. I was thinking of a scantily clad, bat-winged succubus (or maybe an erinyes). Goblins were nowhere near my febrile imagination. I, on the other hand, did appear to be on its menu plan.

It hopped forward, its gaping grin almost mesmerizing.

I back against the garage door behind me. It swung open; I must not have closed it all the way earlier. I fell backwards into the garage, failing with my arms as I landed on my ass. No, I didn’t accidentally grab Excalibur as I fell but I did send it clattering.

The goblin hopped back at the sound of ringing metal. Did I leap to my feet, grabbing said blade? No, this veteran of decades of D&D games sat on his butt, shivering at the goblin tipping-toeing towards him. Snap, snap, snap, went its teeth.

Could I convince it I was way too fatty to eat? No, probably not going to work. The sword lay beside me. It didn’t even really have an edge, it was a replica after all. There was the Goodwill pile nearby. Old sweater? Books? Stack of empty frames. Snap, snap, snap.

I grabbed the sword. The goblin leaped at me. I swung with all my might. Maybe I could stun it and lock it in the garage. Maybe.

I missed, my blow twirling me around, rolling me clear of the goblin. My sword smashed into the ground and shattered. There went $295 dollars. Now I wielded Anduril, the Anduril from before it was reforged. Woohoo. The goblin jumped again. I didn’t have much else I could do. I slashed at it with my stump of a sword.

There was a shriek like a cat being microwaved (no, I’ve never done that, honest, I’m just guessing). Anyway, Anduril succeeded where Excalibur failed. The jagged blade sliced its leg clean off. In the movies, it would have kept clawing and biting until the bitter end but a leg severed at the hip is not a good thing, even for goblins. It gasped a few times, tried to crawl away, and then died.

I lay panting on the floor until the spreading pool of blood reached me. Yuck.

What was I going to do with a dead goblin? Could I sell the corpse to the tabloids? But the whole thing seemed too awful. I just wanted to be done with it. It was small. I could wrap it up in a few plastic bags and pitch it in the trash. The Goodwill clothes could mop up the blood.

So that’s what I did. I got the body in a bag. Mopped up the blood. Chucked it in the trash bin. Then I saw the severed leg. Nothing another bag wouldn’t take care off. Thing was, that severed leg kind of looked like that leg of lamb that had run off.


“This has got to be the best leg of lamb I’ve ever had,” Chris said. “What’s the secret?”

“It’s goblin leg.”

“Ha, ha.”

I grinned.

Of Dragons and Flying Giantesses

The fearsome Azzykis!

Some comments by TMSO on my post about using race longevity in your fantasy world settings reminded me of a game from long ago where, as game master, I experimented with letting players have all sorts of different types of characters. The campaign was set in a world fragmented into many floating isles so flight was at a premium. One player selected a bronze dragon for his player character, featured in the picture here.

The player’s wife selected a half-giant, half-demoness Gyllda:

The half-giantess, half-demoness Gylllda
The Awesome Gyllda

Unfortunately, for the dragon’s ego, dragons are extremely powerful, so in order for a dragon to be a player-character he had to be very, very young, and therefore, very small:

Poor Azzykiss caught preening in front of the mirror!

Putting the Divine into your Fantasy Setting

Piazza rotonda - pantheon 2
Piazza rotonda – pantheon 2: the divine has always inspired humans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the often over-looked items in the world-builders toolkit is the spiritual. Perhaps one of the defining aspects of humanity in all eras is our desire to describe why things are the way they are in the natural world and what is our place in that world. There are certainly books where the role of gods and the like take center stage and others where their presence is felt. For instance, while the Lord of the Rings is not too overtly spiritual (the movies somewhat more so than the book), Gandalf and Sauruman are agents of the divine entities in the world, Galadriel and her fellows are banished from “heaven” for their transgressions and the wood elves are people who long ago turned away from the “light.” This is a world where the gods matter and the actions of the gods shaped the setting for LOTR (and inspire much more of The Silmarillion).

