Land ho!

July 14, 2016 at 5:02 pm

“Maps codify the miracle of existence.”

― Nicholas Crane

compassAlright world-builders, lets get to work. We’re looking to put together a fantasy setting with a bronze age feel built from the shell of a titanic primal turtle’s shell. And we’re gonna need a map.

How do we go about it? Old school gamers have a real fondness the paper and pencil approach, but there are a number of online generators who can create randomized maps based on your input. There also many repositories of maps online for you to use and customized to your needs. Regardless of your artistic abilities or technical aptitude, your fantasy world map is not far away.

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Is nature necessary?

You might believe that in your world rivers flow toward the sea, mountains create dry rain shadows, and the extreme north and south regions are frozen year-round. And these things are helpful in grounding players, making a world seem believable. But are they necessary?

This is a fantasy, after all. Your world could be the hollow inside of a shell, or a monstrous pillar rising out of primordial soup. Or a series of cloud islands with the ground so far below as to be merely legendary. Or even the rooms of a seemingly infinite castle. You want it to be reasonable, where players can react to the world and predict basic results, but you shouldn’t be restricted to realistic. Our forefather E. Gary Gygax called it “verisimilitude”, or the appearance that it could be real. That’s good enough for me.

The world we are building here is made from the shell of a primal sea turtle. It has definite edges in the form of impassable mountains along the entire rim, and floats in a “sea” that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. The cataclysm that brought the gods low (see previous post here), has caused breaks in the shell of Kneu and has allowed violent forces and the corruption of the dead into the world.

That said— fire is still hot, and when you let go of a hot pot it falls to the ground.

Devil in the details

It very tempting to draw out a full planet, outline continents, and start filling in all the spaces. But you may very quickly lose sight what the player characters can make use of, and spend a lot of time on details that may never get used in game. This is the real danger of the top-down approach. You can have kingdoms, and noble orders detailed from half the world away, but when they go to buy rope in their village you have no idea who sells it.

The closer the players are to something, the more detail it has. But this is really metaphorical distance. If your campaign is about evil roach-men from deep in the bowels of the earth, that will be closer in plot then the village 20 miles down the road, even if it is much harder to get to.

Like the cantina in Star Wars, the scene was filled with provocative elements, but only a select few had details ever shown to the audience. Your world can be filled with wonders, but you only need to have stats for the ones they will interact with.

Think globally, act locally

So with just a couple big picture items on hand (our creation myth, and the vague outlines of a world map), we can start building a setting for the player characters to inhabit. One of the central conflicts of our setting is the weakening of the gods and the cracking of the world, so we would want our starting point to be near these elements.

There should be some kind of civilization they can call home. It should be large enough to accommodate the specialized nature of PCs, and offer the equipment they need. But you want to keep it small enough to be accessible. A smaller village that is part of a larger whole. Or, in our setting, a city-state that is a member of a league. If you are going to have organizations feature strongly in your setting (guilds, churches, witch covens. etc.), make sure there are represented.

This is a good time to talk with your players about what kind of characters they might play. If one wants to be a knight, make sure there is a military support in the area. Everyone wants to be a wizard, create a school (or schools!) for training spell casters and collecting knowledge. It is also helpful to find out if their ideas are at odds with yours before either of you spend a lot of effort on background.

Spoiler alert! Next time web are going to look at our starting village. We were thinking that it lies on an ancient canal between a tainted lake of steam and monsters and the sea, on the edge of the frontier. How large is the town? Who lives there? What is their government like? What do you think?

Let us know below: