Worldbuilding: Sparrows

A few weeks ago I made a post about Flicker Lamps. Magical communication devices used in the early days of exploration in my Sprawling Iron series. While they became an essential part of managing large empires they were hard to mass produce and had several properties that made security difficult. Furthermore, the could only be given to specific individuals and could not be distributed by governors as needed.

This limitation proved to be especially inconvienient when it became more important to be able to communicate with agents sent to unexplored lands or diplomats dispatched to negotiate with local governments. Eventually, sorcerers devised a new means to rapidly communicate over long distances. Sparrows.

These ceramic birds are small enough to fit in the palm of a person’s hand and infused with a minor air spirit capable of animating the clay and providing it the power of flight. A person wishing to send a message via sparrow must first hold an image of the intended recipient in their mind as well as their general location. Once they do this the sparrow will animate and the user can speak their message allowed. After the sparrow hears the message it will take flight and attempt to find the intended recipient, once it does it will repeat the spoken message and be ready to used again. In some cases, written messages and maps may also be tied to small loops on the bottom of the construct.

Sparrows are small enough that ships, armies, and individuals can carry many of them and allow regular reports to made. But they do come with some limitations.

  1. Distance – sparrows have a limited range, typically not more than a few hundred kilometers. For longer messages they are typically sent to a central administrative hub the possess a flicker lamp or telegraph office capable of passing on the message.
  2. Recipient Identity and Location – the sender must know the recipient and their general location. If either of these are incorrect the sparrow will not be able to deliver its message and will not give its message to anyone else.
  3. Message Erasure – once the message has been repeated there is no way to get the sparrow to repeat it. Recipients must be sure that they are paying attention and hope that they are in a quiet place.

To get around these limitations, many governors and administrators have at least one person on staff tasked with receiving sparrows and accurately transcribing these messages. Oftentimes they are given special quarters and offices in secluded areas to ensure that they have access to a quiet environment and are relatively free from intrusion. These sparrow handlers are often targets of bribes and even assassinations as eliminating or compromising them can disable an enemy’s communication network.

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Worldbuilding: Flicker Lamps

Now I just need to assign meaning to the trinkets on the bookshelf…

When the nations of Oliad and Danacia began to realize their imperial ambitions they were faced with a challenge that they had never confronted before. As their colonial holdings expanded they were faced with the question of how their central authorities could quickly send directives to their scattered generals, admirals, and imperial governors. This was in the time before the invention of Sparrows and the telegraph, and neither kingdom had access to the Soul Stones used by older empires.

The solution that both nations settled on were the Flicker Lamps. These devices were made by taking a fire spirit and splitting it into many parts. Each part could then be sealed in a glass lamp and sent overseas to important governors and military commanders with at least one remaining in the homeland.

An individual with the proper training could then operate the lamp by causing it to flicker in coded patterns that would then be repeated by every other lamp in the set. This allowed messages to be quickly sent across great distances.

There were drawbacks however. The first being that they were expensive to make and required at least some sorcerous training to operate. Because of this they were typically only issues to important governors and high ranking military commanders who were responsible for passing messages on through more conventional channels.

There was also no way to send a message to just one lantern in a set. A message intended for just one person would be sent to all connected lanterns. Every set of lanterns was expensive to make and traveling with multiple lanterns, especially while on campaign was difficult. To address this most nations using these lamps created special codes that would be known only to certain lamp holders. This was not a perfect system and often led to information leaks when outdated codes were used, but it worked well enough for most communications.

With the later invention of the telegraph and Sparrows these lanterns fell out of use. But they are still kept as museum pieces and curiosities, and sometimes still employed by enthusiasts and secret societies.

This is the first bit of worldbuilding that I’ve posted in awhile. Don’t worry! I plan to post more in the coming weeks. Check out this link here if you want to see what else I’m up to. You can also follow me on twitter @expyblog!

Campaign Cartographer: First Impressions

I am always looking for new worldbuilding tools. Am I substituting more tools for actually working on things? Probably, but it is fun.

