This article – Seven Maps That Prove History Is Forever – at of all places Business Insider this past week made me completely rethink how I use maps in world design. Traditionally I start the old fashioned way when designing a world by sketching out the shape of a continent or a few continents. Add in a few mountain ranges, oceans, and rivers. And then I start placing cities, towns, and ruins hither and yon.
Now I’m going to have to change that approach to perhaps lay down the roots of regional enmity, the effects of lasting wars and grudges, and general attitudes as well. Those things usually come well after the geographical bits, but I’m wondering if they should in fact move much further up the chain.
Keep in mind this is MY approach and it varies from world to world, but it’s been a while since I’ve taken a shot at designing one so let’s give it a go. We’ll start with a random fantasy world from the donjon Fantasy World Generator and see where it gets us.
“Gassy Gnoll Land” looks pretty good. The generator spits out an absolutely huge map, so let’s just focus on a small area. Off to the east is the Sea of Ghosts and there are further lands to explore to the west beyond the Jungle of Shadows, but this gives us a nice bit of land to mess with.
First, let’s strip this down to a few geographic borders. Forgive my hackery to the map via MS Paint, but it is definitely quick and dirty.
I see some island groups, a jungle area bordered by mountains, a high-plains area, a big forested area, and another area of plains and forest to the east. So about nine arbitrary groupings. Let’s give these folks some names.
Looking at the handy-dandy-random name generator at donjon, I am going to get… Thilea, Narakz, Pytta, Mire, Arlar, Meleia, Ravencrag, Briarwall and Tamba. Let’s place some of those names…
- Tamban Jungles
- The Ravencrag
- The Thilean Isles
- The Pyttan Plain
- Meleian Islands
- Isles of Mire
- Narakz Bluffs
- The Forest of Arlar
- The Calylla Downs
Names change over time, so I’m less concerned about the names for anything other than explanatory purposes…
- Let’s take the Tambans. I’m guessing they have fought with the Pyttans over resources between their two areas. The Pyttans have likely expanded and collapsed their territory over time with a changing and migratory population over all that good grassland. And the Tambans are very protective of their jungles, so want to keep outsiders away.
- The Thileans don’t have a lot of land, so they have likely raided the coasts of both the Tambans and the Pyttans over the years, causing some enmity there and may have even tussled with the Meleians once or twice.
- The Meleians and the Mireans with their names being so close probably came from a single group that split over religious or philosophical differences, which still causes squabbles occasionally. And the Mireans have made more than one attempt to claim some of the Narakz’ lands as their own.
- The Narakz’ and the Arlari may have actually been peaceful neighbors for most of their time, not really fighting all that often over the swampy areas between them. Though the Arlari from their forest home have likely fought with the Calylla a time or two over the inland sea between them. Fishing rights might be important there.
- And then there’s the Crags. Those folks are tough to live in such a place and may raid for things they need from both the Pyttans and the Calylla, trading with the Meleians through the straits of their own inland sea with a small sea port.
Already we have controversy, land grabs, and a history of violence between some people – just from looking at the map and plopping a few names down.
Now if we look back at the first map, we have some interesting nationalities that begin to form…
- Perhaps the Prystwians are a combination of the Pyttans, the Thileans, and a few of the Tambans now, each with their distinct cultural differences, mistrust, and animosities towards the others.
- Maybe the people of Pewick are a peaceful uniting of the Narakz’ and Arlari people. And the Meleians and Mireans have forged a tenuous alliance under the Shethorp banner.
- But somehow I suspect that the Crags are still raiding from the Fortress of Nakadea the Crimson, don’t you?
- Each group now has a bit of a melting pot effect with a cultural history that predates the current map, which can lead to all sorts of interesting conclusions. Perhaps a group of Tambans is secretly plotting to raise an ancient jungle god in the Jungle of Shadows and an ancient druidic cult from the forests of the Rhepstyn Vale (formerly the Forests of Arlar) has begun raising sea serpents in Laburh off the coast of the Sea of Serpents…
- Within cities, you may have districts organized along those cultural dividing lines… The Thilean Quarter, the Pyttan Quarter, and the Tamban Slums come to mind in the city of Prystwy. Each with a different flavor and feel distinct from the others. And what happens when a character happens to be cross-cultural, with parents of two different groups? How are they treated?
Yes, world design is going to be a bit different now that I’m looking at it in terms of a longer amount of time and cultural diversity.
As Mr. Burns on The Simpsons would say… “Interesting…”
What do you think?