Interactive Fantasy World Building: Armadillocon 2004 panel

The official summary “Our panelists pull out all their knowledge and create a world before your very eyes, with assistance from R. Cat Conrad on the white board.” as it turned out, misrepresented the format of the panel.

Panelists: Gloria Oliver (moderator), Mark Finn, Rie Sheridan, Caroline Spector, Rachel Caine, R. Cat Conrad

Mark Finn. I thought we were going to have to build a world.

A panelist. No, no, make them work!

So it was the audience that built the fantasy world, not the panelists. The latter provided feedback in a form of wisecracks (Mark Finn), by coaxing the audience to think through the issues involved in building a fantasy world (Gloria Oliver) and seek out plot devices that would turn the raw fantasy product into an actual story material (Caroline Spector).

One thing the audience didn’t need was to be prodded into activity. The topic was selected cleverly or fortuitously enough to send the audience’s imagination into overdrive.

If you want to know what story ideas and themes the audience came up with without reading their entire thought process, click here for the summary.


Panelists introduce themselves, claiming, as tradition dictates, that they are not sure why they are on this panel.

Mark Finn. I think I’m on this panel because I have built with Bill Willingham and Chris Robertson and [another writer] a shared world called “Clockwork Storybook”. On a completely unrelated note I just googled something recently and found out that somebody out there in the cyberspace has completely stolen our intellectual property for his game! I’m so excited! (Laughter in the audience). I asked [my publisher?] to please, please, please not sue him! I couldn’t be happier!

Caroline Spector. I’m not entirely sure why am I on this panel, except that I’ve written books in a number of fantasy and science fiction universes, and I collaborated with my husband on creating worlds on occasion…

Rachel Caine. I’m probably here because they needed somebody else. (Laughter in the audience) But actually I do indulge in writing children’s and regular books.

Rie (pronounced Ree) Sheridan. I have invented the worlds that my books are created in. They are very medieval. Both of them are pretty much like Earth, but they do have a lot of differences. And “The Blood That Binds” has its own world, and then most of the other large pieces are based in a shared world. They occur on different continents within the same world.

Mark. So we are very worldly.

Gloria Oliver. I’m mostly the moderator because unfortunately this was my idea. I have attended some creative panels just like everybody else, and I wasn’t satisfied with what they’ve done to explain world building, cause I wanted to get their insights; but it was general as to how they got there, everybody has their own unique style. I thought if we pushed it on you guys, and just tried to guide you in that direction, it would make you think of things you may not think about.

What genre of a world are we going to build?

Caroline asks the audience in what genre are we going to build the world. Until we nail down the genre, we can’t proceed. A show of hands for fantasy vs science fiction vs alternate fantasy determines fantasy will be the genre. Caroline is glad: “fantasy is easier”.

A voice from the audience. Is the world flat or round?

Mark. Let’s make sure that gravity is working just fine. Let’s assume some basic scientific principles, even though we’re gonna mess it up by putting magic in there.

Caroline. I think if we’re going to do magic — magic is a substitute for technology, the issue of flatness or roundness of the world isn’t going to come up right away. So perhaps we should ask ourselves: what kind of magic is there in the world?

An audience woman suggests: Blood magic.

And so the fate of the discussion is sealed. Seemingly every brain in the audience is spurred into action by the idea of blood magic. The world-building details start pouring forward. If you want to know what story ideas and themes the audience came up with without reading their entire thought process, scroll to the bottom or click on the previous link.

Caroline. Let’s do blood magic. Then we’ll have to ask ourselves how much blood we need.

Mark. I think we should keep the widely accepted concept that blood is precious. All of our human history has sort of been built around the idea of keeping blood in the bodies as long as possible.

Caroline. That’s because he’s a man!

(Audience laughs.)

An audience woman. You could split it. You can make male body fluids something that men use.

Caroline. Let’s not go there.

R. Cat Conrad and his drawing of the blood magic world at ArmadilloCon 2004
P518 R. Cat Conrad and his drawing of the blood magic world at the worldbuilding panel at ArmadilloCon 2004

An audience guy reminds everybody that regardless of the type of magic we need to decide on the level of technology in this society. “Are we talking about Stone Age society? Seventeenth century society?”