There are a lot of worldbuilding tools out there, and figuring our which will best suit your workflow is tough. Personally I seem to just buy all of them, but that doesn’t mean you should have to. So, is Campaign Cartographer worth it?

I’ll be honest I had no idea what it was until ProFantasy started advertising their stay at home bundle. Now, compared to Wonderdraft these programs are expensive. But I got their map maker, city maker, and dungeon maker for about $60 on sale. Still not terrible considering all the included art assets.

I poked around online for some reviews. I wasn’t entirely thrilled by what I found but looking at the screenshots I really liked the art. A lot of it conjures up images of classic fantasy maps. That said, there’s still a lot to learn about making them.

On first glance the UI is anything buy modern. It’s not like wonderdraft were the icons immediately hint at what they might do. It takes some tinkering and a few checks of the manual to figure out. I don’t know about you, but as dated as this UI looks, to me it just oozes functionality.

I know it seems old but just look at how functional it is!

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to use. After a few minutes I was able to figure out how to draw land masses and to add rivers. I wouldn’t say that they look any good, but I’m getting the hang of it.

While the UI is very different there do seem to be a lot of similarities when compared to Wonderdraft.

The most important shared advantage of the two are the art assets. Having premade icons for towns, houses, bridges, and what not are a huge timesaver. And just like wonderdraft it’s hard at first to figure out how to best use these assets and still seem original.

As long as you’re careful about what order you add assets in there is a lot you can make with just a small set.

Just like with Wonderdraft, the key is to experiment. After a few tries I think you’ll find that it’s easy to combine these assets to create something original. The trick is to be patient and not be afraid to start over. I know always want my first attempt to be the last but I don’t know of any project that doesn’t need a few edits.

So is campaign cartographer worth it? Is it better than Wonderdraft? To be honest with you, I don’t know. I can see already that both have a lot of potential, and Campaign Cartographer wouldn’t have lasted this long if it didn’t have potential. For me personally, I’m already enjoying Campaign Cartographer simply because it’s easier for my computer to run.

I’ll post a full review once I’ve had time to fully explore its features. For now it seems clear to me that Campaign cartographer has a lot to offer. Picking it up on sale and seeing if it’s right for you might not be the worst idea in the world, but be warned that it will take some getting used too. And right now they’re even featured on Humble Bundle!

Have you used Campaign Cartographer or Wonderdraft in the past? If so, do you have any advice you could give me? I’m always looking to learn. You can find me on twitter @expyblog.

Making Magic

There are a lot of ways to design a magic system, but to me the biggest decision to make has been Hard vs Soft. Should it have clearly defined rules and spells, or should everything be a little looser?

In general I’ve gone with the later, influenced by books the the Farsala Trilogy and the Sea of Trolls that I read while I was in middle school. I really like the idea of magic that consisted of some sort of hyperawareness of the environment and an ability to tell it what to do.

Because of this most of the settings I’ve made over the years have some sort of soft magic system with some animistic qualities thrown in. The problem? I’ve made them all the same. I’ve set aside a lot of projects over the years and I think it’s because I lost interest in them, because I kept making worlds with the same elements over and over again.

I also think that the stories I intend to tell in these settings end up suffering because of this. Too often the only cost to magic that I impose is feeling tired. That’s not really much of a cost. Why don’t I make it first born children or lost limbs, or beetles? There are a lot of possibilities that I have been largely ignoring.

So it’s time to switch to making systems that are a bit harder, something with more rules. As I’ve thought about it more I have realized that part of the problem is laziness on my part. The magic should make sense in the setting and add something to the story, and I’ve honestly run out of things to impose on the system I keep using again and again, but I also don’t want to take the time to define the costs and limits of the system. So I am making a very late news years resolution and I’m going to try some new things with my worldbuilding.

I’m thinking of starting with a little vancian magic first.

