Monday, July 20, 2020

Intro to Mappae Solis

So this is a project based on a few ideas. The first is the mappae mundi, or medieval world maps. Maps are always our attempts to represent some part of the world in abstract. Most modern maps strive for realism, to mathematically match their symbols and lines with the physical. The mappae mundi did the same, charting the world according to the people of the time.

Who, given that this was the Middle Ages, were bugfuck crazy. Things they thought were real, beliefs they held, real places, actual fiction: it all got thrown in. The result doesn’t map the physical world, but the metaphysical. The mappae mundi don’t chart distance, but relationships. Like a modern subway map, where a station is in the world doesn’t matter as much as what other stations it is linked to. 

This is not new. In Ancient Greek myth, Mount Olympus was where the gods lived, and you could point to it. The River Styx was the passage to the underworld, and you could literally sail a boat into the realm of the dead. Oh sure, you’ve never been, but you know a guy who knows a guy who did. Hell as a place you could walk to.

Linked to the mappae mundi is the idea of cosmology in historic times. Heliocentrism and planetary orbits have been around for a while, but there are also a lot more crazy ideas. 

The De Mundo universe had nested spheres of elements. 

The Pythagorean universe had a central fire around which everything orbited but Earth never faced. 

The Ptolemaic universe was the granddaddy of geocentrism, and didn’t quite go out of style for over a thousand years. 

While there was certainly rudimentary science involved in some of these, many were conceptual rather than physical.The structure of the universe ran on philosophy, not physics.

We see examples of this also in modern fiction. The Spelljammer expansions for AD&D explain solar systems as bubbles of material floating in a void of aetheric fire, the holes in the shell becoming the pinpricks of stars. The Elder Scrolls has some similar content, in which those spirits not wishing to be trapped by the material world ran from it and broke holes into the aether as they did, though this is as usual obfuscated by the setting’s interesting approach to reality and truth.

A map of the universe doesn’t have to be true to be real, or to be useful. People long thought the other planets were gods, or their own worlds. 

So we come to the core idea of Mappae Solis. A solar system long fallen, but rising again. Planets linked by ancient godtech that might as well be magic, and mapped based on how easy it is to walk to them rather than their position in the sky. A village on Earth might be closer to a village on Mars than a terrestrial counterpart, if you know the way. Each world has been terraformed, each has its own race and culture, and no one has the big picture.

I'll spend the next few weeks talking about specific locations, races, and concepts, but for now, that's the big picture.

A final note about content, is while I prefer to make my settings “hard”, and include internal consistency and nods to real science, I’ve always felt that such is most useful in service to narrative than ruling it. So yes, all the planets are terraformed to to be habitable, and yes, all the races are either uplifted animals from Earth or human descendant species, but the exact details only matter insofar as they serve the flavour. Besides, no one in the setting itself has any clue what happened, so roll on.


The future was glorious. The planets terraformed and populated with new life; a golden empire of advanced beings bootstrapping themselves to godhood. Shining cities that touched the sky, a network of portals linking the entire solar system together. The future was glorious, and the greatest minds ever to exist dived deep into new knowledge.

And the Fall happened, as it always must. The cities burned, the people died, the god-tech fell to ash, and it seemed like everything was over, the future dead and gone.

But people survived. On Earth, in a world stripped of memory and technology, they built houses of wood and stone again, and rediscovered how to forge iron. New cities rose, lit by oil and gas, and magic. For the scraps of ancient knowledge they still held were beyond them, as nuclear power was beyond a caveman, but still they delved. The world needed to be understood, but the old knowledge was broken, and hollow. They looked further, and found the Gates. 

They could never understand them. Freestanding arches of perfect metal, untouchable by tool or flame. Each one a passage to another place, many of them similar to the fields they knew.

But there were other lands. The network spread far, and if you know the paths, you could find your way to other places. Strange, alien lands filled with people who were not human, who were in their own way rebuilding. 

There is trade. There is suspicion. There is war. There is friendship.

There is the World, big and strange and not easily mappable. The attempts that have been made pay little mind to such concerns as distance and scale, instead charting relationships and connections. Abstract, mixed with a cosmology half invented and half remembered, these maps share a name.

The Mappae Solis.

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