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The Dwarves of the Dark Mountains never cared much for gold or precious stones, although they had plenty of both. Instead, they had a mind for wandering. Their gaze was always turned towards the horizon, and what lies beyond, and so they roamed the land and sailed the great sea and discovered wonders the likes of which have inspired bards for centuries.

However they were always distrustful and secretive and so to this day no one knows where their eight kingdoms lie.

To be able to travel from one to another they created eight magnificent books, one for each of their kings: the Aethra Codices. Their covers were richly adorned and upon them the Dark Mountain Dwarves inscribed runes that would allow those who possess the correct gemstones to find their way to one of their kingdoms.

This is one of those books, an Aethra Codex. I leave it, and its mysteries, upon your hands…

Proudly presenting the Aethra Codex: a Fantasy Puzzle Binding.

I’m a passionate fan of tabletop role playing games and the basic idea behind this journal was people could use it as an in-game artifact. It could inspire a story and/or be part of it. Players would no longer have to imagine such a volume; it would be real, something taken out of a fantasy world, the mysteries of which they could now discover and hold in their hands.

I’ve wanted to do such a project for a very long time as it combines many of the things I love and enjoy: RPGs, bookbinding, coming up with puzzles and riddles, mechanical challenges and problem solving in crafting, metalworking and, most of all, stories…

I truly hope I’ll be making more like this in the future. This was only proof of concept, the ideas are there…

The Puzzle

The Aethra Codex (“Aethra” meaning bright star, splendor, or clear sky in Latin) has 3 different challenges/puzzles and each has to be solved in order to progress to the next one.

The players have to find a way to translate the runes, which are Futhark with a few minor changes I made to accommodate tooling of the design.

However after the runes are translated to English the resulting text is gibberish. The players have to decrypt it using a Caesar Cipher, a form of substitution encryption based on a specific number.

Once the text is decrypted they are left with two poems. The first one (back cover) says:

You who seek wisdom of old
Follow the light of many a star
To reach the realms and lands afar
Where hidden perils lie untold

The second one (spine) says:

White is the coldness of the North
Green the East with forests vast
Blue the West where ships sail forth
Red the rays by the South sun cast
And black the night between them all

When those are interpreted through a more symbolic lens the first one reveals where the gemstones are hidden: within the corner pieces.

The second one gives the proper placement of the gemstones on the 8 sockets of the front cover’s star in the same manner. Watch the gif above to see a gemstone revealed and placed on the star!

This set-up is not meant to be binding for the DMs. Instead of being placed in the corner pieces the gemstones may be found at different in-game locations, in which case the poems have mostly literal meaning.

The challenge can also be extended in various ways f.e. the runes can be an ancient or forgotten Dwarven alphabet, in which case the players can’t translate them from the get go. The phrase “Follow the light of many a star” might refer to a constellation or something beyond the codex. A new challenge, conceived by the storyteller, may be revealed when the gemstones are placed on the star. The possibilities are endless.

In conclusion the puzzles/challenges I incorporated in the binding are mostly meant as an inspiration for the DMs. The texts do not mention specific names and are written in an abstract/generic enough manner that encourages creativity and can easily be adapted and utilized in any story!

The crafting

Making the Aethra Codex has been an undertaking of epic proportions. Everything about it had to be conceived, designed and made by myself. I had to do a lot of tests and experiments, create new tools and tackle various structural challenges.

The biggest of those was making the corner pieces which had to be sturdy, small, securely attached to the binding and with the necessary space inside them to hide the gemstones. Ticking all those boxes was far from easy.

Each corner piece is made of 4 different parts and solidly riveted on the binding. They were, as was the star, hand carved out of wax and then bronze cast.

The design was mostly inspired by Astrolabes, those most mystical-looking and yet historical instruments, that sailors used to navigate the seas!

It’s also easy to overlook how beneath all the runes, brass details and gemstones, the Aethra Codex is a high quality binding. It has been given all the attention I devote to any of my fine bindings and has many of their characteristics such as sewn-in boards, handsewn silk headbands,  leather joints and composite boards to name a few.

As a bonus touch I polished the entire surface with a polishing iron to make it look used and worn, resulting in a wonderful sheen that’s not visible in the photos.

Last but but not least, for my fellow bookbinders: I’ve mostly used these tools to make the Codex, which you can see/buy at my tool page:
Brass Band nippers
Bookbinding Stylus set
– Dot set

Hope you enjoyed reading about the Aethra Codex!