I made a One-Page RPG!

Making an RPG is something I’ve been thinking about doing for awhile. A few months ago I started compiling a short setting book for Sprawling Iron, but that is taking awhile and it will be quite some time before I get all the writing for it done and finalize the maps. In the mean time, I’ve made this 1 page RPG and plan to make a few others as I have time. This one is called Before the Mast, and is set in Catatera, a mobile city made up of hundreds of loosely affiliated ships that endlessly circles the globe.

I’ve included the pdf here for anyone who wants to try it. There has been exactly 0 play testing, so any feedback would be very welcome. Find me on twitter @expyblog and let me know what you think!

Ten Books to Sum Up the Decade

One of the most important things that a writer can do to improve is read, so in celebration of the new decade I have assembled a list of ten books I have read between 2010 and 2020 that have influenced what I aspire to in my own writing.

Dune by Frank Herbert

There are more printings of Dune than I care to count, but it’s hard to go wrong with this. Source

Now is a good time to be a fan of Dune, and a great time to start reading if you haven’t. With a new movie coming out next year and the recent re-release of the classic board game there is a lot to be excited about. Frank Herbert crafted a feudal and self-limiting version of the future where humanity has been cowed by its failures and found comfort and stability in its past. Travel between planets is controlled by the influential and mysterious Spacing Guild and technological advancement has stagnated thanks to humanity’s fears of what it created in the past. The novel focuses on Paul Atreides, heir to the house Atreides which claims to trace its origins back to ancient Greece. The novel begins with House Atreides having been given ownership of the planet Arakis, a desert world of great importance, and an obvious trap.

What makes this book and its sequel so interesting is that it is not the story of a man trying to reach some imagined future. Paul knows the future. It is the story of a man who knows his fate and knows the terrible things that he must do. Even as he works towards this terrible future Paul does his best to divert it. In several cases he opts for the lesser of several evils or makes choices different from his visions simply to prove that he can. All the while he creates the very future that he fears. He knows what must be done but he does not want to be the one to do it. Psychic powers such as reading the mind and fortune telling are often depicted at having a terrible cost, but I know of no other narrative that more vividly and creatively captures the horrible price of power.

Codex Alera by Jim Butcher

Wild furies or furies whose masters have recently been killed become a problem for the characters at several points in the story. Source

According to the author the idea for this series began as a dare; write a good book using two bad ideas, Pokemon and a Lost Roman Legion. He succeeded in crafting an engaging high fantasy world with easily understandable but endlessly interesting magic system and culture that is familiar but has shaped by the world it found itself in.

Like with many of my favorite books the magic and the worldbuilding drew me in. Jim Butcher created a coherent and engrossing world out of what was supposed to be an impossible dare. He created a society where everyone could do magic and that magic is taken to its logical conclusion and used for everything from quickening the pace of armies and chilling food, to creating human artillery and magical airlines. To me creating this vibrant world from what was supposed to be a pair of terrible ideas speaks to the author’s skill as a writer and makes it an essential read for anyone looking for some good, modern fantasy.

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I find this to be unusually vibrant cover art for a nonfiction book. The author also has a biography of Stalin for those interested, which is also fantastic. Source

This may turn out to be the only nonfiction book on the list. I have included it because I find the topic fascinating and also because of the way in which Montefiore portrays the character of the various Romanov Tsars. In some ways this book is a history of Russia. For about 300 years the whims and desires of this family determined the fate of millions and given the autocratic nature of the Russian Empire a history of the Romanovs might as well be the history of Russia.

Montefiore manages in this book to paint a vivid picture of the personality of each Tsar. Instead of an ancient and dusty portrait we get a glimpse at a living breathing human who held the fate of millions in their hands. Many of them were deeply flawed, but all of them were human. This I believe presents a lesson not just of history but for any worldbuilders who want to write a compelling despot. Each Tsar presided over an incredibly inhumane regime, but not all of them were bad people. None of them chose to be born into the imperial family. Montifiore portrays many of these Tsars as very relatable and sometimes tragic individuals. Although we sometimes feel bad for relating to people we might want see as evil I think this is the most important lesson of the book. Anyone could be a dictator given the right circumstances.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Depictions of a lone figure in power armor are especially appropriate for this book. As time goes on Mandella finds himself increasingly alienated even from the other soldiers, who are from vastly different time periods. Source

