Worldbuilding: Bloodless Warfare in a World Without Death

 

On a basic level, symmetrical warfare (where two sides line up on a field and attack) is governed by a lot of recognized principles and tactics, like envelopment, flanking, retreats, charges, and routs. For my world, I wanted to approach warfare differently by introducing two twists: first, magic is incorporated into combat, and second, killing people is forbidden.

The reason I wanted combat in my world to be non-lethal is because death in my world functions differently from other fantasy worlds: rather than being sent to a vague and mostly opaque afterlife, people know that their souls will be expelled from their bodies and doomed to exist in a half-conscious state here on earth, constantly craving the things that drove them in life. The world, as I imagined it, is already suffused with ghosts who are tied to familial obligations as guardian spirits or left to aimlessly wander. Meanwhile, the living are obsessed with living forever and extending their lives. Warfare, then, has to be shaped around this institutional fear of death.

With that in mind, I took some notes on how I envisioned warfare would look in my world:

“Killing your opponent is taboo, and a violation of the rules of war. Instead, your focus is to incapacitate enemies and capture them. Mortal injury (including cleaving off limbs) is fine, as long as the person does not die. Capturing can occur after or during the battle, but you must keep enemies from rescuing their own allies on the battlefield and bringing them back to their lines.”

“Armies are not made of professional soldiers, and are instead peopled by a mix of militias, career soldiers (like samurai), and mages. Mages form the heart of each unit, which can range from 5 people to 50 people. There is no external organization to the forces, and armies are loosely commanded by a war council.”

“At the periphery of the battlefield are healers and enchanters, who support the army by healing the injured (both friendly and captured enemies) and enchanting their allies with spells that prevent physical or magical damage. It is not permissible to attack these healers or support mages, but it is permissible to capture them without violence.”

“Honor is one of the key constraints of combat. Those who do not obey the rules of combat are stigmatized and punished harshly. It’s dishonorable to try to escape once you’re captured and held by the enemy. False surrenders and disobeying parlay rules are also forbidden. Everything else, including sabotage, spies, subterfuge, torture, hostages, and ambushes are permitted but looked down upon.”

“There are different kinds of mages. In my mage hierarchy, wizards are elites. Sorcerers, illusionists, witches, and hedge wizards are all lower on the hierarchy. They can be very specialized and even more capable at certain tasks than wizards, but they are not as all-around powerful and adaptable as a wizard. Mages can use any magic they want, as long as its non-lethal.”

“There are three kinds of magic: spoken magic, similar to chanting or shouting, movement magic, similar to martial arts kata, and written magic, which is made of spell maps imposed on skin or objects. There does exist anti-magic measures, which are dependent on the kind of magic being used. For spoken magic, anything that disrupts speech or sound can jam a spell. For movement magic, anything that restricts the necessary movement of the body (arm and leg movements, etc.). For written magic, contact has to be made with the written surface to jam it or break it.”

“Other rules:
1. Biological warfare is not allowed.
2. Healers must do everything in their power to keep enemy soldiers alive, as well as their own soldiers. In case of a conflict, friendly soldiers take precedence.
3. Psychological warfare is permitted.
4. Captured enemy soldiers must not be allowed to die, even after the battle is over. Their well-being is entirely entrusted to their captors, who are honor-bound to keep them alive.
5. Sieges are permissible, as is the capture of non-combatants. In the case of sieges, the attacking army may impose conditions upon a community that will result in eventual death—cutting off water and food supplies, etc. It is up to the community to survive or surrender.”

“Since death is taboo, lethality is not permitted in warfare. Incapacitating an opponent through cunning or strength is mandated, with capturing an opponent being the ultimate goal. When enough units are incapacitated and captured, a victory is declared. With these conditions, individual bravery and recklessness (since there is no chance of death) is much more common than normal. Ransoms are paid to reclaim captured combatants, which enrich the capturing parties’ individual families and bring them prestige.”

