Books Geography Photography

An illustrated journey to Svalbard

This is a charming travelogue.


(You have to click through for the real polar bears.)

North is a travelogue of illustrations and photographs detailing Christoph Niemann’s journey to Svalbard as part of a National Geographic cruise (which looks ace but also seriously out of my price range).

Had you asked me about Svalbard a month ago I would’ve told you about the home of the Panserbjørne, about those two episodes of Fortitude I watched before I forgot it was a thing, and how its name comes from 12th Century Icelandic records of islands visited by Vikings that may not actually be Svalbard.

Now, however, fresh from reading Prisoners of Geography it’s all about fishing territory, coal mining (or not), and the scramble for the Arctic.

Most countries and international organisations recognize the islands as being under (limited) Norwegian sovereignty, but the biggest island, Svalbard, formerly know as Spitsbergen, has a growing population of Russian migrants who have assembled around the coal-mining industry there. The mines are not profitable, but the Russian community serves as a useful tool in furthering Moscow’s claims on all of the Svalbard islands. At a time of Russia’s choosing it can raise tensions and justify its actions using geological claims and the “facts on the ground” of the Russian population.

It’s a genuinely fascinating read, I had no idea the extent to which Russia and China maneuvre their population en masse into foreign or disputed territories, or the importance of warm water ports. It was written pre-Brexit/Trump but with speculation on what could happen if UK or US foreign policy changed which adds an extra layer of interest.

Art Geography

The World, on average

Ziebell approached 29 strangers on the University of Michigan’s campus, handed them a pen and half a sheet of paper, and asked them, on the spot, to draw a map of the world.

What You Get When 30 People Draw a World Map From Memory


Ziebell, a high school student from San Antonio, took each drawing and layered them to create a composite ‘average’ world map (the second incorporates satelite data and some artistic licence):


You can view more of the drawn maps here.

Stray thoughts:

  • Florida and Italy make the cut on pretty much every map.
  • Australia (an entire freaking continent) is noticeably absent from quite a few
  • In fact, generally speaking if you’re an island you’re shit out of luck. Madagascar perhaps fares the best, but Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Japan, the Caribbean, New Zealand, Taiwan (and more) are missing more often than not.
  • Same for landlocked seas.
  • It would be fascinating to repeat this in different countries to see how the maps vary.
  • As wild as some of them are they are all recognisable as world maps.
  • I wonder how many of these more accurately represent land area than Mercator?

(via the always excellent @kottke, who you should consider supporting if you can spare $30 a year, his content is consistently great).



I fully intended to do Inktober this year and summarily failed. But! Turns out Mapvember is a thing so I’m going to have a go. Day one is Beacon:


I’m hoping to do a range of map types (so not just all campaign maps or dungeon maps) but we’ll see how we go. I certainly have a lot of ideas, just need to make the time and keep the drawing arm in good shape.

Design Games

To Arms!


If you’re not interested in the preamble you can skip straight to the arms.

Edit: I’ll post future updates under the Collabris tag so you can check out all posts about the Heraldic Tradition of Collabris here, or you can take a look at V’ael/The Veil, and the (as-yet unnamed) Port.

I’m a nerd for heraldry (I still hope one day, somehow, I’ll become a Pursuivant of Arms) but for now I’m happy enough collecting old books and creating fictional arms).

As part of his D&D webseries for aspiring DMs, ‘Running the Game’ , Matt Colville has run a couple of worldbuilding Twitch streams (which have really been quite fun). Each stream is a good couple of hours but you can read the fruits of collective labour here and this is the world so far:


After last night’s stream I had this world on the brain and started sketching arms for some of the regions/kingdoms. I realised that the arms of the Northern sanction could be divided by a horizontal zigzag (party per fess indented) that would represent the mountainous divide, above the divide would something to represent the three kingdoms and the Southern Sanction would have the same arms but with the mountains to the north and the kingdoms below. This seemed like a fun distraction for my bank holiday so I set to work…

The Sanctions

For each Sanction, the arms show the green fields of their lands next to the snow-capped mountains of the Dwarves (well, formerly of the Dwarves), and a star for each kingdom:


The collected kingdoms of men combine the two arms:


The Southern Sanction

The Southern Sanction is no more, in its place stands the Dead Kingdom:

Once a kingdom of men, formerly the Southern Sanction, destroyed by Kaleth-varr, the druid Archlich who sold her soul to the God of the Death and became a lich to stop the Southern Sanction from cutting back the forest to make their civilization.

I played around with a few ideas for what that means for the arms of the Southern Sanction. I liked the idea that the lower half would just be completely black, but I also liked the idea that the men of the Northern Sanction wouldn’t necessarily consider the Dead Kingdom and the Southern Sanction to be the same thing (if the Dead Kingdom could be destroyed somehow then the Southern Sanction could, perhaps, be reclaimed).

In the end I plumped for a ceremonial set of arms to represent the Southern Sanction and arms to represent the Dead Kingdom (I’d envisage the latter to be a set of arms used by the Northern Sanction to denote/mark the Dead Kingdom rather than anything borne by the undead themselves).