Science fiction authors have the opportunity to imagine and explore an entire universe and all too often they still manage to make it feel small. Joe Haldeman did not have that problem. When the book begins we see humanity in the early years of its travel between the stars, getting ready to go to war with an enemy they know nothing about. The books focus is on William Mandella who was chosen as one of the first to go off-world to fight the Taurans. In each battle the time dilation means a relatively short time passes for him while years go by on Earth. The interest that accrues while he is gone makes him and the other soldiers rich, but each time they return to Earth they find that it has changed drastically from what they knew and the alienation convinces many to reenlist each time they return. A lot of this makes you wonder what the point of the war is, decisions regarding strategy are made years in advance of an actual battle taking place and by the time the battle is fought the decisions made may no longer be relevant. As occurs at the end of the war when many soldiers return to Earth to find out that the war has already been over for years.

Haldeman’s work is a reflection of his own experiences in the Vietnam war. The alienation Mandella feels on returning to Earth is a reflection of the experiences of him and other veterans when they returned home from Vietnam. The futility of the war between Humans and Taurans can also be seen through this lens. After centuries of war all of Earth is reshaped to support the war effort and in the end it is revealed that the war began as an understanding. Mandella returns from his last battle to find Man and Taurans living together in peace and this is something that we later see many veterans of the Forever War unable to accept. In this way Haldeman takes the reader through his own experiences in Vietnam and helps us to understand the alienation felt by many veterans by depicting the drastic changes seen by soldiers of the Forever War who were taken out of their own times and forced into others.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Each book’s cover art does a fantastic job of capturing the mood of the novel. Source

Old Man’s War treats space travel in a very different way than The Forever War but I always felt like there was a common thread. Old Man’s War features many more aliens than The Forever War but the battles seem just as pointless. In it humanity is locked in a state of constant war with other species over the handful of habitable planets available in local space and rejects any proposals that would establish a lasting peace. Soldiers from Earth are recruited when they reach old age and are given new engineered bodies designed for combat. When their terms of service are up they are rewarded with a new younger body and a home on a new colony world. This is the only way for many on Earth to have a chance at seeing the stars.

Like The Forever War, the characters in Old Man’s War are made to fight aliens who did not need to be humanity’s enemies until the Colonial Defense Force made them such. The novel makes you think about whether we are entitled to the land we take, the ethics of consciousness transfer, and the value of learning more about the people you consider to be your enemies. One alien race, the Consu, are seen as a complete mystery until John Perry thinks to look deeper into their motivations and this becomes critical to the resolution of the conflict in the first book.

Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

In order to protect themselves from malignant spells many in Earthsea hide their true names and go by monikers. Ged’s is Sparrowhawk. Source

If you want a book that features subdued yet powerful magic then there are few better books to read than Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin imagined the world of Earthsea as a vast archipelago surrounded by vast oceans. The people who live on these islands are described as having darker skin, a notable deviation from much of fantasy that normally focuses on characters who resemble white Europeans. Magic in Earthsea is performed by learning the True Names of things, and training a full wizard on the island of Roke is shown to take many years. Most of the books are related in some way to the story of Ged, the main character of the first book who later becomes the headmaster of the school on Roke.

What I think the series does best in terms of magic usage is enforce consequences. We never really see a limit to a wizard’s power although it does seem that some are stronger than others. Many limits are self-imposed by wizards who unwilling to disturb the balance of the world. Indeed, the conflict in several of the books is caused by wizards (including Ged) not heeding this balance and leaving everyone else to deal with the consequences.

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I really love the understated covers used for the newer printings of the Culture Novels. The first chapter of Hydrogen Sonata can be read over at Orbit books, which is conveniently the source for this picture.

I have not read all of the Culture novels, and my reading order has been sporadic, but as far as I can see the Hydrogen Sonata is my favorite of the bunch. Banks does something in his books that I would never have thought to try; he wrote about a post scarcity society. We see societies like this in science fiction all the time, but often they start to show their cracks when we look too closely at how they are structure. In his novels Banks showed us the Culture, an extremely advanced anarcho-socialist civilization where every need and want of the populace is provided for by hyper-intelligent AI called Minds. The Culture has no central government and people are free to leave and join it at will. Events are steered by committees of AI acting on their own initiative and by the mysterious group within the Culture known as Special Circumstances, although we are told that many large-scale decisions are made via public referundum. Banks’ ability to imagine the conflict that would matter in this society and portraying them with a unique mix of wit and seriousness really show off the skill he had as a writer and worldbuilder.