Five Tips for Fantasy Map Makers

1. Mind the Rivers

Some worldbuilders spend years getting their plate tectonics and ocean currents just right. All of this can be fun, but you can make a convincing fantasy map without it. The thing you should really focus on is rivers. No one really cares if your ocean currents are off or your mountains aren’t in the right place. Rivers have an intuitive aspect to them that no other geological feature can match and because of this mistakes are easy to notice. To put it simply, rivers flow from higher elevations to lower ones. Most often rivers will flow into lakes, oceans, or other rivers. Rivers do not flow into a lake, wait around awhile, and then flow into a different river.

This is important because an incorrectly drawn river is jarring to look at even if you don’t know why, and because rivers are hugely important to civilization. Most major cities are built on rivers in order to take advantage of the farmland and transportation that they provide. This means that rivers can serve as a vital plot device, and as such their portrayal should not be ignored. Of course all of this can be ignored, it is your world after all, but I would advise making sure that you have a good reason for doing so.

2. Make Your Map Fit Your Story

People grow to fit their environment. You wont find horse-mounted nomads living in the mountains or naval powers in the middle of the desert. People do the best they can with the hand they are dealt. In fiction, we can decide what that best is and determine a hand that will enable it. There is of course fun to be had in drawing a map and simulating the evolution of civilization from the stone age to now, but that is not what most of us are doing. Most of us have a story we want to tell or an idea for a world we want to depict. There is no reason then to design a landscape that does anything other than to enable the story you want to tell. If you want your countries to be fighting for control of a major sea lane they there better be access to water and natural choke points. If you want your characters to venture to a distant mountain and fight a dragon then you better include a mountain or two within reach.

3. Choose a Realistic Scope

A lot of us like to think big. We draw a map of an entire world, solar system, or even galaxy and then set about filling all of it in. The problem here is that you probably wont use most of what end up writing. Trying to fill every corner of a world with detailed is fun, but ultimately futile. Above all remember that map is meant to be a reference for your players or readers, and the focus of the story is likely to only concern a small corner of the world.

Lately I have preferred to start with a single region or country that is going to be the focus of the setting. Once I have a solid idea of what that country will be I start to fill in its neighbors. Unless I have good reason to, I try to avoid writing detailed histories of these neighbors. I make a brief summary of their current state and history, and after that I try to only flesh out the aspects of this neighbor in areas where they intersect with the story I want to tell.

4. Pay Attention to Natural Barriers

Rivers aren’t the only feature on the map that shape a civilization’s development. What hinders movement in your setting can be just as important. Swamps, mountains, deserts, and seas are all important in imposing limits on an empire’s expansion, providing shelter for smaller groups, and providing places to hide all sorts of interesting dungeons.

Once barriers are in place, routes to circumvent them gain immense strategic and economic importance. Mountains, swamps, and other remote areas might also be where your world’s exiles and hermits choose to live away from society. Both of these provide opportunities for interesting conflicts or quests in a story or campaign. Characters and armies can be sent to secure and defend mountain passes, or might discover that the old hermit living in the swamp has the answer to all of their problems, but reaching him can be an entire adventure in itself.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Things

Getting wrapped up in the worldbuilding is easy. It’s also easy to be disappointed. The finished product rarely resembles the initial concept and there is nothing wrong with that, except of course if you are not happy with it. If you getting into your worldbuilding and you realize that you put a mountain in the wrong place or your cities are too far apart. If you begin to get the feeling that your map is keeping you from writing the conflicts and plot lines that you want then by all means change it. Starting a new project by drawing a map can be a great way to start, but that map should not be a cage. Sometimes we need to make revisions, and it doesn’t do any good to get too attached to a map you have drawn. Keep it of course, even discarded ideas can be useful later on. Don’t be afraid to retcon the entire map if it no longer serves its intended purpose.

Subreddits For Creatives

Reddit is one of the biggest sites online these days with so many subreddits available that you are almost guaranteed to one tailored to your interests. Think of any hobby or weirdly specific meme format and there is probably a subreddit for it. So what if you’re a writer or worldbuilder, what are the best subreddits for you?