“Armor, wrestling, blunt weapons, and physical strength (the ability to induce trauma on a body) are key components to normal warfare, with individuals attempting to incapacitate one another via melee being the main method. In addition to this, magic comes into play as safeguards and offensive tools: almost all mages and combatants have some kind of enchantment which limits physical or elemental harm, such as draw-redirect or targeting with ranged spells (without touch). To overcome these magical defenses, physical touch is required to make interface with another being, and hand-to-hand combat is highly prized as a final execution method to incapacitate an enemy.

All of this results in combatants and mages wearing extremely comprehensive, full-body armor and weaving heavy enchantments around themselves. Ranged attacks in general combat are generally meant to “jam” enemies’ enchantments and “soften” them for melee combat.’

“Armies are generally made up of family or familial alliance units, individual vagabonds, bands of companions, and mages and their entourages. The center of every unit is a mage, with each having their own specialty. Armies are usually below 1,000 units and are commonly 80-200 units, with a council of warleaders representing their constituents. Actual warfare is very loose and chaotic, with routs and intimidation common. Mages and strong soldiers form the morale center of their armies, and have the essential ability to rally their forces with their bravery or cunning.”

“Every battle can become extremely chaotic and changeable, since mages can employ almost any tool in their magical arsenal to turn the tide. Illusions are common to try and fake out enemies, as well as techniques that alter or disrupt the field of battle. Diseases are against the rules of war, but fire, water, earthquakes, light, animals, and extreme force are permitted as long as they are not lethal.”

“Ghost warfare is also an integral part of warfare—ghosts are martialed and invoked to protect their families and assist them in battle, which can take the form of weather, physical manifestations or possessions (including golems and mannikins), decay or weaving of spells. Ghosts can be unpredictable and hard to combat, and so a channeler/sorcerer or necromancer is generally a major asset in large-scale warfare.”

“Horses and cavalry are generally avoided because of horses’ ease of being incapacitated or frightened by ghosts, magic, mages, or illusions. However, they are utilized for fast travel and mobility.”

Worldbuilding: Bloodless Warfare in a World Without Death

Programmer Spells: The Two-Ton Punch

I’ve spoken a bit about how spells would work in my world, but for a long time I’ve struggled to figure out the details of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics. I’ve drawn inspiration for my spells from computer coding, but I don’t know how to code or the syntax of any programming languages. So with that in mind, I decided to do some research on Python this weekend and see if I could use some of the basic elements of programming to write a rudimentary spell, as I imagined it.

The spell I decided to write out is a draw-redirect spell, one of the first spells I ever came up with. It was originally inspired by Soto’s magical abacus in Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time, which allowed the monk to move around kinetic force stored in falling bodies (namely, the protagonist Lobsang Ludd). I liked the idea of a spell that could absorb force and redirect it, and after researching martial arts like Aikido and Judo, I thought it’d be a great technique for a martial artist-mage.

The character I had in mind was the Dyer, a mage who had little to no muscle mass, but could topple much stronger foes by absorbing the kinetic force of their blows and redirecting it into his strikes. Here’s what I came up with for a sketch of the spell:

The Dyer’s Basic Draw-Redirect Strike Technique

Part 1: Intercept and absorb kinetic force (Draw)

[IF] [CASTER BODY] [ENCOUNTERS] [KINETIC FORCE] [GREATER THAN] [1 PSI] [THEN] [ABSORB] [QUANTITY: 100%][OF][KINETIC FORCE][AND][STORE][Previously absorbed force][IN][SEA OF DIRAC]

Part 2: Store kinetic force (Draw)

[SEA OF DIRAC]
[DEFINE tolerances: 0 PSI to 120,000 PSI]
[DEFINE shape: bound to caster’s physical dimensions, 1-inch radius around skin surface]
[DEFINE internal structure: triangular tessellation]

Part 3: Release kinetic force on a trigger (Redirect)

[WHEN][1 OF FOLLOWING CONDITIONS=TRUE][Execute respective functions]:

[CONDITION 1: TRIGGER 1 or 2=TRUE]
[EXECUTE][REDIRECT][100% OF STORED KINETIC ENERGY][INTO][RIGHT ARM FORCE INERTIA]

[TRIGGER 1= Caster says the word “release”]
[TRIGGER 2= Caster’s right palm takes designated form MANTIS HAND and makes contact with non-caster living entity]