The Hydrogen Sonata was the last Culture Novel that Banks wrote before he died, and is named for a song of the same name that one of the books central characters has decided to dedicate her life to learning. As the book starts the Gzilt civilization is getting ready to sublime, an action undertaken by certain advanced species in which the ascend to a higher plane of existence. Some choose to stay behind, others try to make their last days into an endless party. The books tone is equal parts melancholy and anticipation. There is a bittersweet aspect to subliming as a civilization leaves behind all it has built as it goes into the next, and possibly last, stage of its development. A fitting end to a great series and a great career.

The Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan

One of the great things about these books is that if you are interested in the lore you can find a lot of backstory in the RPG, which can be bought on the author’s website. Source

I love fantasy that takes place in periods other than the medieval, and especially fantasy that gives you a sense that the world had changed over the time. The Kingdom of Adro is one of a cluster of nations known collectively as the Nine, which seem in some ways comparable to Europe in the 18th century. In Adro, the books begin with a coup staged by Field Marshal Tamas, a brilliant commander who has now turned on the country that he served so dutifully for so long. In the course of his rebellion he comes in conflict with an ancient oath and gods that had been long forgotten. We get to see the birth of a new, democratic Adro that emerges from an explosion of violence and bloodshed. Politic intrigue and personal rivalries are as often an obstacle to the protagonists as the armies that block their path and even protagonists are not free of their own selfish motivations that can and do lead to the deaths of thousands.

The trilogy is solid gunpowder fantasy, a newer subgenre in that frequently revolves around political revolutions in a changing world. What I like best about the series, besides the magic systems that change and evolve alongside those who practice is, are the character motivations. In staging his coup Tamas married is desire for revenge with the frustration of his lower-class origins. As Field Martial he reshaped Adro’s army into one that rewards merit instead of noble birth and in his quest to avenge his dead wife he creates a similar but bloodier transformation for his nation. It is a stunning example of how revolutions get wrapped up in personal agendas and force you to question whether all of it is worth it. Tamas creates a new, potentially better nation but sets in motion a chain of events that lead to countless tens of thousands of deaths in a war that he engineers with the neighboring Kez for the sake of his own revenge. The end result is a drastic change in the balance of power and politics on the continent and no doubt many in the new Adro who owe their new prosperity to the revolution would thank him for it. But was his revenge worth it?

The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

The cover art has an esoteric, medieval feel that I think fits the book perfectly. Source

Book one of the Prince of Nothing trilogy took me a long time to get to. A friend had been telling me about it for years but I only recently read it and was very surprised by how much I liked it. The Darkness that Comes Before takes place in a world that was destroyed many centuries in the past. The kingdoms that now exist are mere shadows and echoes of their past and now all of them are headed once again to their doom. I love the feeling of history this book has, we are not told much about the world’s past, but everywhere the characters go feels old and lived in. Everywhere you look there are people desperately holding o to the glories and fears of the past and try to make them their own.

In this first book many of the POV characters are observers rather than actors but we see through their eyes how arrogance, greed, and fanaticism lead so many to ruin. Magic is also handled quite well although we are only shown its power a handful of times. Drusas Achamian is a POV character and belongs to a sect of sorcerers known as the Mandate Schoolmen. In his chapters we are presented with a frustrated, demoralized, and often drunk man who seems to have little control over his own destiny. In much of the book he seems to be more of an errand boy than a powerful sorcerer and we do not see him actually cast a spell until the very end of the book. But we do a glimpse of his power when we are shown how others treat him. Those who know who and what he is are cautious around him. Even the headmaster of the largest sorcerers school does not go to meet him unless under heavy guard. To me this shows a great deal of skill on Bakker’s part in shaping our opinions of the character when so far Achamian has simply been caught up in events and has not yet begun to shape them himself.

Hyperion by Dan Simons

It seems clear that the Shrike and Hyperion have some greater purpose. Whatever it is Simons keeps that secret close to his chest in this first novel. Source

Okay so technically I didn’t read this book, I listened to it, and somewhat recently. But I think that this list meant to sum up a decade might as well end with one of my more recent reads. I was at first reluctant to give the book a try after I heard it compared to a science fiction version of Chaucer’s Catebury Tales (which I have not read) but the frame story format gave Simons a great deal of flexibility in telling the story of the seven pilgrims whose lives have all brought them to Hyperion, and their expected deaths, for a variety of reasons. The novel follows seven people on their journey to undertake a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion where they will meet the Shrike, and most of them will be slaughtered in very painful ways. They do this in the shadow of an impending war that will take place on and around Hyperion. At first this premise sounds absurd. After all why would these seven people have agreed to die? Well, according to legend and the Shrike Church the Shrike will allow one of the pilgrims to make a petition of the Shrike. Each of these pilgrims have something that they wish to do or ask for that they believe that the risk is worth it, and we learn their reasons slowly as the book unfolds.