In history, the development of authority figures was rarely separated from the spiritual. In some cultures, the two were tightly combined as in Egypt and the Ancient Near East where the ruler represented divine power on Earth. In others, there might have been separation of a clan leader from a spiritual leader but the two were closely bound and the leader was anointed and empowered by the shaman or equivalent. The druids of the Celts were a priestly caste of such great power the Romans took pains to extinguish them, although they were not rulers themselves. The Celtic caste system has analogues in the Hindu caste system and might hark back to the same roots shared by Indo-European languages. In the Middle ages, the priests anointed kings and there was much disagreement over just how much authority the divine had over the secular. Priest still anoint kings and presidents are sworn in on Bibles. And, of course, the respect and fear of the divine caused humans to put much treasure and labor into support of a priests and temples.

Thor wades rivers while the rest of the æsir r...
Thor wades rivers while the rest of the æsir ride across the bridge Bifröst as described in Grímnismál. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as the spiritual world underpinned much of human endeavor, it can have a place in the fantasy world. I came to this realization more through my fantasy role-playing background (D&D). Like many a gamer before me, I started with generic, Medieval-ish settings with a pantheon tacked on top without much thought. In my high school days, it was not unusual for my group to play with many Earth historical pantheons at the same time but I moved away from that as I learned more about the pantheons: these traditions were meant to be an overarching story of the creation of the world and the place of mortals and divine. It got hard to reconcile so many one, true faiths and was easier just to go with a single one. By my post college days, I also had come to realize that pantheons created to explain the world to historical Earthlings, a world with, in the end, very limited (if any) divine, manifest power, were not that suitable for a D&D game where even your 16 year-old cleric adept (level 1) could cure fatal wounds (fatal for other 1st level characters, anyway), banish undead, and perform other very prominent miracles. And while throughout history through the present, people have always believed in divine power, I find it hard to find evidence for something as obvious as an RPG 1st level spell at work. That is, Earth stories were not created to explain magic as powerful and prevalent as that in D&D.

My pantheon creation began simply as a way to have gods more relevant to a game, a reason for them to bestow game-useful powers on the player-characters. Why, for instance, would there be a god of plagues and who would worship such a god? On Earth, such gods were worshiped to appease them. In a D&D world, they were sometimes useful as objects of a sect of villains, something to oppose the players. There is overlap with the Earth view of such a god but in the end, they aren’t really made of the same cloth. Add in non-human races of great power, rationalizations for all the D&D staples such as demons and devils, and it becomes, to me anyway, much easier to start from scratch and construct something that worked for a game of high magical power, a setting that could start with simple first level spells and could work up to world-shattering magic.

Just as important for a game was a setting where the gods were still active and evolving in the setting. In the old earth pantheons, things are in the end pretty static. The myths actually seemed to have evolved over the years (part of the trouble with teasing out the Norse myths is understanding the changes as they evolved in contact with Christianity) but they always to me seemed to be presented to the worshippers as a static explanation: this is how the world was created, these are the stories of the gods in the early days, this is how the world will end, and you live in a time in-between these stories of old and the end-to-come. This is usually not the case in a D&D setting where sometimes the players become demi-gods and often they are actively acting as agents of the gods, furthering their goals and continuing their stories.

Moreover, there was always the question, when transplanting an Earth mythos, of why the gods still weren’t running around on earth, making new myths. Take the Norse mythos where the gods spent a lot of time walking among mortals: in the mythic, nordic world, a chieftain or petty king might very well expect Thor himself to walk into his hall. In a game world, though, which Thor would walk in? The one who in earlier myths still hung out with Loki or the later one who knew Loki to be completely untrustworthy and the harbinger of destruction? Which myths still applied? And how did you as a referee reconcile the myth that attributes the tides to Thor being so lusty a drinker that he could set the oceans in motion when tricked into thinking he drank from a barrel when he actually drank from the sea? For game purposes, clearly that has to be “just a story” but then, which myths are just stories and which myths can be used to establish the gods of the setting?