It should really be no surprise that r/worldbuilding ranks among my favorites. The subreddit has grown significantly in the past few years and welcomes worldbuilders of all levels of talent. New artwork, discussion posts, and resources are posted daily. If you stay on long enough you’ll begin to see who the regular posters are and get to watch their work grow and develop over time. My preferred way of browsing this subreddit is to sort by new and look for discussion posts. Participating in brain-storming sessions or answering questions about your own world is a great practice and a good way to finally flesh out parts of your setting you may have overlooked and been putting off for later.

Imaginary Network Expanded

The Imaginary Network is a cluster of related subreddits dedicated to posting all sorts of art with credit to original artists. I like to browse through it when I’m facing off with writers block. My personal favorites are r/ImaginaryBeasts for making up new flora and fauna, r/ImaginaryBattlefields for thinking up climatic showdowns, and r/ImaginaryStaships for when I need my daily dose of SciFi.

Writing Prompts

When you feel like writing but don’t know what or you’re just looking for a challenge, r/WritingPrompts is sure to help with its long list of user-submitted starting points that range from established fandom to completely originial premises. The subreddit also hosts contests from time to time and has been the route through which many users have gotten their writing noticed. Writing a response to a popular post it can be a good way to get your writing more exposure online. Several frequent posters maintain personal subreddits to showcase their writing. Unfortunately, popular promts are often highly specific or tied to a certain fandom. If this is a deal breaker to you prefer something with a little more freedom then try the less popular r/SimplePrompts.

Map Making

If you’ve made a battle map for your D&D campaign, a fantasy island, a political map of your alternate history scenario, or you just like making maps then r/mapmaking might be the place for you. Like r/Worldbuilding it’s welcoming of all skill levels and is a great place to post if you’re in need of advice or feedback. Just make sure you have all your rivers drawn right before you post.

How to Build a Country

A lot of us like to bang our heads against the wall trying to design sprawling worlds to rival settings like Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth, but attempting a project with such a large scope takes time and may very well lead to disappointment when progress doesn’t come as quickly as hoped.

The good news is that you don’t need to design and entire world. Plenty of interesting stories can be told that take place only in a single valley, forest, city, forest, or even house. If you are designing a setting for your stories to take place in the you need to be honest with yourself about the story’s scope. Figure how much space your characters need and stick to it, make a few one-line summaries about far off lands that you can expand on if needed. Doing this will help you keep your goals in mind and prevent your worldbuilding process from taking over your writing process.

When it comes to worldbuilding there are two basic methods; Top Down and Bottom Up. The process I am describing here is called Bottom Up, where you start by building up a small corner of the world and then expand in scale to fill in the rest of the map. If you have a story to tell and don’t need an entire world to do it, this is where you would start.

For me, if I am going to build a world Bottom Up then I prefer to start at the national level. Even if I only have need of one or two locations in it, I like to have an idea of where my characters might be from and a general idea of events elsewhere that may have an influence on the course of their lives. This approach also makes it easier to focus on a world’s minutia, if that’s what you’re into, rather than getting distracted by what might be hiding in distant lands.

This list of questions is meant to help focus the scope of a worldbuilding project, and help you to decide on what matters in your setting and what does not.

Where is the country located?

Where a nation is plays a huge role in its success and failure. Just as it is hard to become a major naval power without easy access to the sea, it is also hard to build significant influence abroad if your tiny kingdom is sandwiched between two giant superpowers.

Rivers create avenues for trade and enable farming, mountains provide natural barriers and refuges for outcasts, forests and swamps provide a ready source of timber and place to hide all the things that go bump in the night.

Once you know what stories you want to tell, you can design your geography to create the setup to make it possible.

Where are the people from?

Mass migrations and invasions are hugely influential in our own history and can create divides within a populace that can last for centuries. A small group that speaks one language ruling over a much larger population is a situation that is almost guaranteed to spark conflict. Migrations can also explain why certain languages are spoken, or why your country has five different holidays on the same calendar day.

Going back further, these migrations can play a vital role to constructing the country’s mythos. Perhaps these people were once nomads and settled down after receiving the sign from the gods. Or maybe some of your characters are refugees that have been taken in and are trying to survive in an unfamiliar and possibly even hostile land.