[CONDITION 2: Sea reaches maximum capacity]
[EXECUTE: dissipate amount of stored energy equal to most recently absorbed energy amount]

The desired outcome of this spell, as it’s structured here, would be to absorb the full force of a punch or strike and dump that force into a magical space I termed a “Sea of DIrac”, which is an actual scientific phenomenon, but pretty much unrelated to the concept of kinetic energy. I first heard the term in Neon Genesis Evangelion, when Shinji encounters an Angel that can suck objects into its shadow, which is actually a Sea of Dirac. I just wanted a shorthand term for a space that existed outside of the material dimension, where energy could be stored indefinitely.

Once the kinetic energy is stored in the caster’s sea, that energy can be released again in conjunction with a strike, depending on one of two triggers: when the Dyer says a trigger keyword, or when the Dyer’s hand conforms to a predetermined shape (in this case, a mantis strike) and meets an opponent’s body. Activating one of these triggers will dump all of the kinetic energy the Dyer has stored into the inertia of his right arm, which, if he times it correctly, means that his relatively weak strikes could become incredibly powerful.

According to this article, the amount of force some elite boxers can put into their punches can range from 776 pounds to 1,300. After receiving only five punches at 800 PSI, the Dyer would be able to redirect roughly 4000 PSI into one strike (if I’ve done my math right). That comes out to about 2 tons.

The next step with this spell is translating it into its own symbols and notation–a magical language. That’s going to be much more difficult, because it means creating a whole set of symbols that correspond not only to programming tokens (like “and”, “or,” or “true”), but to nouns and concepts, like kinetic energy and the Sea of Dirac. Then again, it might be fun to start creating a pictographic language like Chinese or Japanese, especially for small projects.

Programmer Spells: The Two-Ton Punch

New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: “Frodo is Dead: Worldbuilding and The Science of Magic”

I’ve said this before: magic should not be science. Magic can be systematic and internally consistent, but it shouldn’t be reduced to a human tool, like astronomy or chemistry. A lot of writers and worldbuilders don’t seem to understand the difference–didn’t Arthur C. Clarke famously say that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?”

But there is a difference. That’s what my new essay is about.

In this essay, titled “Frodo is Dead” I wanted to show how basing magic off of science, ration, and the Enlightenment philosophies that informed them inevitably leads to a breakdown of its fantasy world by turning it into a mirror of our world.

You can read the essay here on Clarkesworld!

New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: “Frodo is Dead: Worldbuilding and The Science of Magic”

THE OCCULT READING LIST VOL. 3: Three Body Problem, Language as Magic, and New Retro Wave

This is Vol. 3 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.

Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.

Disclaimer: There’s no conspiracy between me and New Retro Wave–I just listen to their songs all the goddamn time. But if they want to talk sponsorship deals, I’m down to sell out and get some of that sweet 80’s merch.

Trevor Something, give me a call. We’ll work something out.

“It’s like people only do things because they get paid. And that’s just really sad.”

 

occult triangle lab three body problem fantasy sci-fiTHE Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This is the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi book by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It’s garnered some unreal praise, and I finally got around to reading it. So far, I’m 200 pages in and I’m not a fan. Putting aside the difficulties of translation, the plot and pacing are where the book comes up seriously short. So far, the plot has been a very choppy clockwork affair, with the main character essentially shuttling himself from place to place, listening to exposition, then periodically popping in to the VR world of Three Body. Every exposition scene happens almost back-to-back, with Wang Miao acting as a plot-automaton who decides, “hey, let’s give this person a call,” followed immediately by “let’s visit this person,” and then “they told me to visit this person, so let’s go here and speak to this person.” Rather than Jack Bauer in 24, who is propelled from place to place by desperation, gunfire, and a constant stream of new discoveries, the countdown Wang faces doesn’t drive the action, and the only thing Wang needs to do is go to places so people can talk at him. There’s no tension or challenge to ferreting out the information he needs, and the plot comes off as a series of mechanical scenes strung together without much attempt at subtlety or tension. The scene in which Wang discovers the murder of Shen Yufei and listens to the revelations of her husband are the worst perpetrators of this.