Better, I found, to create my pantheon from the actual narrative of what really happened then layer on top of that whatever stories were necessary. This turns the creation of the gods around from the Earth method of starting with the stories and then explaining what really lay behind them. That exercise, by the way, was exactly what occupied late Ancient world pagans as they recast their gods for a more rationale and Christian world: the late pagans didn’t actually believe that their supreme god Jupiter was a serial philanderer , most of what we take to be classical paganism was treated as simply stories by the 300s CE.

Curiously, though, as my game worlds progressed (I almost always create an entirely new campaign setting with every new campaign every 2-3 years), I came back to historical roots. I’ve always loved the idea of spirits living in a pool of water or a holy grove. I like the creation stories and the conflicts in an active pantheon. I love the idea of gods walking among us like they do in the Norse myths. As an exercise, I’m entranced by thinking through a dynamic, spiritual world where a mortal can become the spirit of a holy grove, where the gods are still trying to shape the course of the world for their purposes, where there is a tension and sensible rationale that prevents the gods from simply descending to the mortal plane and duking it out to the doom of mortals.

The game setting that really cemented this for me was based firmly on the Norse world. I couldn’t really figure out how to create a Yggdrasil that towered through the disks of the world that worked for me but short of that, the world is very Norse with an upper disk for mortals (Midgard) and a lower disk for the underworld. The gods do live above the mortals, albeit on some very high mountains on the main disk. There was an original Titan world-creator whose death shaped the world. The gods themselves became immortal through the Titan’s blood and were not accorded the role of gods until much later when the immortals and mortals had to deal with a threat from the remnant spirit of the Titan. The action of the gods persist into the world to the current day and the destruction of a great world empire is directly a result of some of the gods fearing the growing power of mortals. The campaign began at a time when mortals (i.e. the players) had the chance to recognize the malign role of the gods in world affairs and try to recruit other gods to do something about it.

In this world, as in the Norse, there really is an Odin-type figure (a goddess in this setting) who sets mortals against each other to keep them feuding and weak. There is a Thor-like figure who likes to wander among men for his own pleasures of battle and bed. And there is a Loki-type figure although here he is not the schemer for the sake of discord, he is the being who works behind the scenes and has the potential to recognize that the head of the gods should be thwarted. You have all the elements of the Norse myths (including even a creation of the tides connected to the acts of the gods although not something as goofy as a god trying to drink the seas) but one that is dynamic and ongoing, with scope for the players to affect the world.

This setting also made heavy use of spirits: the divine power of clerics did not come from the gods; it came from cleric’s personal association with a local spirit. They had to placate and befriend a being of a river, spring, ancient ruin, tree grove, or what not. If they wanted healing powers, they had to get the appropriate type of spirit  to grant them those powers and remain in that spirit’s good graces. If they wandered hundreds of miles away, they would have to befriend new spirits. There was even a mechanism for a mortal to become a spirit (although the mechanism made it very hard for player characters to do so since they don’t tend to stay put and get attached to one place.)

One of my current projects is set in this world with a story that revolves around the spirits but also includes the gods. If it does okay, the next story will be more focused on the gods. The characters are mortals but the gods and spirits are not distant powers that set events in motion: they are present, they appear, they teach, they have offspring with characters in-story.

My other current project is set in a different world. Here there are ageless beings so powerful and so destructive that a single creator god “put them to sleep” 300 hundred years ago. The story is about a time when the works of these ageless ones are winding down and the mortals need to find and wake them for their own survival. What happens in the story will give birth to gods and order things so that mortals shape the world, not these ageless beings.

Of course, a writer can create wonderful fantasy worlds without such a spiritual or divine underpinning but when you start with the question of the spiritual and build a world from there, you may be surprised at what you bring forth.

  • How did this world come to be?
  • What are the sources of divine power?
  • What regulates the actions of these divine beings?
  • What happens to the dead?
  • What do the divine beings want?
  • How do the desires of the divine affect mortals?

Answer these questions and you may find your plots almost writing themselves.