Where are the major cities?

When your farmers go to market, where do they go? Where are the train junctions? Where do people send their children off to school? Where do they go on pilgrimage? What are their industries?

Besides the obvious points that major cities are home to centers of military and political power, they may also be the centers of regional rivalries or home to minority ethnic groups. People from different cities might speak different dialects, wear different cloths, celebrate different holidays, or speak with different accents.

Regionalism is an important part of this. No country is truly homogenous. The monolithic nation states today only seem that way because of decades if not centuries of effort expended to create a sense of national identity. In reality separate regions within a larger country may be fierce rivals, and may even hate each other. Or may compete for lucrative contracts and trading partners. In a nation with less centralized authority, these cities may even enter into their own treaties with foreign powers.

What do the people believe?

Religion can serve to unit a populace around a core of shared goals and values, or it can serve to drive a wedge between different segments of the population. Deciding what people believe goes a long way towards explaining their motivations and their biases.

Similarly, consider whether this country as some sort of national mythos around its creation. Does it see its history as a long and drawn out struggle for freedom, or do its leaders preach a vision of the future in which they dominate the continent? Just like religion, founding mythis can act as powerful motivators.

Who is the government?

Few things tell you as much about a country as who gets to participate in government and there are lots of interesting spins that can be put to make an established system of government unique.

First decide who has the power, the people, hereditary nobles, the king, the church, the rich. The possibilities are nearly endless here and you are free to imagine all sorts of checks and balances, traditions and laws surrounding voting, and even past civil wars that have shaped politics in the country’s “present.”

Once you know who calls the shots, you can start to imagine who might be demanding a larger voice in government.

Who are the country’s neighbors?

I warned before against trying to create an entire world when you only need a small corner of it. That said, it’s important to know where the nation stands. A quick list of what countries border this one, who its allies and enemies are, and who buys what from who will help you get a clearer picture of that larger world.

If the country’s neighbors are likely to play a larger role in your story you might spend a few more paragraphs on past conflicts, customs, and clothing so that you can quickly create foreign characters for your protagonists or player characters to interact with.

Armed with this brief outlining you’ll be able to quickly incorporate one line references to far off places. Small details like this are a huge part of what gives a setting sense of size and depth.


Do you prefer this approach, or would you rather build your worlds from the top down?

There are many more questions that can be asked to facilitate this Bottom Up approach. Find me on twitter if there is one that you’re especially fond of or wish I had included.

Names and Language in Fantasy

Fantasy settings are full of oddly placed umlauts, strange hyphens, and awkward apostrophes that are often maligned online. Which is unfortunate, since coming up with names is one of the hardest parts of writing, and approaching it afraid of committing one of these cardinal sins doesn’t help. But it really isn’t something anyone should worry about, because in the end it’s just mashing syllables together until something that sounds like a noun comes out. Besides, plenty of real words sound strange if you think about them long enough or if the language is unfamiliar to you. Hyphens, umlauts, apostrophes and other unusual characters can be totally appropriate in a name so long as they are not used excessively. One of my favorite fictional names contains an asterisks, and belongs to the Gzilt ship 8*Churken in Hydrogen Sonata by Ian. M. Banks, simply because it is so alien.

When done with a bit of thought, names can communicate aspects of your world’s history and culture without beating the reader over the head with exposition. While at the same time providing plenty of fodder for online fan theories.

Theme is something to consider when coming up with words and names for your setting. Building an entire conlang can be tempting but it is a huge sink of time and effort, and will be difficult for someone without a background in linguistics. It can still be worthwhile though, just like worldbuilding for its own sake can be worthwhile but unless you’re Tolkien designing multiple languages for your setting is probably more than you have time for. Names should still have some consistency though. Unless you are aiming for a multilingual or multicultural faction I’d recommend trying for uniformity in naming conventions to aid immersion.

My preferred method of naming is done by drawing upon real world examples. Much of worldbuilding consists of taking elements from our world that readers will be familiar with and mixing them together to create something new. Drawing on the real world has several advantages; there’s no need to redefine what a sword is or what it’s like to work in an early industrial textile mill. Most readers have some idea of what things are like already. The same can be done with names.

