My New Grimoire

grimoire-1 grimoire-2

I love this book. I picked it up from Poetic Earth’s booth at New York Comic-Con this year, and it’s got a hand-tooled leather cover. Last night, I made the first entry in it on the title page (see above).

The triangle-tesseract design is the same one that came to me in a dream several years ago, after a night of reading too much about fractals. If you place each letter of the word “OROBORO” at the right vertices, the name should repeat perfectly across the whole design, meaning you can read “OROBORO” forever in three dimensions.

Beneath that is the phrase “ONE THOUSAND EYES OPEN.” This is the same phrase I used for one of my artists books, which used origami and an eye design to create an interactive little book that read “ONE THOUSAND EYES OPEN” no matter how you folded it.

At the far bottom, I drew the symbols of the three gods in my canon: Erroth, Sol, and Ormun.

I’m planning on using this book as a reference document for my worldbuilding, especially magic systems. Right now, I’m thinking of including diagrams of the Sephiroth, Qliphoth, Eightfold Path, the Five Skandhas of Existence, Pascal’s Triangle, and the Sierpinski Gasket, along with notes from my notebooks. This way, I’ll have all my notes and inspirations in one convenient tome.


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.



Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and a Pathfinder Puzzle

A group of New York friends have asked me to DM a short Pathfinder session for them, which means the last couple days have been spent rummaging through my notes from the last campaign I ran, which was about four years ago, back in Washington State, with about 7 people. It ended up being a fantastic experience, despite the fact that, over the course of that 8-month campaign, every character tried to kill themselves at least once out of a combination of despair and existential angst.

But this group doesn’t know that.

The Pathfinder session is going to take place in the fantasy world I’ve established in my stories, which means house-ruling a lot of the magic. It also means I end up spending hours on designing extremely complex puzzles for my players.

This particular puzzle stopped being a puzzle at about the 3-hour mark and became an Occult Triangle Lab project. It’s got everything: triangles, some research into magnetism, mathematics, and a practical application in a fantasy setting.

occult triangle lab

These are my notes for a spell map that will allow one of the mages to enchant a piece of magnetite so that it becomes a strong, permanent magnet. This is meant to be a major plot point in the upcoming session, so I wanted to take some extra time to create something more engaging, rather than just have the players roll a dice and beat a hard DC.

The rabbit hole I fell down was creating a spell map for the enchantment (If you haven’t read my post on spell maps, you can check it out here). After reading up on magnetite, which is the source of naturally occurring magnets called lodestones, I found that it naturally forms octahedrons. Rather than having players working on a 3-D puzzle, I drew out a 2-D version of an octahedron on graph paper and started seeing if I could make a sort of Sudoku puzzle:


The idea was that the spell map would be a miniature octahedron, reflecting the crystalline structure of magnetite, but the sudoku idea didn’t work out so well. Still, the diamond pattern ended up forming some interesting patterns: the octahedrons in magnetite are actually formed by thousands of smaller octahedrons, so it was cool to graph out a spell map that was made up of small versions of itself (huzzah, it’s recursive!).

But I wanted the players to feel like they’re actually learning about magic rather than just doing a stock puzzle, so I started seeing if I I could weave information about magnetite into the puzzle, such as its melting point, durability, metallic qualities, etc.


But that didn’t lend itself to puzzle solving. I took a look at the cool, nested design of the 2-D octahedron and thought maybe it would be fun for the player to use the patterns found in magnetism itself to solve the puzzle. I tried superimposing the lines of magnetic pull on the octahedron pattern:

occult triangle lab magnetism








I found out I could superimpose the patterns in a simple bar magnet on a lattice of octahedrons to create a pretty cool design that might have the material needed for a puzzle: structure, patterns, and a goal. That led to this design:


The idea would be to build a sort of “connect-the-dots” puzzle built on the patterns in both magnetism and the structure of magnetite, with the player following rules to recreate the design formed by the magnetic paths (which are like big loops radiating out from the North and South poles).

Below are some of the important graph points I isolated (along with the qualities of magnetite). At the center are the two poles, with the outer dots forming the boundaries of the magnetic patterns. These are meant to form the guidelines of the puzzle, which will require the player to do some tracing to recreate the drawing in the previous picture.



Eventually, I created a blank grid of numbers, which the player will use to reconstruct the whole design by following a set of instructions (sort of like a human computer program).