On top of the lackluster plotting, the video game world of Three Body ends up being a bizarre, pseudo-metaphorical dream sequence. Unlike Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in Snow Crash or William Gibson’s Grid in Neuromancer, the rules and logic of the virtual world are opaque and confusing. Characters can randomly speed up the passage of time as it suits them, the logic and mechanics behind player dehydration are completely unexplained (do they go into spectator mode? Log out?), and it’s not even clear if the entities Wang is encountering are NPCs or players. The most baffling question is about advancement: the game revolves around trying to predict the movements of the sun, but a succession of players (if they’re indeed human players) seem to put forth antiquated versions of the solar system. No human player but the protagonist seems to contribute to the game or its advancement but the protagonist, who always arrives at exactly the right time to see the key developments.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but already I’m feeling like The Three Body Problem is going to be a monumental disappointment.

occult triangle lab tor fantasy magic language7 Different Ways Fantasy Has Used Language as Magic

This is a nice survey of how different fantasy series have used language as the basis for magic systems (a topic I’ve written about in relation to both binary and poetry). It deals with the big-name franchises, including LoTR and Harry Potter, but also The Spellwright Trilogy and video games like Skyrim and Treasure of the Rudras.

I still remember opening up a book in Morrowind after clearing out a den of necromancers and reading about the Nords shouting down their enemies’ walls with the magic of their voices, and how the most powerful had to be gagged to keep their voices from destroying everything around them. At the time, I thought “They could never turn that into a real magic system. It’s cool flavor, though.”

So it was an awe-inspiring bash to the head to find out that that little, innocuous passage from the early 2000s was kept in mind across the development of Oblivion and brought to glorious fruition in a fully realized magical language and system in Skyrim. Next, I want to see the snake people from that one hidden continent!

occult triangle lab V.E. Schwab darker shade of magicNo Mother Tongue: Language in the world of Magic

This is a cool little post from V.E. Schwab, author of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, both of which I own (thanks, publishing friends!). Schwab touches on the difficulty of composing languages for a fantasy world, as well as the promise: she explains how the poetry and sound of language can reveal something about the nature of the world and its speakers, and how it can immerse a reader in the world of the story by forcing them “to learn as they go, just as travelers would, when passing through a foreign land.”

Schwab also touches on the dangers of fantasy languages: “Used poorly, fictional languages can feel like a wall, preventing all but the well-versed from feeling included in a world.” I’ve seen this pretty often, and it comes from the tricky management of a learning curve within the narrative, by which a reader learns about the world, the culture, and the events of the book. Introducing too much foreign information leads to alienation and frustration, like a mother spelling out words so she can speak over the head of a toddler. “Don’t you know what a ba’aleth is, reader? No? It’s very important.”

Fuck that noise.

Thoughts on Nomenclature in Fictional Worlds

This is just a couple thoughts from Eric Honour, who has a page on Medium. It’s mostly some criticism on the simplicity and lack of verisimilitude that characterizes language and naming in fantasy. One thing he touches on is how monolithic language and names become when the creator just sits down and pushes two words together like a caveman, like “Iron Walker” or (my personal pet peeve term from Dune) “lasgun”. But one particular insight from Eric struck me:

“This is something that turns me off about a lot of fantasy. It’s also something that I can see is difficult to navigate — having multiple names for things is more realistic, but also can feel like it’s overwhelming the reader. Real-life historical names are full of metonymy and misapplication and the shifting sands of living language, and that’s a level of complexity that might not even be advantageous to a fictional world. But not even making the attempt feels sort of lazy.”

Something that the articles from Tor and V.E. Schwab also touch on is that language shifts and changes to reflect its culture and its world. To create a language, or even naming conventions for armies, you have to think about how words and people use and abuse terminology. A great example is military slang and acronyms like FUBAR, SNAFU, BDU, and MOPP, or the backronyms of gang culture. There’s something more than the denotative meaning of words, a kind of vitality to them, and that’s what a lot of fantasy writers gloss over.