If you have a handful of real world cultures that you are using as inspiration you can use the languages too. Want readers to compare your country to the Holy Roman Empire? Use words like Kaiser and Diet. Want readers to imagine the grandeur and scale of your Rome-inspired faction? Then Latin and Italian may become your best friends. You can insert references and easter eggs, change spellings to make the words your own, and make mundane place names interesting by translating them into languages that are unfamiliar to your audience.

How much do you need to change? Depends.

If you want to really make the world your own then you can use real languages as a basis to create new words. Breaking real words into their component sounds and rearranging them can be a fun exercise to create convincing and easy to pronounce words for your world that will sound new and believable to your readers.

Of course, you don’t need to make your own words at all if you don’t want to. Sometimes the simplest names are the best, and lifting real-world names and placing them in your setting wont matter much to some audiences. Just look at Warhammer Fantasy, the setting is over the top and dripping with grimdark, and takes just about all of its nouns from our world. The Empire’s heavy German inspiration is immediately apparent, and the French and English influences on Bretonnia are likewise obvious. If you take this route you’ll want to be careful to avoid unfortunate implications, like making your orcs out as invaders from the eastern steppes. Don’t do that.

Finally, once you’ve decided on naming schemes you can use them to show your settings history and influence the interactions between characters. A multi-national empire will be filled with different language groups and unless a great deal of effort has been expended on suppressing local dialects characters should be able to encounter names derived from a plethora of different languages. Meanwhile, isolated mountain communities may speak dialects that seem strange to outsiders and cause miss-understandings if different implied meanings or false cognates come into play.

In the end, naming and conlangs can be fun and if making original names is your thing then it can be immensely satisfying. But like many parts of worldbuilding it can easily get out of hand and distract from the story you want to tell. Most people wont care too much anyway as long as their immersion is left intact. So have fun naming. Your readers wont mind.

Summer Reading 2019

We all make promises to ourselves that we can’t keep. We say we’ll go on a diet or go to the gym more, or spend more time outside. If you’re like me you probably tell yourself you’re going to read more. That’s what I told myself at the beginning of the summer and I did, but not as much as I had hoped. I told myself a similar lie when I said that I would get this written over a month ago. And yet here we are.

So here is my very late list of some of the reading I got done this past summer.


Every fan of science fiction has probably at least heard of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece and with a new movie adaptation on the horizon it’s bound to get even more buzz. I first read the series back in middle school, it was one of the books I would bring with me every day to read on the bus and during study hall. It’s amazing the details you miss out on when you’re fighting to stay awake on the ride to school because you stayed up too late reading the night before.

I’ve been telling myself for years that I would revisit Dune to take in some details that I missed on my first read-through or that simply went over my head at that age. Well, I’ve finally accomplished my goal, or part of it. Back in July I was gifted the book on Audible and finally gave the platform a try (I admit this is a loose definition of reading). I never thought I would enjoy an audiobook but this really changed my mind. The narration brought the characters to life and some sections of the book even boasted separate voice actors for each character. These different voices helped greatly with immersion, especially in the case of Baron Harkonen. My only complaint is that the entire book was not narrated in this style.

I was really amazed by how many details I missed out on. Frank Herbert crafted a book with a complex setting that feels lived in and distant, but familiar at the same. I thought I knew the story well but I felt as if I was experiencing the book again for the first time. These books certainly deserve more than one read to really appreciate.

Velocity Weapon

I haven’t been doing much to keep up with recent scfi, or keep up much with scifi at all. So when I saw Meghan O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon on sale I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. Boy do I regret staying away from scifi for so long.

O’Keefe introduces us to rogue AI, a wounded gunnery sergeant and her brother, and a thief living in the slums of her planet’s habit domes. The action takes place across two planets and a space ship, and leaves you guessing for much of the book about how they connect and what is real. O’Keefe does a great job keeping the reader in the reader guessing. Several times I tried to guess at an upcoming plot twist and turned out to be right, but the book keeps its secrets leaving readers to discover deeper plots alongside the characters.