Compare the grids and sketches above to the sketches in the last post about spell maps:

occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

What I found was that this layout, made up of numbers arranged on a grid, ended up looking a lot like Pascal’s Triangle, which in turn forms the basis of the Sierpinski Gasket, one of my favorite fractals:

fractal triangle occult triangle lab


I don’t know if the puzzle will end up being a functional part of the upcoming session, but I thought I’d share it here on the blog. It’s a cool intersection of geology, mathematics, and fantasy, and it ended up being good practice for figuring out how a mage would go about enchanting a rock to become a compass.


Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and a Pathfinder Puzzle

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…


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.


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


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

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.


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

World Map Sketches #1

Mapping out a world has got to be one of the toughest parts of worldbuilding. Geography shapes narratives and spawns its own. Anyone who’s played TES: III Morrowind can explain how the lay of the land turned the experience of travelling into an adventure: travelling lava canyons, climbing over mountain ridges and squinting through the ash storms coming off the slopes of Ur, the landscape spoke to you.

When I started sketching out my world years ago, I had one map in mind: Ursula LeGuin’s Archipelago. I loved the idea of an island-hopping culture and far reaches being separated by seas and oceans rather than long roads (like Tolkien’s world). The ocean was a major part of the Earthsea series, and sailing made travelling feel free, dynamic, and vivid. Sailing became a form of wizardry in itself. I wanted a world that was dominated by the ocean, so I looked at islands rather than slices or corners of continents.

But another influence on my vision of a fantasy world came from H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. The passages where the two scientist protagonists descend in the frozen, dead city of the Old Ones and begin deciphering the hieroglyphics on the walls is still the most insane, mind-bogglingly detailed fantasy histories I’ve come across, except for The Silmarillion. Lovecraft describes how the Old Ones arrived on Earth, built cities, created life forms, went through periods of upheaval, revolt, and cultural renaissance that spanned thousands of years, all while describing the forces that finally brought the Old Ones back to the sacred, terrible city in the Antarctic to die. The key to the Old Ones, as I saw it, was that they didn’t just settle on Earth, they shaped it to their own ends: they fabricated life, changed climates, cleared lands. This was a renovation on a planetary scale.

With the idea of the Old Ones creating the world according to their designs in my mind, I started looking at Buddhist mandalas and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches of the ideal city. The idea of a worlds or palaces crafted in perfect symmetry made me think about world architects and what terraforming a planet would entail. Rather than being shaped by the chaos of wind and water, what if landforms were based on geometry and giant metapatterns? What if someone could structure the tectonic plates and the volcanoes to create islands or ridges? I imagined volcanoes being raised out of the ocean and erupting in eight-pointed radial patterns like compass roses, until the resulting island could form a circle. I thought of giant underground water cave systems like sewers, supplying groundwater to different parts of a continent, and giant scaffolding shooting off from islands and weaving them together as the spaces were filled with stone and soil.

Finally, I thought of Morrowind. It’s just such a beautiful, vivid land, and it crushed me to hear it was destroyed by the events of Skyrim. But by the time you arrive in the land of Morrowind, it’s already a ruined ghost of what it was–the continent is littered with abandoned Dunmer fortresses, old overgrown routes through the Ashlands, dead Dwemer cities, and the overwhelming sense that there was a great civilization here once. But it was all gone.

I imagined my terraformed world built on the ruins of another one, where the old continents were still there but sunken to the bottom of the ocean, and the new continents, created according to the designs of humans, were clustered around the old ones like the the memorial over the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Giant, ghostly expanses of ocean would separate the new islands, with old cities and mountains just beneath the surface. In the pictures above, you can see some of the scaffolding sticking out from the islands, like steel girders, as well as shaded landmasses. Those are meant to be the sunken continents.


World Map Sketches #1

Worldbuilding: Morrowind and Vvardenfell

Back in 2012, I was sitting with a group of fantasy writers at a conference in Seattle. Everyone had begun rolling off their favorite authors, and soon there were choruses of ah, yes and mmm. I just sat there silently with a glass of ice water. Most of my writing career had been a conscious detour around names like Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore, and Terry Brooks. But despite being the biggest cynic at any given table, I still love fantasy. So when everyone was finished gushing, I put in my two cents. And what I was saying, in effect, was “I don’t care where you get it. Get ‘Morrowind’ tattooed somewhere on your body.”