“Just Like You (Hazy Mountains Remix)” by Chromatics

One of my top three favorites from the world of New Retro Wave, Just Like You is one of those haunting love songs that evokes the kind of otherworldly, illusory lover that ELO sang about in Yours Truly, 2095, or even the twisted virtual love in Bad Religion’s I Love My ComputerIt’s a song wrapped up in nostalgia and ethereal, lovesick illusions, and the reverb clings to your mind like cobwebs. Most disturbing (or enticing) of all is the idea of a doppleganger, a lover who “looks just like you/he even says the same things/he even wears the same clothes,” who ultimately “loves like you used to.”

“The Glory” by Reapers

The Glory is another of my top three favorites from the good folks over at New Retro Wave (THERE IS NO SPONSORSHIP DEAL), and one of my favorite songs, period. The contrast between the low, dirge-like like chanting and the full-throated, almost plaintive rock-and-roll yelling of the chorus gives the whole song a sense of loss and bitterness. The lyrics, which seem to be an ode to death, end up making it the perfect song for people interested in the dark side of the 80’s.

Like me.

hellraiserbox

Link

Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and Magic Systems

Despite this being the Occult Triangle Lab, I haven’t spoken much about occult trigonometry. I’ve talked about using binary code as the basis for magic systems, as well as magic as poetry, but not much to do with triangles. Except for that origami pyramid wrapped up with Zen.

The origami pyramid Nirodha.

Magic in fantasy, as I’ve said before, shouldn’t be a science. It shouldn’t be a palette-swapped form of electricity or physics, where mages carry out “experiments” like Isaac Newton (though he himself was apparently a big fan of alchemy). The reason is that magic, when approached like a science, brings up same reductionism that haunts modern people: if we’re all just chemical reactions in our brains, is there space for truth, or meaning, or wonder? Because those are the very things fantasy can explore like no other genre.

I think magic in fantasy should have rules. The way I conceive it, it should undergird the workings of nature and the world, similar to how Ursula LeGuin’s used taxonomy as magic. But when I imagine magic, there’s something transcendental about it that goes beyond science and materialism. How do you begin designing a system like that? It’s like making up a fictional branch of aeronautics. But that’s what’s so amazing about worldbuilding: you get to make the rules.

What follows is the basic building blocks for a magic system that I conceived back in 2014, combining the art of Buddhist mandalas, computer coding, and musical theory with metaphysics, astronomy, and trigonometry. This is, in the realest sense, a product of an occult triangle lab. One note, however: this is all hypothetical. I don’t have a degree in linguistics like Tolkien, or in graphology. To actually create the symbolic language I describe and to embed these kinds of patterns in it would be something akin to making a crossword puzzle out of an entire language. It would take years of careful construction. So maybe a long-term project for me.

But in the meantime…

Spell Maps, COMPUTER CODE and GEOMETRY

A couple years ago, I started to sketch out the beginnings of a written magic system for my fantasy world. I imagined putting together a bunch of symbols in a sequence that expresses what you want to happen, like you’d do with a line of computer code. But there is something inherently beautiful about how these symbols would fit together: if you deconstruct the interactions between the symbols, you would find that all the symbols could be grouped into discrete units, with the groups’ unity based around shared markings in their graphic composition (similar strokes and dots in the symbols) or the part of the spell they affect (such as binding or flight). These rows of symbols would form rectangular paragraphs, and these rectangles could be oriented to one another like building blocks to form geometric shapes, with each paragraph forming a side of the shape.

occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

These shapes would be arranged into a “spell map,” a geometric representation of how the different parts of the spell work together. It would form a radial or symmetrical design based around a central polygonal figure, such as a square or hexagon. Arms extending from the central polygonal shape would represent the different aspects of the spell, and the smaller components of the arms would be based around their own geometric patterns, making a chain of hexagons, squares, triangles, and so on. So the patterns contained within the individual lines of magical code would eventually form spirals of meta-patterns.

A functioning, well-written spell would have perfect symmetry when all the symbols are arranged in this manner, so a mage writing a new spell could actually lay out their writing in a half-made spell map and figure out what to write next based on their knowledge of geometry and angles. They can also figure out where their spell is going wrong based on the symmetry of the design.