By writing Hyperion as a frame story Simons took advantage of the format’s unique ability to tell multiple stories at once. There are hints of noir, travel diaries, love stories, and tragedies all wrapped up in the novel and tied together with a bow made of political maneuvering. The pilgrims that are the center of the story are pawns, but they do not know the game they are being used in. As the plot evolves we begin to get the impression that even those moving the pawns are unsure of the game and that each pilgrim may hold the key to unlocking the secret of the Time Tombs in which the Shrike resides. And that the coming war may spell the end of humanity as they know it.

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Everyday Carry: My Five Favorite Pens

1. Jotter XL

I love Jotters. I love the simple design, the refill options, the affordable price, and the history. Parker has been making Jotters since 1954, meaning there are plenty of variations on the classic design for anyone who just isn’t happy with the standard. But despite my great love for these pens they sometimes feel a tad small in my hands, so when the Jotter XL came out I was ecstatic. The XL takes the same refills as a standard jotter and shares the same design language, but according to Parker’s website the pen is 7% larger than the standard model. This may seem like only a small change but makes a huge difference in how it feels to hold. For me it creates the perfect ergonomics for what was already an almost perfect pen.

2. Rotring 800 Ballpoint Pen

Rotring’s ballpoint version of their 800 mechanical pencil was something I waited awhile for. Their industrial aesthetic and sturdy build quality make them easy favorites, even if the price can be a little eye-watering. Even the box has a great design. All the writing utensils in this series come in a slim triangular box that immediately sets it apart from other pens. My one complaint is that sometimes the barrel feels a little too small in my hands, but the knurled grip greatly offsets this.

3. Lamy 2000

In some ways Lamy seems to me like the Apple of pens. Their products are well built, fun to use, but sadly proprietary. Lamy ballpoint cartridges are a pleasure to write with but are not the parker-style refills that come in most of the pens I have. That said, Lamy makes some of my favorite pens like the Lamy 2000. It’s got a simple design and hefty feel and comes in several variants if you’re someone who needs a multipen or just likes having the complete set.

4. Cross Tech2

A lot of pens nowadays come with a built in stylus that I’ve never found much use for. But I am a sucker for finishes that Cross puts on their pens and the stylus point on the end looks good aesthetically. It’s just a good, quality pen with a nice feel and a great finish.

5. Pentel Energel

I love to see variety within a product line, it helps to satisfy my urge to collect. And Pentel’s Energel line does the job splendidly. The pens come in multiple colors, nib sizes, and price points. You want to just spend a few bucks on a pen to take notes with in class? Energel has got it. You want a fine point for scribbling in the margins? They’ve got that too. They even have a more upscale model with the same refill if you need something that works as a gift or looks good in meetings. Like the Pilot G2s or parker-style refills, this is a line that has a lot of versatility, with a well-made cartridge that can be used in a wide number of formats to suit your use-case and preferences.

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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.

Dune

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.

Writing on an iPad

I have been steadily moving away from Apple products for years. I traded in my old iPhone for a Samsung three years ago and my macbook for a windows laptop last year. So it was something of a surprise when I found myself looking at iPads when they were on sale at Best Buy. I had been wanting a tablet for awhile. Since I go away for weekend trips a lot I wanted something lighter that I could take with me to get some work done (but not too much!) and also keep up with writing. At first I was torn between a Surface, the Galaxy Tab S6, or an iPad. As much as I like windows it doesn’t seem as tablet friendly as I would like and I didn’t really want a secondary device that could run too many of my work programs. As for the Galaxy Tab, I was intrigued by Dex and the included pen but I just couldn’t bring myself to make what is honestly a luxury purchase without being sure that I would get software updates for the foreseeable future. In the end I decided on an 11-inch iPad Pro with 256 Gb of storage, 2nd gen Apple Pencil and an Apple Keyboard Folio.

