Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

  • What is the climate like?
  • Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?
  • What resources are present?
  • What is the terrain like?
  • Are their any natural barriers that would impede movement?
  • Where are the sources of water?
  • How many languages and ethnic groups are present?
  • Have any of these people been recently displaced?
  • How is society organized?
  • What form of government is there?
  • Do the people look favorably on the government?
  • What religions are practice?
  • Is there a state religion?
  • Who are the country’s neighbors?
  • Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?
  • What are the country’s major industries?
  • Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?
  • Does the country have any colonies abroad?
  • Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?
  • Does this country have any historic rivalries?

The Best Things About Bending

Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.

Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.

There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.

Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.

Physicality

This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.

For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.

What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.

Balance

Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.

Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?

In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.

In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.

Incorporation

Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.

Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.

This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?

It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?

Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?

Conclusion

Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.

It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.

What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.

Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.

Cheng Ho Shipyards

Lately I’ve been having fun designing ships for my Red Suns setting in Affinity Designer. I admit this artwork isn’t going to win any awards, but I really love how easily vector art allows me to communicate the images I have in my head.

Lately I’ve been focusing on more mundane designs produced by the designers and engineers working at the Cheng Ho Shipyards. In a universe where humanity still largely orients itself along the old NATO vs. Soviet Lines, Cheng Ho operates its shipyards exclusively within neutral systems and will license their designs to just about anyone.

Their design philosophy is simple: affordable, robust, reliable. Cheng Ho ships are solidly built with an emphasis on minimizing both expense and crew requirements. This philosophy has led to them becoming one of the largest design firms in the settled worlds.

The six ships here are their most popular designs and can be found operating in every major star system.

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.

If you liked this post and want to see more consider checking out and following my pages on Twitter, WorldAnvil, TeePublic, and more.

Affinity Designer: An Amatuer’s Perspective

I have always wanted to draw. When I was little I thought I wanted to be an artist. Since then I’ve turned to science and writing, but art has long been an aspiration. I can draw some exquisite cartoon monsters but when I’m trying to worldbuild I struggle to draw the images that are in my head.

Why does this matter? Why can’t I just put the images in my head into words? Despite the cliche, a picture really is worth a thousand words, and a picture can immediately capture feelings that would take pages to describe. When I’m making notes for myself I often make quick sketches for own use that are not at all worthy of being shared publicly. So what is a writer to do?

Recently, I’ve discovered vector art, and it has been a godsend.

This spaceship was one of my early creations. Perspective is still difficult for me, as evidenced by the thrusters.

Rather than drawing every line with a stylus, you work with a series of pre-made shapes than can be combined and contorted to your liking. Your computer treats these shapes as a series of mathematical functions, which allows you to resize your work as much as you want without any pixelation. At first this doesn’t seem any more useful than PowerPoint’s shape tools. With time and a bit of imagination you’ll see what possibilities the medium offers.

For my vector art I went with Affinity Designer, a low-cost alternative to the Adobe Suite.

My first impressions of the software were a little underwhelming. What was I supposed to do with a bunch of rectangles? This simplicity is the beauty of vector art. You start with a selection of basic shapes, but you can endlessly manipulate these shapes to get whatever design you want. This makes it great for making diagrams or for people with shaky hands like me.

More than anything else, the great thing about this software and this medium, is that it makes it easy for writers and worldbuilders like me to put the images in their head on the screen in a way that you can feel comfortable sharing. You might have seen a few of my recent worldbuilding posts featuring artwork I made with Affinity Designer. Sure, they aren’t going to win any awards, but they’re clean and presentable and that’s really all I’m looking for.

This flicker lamp from my Sprawling Iron setting was made after I had a bit of practice. It’s the first in a series of magical communication devices I am making for the setting.

Beyond the few beginner-friendly tools, Affinity Designer has a plethora of tools that are a complete mystery to me. Someone with more artistic ability and the time to tinker can make some really amazing pieces of art as evidenced by countless reddit posts.

So should you try Affinity Designer? For only $50 it’s an attractive option for more casual creators who don’t want to commit to an Adobe subscription. But if that’s too much for you, there are free vector programs like Inkscape that may be worth a look. But if you have the $50, or if the software is on sale, I’d say go for it. Affinity Designer finds a good balance between price, polish, and usability. Plus it’s a lot of fun.

If you enjoyed my review of Affinity Designer consider buying me a coffee.

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. If you liked this review you can help support this site at the cost of a cup of coffee.

Red Suns: Swiss Army Space Ship

I just realized that I forgot to the connect the ring to the center of the ship…oh well, I’m keeping it.

I’m always tempted to design every single ship and vehicle that I plan to have appear or even not appear in a setting. What this really means is that I just end up not designing any of them. So instead this time I’m trying to focus on making a few representative ships instead.

This one in particular is what I’m going to call the Swiss Army Space Ship for now, as ships like it were vital to the settling of other planets in the early days of Red Suns.

The design is modular and generic in appearance by design. It does most things well enough to get by, but will always be outperformed by a purpose built ship. These ships are suitable for exploration, carrying cargo and passengers, mining operations, and even some light patrol duties if absolutely necessary. This image in particular shows a ship with enough habitat space in the ring for about a hundred people and a compliment of orange shipping pods held to the hull by latches. When “stationary” the ring spins to simulate gravity. However, under high acceleration the sections of ring can rotate so that the sensation of gravity is provide by the motion of the ship instead.

In place of these pods, other ships might have small hanger bays, manufacturing equipment, enhanced sensor suites, added weapons, or even another ring. The ships also come standard with a compliment of eight auxillary pods suitable for moving people and cargo to other ships as well as a pair of shuttles for landing on a planet surface. In practice though it would be more practical to dock with a local space elevator.

An important this to note is that these ships are not at all dedicated warships. Their light armament is enough to intercept missiles and may scare of pirates, but the ring in my mind is far to vulnrable to attack for the ship to safely fulfill any sort of combat role. That said, the ship’s owner would find it easy to modify the cargo pods with a few nasty surprised for any would-be attacks.

The cost of the ship is the hardest part to figure out. I haven’t given currency in this setting much thought and honestly I am trying no to. The trouble with mentioning specific numbers is that you’re just setting yourself up to forget them later. I do however want a ship like this to be affordable enough that they can be owned by private citizens. Maybe not a new one though, there are enough of these ships in circulation that finding and buying a used one shouldn’t be too hard.

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.