The Darkness That Comes Before

I have a friend that has been trying to get me to read some of R. Scott Bakker’s work for years now and this summer I finally picked up the first book of “The Prince of Nothing” which is in turn the first trilogy of Bakker’s “The Second Appocalypse.” Before going on I should point out however that these books are not for young readers, and certainly not for those who might find gruesome of explicit content in their books disturbing. With that said, I very much enjoyed this book.

I started out unsure of how I felt. The book throws a lot at you in the opening chapters and doesn’t give a whole lot of explanation of what is going on. Overtime we learn a few things, Achamian is some kind of sorcerer who belongs to an magical order called the Mandate. Kellhus is a monk who has been sent out to accomplish some task that we aren’t quite sure of yet. And there is a holy war coming that several factions are fighting to take advantage of.

The book has a lot of things that I enjoy including a deep sense of history. The world we’re shown just feels old and there are constant hints of a greater past that has been lost. Bakker’s characters are deeply flawed and readers will likely be hard pressed to say that any of them are truly good. These are characters who have been shaped by a harsh world and their actions show it.

Magic is shown to be incredibly powerful in these books. At one point we are shown a relatively small group of sorcerers who annihilate a much larger force. With that said, magic is not something that is used frequently, at least in the sections that I have read so far. In fact we are told that Achamian, on of our POV characters, is incredibly powerful. Enough so that even the leaders of other magical schools seem to be wary of him and yet in the entire book we only see mentions of his power but few actual demonstrations. If anything I think this shows his strength more than any spell-slinging could.

The Thousand Names

Django Wexler’s books have been on my to-read list for a long time now and I have to say that I regret waiting. The series takes place in a gunpowder fantasy setting and follows a group of soldiers assigned to their kingdom’s colonial forces and in the beginning of this book find themselves faced with the difficult task of reinstalling the local rulers following an anti-imperialist coup. Their situation is then made more difficult by arrival of reinforcements led by an eccentric commander who has other motives for having requested this assignment.

I really enjoyed the book’s focus on the common soldiers and its portrayal of napoleonic style tactics in a fantasy setting. Even though this is a fantasy setting magic is not seen for most of the book. Features that initially seemed magical later turn out to have much more mundane explanations. Not to worry though, the book’s namesake turns out to be central to the plot later on and my initial impressions of the second book lead me to believe that magic will become a bigger part of the plot as the series progresses.

Top Five Magic Systems

For me the best part about the fantasy genre is the magic. I love reading a book with a well-designed system, one that’s believable and is full of possibilities, and by possibilities I don’t just mean those shown on the screen. In my mind a good magic systems should also be one where the audience can imagine new uses not seen “on screen” based on the mechanics they are shown.

1. Codex Alera

It’s hard to beat the appeal of a simple elemental magic system, but it’s very easy to ruin one. In the Codex Alera series Jim Butcher manages to make an elemental magic system that feels natural, is incorporated into the society seen in the books, and doesn’t fall victim to its creators desire for originality. Instead of the normal four elements, this systems has six, making it more closely resemble the chinese elemental system instead of the greek. For each of these elements there is a countless number of nature spirits called ‘furies’ of varying degrees of strength. Most human characters can manipulate all six elements to some degree, but are only particularly skilled with one or two. High Lords, the nobility of the setting, are distinguished by their power over all six.

I love this system because it is intuitive and because it has been completely integrated with Aleran society. Social status and political power are linked to a person’s magical talents and the power of furies is used in place of many technologies that we enjoy in the real world. This integration is so complete that characters have difficulty imagining ways to accomplish tasks without the use of their furies, putting characters who lack a connection to furies at a severe disadvantage in Aleran society.

The differences we see in urban versus rural perceptions of magic is another facet of this system that I really enjoy. Rural inhabits more readily anthropomorphize their furies by assigning them names and personalities, whereas urban residents are more likely to see their furies as merely useful tools. In my mind different interpretations of the same system lends a does or realism to the setting. Real people have differing thoughts and approach the same situations in different ways, and this is nice to see mirrored in a fantasy setting.