Now that I’ve been using this iPad for a couple weeks I’ll be sharing my thoughts on its capabilities as a writing machine.

There were a few uses I had in mind:

    – Reading books on Kindle and Google Books
    – Taking notes in class
    – Referencing text books and rpg rule books
    – Writing on the go

In all of these categories it has done great so far. The bigger screen makes Google Books a much more pleasant experience and digital textbooks feel so much more natural when read on a tablet versus a computer screen.

When it comes to taking notes this things works even better than I had hoped. I’ve long resisted digital note taking, but I’ve gotten tired of carrying so many books with me and I’ve been looking for ways to slim down my every day carry. Being able to keep everything on an iPad has significantly lightened the load, and the apple pencil is probably the best stylus I’ve ever used. There are a lot of note taking apps available for the iPad, but I’ve just been using OneNote since it syncs with all my other devices through Office365.

As for writing I was pleasantly surprised. Some reviews I read were critical of Apple’s own keyboard case but I liked its slim profile and not having to worry about pairing or charging it. The key travel is acceptable, not huge, but each key does have a satisfying click when you press it. I might not end up writing a full novel on it, but for the amount of use I intend for it to get it works perfectly. But if that’s not your thing and you want a keyboard case that offers function keys, then products like the Logitech Smart Folio can be found for less money and are well-reviewed online.

The newly added mouse support provides a non-touch option for interacting with the device. You can now link a Bluetooth mouse to your iPad under the assistive touch settings. It’s not what I would choose to use as my primary means of controlling the device, but it makes editing text a whole lot easier.

Mouse support is far from perfect but can be good for productivity tasks

One thing I did not expect to find myself doing on this tablet was much gaming. Seeing as I have rarely given much thought to mobile games I was not expecting to recognize so many titles on the app store. I immediately purchased Rome Total War and so far it seems to run surprisingly well. Now I just need to protect my wallet and keep from buying KOTOR or Stardew Valley or else my productivity will take a nose dive.

Overall I have been incredibly happy with this purchase. It’s always a little nerve wracking to make a major purchase, even if you have given it a lot of thought before hand. I have hardly even begun to utilize the device to its full capabilities and already it has proved its worth. So if you’re like me and wondering whether you can make much use of a tablet I’d consider going to the store and trying them out. They are a lot more capable than you might think.

Note: I may earn from qualifying purchases made through amazon affiliate links.

Worldbuilding: Getting Started

Spend some time of r/worldbuiling and you will see that many posts are from new users asking how to start worldbuilding. The short answer to this is simple-however you want! But since it seems to be such a common question I decided that I would outline my worldbuilding process here for anyone who wants to start but isn’t sure how.

1. Pick a Medium

There are a lot of ways to organize your worldbuilding. For most of my projects I like to start with a nice notebook. This comes with a few limitations, it can be hard to keep topics organized and it can be hard to go back and change major details and keep everything looking neat, but if you are as fanatical about writing implements as I am then it’s a fun way to worldbuild and use your favorite pens at the same time.

Other people use OneNote, word documents, personal wikis, or services like WorldAnvil. In the end it doesn’t matter what medium you use as long as it suits your needs or preferences.

2. Have an Idea

A lot of career advice talks about having an “elevator pitch” ready and you should have the same for your setting. If you’re making a world to run a table top campaign then this pitch might come from your players. Maybe your players want to run a wizard mafia, or find an abandoned city in the far north surrounded by frozen tundra. If you’re worldbuilding for fun or for a story you plan to write you might ask yourself what would happen in a world where the industrial revolution happened a few centuries early or Rome never fell. Once you have a theme to explore or a specific scene in mind you’ll find it much easier to make a setting where those themes or scenes are possible.

3. Pick an Era

Deciding on the level of technology found in your setting is important. It establishes the tools available to your characters, the capabilities of governments, and the resources that countries are willing to go to war over. In a world where everything runs on steam coal will be a much more valuable resource than oil, but if you’re writing diesel-punk this dynamic will be reversed.

When I pick a technology level for a setting I tend to think in terms of centuries. This is just to help visualize the kind of technology and tools available in your setting and should not feel like a limitation. In the end this is your world, if you want to introduce a new technology or put a new spin on historical inventions then do it!

4. Magic

Easily accessible magic will drastically change the dynamics of your world, so deciding if magic is common, or if it exists at all, should happen early on. You should also consider outlining the limits of your world’s magic and whether it can be classified as “hard” or “soft” magic.

