maps and geography

Fantastical Worlds and How to Build Them: Maps and Geography

The following article was written by guest post writer Andrew Bartlett.

Welcome to my short series on World Building. I have been playing DnD for a good while now and world building is by far my favorite part of any game I participate in. This series of articles will explain how I craft and manage a world and explain my creative thoughts and process as it pertains to constructing a fantasy world from nothing.

Keep in mind that these are my thoughts alone and DnD is best played and ran when it makes you and your playgroup happy, so don’t take anything I saw as law. So, let us dive right in with the first topic: The Maps and Geography of Your World.  

Craft Your Maps and Geography

The very first thing I do when I run a campaign is create the world map. Everything in your world stems from the creation of it. Many of the “Theaters” you play in comes from the geography and settlements you’ve laid out. There’s no wrong way to begin building a world but I like to ask myself a handful of questions to get the ball rolling, they can be thing such as:

  • How big is the continent(s) that we’re playing on?
  • What’s the general climate(s)?
  • What is traveling across it like? 
  • How well explored and documented is this land?

Those are a few questions I start with as I begin drawing lines and shapes on my map. Usually I create my maps with pen and paper or Inkarnate, which I highly recommend as a map building tool; even the free version is diverse enough for plenty of use. 

Locations Locations Locations

Fill your map up with enough diversity and geographical locations that you and your players will love to explore. This is a good time to start thinking about where cities and towns will go. Much like in real life, most settlements are founded on coasts, rivers, and bodies of water. I like to keep that in mind when placing both water and settlements on my world map.

I also love to include really intriguing geographical locations too, such as archipelagos, peninsulas, volcanoes, and mountains or forests that take an interesting shape. I try to avoid including too many of these items as I want the world to still look real, because it’s hard to feel real if it doesn’t even look real. 

You Don’t Always Need a Map

When can I go without a map? Great question. There are several reasons why not having a map would make sense. If you’re running a one-shot game or a small arc that’ll only take place over a few sessions, you probably don’t need to spend that much time on a map, if any, because it probably won’t be that necessary to have one. 

If you are running a full-on campaign, you might opt out of a map to let you and your players explore the world organically. This gives you, the DM, more time to prepare and figure out what actually is in your world. It also adds elements of mystery and surprise into your game. 

“What’s on the other side of that mountain? …Only one way to find out.”

I personally don’t like playing without a map. I’ve done it before and I struggle to keep continuity. It makes it hard to add cities and locations that are clearly important but have never been spoken of or even brought to the attention of the players. There are certainly many ways to run an incredibly successful game without a world map at your disposal, but for me, having a completed map makes everything way easier to organize, visualize, and explain to my party. 

A Copper for My Thoughts 

I love having a world map. For every game I run, I’ve made at least 5 or 6 different world maps just to see what I like and what looks like a fun place to explore. Your world map should be something you look at and think “Man, I can’t wait to see what this is all about.”

Tailor it to what you and your playgroup love. It should be unique and fit the style of game you’re looking for. By the time you’re done crafting your world map, it should be a bubbling landscape of mountains, ocean, rivers, forests, etc, ripe for population with people and settlements, which will be next week’s topic. 

Let me know what your thoughts are on world maps, how you like using them versus not using them, and what topics I should cover in the future at Twitter or Instagram.

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