I love maps.

If a novel includes maps, you’d better believe I will be flipping back to them frequently to compare locations. The same thing happens in games; the relationships between locations and the projected travel time from one point to another allow for a better sense of scale.  I think it comes from growing up in an older part of the US, where older towns are roughly a day’s easy walk apart — in fact, towns being located further apart than that are a feature that you’ll only see in places which were settled around the time that trains and motorised vehicles were becoming common. It’s interesting how advancing technology has changed the landscape, not only in how humans develop it, but in how we view the world.

It is really difficult to create a map.

Roman map of the world c.43AD. Rome, clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

In 43 AD, Rome clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

Consider what early maps looked like. They were… well, imprecise, by our standards. With satellite imaging and computerised measurements, we literally have mapmaking down to a science. Early mapmakers had to make do with eyeballing it using compasses and early surveying gear. There’s a vast and rather colourful variety in early maps, including a few which postulated the world as an inverted doughnut, and a few Roman maps where the philosophers making them were absolutely certain that nothing could possibly exist north of a certain latitude and drew Britain with Scotland squeezed in as a thin strip running across the very upper edge of the map area.

So if you think that’s silly, consider how difficult it is to create a game or story map from nothing but your own imagination. There may not be any accuracy required, but sometimes the creative leeway can get the better of itself.

There are two ways to create fictional maps. The first is to completely build the world before writing the story; the second is to write the story and build the map as you go along. There are pros and cons to each approach, which depend entirely on your creative style and how your brain works; mine happens to be a bit circuitous in processing information, so I find building the map as I write to be easier.

When creating a location, it isn’t enough to say it’s a certain distance from other locations in a given direction; if that were the limit of things, you’d end up with a place without character, nothing that sets it apart from any other area. In games and films, this can be done visually with a simple palette and texture change, but for a properly memorable experience, a little more effort needs to be put in. Every location needs character — character being everything from the local environment, the weather, its remoteness, the size of the local population, local customs and social structure, and the type of construction that might be locally common. Regardless of whether you’re creating for a game, a script or a novel, these factors need to be taken into account. For example, if it’s meant to be snowing at that point in the story, your location could be in an extreme northerly or southerly latitude, up a mountain, set during an ice age, or simply be in a region that experiences periodic winters; or if your setting is in a fairly barren area, buildings are more likely to be of stone or mud-brick than wood. I find it helps to set the computer down for a bit and try to visualise the location; this helps a written description to not sound like someone reading a weather forecast.

Apologies to Tolkien, but there's a lot of suspension of belief happening here. source

Apologies to Tolkien, but there’s a lot of suspension of belief happening here.

If you’re particularly detail-oriented, knowing basic earth science both helps and complicates things. If the overall climate currents flow from west to east — as they do on Earth — putting a range of high hills or mountains will cause the west side to be more prone to rainfall than the east side — warm air on the ground meets cooler high-altitude air and generates more precipitation on the windward side. This, of course, is highly generalised, as air currents shift continuously, but it’s well known that Glasgow gets notably more rain than Edinburgh, despite the two cities being less than 50 miles apart and at the same latitude, due to the series of hills in between them. Sometimes there’s a bit of fudging involved — the local climate is thus due to [insert MacGuffin here] — but it’s important to bear in mind that if the climate in a static location is altered, it will subsequently affect the surrounding area outside the MacGuffin’s influence. I can’t help but look at Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth and wonder how the mountains raised by Morgoth affect the climate around the rest of the continent.

Sometimes, it’s no fun to be detail-oriented. One aspect that always trips me up in some games and novels is travel times. My average unencumbered walking speed is between three and four miles an hour, and I’m in reasonably good shape; in a scenario where laden and armoured characters are on foot on a paved road, a day’s journey of 30 miles is about the plausible limit — that’s taking into account an average 12 hours of daylight, regular pauses for rest and food, fair weather, unhindered passage, and the characters being in good physical condition and accustomed to their load. Obviously you can’t precisely emulate this in a game — it would be the dullest game in existence and the player retention would be abysmal. So the maps are smaller and relative distances reduced. Some games blur the time passage issue by speeding up day and night cycles when you have open-world systems; others simply calculate out time passage between one point and another when the world map is restricted to designated locations.