Spell Maps, Triangles, and Designa

The thing is, every polygon is made up of triangles. When you have a regular polygon, like a pentagon, you can subtract 2 from its number of sides and multiply that by 180 to get the sum of its internal angles. Why 180? Because that’s the sum of the angles in a triangle! If you’re trying to create huge, perfectly geometrical spiral designs, the key lies in the shapes that will work well with the central polygonal shape; linking together a hexagon and a pentagon will make for some crowded, chaotic spiral arms. Shapes made from the same sort of triangles that make up the central polygonal figure, on the other hand, might work to create perfect mandala-like designs.

Working with triangles as the basic building block of all shapes, you can figure out the angle measures of the “ideal” triangle for your central polygon (say, a hexagon, which is made up of equilateral triangles with angle measures of 60 degrees) and create a grid made entirely of those triangles. Using this grid, you can be assured that all shapes made from those triangles will have angles measures and lengths that will synch well together. If you’re a mage, it also means that you have all routes for the development of a new spell map.

occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells
But in practice, single-triangle grids may not contain all the triangles necessary to create perfect designs, especially if you want a mix of different shapes. You’ll need permutations of the right triangle, the equilateral triangle, and 30-60-90 triangle, with angles and lengths adjusted to fit the angle measures of your central polygonal figure to have all possible options. This means, to see all possible shapes, you should be working with three triangles grids superimposed on top of one another, calibrated to the right angle measures.

So that’s where things get complicated.

A book I picked up from The Strand is a great guide to this kind of geometrical drafting–it’s called Designa by Wooden Books, and it walks you through the history, drafting techniques, and mathematics behind different designs from all over the world, including Muslim religious patterns and Celtic knots. Woven into these patterns are symbolic meanings and symmetries, reflecting beliefs about the universe, nature, and God.

So there you have the first stage: the idea of a spell map, a meta-pattern that gives a geometric structure to a normally linear, code-like spell made of symbols. Like a computer system, it can be revised and troubleshot based on the patterns embedded in its operations. When it’s evoked, it casts the spell coded into it.

SPELL MAPS, MAGIC, and MUSIC

After looking at the triangular grids I’d made, I used the horizontal lines made naturally when you mirror two rows of triangles vertically to measure the size of a map, which would express its “magnitude”: the larger and more complex the spell, the more space on the grid it will require, and the greater its “magnitude,” since larger spells means using more lines of symbols. And that led to a new idea.

As I looked at the designs I’d made, I wondered what it would look like if I tried to reduce all of the symbols and patterns to binary, so that a spell could be fed through a punch card-computer, like UNIVAC. I also realized that the “magnitude lines” I’d drawn also imposed something like a musical staff on the whole design. It reminded me of Deadmau5 playing the Castlevania theme on a bunch of modular synthesizers, and the Black Midi series, especially this one, where the designs made by the notes end up looking like large spell map. I imagined playing cross-sections of a spell map like Black Midi, with every symbol being a note.occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

Music is made of patterns and mathematics, and the same kinds of waves that describe sound can apply to light, energy, and matter (I dove into sound waves and quantum mechanics in this post). In my sketches, I started to see how a given spell could be expressed as a song as well as a mandala-like graphical representation. And if you look back to wizards like Vainamoinen, spell-songs are exactly what mages used to change the world around them. It’s a really cool piece of synchronicity, and it’s one of the fascinating coincidences that pops up when you delve into this kind of worldbuilding.

Metaphysics, Spell Maps, and the Universe

But when I looked closer at my sketches, another pattern started to appear. I started to see how a spell map could also be a reflection of the symmetry of the universe, in the same way that Buddhist and Hindu mandalas supposedly reflect the order of all creation. In fact, the structure of a spell map looks like a universe of sorts: it’s a miniature galaxy, with spiral arms containing dozens of individual ‘solar systems’ (symbol-rows grouped around the center of a shape) containing sometimes hundreds of individual ‘worlds’ (symbols) and comprising thousands of ‘people’ (individual strokes that make up the symbols).