A group of people think blood magic would be most fitting in 18th century French revolution-like world, and this idea quickly takes a life of its own. It’s not unreasonable: a lot of blood was shed, so who’s to say French revolution wasn’t driven by wizards trying to spill all that blood for their magic purposes!

Caroline. [Maybe] the revolutionaries are trying to figure out a way of stealing the aristocratic power by stealing their blood.

An audience guy. You also got physicians practicing leeching…

Mark. That does bring up a point. And I am freely bastardizing from Matt Rossi’s book “Things That Never Were”. You ought to go read it because it’s absolutely brilliant. Rossi makes a point that the whole of our warfare has been built around protecting ourselves. But medicine, medical practice up until 300 years ago involved letting blood out, which seemed…

An audience woman. To keep the vapors, the bad humours out of the body!

Mark. Yeah, and he thought that was kind of a goofy explanation. He felt that the whole medical profession up until 300 years ago was actually vampires. But we aren’t getting into the vampire question.

Caroline. I’d like to just say, let’s not go down the vampire road, because there had been so many vampire tropes that are automatically alive. The idea is to create something new here, such as the idea of human beings making choices about magical use that’s related to blood. Maybe there are bloodlines that have more power than other bloodlines. From this then arises the idea of what kind of society do you have, what kind of political system do you have? Do you have something like Nazism, or like feudalism?

But the audience doesn’t want to spend much thought on politics. Beside, if the story takes place in a setting similar to French revolution, doesn’t that determine the political system?

Audience guy. Genealogy would be very, very important.

Caroline. Because they don’t have technology, they don’t understand perhaps DNA and that sort of stuff. So people could arise with mutations that the magical people don’t understand.

Mark. This actually sounds a lot like a fantastic extrapolation of eugenics, which was very popular in the early 20th century until some nut with a broom-handle mustache got hold of it.

Mark. I like the political idea, because it does place — you can also use blood as a substitution for oil in this case. He who controls the blood controls the power.

Caroline. Because blood has such power, it has ritual attached to it, which means there has to be some sort of religion. Because you can’t separate politics and religion, at least not in the time period we’re talking about. [There must be] a religion or a cult that has grown up around the ritual of bloodletting.

the Audience starts to giggle and laugh out loud at something Cat Conrad is drawing.

Caroline Spector to Cat Conrad: what the heck are you doing?

Somebody: He’s doing a blood-oilfield!

Mark Finn, Caroline Spector and Gloria Oliver at the worldbuilding panel at ArmadilloCon 2004
P513 Left to right: Mark Finn, Caroline Spector and Gloria Oliver watch what R. Cat Conrad is drawing

Every story requires a conflict. Where would that conflict come from?

An audience guy. But there must be an anti-religion movement that tries to replace he ruling religious order, or impose its world-view on this order.

Caroline. So you’ve got the established society, and you need a conflict that would dramatically change the society. You may have mutants that are suddenly presenting themselves as having power; they’re marrying, they’re reproducing, and they’re growing. And that is a huge danger to the existing power struggle, which creates your conflict.

An audience guy suggests that this blood power should be associated with some blood disease.

Caroline. Oh, that’s a great idea! A blood disease!

Caroline. Well, maybe another conflict factor could be that they are suddenly having short life expectancies after having quite long life expectancies. So you can have doctors coming up who are using scientific methods, which definitely would be a threat to a magical society, and explain things that they have not had to explain because they had magic to do things for them. And then you also have your rival power structure coming up, and then you have this new element of the disease. There’s a lot of things to be thrown in…

A panelist. As you guys can see, once you start down that path, things get complicated. And you’re starting to see the different sides and where everything can go, and that’s what you need to do. And you have to start making decisions on those sides.

Rie Sheridan. The doctors coming in could turn in into a SF stories, or you can keep the magic element which would be a fantasy story. Or both so it would be slipstream. (Audience laughs)

Gloria Oliver. Or you can go down the French revolution line, and have alternate history.