Starting with the map has a variety of positive points to recommend it: there’s no need to worry about the described land features not matching the map or not flowing well together, it’s easy to provide distance estimates whilst writing, there’s no need to rewrite earlier secondary scenes once you realise that they don’t fit right with a primary scene’s location.

Sometimes, the creator clearly wanted a fascinating and unique land structure — starting with a few pre-set factors, the map was drawn up and then the story was fitted into it. Unfortunately the descriptions of travel time and environment don’t always match the map; for my part, this often results in headaches as I try to visualise the layout before giving up.

Why am I writing about this? Because I was looking over my initial draft for this one novel, and if the story matched the map as it appears in my head, it’ll never work. Fortunately I’m in the middle of reworking the novel, but the map still needs to change.


Tolkien Economics

Hobbiton (Alan Lee)

Hobbiton (Alan Lee)

Most people who stumble across this blog likely have at least a passing familiarity with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, whether they’ve only seen the recent Peter Jackson films, read the books, played one of the many Lord of the Rings games, or been dedicated enough to pick up analyses of Tolkien’s work and become moderators on official forums the way my mom has (she’s such a nerd ❤ ).

Now, it goes without saying that every fictional society is going to be idealised in some way which will have an incredible amount of influence from the writer’s personal feelings and experiences. The logic which governs a fictional society will always be more straightforward than that which governs a real one. Some aspects will be simplified or glossed over (particularly if they have no direct relevance to the story itself) and others will be detailed down to a ridiculous level of minutiae.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s consider how the different Middle Earth societies function as depicted in the base reference material. I realise the title of this blog post says “economics”, but society and the function of internal economies are tied very closely together, and you can’t look at one without examining the other. This is more to start a discussion on the subject; I welcome further input and alternate theories!

Hobbits are an idealisation of English country folk. While some are obviously more well-off than others, they are not the ones who control the governance of the Shire; each village elects a mayor. Others may not be wealthy, but there are no Hobbits who exist in true poverty — if someone is truly in need, their friends and family members will help provide for them until they’re back on their feet. There’s a strong sense of community and fellowship. Based on existing evidence, I’m going to hazard a guess that there are Hobbits whose specialty is to build Hobbit-holes or -houses, and that these are commissioned by a Hobbit who has obtained permission from the mayor to use a plot of land in or near the village and who then purchases the needed materials and pays the builders for their work in coin, goods, services, or some combination thereof. The society does not seem to be centred around an exchange of coinage for purposes of commerce, although it clearly plays a part; a barter or “favour” system seems far more commonly used (“favour” being an act of kindness performed by one party toward another without expectation of reward, with an answering act of kindness offered at a later date as a way of expressing gratitude rather than out of a sense of obligation). Their society is largely self-sufficient and doesn’t require an exceptional amount of trade to function; however, they would likely be highly amenable to trade, had the rest of the world not quite forgotten they exist!

Rivendell (Alan Lee)

Rivendell (Alan Lee)

Elves appear to be far more socialist, and I use the term in the literal rather than political sense. While there is a social hierarchy, Elven society appears to function as a collective, where everyone provides according to their skills and receives according to their needs. There doesn’t appear to be any monetary exchange involved between Elves at all; possibly this is Tolkien’s vision of what an ideal society might look like. Whether in Rivendell, Lórien or Mirkwood, Elves live amongst each other rather than in separated properties, which is likely a simple proposition when one’s age spans centuries and one’s existential nature is palpably spiritual and deeply in harmony with the world. The Elves are clearly not farmers — there’s no depiction of land cultivation of any sort, with plants permitted to grow where they will among Elven settlements — yet it is suggested that they feast well, so we can make a guess that some commodities make their way in from outside. There isn’t much the Elves could offer in exchange in terms of coin, but fine elven crafts would likely make their way out of the halls as barter, and safe passage through the woods offered for those willing to make the trip.