2. Full Metal Alchemist

FMA’s alchemical magic, with its strict rules of equivalent exchange and lip-service to scientific principles, is a perfect system for science-enthusiasts. It’s a system with clearly defines rules and ways to break them, which is important in any high fantasy setting and keeps hand-waving to a minimum. Most importantly, it is a system where the costs are clearly shown; an important consideration in high fantasy settings.

Most of the examples of alchemy we see in the series consists of reshaping matter, but we see from the more specialized alchemists practiced by characters like Mustang and Kimblee that much more is possible. From alchestry’s practitioners in Xing we learn that this is another system that is also open to some interpretation.

Unfortunately we don’t get to see many alchemists outside of the military, but from Shou Tucker’s home and the brief glimpses of civilian alchemists attempting to repair damaged buildings we see a little of what every day life is like for an alchemist who has not been completely absorbed by the military. From the reaction of Leto cultists in Reole and the distrust for alchemy held by the Ishvalens we see that the practice of this magic is not as wide spread as the other systems listed here, but admonishments from characters who believe that alchemists should work for the people and the prominent role given to alchemists in Amestris’ military shows the importance of magic to the rest of the setting.

3. Wizard of Earthsea

The magic of true names that Ursula K. Le Guin shows us in Earthsea is a bit more philosophical than the other systems I’ve chosen to include. In this system words have power and people jealously guard their true names. Names are power in this setting, and fully trained wizards dedicate years to learning the true names of everything around them. The consequences of having this power come up several times. The balance of the world puts an inherent limit on what a wizard can do. Many spells are in fact illusions because creating something from nothing would upset the world’s equilibrium.

With the exception of the Kargish lands, magic is thoroughly integrated into the society of Earthsea. Practitioners of magic range from hedge witches, to weather control wizards on ships, to royal advisers. In the first book we are shown the importance of magic when Olgion, a sorcerer, is present for Ged’s naming.

4. Powder Mage

Brian McClellan created multiple magic systems for his Powder Mage series. Normally I am hesitant to embrace a setting with multiple distinct types of magic but these books are the exception. Privileged, Power Mages, and Blood Mages are all relatively rare and we get the sense that magic has changed over time. This sense of evolving magic makes a great fit for the themes of revolution and change often seen in gunpowder fantasy. The practitioners I’m most interested in here are Knacked; people with a single magical talent that can be anything from never needing to sleep to making crops grow in just minutes.

According to the author the Privileged make up a pseudo-aristocracy within the setting, and Powder Mages have obvious military applications, but the Knacked have the biggest influence on the every day. Knacked abilities can make a person rich, and because both men and women are equally likely to find themselves possessing magical talents the sexes are shown to have equal opportunities available to them. We regularly see female heads of state, generals, and soldiers, all of which would be rare in many other settings.

Most importantly for this list, the powers of the knacked best fit my preference for magic that is integrated into every day life. With abilities ranging from mundane to extraordinary the knacked fit into a wide range of niches whereas this setting’s other practitioners are mostly shown employed as either super soldiers or living artillery.

5. Dungeons and Dragons

On first glance this is the most rigid system that I am listing here. Each spell has specific guidelines for who can use it, what it costs, and what it does. The systems also requires players to prepare their spells ahead of time. At first this need for planning and preparation might seem limiting compared to looser systems where spells can be made up on the fly, but D&D players are (in)famous for reading the fine print and coming up with new and creative uses that stretch the limits of what is actually allowed. Go on any D&D forum and you will find users sharing and debating uses for popular spells like Prestidigitation and Thaumatugy. That this system can be interpreted so differently depending on play styles is one of this system’s strengths.

Just how integrated magic is with the rest of the setting will depend on the setting and your group’s DM. Even so, the need for spell components and the utilitarian applications of many spells allows DMs to create settings with entire magical economies with spellslingers on every corner if it suits their campaign.