If you are considering a world in which divine intervention is a regular occurrence, this would be the time to do it.

5. Make a Map

Our culture is shaped by our environment and who we come in contact with, our economies are shaped by the resources available to us, and these along with other considerations shape the conflicts we engage in. Since you are probably not going to start from the creation of your world and move forward, you’re going to need to picture the “current” state of your world and work backwards to decide what geographic features might have contributed to its current predicament. Mountains, rivers, and oceans can form natural barriers and help explain why a certain culture has stayed relatively isolated, the positions of trade routes, harbors, and rivers will decide where your major cities go.

Scale is important to think about here. You might be tempted to create an entire world map on your first go, but you should consider how much of the world you need to show for your story. Mapping an entire world is fun, but you might find yourself biting off more than you can chew. To combat this I now only map out the region that I plan to focus on and wait to flesh out others areas until I need them.

6. Fill in the Rest

This is the part where you let your imagination run wild. Outline character bios, write the histories of obscure locations or the stories of empires. There’s not really any wrong way to do this. It’s your setting, do what you want with it.

Imposter Syndrome

A cold wind swept over the surface of the tiny lake, buffeting Erik as he sat down on the gravel shore. He shivered, he had been gone a long time and was no longer used to the weather. Behind him, his new body guards stood ever watchful and seemingly unbothered by the wind. He looked out over the lake, examining the curve of it’s shoreline, and the gentle ripples that travelled along its surface.

As he sat there a singular thought consumed him, the same though that had occupied every waking moment he had had for the past week; he should not be there. No, he decided, it was more than a thought, it was a feeling, an instinct. One that reached deep into his core. He was neither worthy enough, nor suited for the task before him, and yet it was he who had been chosen.

He reached into his pocket and retrieved the crumpled letter that had been delivered to him just days before. When it had arrived, they had found him living in a small fishing hut in greece, the valkyrie that had delivered it was stern, as was typical for her type, but through her facade he had sensed a deep worry. It was then that he had found out that his brother Poul had died two weeks earlier, and he had learned what was to be his own fate.

You, Erik. Who have strayed far from northern shores and wandered for these past eight years, have been chosen by decree, vote, and fate, to rise to the demands of destiny. This is both a great honor, and burden, one that you have been judged capable of bearing. You will return to the land of your fathers with all haste. All travel arrangements have been made. Synnove, whose presence now indicates both the validity and urgency of this message, shall be your guide in whatever path you choose. We, your humble servants, eagerly await your return.

It hadn’t been a choice, not really. Returning home would have been the only way to find out what happened to his brother, and he knew that Synnove would have killed him if he refused. It never helped to have potential rival claimants running around. A flight out of Athens, with a connection through Germany, had brought him to Stockholm. Where yet another plane had waited to fly him to the little valley in which he now sat. All through the journey, Synnove had been a perfectly silent and infuriating travel companion. As she stood behind him now he was just as annoyed by her imposing presence as he had been when she watched him sleep on the plane.

Not that she was the only one watching him. A score of valkyries had dispersed themselves around him, trying their best to look disinterested. Meanwhile, if he looked around the lake and to the compound that sat on it’s northern shore, he could see security details bearing a dozen different family crests. Each house was especially suspicious of the other. He had learned on arrival that his brother had been killed in the most recent of ten assassinations that had taken place over the previous year. Everyone he had asked had heard a different rumor, all about a supposed new and unnamed Loki that was behind the assassinations. A few, although those were in the minority, thought that this might finally herald the arrival of Surtur, and the beginning of Ragnarok. Erik was partial to the idea that some foreign actor was trying to drive a wedge between the houses, but he didn’t go so far as to claim that this was the beginning of Ragnarok.

In such a tense environment each of the houses was accusing the others, and all feared that someone might interfere with the coronation. The Norns had bowed to the intense political pressure and allowed each house to send security details, on the condition that only the valkyries would have direct access to Erik.

Taking another look at the openness of his surroundings, he was surprised that his guards had let him come outside. Without trying he could spot half a dozen places around the lake that would be perfect for a sniper. No doubt Synnove was cross with him. The thought of her seething beneath her expressional face gave him a small amount of satisfaction, but was of little comfort.