World-building is one of those things that set fantasy and sci-fi authors apart from any other writer: it asks for the skills of a cartographer, meteorologist, folklorist, geologist, linguist, political scientist, economist, and ecologist, then brings it all to bear on a story. Morrowind employed all of that to characterize the continent of Vvardenfell. And it’s one of the few pieces of fantasy I really believe in.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Morrowind was an award-winning, open-world fantasy game released in 2002 for PC and Xbox. There’s been a recent upsurge of people claiming that video games should be considered a form of art. I’m not here to argue for or against that. Over the course of my life, I’ve bought a little over a dozen video games, and I’ve only finished about three. But there’s a point where something brings so much to the table, so much imagination and depth, that it deserves to be studied. The greatest point in its favor, besides being a fully developed world, is that Morrowind avoids the conventions of the genre and reminds you that this is fantasy, where the horizons are endless. If you’re not a fan of video games, you don’t need to be. You just need a legal pad and a pen to take notes.

So let’s talk about world-building.

The geography of the continent of Vvardenfell is tremendously diverse, and right off the bat, that’s a good thing—mainstream fantasy is dominated by the shadow of medieval Europe: huge tracts of forest, grassy countryside, and snowy mountain ranges that conveniently divide kingdoms along their bases. The climate is almost always shades of England, except maybe an ‘exotic’ Caribbean tropic region or a ‘faraway’ Middle East or China analogue.

Vvardenfell, however, unifies a whole range of climates and landscapes into one cohesive setting. It’s a volcanic island with ash-blown badlands surrounding its mountain, wet jungles on the west coast, vast grazing lands in the northeast, and a fertile archipelago in the south. In each region, there’s a specific set of animals, landforms, and plants that characterize it, just like real biomes. In the Ascadian Isles archipelago, the tiny, scattered islands mean predatory, salmon-like slaughterfish and island-hopping, either by swimming or boat. In the long lava canyons around the titanic Red Mountain, ash storms can create white-out conditions, making it easy to get lost and even easier to be ambushed by the tribal Ashlanders (and the god-forsaken cliffracers).

All of this demonstrates that it’s possible to create a varied, fascinating landscape for your stories, giving your reader more than just backdrop, but immersion. Travelling through Vvardenfell was one of the main attractions of the game, and crossing the continent was a story all in itself: walking under mushroom trees and through wastelands of standing stones made you feel as if you were on an adventure. There was a sense of Vvardenfell’s desolation, danger, and beauty, and a good portion of your time could be spent just appreciating it all. This kind of care put into a setting ignites a reverence for the world and an investment in the story.
Geography also enhanced Morrowind’s culture: instead of making different regions into cookie-cutter cultural blocs, giving the Ascadian Isles people one token set of beliefs, the Bitter Coast people a totally different set, and so on, the whole continent had a strong sense of identity. The Dunmer, the elven residents of Vvardenfell, are the same curt, xenophobic, tradition-focused race regardless of where they live. Cultural diversity is fantastic in a setting, but it’s also interesting to see a single race adapt their way of life to different lanscapes and still retain their customs and heritage; it gives them depth and durability.

That being said, Morrowind is spiderwebbed with deep divisions: there are three Great Houses in Vvardenfell, representing three very different sides of the Dunmer people. House Telvanni, which controls the northeast part of the continent, is almost a rogue state: it annexes territory secretly and often abandons treaties when it suits them. Most of the power in the House is held by wizard-lords, who live in elaborate mushroom towers and hold huge slave populations. House Redoran is built around preserving the ancient Dunmer heritage, and heavily resembles samurai in their devotion to honor, proper behavior, and adherence to a warrior code. They are also the most pious House, with a close partnership with the Dunmer religion, the Tribunal Temple. House Hlaalu is an interesting beast: made up of the merchant class, the House has embraced a more pragmatic and tolerant view of other cultures because of their trading practices, but their facade masks close connections with the criminal underworld and the highly racist Camonna Tong gang.

The Great Houses offer an alternative to the usual plots of political intrigue. Instead of fighting over an emperor’s throne, the Houses are in conflict with one another over territory and resources. They are not separate countries; on the surface, all of them are loyal to Vvardenfell’s godking, Vivec. Outright war is never declared, trade is never cut off, and members of different houses are free to move through one another’s territories, but everyone on the street knows that spying, closed-door negotiations, and even covert raids are taking place on a regular basis. Expansion is the prize.

If tensions rise too high, the Houses have a ritualized form of warfare: they call on an impartial organization of assassins, called the Morag Tong, to kill members of other Houses. The interesting thing is that this kind of murder is a legal and open practice. At the scene of an assassination, the Tong member can show an Honorable Writ to demonstrate that he is a legitimate combatant, and according to the rules of warfare, no one can punish or capture him.