The gates of Erebor (John Howe)

The gates of Erebor (John Howe)

Dwarven society has a very clearly-defined social hierarchy, with an emphasis on material wealth which leads to numerous parabolical downfalls throughout Dwarven history. One may surmise that there’s not a little racial insanity suggested by Tolkien regarding the Dwarves’ cultural desire to acquire and hoard wealth. There is also a hint of hive-mindedness; not that the dwarves act as an interconnected whole, but that they are in fact very content with their lives and work willingly to maintain the status quo. While this may not lead to a great deal of upward social movement save for particularly successful individuals, there seems to be a sort of reward system based not so much on wealth as it is on emotional or spiritual fulfilment. Trade with outlying nations is absolutely essential, due to a heavy lack of resources underground, and Dwarven traders are a common sight throughout Middle Earth. Poverty exists, but it’s less responsible for susceptibility to darker agencies than are feelings of being cheated out of something that should belong to a particular collective; rather than sedition being seeded by individuals, whole castes and clades act as one. The level of social connection is most clearly demonstrated in the behaviour of Thorin’s Company at Bag End — whilst the Dwarves’ co-opting of Bilbo’s house would be exceptionally rude in Hobbit, Human, and Elven societies, this should be considered quite ordinary behaviour for Dwarves: food is considered free for all who are hungry, whilst the items within the house are the property of the homeowner and are used as needed and then cleaned spotlessly before the company departs. Their behaviour may be rough, but Tolkien takes time to emphasise that nothing is broken despite the rough joking around.

I’d like to put in a side note that I consider the Company’s behaviour in Rivendell in Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film to be creative license rather than canon, unless Dwarves really would consider breaking up a host’s furniture to build a fire just because they lack respect for the owner. It makes a humourous scene, but it doesn’t seem to fit their character. I certainly can’t see Thorin approving.

Laketown (Alan Lee)

Laketown (Alan Lee)

I’ve left Human society for last because it’s rather more complicated. While Hobbits are largely a localised people and thus have a common social structure (there are some Hobbits, particularly some of the more adventurous Stoors, who travelled much further afar, and have developed a somewhat different way of life when they settled, but even that isn’t much different to the Shire-folk society), and Dwarves and Elves are old races with well-ingrained social patterns regardless of where they have settled (primarily in separated enclaves which are carefully guarded), Human society in Middle Earth varies widely. I’ll drop a theory that this has a lot to do with the lifespan of the individual — when a people as a whole live shorter lives, greater variation can be seen as groups split off and form their own societies. Tolkien seems to imply that longer lifespans lead not to stagnation, but to a quicker attainment of optimal social structures, as individuals have license to engage in trial and error, examine the long-term results, and retain the memory of past errors (unless under the influence of pathological hoarding).

If you look at the population of a place like Bree or Laketown, they’re very commerce-oriented. Both are trading waypoints, or started as such, and that has an effect on the way society functions. The mayor is elected — I’m guessing by the leading merchants of the town — but there’s a marked diversity of social classes. As with the Dwarves, poverty makes some susceptible to being bought by darker hands; but avarice has this effect as well. Among Hobbits, avarice leads to acts of selfishness, but not to acts of outright betrayal of the community as a whole. In Bree you get unpleasant characters like Bill Ferny and his brigand friends causing an exceptional amount of mischief on either side of the Baranduin. I’m not certain what the fate of Laketown was six decades on from the events of The Hobbit, but it’s not difficult to conceive of certain elements of the society falling under the influence of Sauron or Saruman’s agents as well. Certainly, Sauron would have extended an olive branch to Smaug had the wyrm survived, and from there it’s an easy step to imagine that gold, regardless of its source, would have caught the attention of the more unsavoury elements of Laketown society.

Rohan has a more sharply scaled class divide, however the lords of the land appear to be highly accessible by even the lowest common-folk, who are able to petition for judgement in disputes and assistance in times of need. Whilst some villages as a whole are better- or worse-off, this largely depends on their location and level of self-sufficiency; the Rohan people benefit from the region’s fertile grasslands, and maintain gardens within the palisades and outlying farms which owe fealty to the nearest lord. Rohan is not a society built on open exchange, and the nation is far more closed on its borders to outsiders — strangers are expected to declare themselves and their intent to the nearest lord or passing patrol. Tolkien drew heavily on Scandinavian society for his influence, and the result is surprisingly socialist despite having a ruling class. Theft from one citizen is seen as theft from all, and mercy is emphasised in the form of either penance or exile from the community rather than imprisonment or execution. There is a continuous level of strife with the Dunlendings — a more transient, tribal people who inhabited the plains of Rohan long before the horse lords settled; while the majority of Rohan’s citizenry seems to have very little to complain about with regards to their social status, the Dunlendings would very much like their land back, and the more militant among them are happy to accept Saruman’s offer when it arrives.