A panelist. If we’re actually doing this as a big grand series of novels, all these things can come into play, but if you’re doing this as one book, or even as a short story, you’re gonna have to commit to {one or two elements}.

Caroline. Let’s talk about monetary system those people would use.

A trio of giggly girls in the audience (the ones that suggested blood magic in the first place): Blood money!

Caroline doesn’t want to go down that route.

Mark. You don’t want blood to be a replacement for everything. The real keys is, what can you do with blood magic that men cannot do by hand?

A guy from the audience: From a military standpoint you might want to take prisoners more often than you want to kill your enemies… [so that you could take their blood]

Another guy: But maybe you have to use your own blood to cast this magic, or maybe the person who gives up the blood has to give up blood willingly, otherwise it won’t work.

Caroline. That’s a great point.

Mark. That’s a great idea.

A guy from the audience. It has to be something like that, because blood is an infinite resource. As long as you keep a person alive, his blood would replenish itself.

Caroline. You can actually have an entire class of slaves [for that purpose].

Gloria futilely tries to direct the discussion that by now has become a chaos of people all talking over one another. “We need to move on! You want this blood magic to work, otherwise we’re going to be stuck on magic the whole time.”

But the audience is too caught up in brainstorming.

Rie Sheridan at the ArmadilloCon 2004
P517 Rie Sheridan at the ArmadilloCon 2004

The audience erupts in laughter at something Cat Conrad has just drawn, a picture of Christ on top of a pyramid.

Rie. Simple magic can be animal based, but the higher magic you need, the purer the blood has to be. To do the most powerful magic you have to have the highest quality of blood…

Gloria. That’s why we need to decide so that we could move on: what kind of…

The audience ignores her, because they are still wrapped in the details of how blood magic works. Some audience woman mentions blood types, perhaps asking if “superior bloodlines” would be equivalent to blood types. The audience is too intrigued by the mechanics of blood magic to quit now.

Caroline. Well, we have a technologically unsophisticated culture that’s been depending on magic and we’ve just had a rise of some sort of medical science. Now, blood typing took quite a long time to actually happen, so I think it may be unlikely.

Another woman from the audience suggests that maybe magical bloodlines should correspond to races. Some races may have blood that could be used for magic more than other races’ blood, or maybe exclusively so.

Gloria really tries to get the discussion move past the details. “OK, I think we are going towards human-based blood. No animals, no elves…”

Blood magic idea blossoms

The woman who earlier mentioned body fluids. “It’s kind of gross, but what about when women…” (she falls silent).

Mark. Well, woman make better sorcerers, don’t they?

A panelist, or perhaps a woman in the audience: They have a natural outlet, you know!

Caroline. I don’t want to get too scatological here, but when women are around each other, their cycles will actually sync up. So you could actually have entire groups of female sorcerers who would get more and more powerful the more their cycles are synced up.

Mark. That’s awesome! Yeah! Talk about PMS! (Laughter in the audience)

From here on, it becomes clear why the panel was so engaging: it lent itself to the highly charged, inexhaustible topic: war of sexes.

A woman from the audience. And you would want to keep those women child-free, so that they could…

Caroline. Absolutely! In fact, that could be the only way in which the men have power over the women, is that the men don’t want the women [to do what? remain childless? become pregnant?]… And women may… Actually, that could be another conflict: women want to have children — and that creates another problem because of the issue of who has the lineage, who has the powerful blood, and all that — this would be a huge struggle between the sexes!

A guy from the audience. To borrow from Frank Herbert, Bene Gesserit tracked blood lines, and we could have female organizations that have amazing genealogical records, and they know…

An audience woman. What about crones?

Caroline. You mean, old women? That would be very interesting, because then we would get into the whole Margaret Atwood “Handmaiden’s Tale” thing, where when your reproductive cycles are over, you are not having a value in…

A guy from the audience. Crones could be the teachers who would pass on traditions to younger women on how to be sorcerers.

A female panelist. They could almost be the jailers, because they no longer have anything to lose, they get all the benefits because they no longer have a cycle, and they get to torture the young ones because they don’t let them have any [sex?].