As you can tell, I do like the Norse setting for gaming and fantasy worlds: it was a world of present, scheming gods, ready violence, small kingdoms (in the early and pre-Viking era): ready-made for heroic fiction.

I’m personally neither religious nor spiritual, though I do respect other’s decision to be so. But I do find spiritual stories and myths moving. Perhaps that actually frees me to experiment with the spiritual side of things from a story and a roleplaying point of view because I don’t feel beholden to a particular spiritual tradition but do appreciate the power of the divine in mortal affairs.

Worldbuilding: Mechanics of Magic

White-haired and -bearded wizard with robes an...Most fantasy books and games don’t bother getting too deep into the details of exactly how magic works. Such things usually remain ill-defined or out of sight and I’m not here to advocate that that must change. Unless the mechanics of magic really matter to the plot or gameplay, why bother? For one thing, there’s always the risk of coming up with clunky mechanics which are worse than none at all. Afterall, in the fantasy genre, magic is accepted and is, arguably, one of the requirements for a fantasy setting (arguably because I’d still call it fantasy if you had elves, dwarves, giants, etc. and no magic). Yet, should your interests lie that way, defining your magic mechanics can be useful for you as a writer, opening up everything from useful plot twists to entire novels.

Take one example from D&D of old. While recent editions fuzz things up a bit, it used to be that wizards would store the power of their spells in their head. Preparing a spell from their spell book actually captured that spell internally, sort of writing a rune on your brain. Although the game didn’t treat it this way, it is much like the wizard was an animated staff or wand: a repository for stored, charged magical energy. What would happen if you smashed an axe into said wizard’s head? Well, aside from ending the life of the wizard, nothing much else. But interestingly, the game did allow for you to break your Staff of the Arch-Magi and simultaneously release all the stored charges as a huge, retributive strike that would generally kill the wizard and anything else around. But why didn’t the wizard explode if his head was smashed? You could construct an argument that, just like with a nuclear bomb, the precise release of the magic was required for an explosion and anything else would just cause it to fizzle (although all the non-nuclear explosives in a nuke going off is still a good-sized boom). But in reality, I think it just wasn’t really considered because there wasn’t a “theory of magic” applied to the game rules.

The original Dungeons & Dragons set.
D&D showcases many models of magic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a D&D player, wizards are my favorite class so I’m actually not too upset that a head wound doesn’t cause my character to explode. But from a writer’s perspective, that would open up some interesting story possibilities, wouldn’t it? What would it mean to your fantasy novel if magic involved the containing within yourself of huge, dangerous energies? With such energy you could cast powerful spells of creation and destruction but if you lose control of it: boom, you explode. That, of course, may not fit your conception of magic at all. As with me the D&D player, many readers and writers may not want their grizzled wizard or lovely sorceress to explode. But there are other mechanics for magic, each with their own possibilities for shaping stories.

Quadrant Model of Magic Mechanics

Let’s turn to a basic model of magic mechanics. For those of you experienced with the corporate world, we’ll trot out the hoary Quadrant Graph, so beloved of HR and management consultants :). Here, let’s model magic mechanics on two axes. On one axis we have whether magical energy is channeled from an external source (aether or the like) or stored (like in a wand, staff, potion, scroll, wizard’s brain). On the other axis we have whether the magic power is external or internal to the magic-user.

Internal/Stored: this is the D&D wizard model which was based on an early fantasy novel (I forget the name and author). Here the magic exists as energy stored within the wizard’s body, ready for release with the appropriate verbal and/or somatic components. What can you do with this in a story? Well, aside from having a wizard’s head explode (and I’m not being entirely silly, in the right story that could be quite a nice surprise for the reader), it can have all sorts of interesting side effects. Personally, I don’t like the idea of magic corrupting my casters (sort of like Sith corruption in Star Wars) but you could certainly imagine wizards who store this much power within themselves might become twisted, misshapen or otherwise changed. You could also have the magical energy be stored in scars, blood (which could be removed from the wizard to make a potion), lumps, enlarged skull, etc. Finally, it opens up the possibility of magic objects being incorporated into the wizard’s body to allow the storing and control of still greater power: gems embedded in the flesh or skull, piercings, tattoos, etc. The aesthetic of this type of magic may or may not appeal to you (it doesn’t to me to be honest) but much can be done with it.