In my conception of this magic system, this is where magic crosses over from being a computer program and reveals its ties directly to metaphysics. Like a fractal, the pattern of the whole universe is expressed in miniature in the spell map, because magic is essentially a way to change the universe. And in this system, the way to change reality is to build a microcosm of the universe and rewrite it by hand. In this way, a spell map could also act as a kind of divination or scrying tool, like the I-Ching (a book that fascinated Phillip K. Dick to no end), reflecting the conditions of the world rather than changing it.

mandala occult triangle lab spell maps

Conclusion

Great worldbuilding should work like an iceberg: 10% on the surface, 90% below the waterline. I think this is one of the reasons the worldbuilding in Dark Souls rakes in such unreal praise. There’s a sense that beneath the immediate information you’re given, there’s whole volumes of knowledge and secrets to learn and immerse yourself in. It’s the opposite reason people can’t get through Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. But whether you’re revealing all of it or letting the reader unravel how everything fits together, I think the best way to accomplish that feeling of a vast, immersive world is to actually build it behind the scenes. I spoke about this before, but the small details are crucial to making fantasy work, and this is especially true when it comes to magic.

So if you’re a fantasy writer building a world from the ground up, explore everything. Everything feeds into everything else, the world is a frightening and wonderful place, and when you dig deep enough, triangles lie at the heart of everything.

occult triangle lab mandala

Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and Magic Systems

My New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: Paradise Lost

Yesterday my new essay, Paradise Lost: A History of Fantasy and the Otherworld, was published online in the July Issue of the Hugo Award-winning Clarkesworld Magazine! This marks the culmination of a conversation that started four or five years ago, when I was standing in my driveway at night with my friend Joel Clapp.

We had just finished a game of D&D, and I was telling Joel about “the candlelit world,” a theory I had about what made the fantasy genre unique. I said that fantasy was defined by folktales and myths, which came from a world lit by candlelight. Humans lived within the flickering circle of their lights, and the great, unknown world loomed out in the dark. Looking up at the fifty-foot pine trees in the dark, I said there were two sides to that unknown world: horror and wonder. There were wondrous adventures to be had in the unknown, paradises to be found and treasures beyond imagination, but also nightmares, unspeakable horrors, and death.

I grew up in Washington State, surrounded by forests and the outdoors. There, the immensity of the world seems to hit home a lot harder than here in New York. The sheer vastness of it, the oldness of it, boggles the mind. There’s a sense that you could explore for years and never scratch the surface of it. It evokes Jon Krakaeur’s  Into the Wild, but what I thought of when I looked out into the rolling dark forests were the stories in Time-Life’s Enchanted World series.

The 2013 article I wrote for Clarkesworld was titled The Candlelit World, spoke about myths and the woods, but it only spoke about the horror and darkness–its subtitle was The Dark Roots of Myth and Fantasy. It drew heavily on H.P. Lovecraft and his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and It was the first chance I got to speak about my view of fantasy. Now, three years later, I finally get to tell the other half.

Clarkesworld Magazine is one my favorite fantasy short fiction magazines, and I’m so excited to have another piece go out to their readers (as well as you!). If you get a chance, read some of their stories and donate to Neil Clark and his wonderful team on Patreon.

My New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: Paradise Lost

Worldbuilding and the Marks of a Bona Fide Wizard

I think anyone who wants to write mythopoeic fantasy should pick up The Encyclopedia of Russian Criminal Tattoos.

The Encyclopedia is a collection of tattoos from a very specific time and place. Most of the tattoos and their owners were prisoners in the GULAG, the nation-spanning prison system of the Soviet Union, where everyone from political prisoners to murderers and “hooligans” were forced to work under horrifying conditions. The tattoos, as the book explains, act as a resume for a criminal, and each tattoo can have several layers of hidden meaning based on where it is on the body, what words and symbols appear on it, etc. It’s fascinating how the cruelty, despair, corruption, and sheer violence of the whole Soviet police state is summed up so elegantly in one medium, the prison tattoo.

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As you read through the encyclopedia, the book asks you to think about the language of symbols. It asks you to imagine a world in multiple dimensions. You have to take on the mindset of an artist, an anthropologist, and (especially with the tattoos) an occultist. This is the mindset of esotericism, where everything has hidden meanings, and it’s the mindset that should inform worldbuilding.