The stars of the Southern Sanction are inverted as well as darkened. Strictly speaking this breaks the rule of tincture (a colour on a colour) but as this marks something horrific/abhorrent breaking the rules made some sort of sense.

The Northern Sanction

The Northern Sanction is split into three kingdoms: Haldrim, Ardenia, and Cardus. They’ve been fleshed out to varying degrees in the streams and there’s a strong chance that as they’re fleshed out further what I’ve come up with here will come to make absolutely no sense at all! But anyway.

Haldrim sits closest to the pass through the Broken Spine mountains and as a consequence closest to the Tower that the Northern Sanction maintains to protect its route to the port south of the mountains.

Even though the tower itself is some days travel south I figured it would be a pretty big deal to the city of Haldrim. And as stars have already been established as the marker for each kingdom they would be the kingdom above the tower:


Cardus sits to the East, nestling against the foothills of the Broken Spine. While they have the largest standing army they are beset by Yuan-Ti (snake-men) who are pushed westward over the Scale Hills by the Dragonmen of Zir (aside: I cannot wait to design something for the Dragonmen of Zir).

I felt they should have a strong, martial symbol as they’re constantly under attack and eagles hunt snakes so the idea of an eagle claw descending upon the mountains from above seemed pretty cool. The field acts as a pretty strong callback to the arms of the Sanction too:


Finally, Ardenia is to the North, close to the Dwarven kingdom of Korim. I thought maybe their arms should include a nod to the Dwarves as they have a strong alliance, looking at it again I don’t know if impaling their arms with the dwarven symbol is a bit too much. It shows the two kingdoms side by side but I’m not sure it says a lot about Ardenia as a kingdom of men. I’ll let it brew:


The Kingdoms of Men


The Dwarves of Korim

The dwarven kingdom to the north. They are masters of construct magics, and though a small kingdom, defends their lands with the constructs they build. Their constructs are both large and powerful, and small and delicate

I initially played around with an anvil but in the end I settled for hammers, they were more easily identifiable at a smaller size (for the arms of Ardenia), and can represent both a weapon of war and a tool of craft.

For the full arms of Korim I combined them with a fret to show that balance of power and delicate intricacy, I also opted for a different shield shape to further distinguish it from the Kingdoms of Men:


The Ban Tuur

The Ban Tuur are humans but not one of the civilized human kingdoms.

Animists who see gods in everything, the greatest of which is the Volcano Tuur, Tuur is the Father of Fire.


It’s Tuur himself. I like this one a lot, it’s simple but striking, it would work daubed on a banner or shield, plus it’s the only human kingdom to use red. I love the bale eye vibe too.


Nara’shul is home to the Nara:

…the griffon-riding Goliaths living in cities carved into the rock. Skilled masons and stonecutters. Their capital city of Ketra lies below the highest peak of the mountains, Kuraya. At the top of which lives U’shaka, the God of the Goliaths, believed to be a Prince of the Air Elementals and his servants, the Nine Winds, the Dukes of Sharash

While the Ban Tuur I instantly knew what I wanted to do. The Nara on the other hand…

It might just be because they’re called Nara but my first thought was a something like a Japanese Mon with the nine winds swirling around (or the eight winds swirling with the ninth at the centre).


I quite like these, I can see Goliath tattoos/body paint using these patterns and they’d work in pretty much any colour combination you like. They’re certainly very Japanese which isn’t a bad thing but I wanted to try to some other avenues. My next thought was to represent the winds with feathers rather than abstract shapes, which would also tie back to the griffons:


These seemed to flowery/intricate so I decided to move back towards something geometric. I thought something representing Kuraya, the highest peak, with the nine winds could work:


I quite like this, but then I also remembered that Matt had described their cities as carved into the rock, like the cliff dwellings in the Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, so I tried a geometric take on it too:


I like it because it makes the mountain look like it’s been cut by man (well, goliath, you know what I mean), but it also makes everything smaller and a bit fiddlier so I’m still not too sure about this one.

Still to come…

The Wood Elves of the Veil and the Dragonmen of Zir are up next, plus the fallen Dwarven empire of Kalazanbar and the High Elves of Tal-Onarafel. I might look at some of the savage races too, we’ll have to see what comes out of the next stream…

If you like anything you see here feel free to use it, and whether you like it or no, let me know what you think! @dan_connolly

Books Maps



Andrew DeGraff’s stunningly detailed artwork takes readers deep into the landscapes from The Odyssey, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Invisible Man, A Wrinkle in Time, Watership Down, A Christmas Carol, and more.


For Christmas please.


Atlantic Ridge


Based on the work of geophysicists Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp, this 1968 map of the ocean floor helped bring the concept of plate tectonics to a wide audience. Tharp began plotting the depths in 1950 from soundings taken by ships in the Atlantic, but, as a woman, wasn’t allowed on the ships herself. In 1978 she was awarded the Society’s Hubbard Medal for her pioneering research.

From an article covering 100 Years of National Geographic Maps.