Caroline. So what we have is a female-dominated society where men have one unusually powerful aspect in the society: which is the denial of children.

(I wonder how did she conclude that? Would men have more power to deny women children than they have in our society? If so, how so? By forcing them to be sorceresses? How can you make anyone to perform magic if she doesn’t want to? Or does she imply there would be societal structures that would leave a woman no choice but to live in a sorceresses’ convent, effectively denying her children, and that men would be the ones to enforce such structures? — E.)

Mark. I like the notion of being able to control… the men can deny children. I think that’s…

Caroline: Gee, I’m stunned! (Laughter in the audience)

Mark. I’m only saying that because…

A guy in the audience. I’m with you, Mark!

A panelist. He just got married…

Mark. That’s true, I don’t want an ankle biter. But then again, my wife doesn’t cast magic either, so… I think that’s a fair swap.

The war of sexes gathers momentum

A guy from the audience. The men have a higher place, because they can consistently cast blood magic at the same level, whereas women’s magic is cyclical in nature, so they’re more powerful now, but they’re less powerful other times. Or you could even reverse it: when they’re not on their period, they can’t cast magic. It’s a matter of how you want to work it out. But either way, the men are revered because they are at least consistent: we always cast at the same level, whereas you, women, sometimes you’re powerful and sometimes you’re not.

Another audience guy. The men are still warriors, but without women’s magic they are not assured of a victory. So the men still fight the wars, but they need women to cast their magic to give them victory. One is dependent on the other. Women can’t fight the wars by themselves [and men can’t win without them].

Mark. So basically we are going along with the assumption that it’s battle magic, a destructive force. We’re taking life and making death.

A guy in the audience. It doesn’t have to be destructive magic. Blood is associated with life. So it could be a healing magic. In a war, the side that doesn’t know how to heal itself is going to have its ass kicked! [Two typical uses] of blood magic are either the healing powers, or sympathetic magic: if a person is smart, then the blood of that person does smart stuff. If a person is courageous, it does courageous stuff.

Another guy in the audience: Going back to reproductive versus non-reproductive and into the bloodlines, you could have powerful sorceresses who chooses to give that up for herself in order to make sure that she has children to who she passes the power to.

Caroline, who must be contemplating the ways to turn this fantasy setting into an interesting story: “That would be a conflict, yes.”

(Actually, that makes sense. The dilemma those sorceresses would be facing is not unlike modern women having to compromise their career for children. If a sorceress chooses to have a child, thereby putting her menstrual blood production on hold, she could miss crucial opportunities in her magic career. — E.)

Mark. And obviously, as the world is fleshed out, as decisions get made, you can see where conflicts arise on a personal level, on a civic level, on a global level. These things are really important and they really help to give your world that feeling of authenticity. And it also makes a really powerful setting for any character. Characters, now, as you can see, are suggesting themselves out of this world.

An audience guy: A character has just crystallized: a young girl who has her menarche and doesn’t want to tell anyone about it because they’ll start slicing her arms open, and she may decide to run away and pretend to be a boy, or something.

Another audience guy brings the discussion back to warrior men. He reiterates the idea of taking prisoners to be used for valuable blood. (After all, the audience never settled the question of whether the blood magic would work if blood isn’t given voluntarily.)

Though men may control women through childlessness, the women in the audience think of a comeuppance.

An audience woman. You could have castes, where you have the warrior men and then you have the stud men. You know what I’m saying? The warrior men are the real men, stud men are just…

Mark. Yes, you sort of sub-divide eugenics one level up. This makes a… OK, I had a point and I lost it… never mind, I’ll come back to it in a second.

A guy in the audience. I want to follow up on what she was saying: if you are the best warrior, if you fight in a war and come back a hero, then you become a stud man, essentially. You get the best breeding stock.

Caroline. You have superior stock. Yes, that’s a great suggestion.

Mark (who apparently remembered his point). If you take an average life expectancy of somebody in the 18th century, and you take in the fact that men are warriors, and you take in the fact that a portion of them are going to [get killed in wars], then there’s a real commodity to men. I think that men would be protected, and almost herded together by the women.