The symbols and levels of initiation in the Russian criminal underworld, as well as the “made men” of the Mafia, ended up inspiring the way I thought about mages and hedge wizards–if a true wizard is a master of his or her craft, how do they distinguish themselves from one-trick mages and beginners? If there’s no central authority that dubs people bona-fide wizards, like Roke in Wizard of Earthsea, what keeps amateurs from claiming to be masters?

Wizards and the Bona Fide Hallmarks

“When I was growing up, there were seven hallmarks to a wizard: a name, a song, a card, a craft, a hand, a tongue, and tired feet. For Muzin, there were tattoos added in.” — Samal of Muzin

Masters of any craft can always recognize one another. It’s expressed in the smallest things they do: how a wu-shu master walks, how a carpenter makes his measurements, or how a guitarist bends a string up only a half-step.

When you become a monk of the Shaolin temple, you are told to master three types of techniques: physical or “basic” skills (like stances, stamina, and balance), combat skills (like barehanded and weapon fighting), and the 72 arts of Shaolin qi-gong. Similarly, when you become a Buddhist monk you are given several different tiers of techniques to master, each one more difficult than the last. When I imagine wizards, I think in these terms. I ask “What kinds of things does a mage have to master to become a bona-fide wizard?”

I decided that wizards, true wizards, would have something like a secret handshake that would allow them to identify who was bona-fide and who was a neophyte. I came up with certain hallmarks that would serve as guidelines. These would not be meticulously defined tests; whether someone met each of the hallmarks would be left up to the observer, but for those who were bona-fide, there would be no question.

  • A Name: every wizard an epithet or nickname bestowed on them, similar to those given to the warriors in The Illiad. It sums them up and serves as the center of their reputation.
  • A Song: every wizard has a song or a story about their accomplishments. These don’t have to be true, but behind the lie should be something significant. A Song should be a wizard’s legend.
  • A Card: every wizard has a trick, a little demonstration of who they are and what they’re capable of. Like someone who can tie a knot in a cherry stem, it should be simple and quick. This is their “calling card.”
  • A Craft: every wizard must be a master of at least one school of magic, whether it be weather control, elemental control of water, beast-taming, summoning, or something else. Mastery is relative; if no challenger can beat a wizard in a contest, they are considered a master.
  • A Hand: every wizard must have a part of their body replaced with something other than flesh. This alteration often gives them heightened abilities, such as a second heart granting the ability to survive impalement.
  • A Tongue: every wizard must be fluent in at least one other language, though the best can speak multiple languages. This is meant to demonstrate one’s worldliness and commitment to understanding different sides of the world.
  • and Tired Feet: every wizard must have traveled to the ten extant continents and stayed at least a year in each. This is, again, meant to demonstrate one’s worldliness, as well as one’s ability to travel and survive many different parts of the world.

Any mage can begin trying to attain these hallmarks, but only once they gain all seven can they try to claim the title of bona-fide wizard. Every self-respecting mage, however, would have at least Card, a little demonstration of who they are so that other mages could recognize what kind of mage they are.

But as the wizard Samal says in his short scene with his apprentice in The Crownless King, the original and enduring hallmark of a bona-fide wizard is much more pragmatic:

Samal made eight points on his chest with his fingers, each one touching a different star. “The eight points of the world, the eight ports…the seven hallmarks and the tattoos show you’re bona-fide.” Samal shook his head slowly. “Real bona-fide wizards don’t die.”

Samal reveals that the most important hallmark is the one that is unspoken: survival. If a wizard is dead, they can no longer influence the world. They no longer matter. This belief is a product of its world, and it guides the ethos of its masters, the wizards. The Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo offers the ultimate counterpoint, however: for Tsunetomo, the ultimate hallmark of a bona-fide samurai is loyalty for their master, demonstrated through their death in his service. Tsunetomo claims that the masters of swordsmanship and martial prowess, the samurai, are not masters because they are able to survive any opponent, but because they have already resigned themselves to death.

Worldbuilding and the Marks of a Bona Fide Wizard