What this adds up to is a highly diverse but coherent set of conflicts, contained within one continent and one people: the Dunmer have a shared history, a shared faith, and a shared homeland, but the Great Houses divide them along ideological, economic, and cultural lines. The best part is that the Houses are fighting for their constituents—it’s the common people’s interests and beliefs that drive them. The battles are over slavery, adherence to tradition, or settling new lands, so the politics and intrigue are more akin to a Malcolm X rally than a Richard the Third-style genealogy map.

Then there’s the economy. Economics is not money. It’s what people are eating, how people are employed, what people make their houses out of, who makes the boats, and who rises to power. It all depends on the flow of materials, educated craftsmen, and influence. Every reader of Dune knows the old saying about the spice and the universe.

The economy of Morrowind can be broken down to four things: kwama, saltrice, mining and smuggling. Kwama are like giant domesticated ants, which live in extended burrows and produce eggs, which are then harvested and sold as one of the main foodstuffs of the continent. Saltrice is a common crop raised by farmers, and serves a purpose similar to flour. Mining consists of ebony, precious gems, and volcanic glass, all of which come from the volcanism of Red Mountain. Smuggling is endemic throughout the island, with coasts dotted by caves and secret docks, and offers a way to transport goods at lower prices. With these four elements alone, you have a blueprint of Dunmer society.

People need saltrice and kwama to survive. “Miners” need to be employed to work in the kwama tunnels, and farmers need land to raise saltrice. So cities like Balmora grow up near the kwama mines, where many people are employed as miners. Slave plantations are created for saltrice, creating a whole tradition of slavery in the Dunmer culture. Beasts of burden, the dinosaur-like guar, become domesticated to transport these goods, which mean there are guar breeders and guar thieves. Meanwhile, the families who control the ebony mines are growing rich from exporting it, and with their money they’re funding their Houses, which use the money to arm their soldiers and improve their cities. Because of this, Houses become dependent on the expansion of their mines. At the same time, smugglers are importing and exporting goods underneath the nose of the government, creating a whole underground market of low-cost goods for the poorer villages and fostering criminal elements near the coasts. Anti-government sentiments are created, and the coast becomes an anarchical Wild West. Every world should have an economy this dynamic, this exciting. All it takes is some farmers, miners, and smugglers.

But there’s something even more exciting: religion. Morrowind’s Tribunal Temple is a great model for a theocratic state and a living religion: Vvardenfell is ruled by the Tribunal, three earthly deities who have delivered the Dunmer people from demons, droughts, and invading races and live in giant palaces throughout the land. There’s a whole series of books and shrines inside the game that detail the chief god Vivec’s historic travels and saintly acts, which range from reviving the Dunmer with his tears after horrible ash storms to working as a beast of burden in a field to help a poor farmer. He and his Tribunal are living heroes to the Dunmer, and serve as the de facto rulers of the continent.

What makes this unique is that this religion lies at the heart of the Dunmer: their history is tied up in it, their heritage is tied up in it, and the rule of Vivec is an earthly one. Vvardenfell is, to the eyes of the Dunmer, the living kingdom of God. It’s also a land where the divine enemies of the Tribunal, collectively referred to as the House of Troubles, spawn monsters, summon earthquakes, and spread madness, so the Tribunal Temple is also a holy army and a bulwark against destruction and chaos. Religion in most fantasy settings is usually some reflection of the Christian religion: unseen divine powers surrounded by a far-off and highly elaborate Church. In the common lives of people in those settings, religion is either absent or an oddity that sets someone apart. In Vvardenfell, the Dunmer religion is woven into the communities and the daily life of its people, in the same ways that make religions like Islam or Buddhism so fascinating. It’s also part of a war for their survival, their lands, and their way of life, fought against demonic forces and foreign races.

But all of this barely scratches the surface. Morrowind had, by far, one of the most alien fantasy settings I’ve ever seen: giant, magical floating jellyfish were raised for leather, men riding twenty-foot-tall fleas ferried you around the continent, the Redoran capital was built inside the carapace of a huge, extinct species of crab, and the scattered, bizarre Daedric ruins were the epitome of H.P. Lovecraft’s vision of non-Euclidean architecture, complete with unpronounceable names like “Ashalmimilkala.” It was wildly imaginative, but all of it had such a strong internal logic that it made the mushroom trees and jellyfish leather seem natural. Everything was so tightly woven that you couldn’t help but believe in it. So, if you’re committed to building an engaging, unique world for your stories, look it up. The more you learn, the more you can hear it whispering “This is what you came for. This is fantasy.”

And that Morrowind tattoo starts making more and more sense.

Worldbuilding: Morrowind and Vvardenfell