Gondor (John Howe)

Gondor (John Howe)

Gondor is rather unique, in that it exists in a constant state of alert, rather a Cold War-level of preparedness with the fume of Mordor visible on the other side of the mountains. One can imagine that in pre-Fourth Age Gondor, there wasn’t so much an active conscription push as there was widespread voluntary service — and the lords would certainly have offered provision for the families of the soldiers in exchange, since contented soldiers are also loyal soldiers. It’s likely that women were far more active in mercantile and artisanal trades in Gondor than they may have been in other Human lands, simply because someone has to do the work and the men are either in the field or training for it. Children appear to have entered training from a very young age — Eomer’s childhood armour, given to Pippin, is likely not an outlier, regardless of his status. Based on what is known, I’m going to drop a supposition that the Gondor economy was strongly guild-based, and due to women being highly active in the economy of the city, there may even have been the equivalent of a public school system for the children of the lower classes, while upper-class families may have employed private tutors. In most other Human lands, children were most likely educated at home and trained to take on the family trades.

I’m going to admit, I’ve not used reference material for this blog post, and I’ve tried very hard to stick primarily to the material of the original books, which is one reason I haven’t mentioned the endemic corruption depicted in the Laketown of the Hobbit films — Tolkien largely glossed over the society there entirely, which isn’t particularly surprising for a story intended for children. Likewise, the gems Thranduil covets in the films are not mentioned in the source material, and I haven’t made reference to them, although I can appreciate why they were added to the film adaptation. There may be details I’ve missed — I haven’t yet finished reading The Silmarillion (please don’t hurt me), and most of my suppositions pay only the barest lip-service to the racial origins and how their closeness to those origins might have further effect on their society and economy. I may even be over-thinking things, but I tend to view the writing process like an iceberg, where the majority of the work done isn’t directly depicted in the final product.

Form Follows Function

I’ve been doing a lot of armour design work lately, primarily for Repair Her Armor and conceptual art for Wyrmhole Gaming‘s futuristic horror-punk Dead House; I’m intending on cosplaying a character from that game for this year’s ConnectiCon, where they’ll be running an open playtest for their system, and I’ve reached the stage where I can consider buying materials.


As a former member of re-enactment and living history companies, I have a strong interest in accurate armour design. Featurettes about design work for films such as Lord of the Rings are fascinating for me — I have a lot of respect for John Howe, whose living history association, Company of Saynt George, features in some of my reference books. I love when effort is made towards making armour — even sci-fi or fantasy armour, where historical accuracy can be thrown out the window and style is open to experimentation — look like it’s not only functional but as comfortable to wear as armour can be.

So I might be a bit biased with regards to preferring games and films where people aren’t running half-naked into a battle. A lot of terrible armour design has been committed over the years in the name of style and visual design. But what if you want to design armour that isn’t traditional? Well, the trick — as with all things — is to know and understand the rules before you go about breaking them. Welcome to Armour 101.

Mediaeval kevlar

Mediaeval kevlar

The most persistent design error is in armour layering. Armour is intended to protect vitals, but there are areas such as the insides of the elbows, armpits and knees where flexibility is required; obviously you can’t just wrap plated leather over those areas and call it a day. These are also locations containing vital tendons and arteries, so leaving them unprotected is a fairly effective method of suicide. Additionally, bearing a heavy suit of armour over unprotected skin or a simple shirt will leave vicious bruises, particularly on the shoulders and upper chest area (I don’t speak from personal experience, but I know someone who can). The typical mediaeval knight wore a padded gambeson or arming doublet with gussets of chain sewn over the exposed joint areas beneath their armour. The padded under-layer includes leather straps or ties which are used to secure the armour in place. This detail is frequently neglected in a lot of game armour — many games show plate armour as being too close-fitting to possibly have anything lighter than a silk shirt or layer of leather underneath, if anything at all. This happens frequently in films as well, where design accuracy may be sacrificed for style and making the primary characters more recognisable.