The audience woman who initially brought up body fluids. So women would have harems of men.

(But, huh, how are the conditions Mark described different from our world in the 18th century or throughout most of the human history? Despite shorter lifespan and getting massively killed in wars, men were not “herded” by women. — E.)

A guy in the audience. Since men can breed safely much later in their lives, you can have breeder men…

Caroline. That’s actually not true. Genetically speaking, the older the man is, the more likely certain genetic effects are going to show up.

The guy continues. Yes, but if he is alive for so long that certain genetic diseases come out, then he lives long enough to survive the wars and to demonstrate how intelligent he is, then what is beautiful in a man is no longer the young, muscular; maybe it’s older, graying, because he’s proven his success and his intelligence and that his line is good. So now he’s sixty or fifty…

Caroline correctly observes that the discussion has veered away from blood magic.

The guy in the audience does not relent until he finishes his plea for women to date older men.

Another guy in the audience Take Christ off of there! (He addresses artist Cat Conrad, referring to his drawing that’s currently on the erasable board). In this world Mary who gave a virgin birth would be far more important. She was able to do a miraculous thing, which is have a child, but still keep her virginity, which is still keep her power.

Gloria Oliver, Rachel Caine, Rie Sheridan at the worldbuilding panel at the ArmadilloCon 2004
P511 Left to right: Gloria Oliver, Rachel Caine, Rie Sheridan at the worldbuilding panel at the ArmadilloCon 2004

Gloria (coming back to the notion of harems of “herded” men). The cool thing is about this concept from you is, you have thus created a social attitude, which you need to make sure that you know as you’re building your world, because you need to incorporate that, because that’s not the normal way of your thinking, but it is theirs. And that’s something you wanna show.

Caroline. The other thing is, it can’t be as simple as “I’m just gonna turn everything upside down”: what you have to have is a logical progression from what you’ve created. It can’t just be “oh, we’re gonna have male harems instead of female harems”: a male harem would be a different thing. It’s not as simple as just saying… You actually have to write it down and work it out and say “does this makes sense in terms of the world I created”?

A guy in the audience. A concept of male harem could be to put a man in the house where every woman could go in there and get this man’s seed. As opposed to female harems, which are designed to keep women from getting pregnant, a male harem may be a way of getting as many women pregnant as possible.

Caroline. So basically what you’re saying they are pretty boy hotels.

An audience guy. What do you do to keep men in control? Because no one would willingly be a slave to matriarchy, or patriarchy for that matter.

Mark. Now we’re back to to that control issue with the blood. You are talking about 13 women, or pick-your-other-Catholic-symbolically-charged-number women all linked up and cycling like a dynamo. That’s a lot more scary thought: it would have to be controlled, because we are not taking out male aggression. These aren’t testosteroneless men. And so you have to address…

Caroline. But there’s cultural stereotyping. One thing you could set up in this culture, just like in our culture, we have gender stereotyping. But even if you really want to avoid it, you can’t avoid it. It’s very difficult. You could have the same sort of gender stereotyping in this culture. Men, even though they have this aggression, there are allowed ways for them to express this aggression, and incredibly disallowed ways. I mean [as an example of a forbidden way for a man to express aggression] , I could never ever show aggression to a woman. It could be punishable by death. If a man aggresses on a woman, it’s a death sentence.

A woman from the audience reminds that men would enjoy a protected status.

Caroline. The men would be protected, but the men also know that they can be sent out to die. You screw up, you piss somebody off, you’re on the first line out, doesn’t matter how good your genes are.

Mark. Yes, let the church/ruling state wield that life-or-death inquisitional kind of power. “We can take you out”.

A guy from the audience. Then you could have a kind of Spartacus figure.

Mark. Yeah, absolutely. If there is gladiatorial reason, sure, absolutely.

Gloria. Now one thing I didn’t wanna bring up on your point about the pimping house…

Caroline, in mock protest. “It’s a fancy boy house.”

Gloria. The fancy boy house is considered as a reward to the man. It’s not gonna be a chain factory thing, cause the woman is not gonna want just a “slam bam, thank you, man”, it’s gonna be the whole…

A guy in the audience says that a man in the fancy boy house might at first think it’s a reward, but after he’s done it for a few years, it ain’t gonna do that much.