External/Stored: in D&D, there is a host of magic of this sort from fairly common potions and scrolls to wands, staves, magic swords & shields, rings, horseshoes, bags, just about anything really. Here the creator of the item infuses an object with magical energy. It is both a container of the energy and the mechanism for releasing the energy. This is very familiar in fiction and gaming, from the rings in Lord of the Rings to the tier gear of your typical MMO.

Internal/Channeled: In this case the magic passes through the magic-user but it is not stored energy that is being tapped, instead the magic-user taps some external source of energy, aether, the Force, whatever you want to call it. For any given use of magic, it might look a lot like Internal/Stored in the sense that someone watching might see the same verbal and somatic components: magic words and flicks of the finger. But typically in games and stories, the amount of magic a user can tap is different: rather than being determined by the number of spells the wizard prepared (stored in himself), the user is only limited by fatigue: it gets tiring to draw that energy from the air and after a while, you need a break. This is the mechanics behind many MMO casters but also some games and books that require “mana”. The only distinction in this model is that the energy physical passes through the user’s body. Aside from the Aesthetics of the energy coursing through the body and out the fingers or eyes (or what have you), it may not make a whole lot of difference. However, as with the internal/stored, this amount of energy passing through the user might change the user’s body, like the corruption that dark side Force users experience in Star Wars. And as before, there might be gems, jewelry and other objects that the user can incorporate into their body to help them cast magic.

External/Channeled: this is much like internal/channeled except that the energy does not pass through the user or an object. The user or object sets up the circumstances that causes the energy in the aether or force to do something. Maybe the user creates an external ‘tap’ that then creates a tear into the aether from which the magic power flows. In Star Wars terms, perhaps this is a good user of the Force. In RPG terms, this is often what a holy caster does: they tap the magic energy of their god when they cast a spell.

This quadrant representation is just a model, meaning, it is just one way to look at the situation. One can easily blur the lines or cut things a different way. As with any model, you may find it useful, or you may not. If it doesn’t help you with your project then by all means, ignore it. Also, as should be clear from my heavy use of D&D examples, nothing says you just have to use only one quadrant either. D&D pretty much uses all four quadrants and so can your book, although your book many not need that much complexity. That is, establishing and explaining the four varieties of magic might not be worth the trouble.


So what to do with this as a writer? One answer is nothing at all: a theory of magic is not required for a great fantasy book. If none of this interests you, don’t bother with it. But if it does intrigue you, it can serve a range of purposes.

At one end, a theory of magic can remain entirely behind the scenes but by having an idea of how magic works in your world, it can help you keep the use of magic consistent. Just as it is good for a writer to have a consistent voice within a work, it is good for magic to have a consistent feel within a work. If you have a clear idea of the magic mechanics in your story, then you are more likely to give magic a consistent expression.

But there is a lot more you can do with it. As an example, if you go with the stored/internal model you can have it affect the plot at some point: the evil caster explodes when killed, the good caster worries about containing her magic and possibly harming others. Or the quest for a gem to provide an internal repository for storing magic might drive a plot thread. Perhaps the nature of magic itself drives the main plot.

Myself, I do like to toss around these ideas. One of my stories is about the nature of spirits and the power they grant. The main plot pertains to what the protagonist will do for love but the mechanics of spirits, gods, magic, life and death drive almost everything to do with the story. In my current story, magic is channeled from the ley. Archons used this magic to float their domains and castles, dragons channel ley with their wings to fly. The whole story revolves around what happens when the floating islands start crashing back to Earth after the Archons disappear (and threaten to return 🙂 ). For me, the magic mechanics infuse the story and provide much that I want to write about, at least in these cases. In other stories, it takes more of a back seat: it’s part of the setting but not explained nor do the mechanics drive the story.