Poul’s reasons for choosing him were clear. As his brother, Erik was unlikely to have killed him, and being away for eight years meant that he was distanced enough from the local politics that the houses would accepted him as a relatively neutral party. Thirdly, his travels had been extensive, and for a community that could at times become so consumed by its internal affairs that “worldliness” was correlated with wisdom in their minds. He glanced up at the compound, there was still time to escape. Not that the valkyries would let him get that far. He pushed those thoughts away. It was his duty to go on with it, both as a northman, and in memory of his brother.

A bell tolled in the compound.

“It’s time to go,” announced Synnove. It was the first time he had heard her speak in days. Erik brought himself to his feet. Might as well get it over with.

They followed him to the lake’s northern shore, where a set of covered stone stairs led up to the rest of the compound. The stone stairs were ancient, Erik would never have dreamed of trying to guess just how old they were, and the Norns weren’t inclined to reveal much about themselves. The steps were lines by wooden columns carved into the shapes of trees that supported sculpted roof of wooden leaves. To Erik’s displeasure it didn’t do much to stop the wind.

The stairs winded him. There he was having spent eight years walking across Europe, and still he could be defeated by a set of stairs. “Some All-Father I’ll be, huh?”

“A fine one indeed, sire,” said Synnove beside him.

Erik looked at her, surprised that he couldn’t detect any hint of sarcasm. “Do you think so?”

“Of course,” Synnove replied. “The best leaders are the ones who don’t want to be. It keeps you humble.”

“I hope you’re right…say, which way do we go now?” They had reached the top of the stairs, putting them in the middle of a long, curving hallway that went along the outside of the building.

“This way sire. We’ll take the long route.” Synnove led him down the hallway, which was lined on the outside wall with statues of past Odins and other warriors of note. Along the inside wall was the massive tapestry that the Norns labored on endlessly. Anytime something of note happened in the world the Norns wove its story into their great tapestry. Layers and layers of vibrant fabric were wrapped around the center of the building. Synnove took him to the leading edge of the textile, where a pair of younger norns were working on the tapestry.

His brother’s statue sat regally at the tapestry’s end, and upon closer inspection Erik noticed that they were adding his brother’s death to the weave. A stylized image of Poul was shown clutching a gunshot wound to the chest, and without any information on the shooter, an image of loki was used instead. The Norns had always favored style of fact.

“We don’t have time to wait,” Synnove reminded him. “Here, take these. They’ll help with the pain.” She handed him a pair of white tablets. Erik nodded his thanks and swallowed them quickly. Now that he was so close to the coronation he was filled with an overwhelming desire to get it over with.

The inner wall had a single arched entryway that the tapestry was woven around to accommodate. Inside was the great courtyard that took up most of the compound. In the center grew a massive oak tree, with a gray stone slab placed among its roots. The three eldest of the Norns presided over this slab, flanked by valkyries and various dignitaries. A host of arctic dwarves stood off to Erik’s left, and in the oak’s branches he thought he was able see the flutter of the elvish delegations. No words were spoken as Erik approached, and took his place at the slab across from the Norns.

“Erik Larson,” spoke the the most prominent of the three. “Do you accept the mantle that has been offered to you?”

“I,” Erik paused and looked around him. Most coronations were done with a sense of melancholy, it was a chance to say goodbye to the old ruler and welcome the new. He could see that his coronation would not be like that. On every face he saw sadness, worry, fear. It wasn’t about what he wanted, he realized. It was about what he needed to do. These people needed someone to lead them, who they felt they could trust, they needed him. “I do.”

Her wizened old face smiled sadly, and she nodded. Around the came the below of hunting horns, and a group a valkyries emerged from the arch behind Erik carrying a body obscured by  funeral wrappings.

The lead Norn drew a knife from beneath her robes and stepped around the slab. In unison they began to speak. “As we commend the body of the All-Father to the heavens, we welcome into our midst a new ruler. Erik Larson. Fate and circumstance have chosen you to lead us. Circumstances that once forced you away from our lands have now caused you to return, and fate decrees that it is you who will become our next Odin. Kneel.”

Erik lowered himself to his knees, and the Norn moved closer.

“Having accepted this burden you will now pay the price of wisdom. As have all those who have walked before you,” they declared.

Erik braced himself for what was to come. The lead Norn grasped his head and brought the knife close, and with a well practiced flick of the blade she removed his left eye. Erik recoiled and pressed his hand to the now empty socket. He fought every urge to cry out. He had to remain stoic. He had to prove that he could take the pain.