Chain mail. Effective protection against swords, not so good against arrows, poignards and smaller daggers.

Chain mail. Effective protection against swords, not so good against arrows, poignards and smaller daggers.

The result of leaving the under-layer out in the design phase is that the remainder of the armour may be too tight. Freedom of movement is essential — and far more possible than one might think even in a full suit of plate armour. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s possible to engage is extreme athletics whilst wearing armour — or it ought to be. Armour is not a corset, nor is it intended to be. If it’s close-fitting plate over padding, it needs to be lapped or else the person inside cannot do their job; if it’s a padded brigandine or jack, it needs to be loose enough for the wearer to be able to fold their arms.

So where is protection most needed? Everywhere. If a piece of armour doesn’t help absorb impact, hinder stabbing, or guard against cutting, it needs to guide piercing attacks away from the most vulnerable areas. This last is an important factor when designing fantasy plate, as many designers lean on a thorny, intimidating appearance which would render mobility impossible and cause enemy weapons to get caught on the surfaces. Important factors are the knees, elbows and shoulders — spikes in the wrong locations or pointing the wrong direction would cause plates to lock, or worse, stab the wearer, and bear in mind that if metal plate gains more than an average thickness, it’ll be unreasonably heavy — big chunky pauldrons look awesome and are used all too frequently in games, but are more likely to hinder than help a character. Conversely, if a body part’s sole protection is limited to a piece of fabric or nothing at all — a popular non-tactic for “barbarian”-type classes, and all too common an occurrence when ill-fitting pauldrons do not provide more than a passing acquaintance with protection  — you may as well have gone in starkers. Sometimes you can go light in one area if there’s something elsewhere to compensate; for example, a longer gambeson or chain  skirt instead of full leg armour, or a full chain shirt over a gambeson beneath a breastplate rather than pauldrons and upper-arm plates. Unless someone was very wealthy, armour was more likely to be made of essential parts purchased as they could be afforded, and there was a surprising amount of variation.

One size fits most.

One size fits most. Not glasses-compatible.

Then there’s headgear. I’ve been playing Dragon Age again, and the metal helmets bother me because they’re too small. The pic on the right is my spangenhelm; it only looks oversized because I’m not wearing an arming-cap underneath, and I haven’t finished lining it for the chain aventail (see above pic for the chain). It also looks flat-out ridiculous (especially if I’m not wearing any other armour), but one combat scar on my face is more than enough. I learned the hard way in Dead House that forgetting a helmet on a close-combat character is a good way to get one’s virtual head split like a watermelon — with something like the spangenhelm, the spans would deflect an overhead blow off to the side. Even modern military helmets are fairly bulky, because the last part of the body you want to leave exposed is the head. And yet, in Kingdom of Heaven, the first thing Balian does during any battle is make certain he isn’t wearing a helmet. I love that film, particularly the director’s cut version, but that detail always irks me. The heroic long hair flowing in the gore-flecked winds of battle is much less heroic when you’ve painted a big shiny target on your forehead.

So now that we’ve covered the basics of traditional armour — under-layer protection, manoeuvrability, outer-layer defense, and headgear — let’s apply it to, for example, sci-fi armour. You’re unlikely to be flailing about with swords (unless you have a scenario where blades are preferred due to the potential for vapourising a hole in a ship’s hull and depressurising the section you’re standing in) so you’re looking for an underlayer that mitigates the effects of energy discharge and an outer layer that deflects projectiles. If your fantasy characters are using rapiers, you’ll want to forego chain in favour of armoured brigandines, because all those holes won’t do as much good against a fine-tipped pointy object. And bear in mind the characters’ jobs: a mediaeval pikeman wouldn’t wear the same armour as a cavalry officer, and a sci-fi police officer wouldn’t wear the same armour as a career space marine (non-capitalised). Conversely, if the character’s intended to get in other characters’ faces with a sword, don’t have them lightly dressed.

And for the love of little fuzzy kittens, give them headgear.

Multiple layers make a swordfighter happy.

Multiple layers make a swordfighter happy.