Gloria. That could be the whole story [of its own]!

Mark. I feel the same way about my time in a brothel. (Laughter in the audience)

A guy in the audience. Why not have a status of a man based on his father’s status? Because that way his father has got the status, but he has the youth and the seed. With this status thing, you could have multiple statuses in the society.

Caroline. But you can’t trace the father.

The guy. I also want to follow up on the question of what if [instead of Columbus discovering the Aztecs] it would have gone the other way? (He goes on to elaborate.)

Mark. Yes, as alternate world — I think it’s a jumping off for a pure fantasy world — I think it’s great. I would love to at this point to impose a level of bureaucracy on this. Because you got another means of control in civilization. You can’t have people perched on every rampart, ready to fire an arrow into people that do the wrong time. I’d like the idea of “I’d like an appointment with Marco. — Well, I’m sorry, he’s booked for nine months. — Nine months? Come on! I’m ready! The clock is ticking! — I’m sorry, there’s a 9 month wait. — Is there anything you could do for me? — Why?”

Caroline. Don’t forget that women are on cycles. This means there’s gonna be certain periods of time when there are gonna be a LOT of women who are ready to go. They’re syncing up.

An audience guy suggests there could be something analogous to 12-step programs to help with de-syncing. Instead of deprogramming, he says, there will be de-syncing.

Caroline. And what happens if a woman decides that she wants to have a baby and her group doesn’t want her doing that because they need her? That’s huge.

A guy in the audience suggests a compromise: 3 or 4 women in one group could be allowed to be pregnant at one time, the others would not be.

Caroline. And what happens to things like miscarriages? These would be huge tragedies. If you’ve got your reproductive system so highly organized and controlled by all these other elements, losing a baby would be a tragedy. And then the other question is what happens if someone doesn’t want to have a baby but they are made to have a baby, like in “Handmaiden’s Tale”? And she does decide to have an abortion? This would be like a high crime.

Caroline tries to change the tack of the discussion

Caroline. What sort of mythology is there in this culture? You’ve talked a lot about the Catholic Church, but I actually don’t think that Catholic church is a good paradigm map of the culture.

Mark. Well, you know, the first thing that came to mind… There was a point at which I realized that we were basically setting women up to all be incarnations of Kali.

Caroline. Oooh! That’s a very good point.

The audience guy that previously talked about Virgin Mary being the most powerful mythological figure in the blood magic society: You don’t necessarily need to have one power to be powerful in the society all the time. Especially if women’s power cycles. Sometimes women can have the power, then they have to transition that power to men, and back.

Caroline. So half the time a female goddess is in ascendance, and… what’s the name of those twins? Castor and Pollux? There could be fraternal twins, male and female. Half the time the female goddess is in ascendance, and half the time the male god.

The guy: Since a moon goddess waxes and wanes, you can have two moons going in opposite cycles.

(At around then, the time allotted for the panel runs out.)

Gloria. Before you go, what are you gonna call this?

Audience: Hemomancy!

Summary. Here is a brief list of story ideas and themes based on blood magic the audience came up with. A lot of them followed from one to another, overlapped, or branched into numerous sub-ideas, some more viable than others. A lot of other ideas that sprung up along the way were less easy to summarize in one sentence, so the reader would have to follow the entire thought process of the participants (audience and panelists) to identify those ideas.

An emergent class/race of mutants with magic powers in their blood threatens the ruling class without such powers

A magic-based society starts to develop science and medicine to solve problems that used to be solved (unsuccessfully) by magic, therefore threatening the ruling class of sorcerers.

Men control women by controling their ability to have children through blood magic… given that fertility is expressed through menstrual cycles, hence, the blood connection

It also somehow enables post-menopausal crones to control fertile women through blood magic too.

Or a promising sorceress could sacrifice her own career in magic by having children (and therefore compromising the amount of blood she can spend on magic) in order to pass her powers to her children.

Or a young girl could rebel against the inevitable fate of being used by grown-ups as a blood producer since her menarche.