This was the price that every Odin paid for wisdom. It was felt that a leader could not lead until he knew pain. That before he declare war he must know something of it’s costs. That a leader must be willing to sacrifice for his people.

A pair of valkyries came and took him. Carrying him between them as if he were a sack of flower, they brought him around the slab, behind the Norns, where a small pond sat between the roots. He was dropped in, the strong arms of the valkyries holding him beneath the surface as he struggled for air.

Be patient, he told himself. He knew that this was just another part of the coronation, but what if it wasn’t? For a moment that thought entered his mind that it could have all been a ruse to eliminate the only person with reason to avenge Poul’s death. Where the Norns to blame? They were not ones to take such overt actions. No. He had to trust in the Norns, he had to let this happen.

As his struggling stopped he no longer felt the pressure exerted by the valkyries. A single hand reached down and grasped his, pulling him from the water. He gasped for air as he broke the surface and was pulled to his feet. Before him stood Synnove, his hand firmly grasped in hers. Behind her stood the Norns, watching, as they always did.

“Hail Odin! Father of all!” Cried the Norns. Synnove and the Norns bowed, followed by the host of assembled dignitaries. An attendant hurried up to him and kneeled at his feet, offering a lit torch. Erik accepted the torch and looked to the slab. The oiled and bound body of his brother had been placed upon on the slab, and piled high with oiled logs and cuttings from the tree.

Erik walked towards the slab. Reaching under his collar he pulled forth a medallion which Poul had once give him as a gift. He placed in over his brother’s heart, and lowered the torch to start the pyre.

The World Building Potential of Old Warships

Lately I’ve been interested in the history of warships, and by lately I mean the past year. More specifically, I’ve been interested in the ironclads and pre-dreadnoughts that nations were building in the late 1800s.

Most people reading this probably know about the USS Monitor. During the Civil War, the American government hired John Ericsson to build a ship that would be a match for the South’s new ironclad; the CSS Virginia. The Monitor represented a major advance in ship design, and its construction resulted in forty patentable inventions.1

Photo of the USS Monitor at Sea. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Monitor#/media/File:USS_Monitor_at_sea.jpg)

The Monitor was just one of many designs that were tried during this era, and the sheer variety in designs is what I find so fascinating. It was a time of great technological advancement, and designers were looking to both the past and future when building these ships. This hybridization of new and old ideas can be seen in the inclusion of rams on many pre-dreadnaught warships, which went on to encourage new innovations in damage control onboard ships. 2

The French Cruiser Dupuy de Lome. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Dupuis_de_Lome-Bougault.jpg)

Finally, there were ships like the Mikasa, Japan’s flagship at the battle of Tsushima in 1905, that more closely resembled what think of when we imagine a battleship. For a time she was the most advanced warship in the world, but that title was soon lost with the coming of the new dreadnought battleships.3

If you want to read more about these ships, Wikipedia has a wealth of information on the many ships of this era. For me though, that wasn’t enough. Whenever I start to develop an interest in something I start looking for books on it. I’ve referenced the three books I’ve found on the topic so far, and if you’re interested in reading them I’ve cited them at the bottom of this post.

So what use are these ships to world building? First off, many ships of this era have a unique aesthetic that can help set the tone of your setting. Seemingly anachronistic designs lend themselves well to steampunk settings, or to periods in which your world is undergoing rapid technological advancement.

I have also found that outlining a nation’s warships helps me wrap my mind around where its priorities lie, and how it’s going to interact with its neighbors. The reason for this is that warships are expensive, and their presence is an easy way for countries to show off their military and industrial might. If your country should find itself in possession of a large colonial empire, it’s going to need a large and modern navy to protect all of its territory. On the other hand, a fleet of older warships might help to showcase a country’s lack of resources, or otherwise help to illustrate the outdated thinking of its leaders.

From a story telling perspective warships have a huge potential for adventure. A good ship could take your characters around the world and back. Encounters between old and new warships can show the reader what sort of changers are occurring in your world.

Researching historical designs will help you get an idea of what these ships is capable of. This information can come in handy if your character’s ship runs into trouble. What the ship can and cannot do are going to determine whether your characters will be able to stand and fight, attempt a retreat, or find a way around the obstacle.

What sort of research have you done to build your worlds? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. Warships of the World to 1900 by Lincoln p. Paine p. 108-110
  2. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Battleships: From 1860 to the First World War by Peter Hore p. 38.
  3. Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare by R.G. Grant p.252