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Maps and Geography

by Kim

Creating your own world from scratch comes with the challenge of making your own maps and deciding on the geography of your landscape. There are many aspects to keep in mind when creating your own maps. The scope of your world will determine many aspects of not only your geography, but the story itself. The layout of your world may also lead to your players creating regional biases. The only limit to your world is how you want to shape and use it.

Maps, Geography, and Mechanics

Maps you make and the geography of your world can give hints to your players about how your world functions. Do large areas of untamed wilderness surround a few densely populated cities? Are there many small towns a few miles from each other? Does your campaign take place only in one enormous city? These are all important questions to ask yourself before you even begin to draw a map of your world.

The geography of your world determines its ecosystem, which also plays a huge part in your campaign. Areas known for dangerous monsters will be sparsely populated, leaving adventurers without a safe place to rest or buy supplies.  You might have a particular monster be able to control the weather in an area. Some areas of your map may be unreachable by conventional methods, making players have to think outside the box.

Geography also affects the profession of NPCs in the area. Mountainous regions will allow for mining, blacksmithing, and jewelry trades. Forest areas lend themselves to the lumber industry, as well as the cultivation of certain kinds of dyes or herbs. Farmland will produce not only food, but products created by domesticated animals. Typically the easier it is to find the base materials for an item, the lower the cost of the item.

Themes and Story Drivers

The way you shape your world easily lends itself to being the driving force of your story’s narrative. Deciding what area of the world to start your players in will inevitably affect their view of your world. Having the story start in a sprawling city might make characters less likely to be sympathetic to royal woes.

Since most characters do not start off wealthy, they would be at the bottom of the social ladder right away. Lower social status often leads to mistreatment by city guards, and mistreatment leads to a lack of sympathy for their former antagonists. However, beginning an adventure in the sprawling wilderness can also lead to player biases. Your players may feel disconnected with issues that originate from royal spats. They might show disinterest in siding with a specific warring faction.

If players aren’t attracted to any of the story hooks you’re throwing them, it might have to do with their feelings about your world. Give them something in your world to be invested in. Let’s say you start your low-level party in a world ravaged by war. Conscription might be in effect in certain countries, as well as roads in disrepair and cities ravaged and abandoned.

Many circumstances can have an effect on your players’ characters. Also, it may be an easy way for your players to add to their backstory. Are they a military veteran? Perhaps their family or town was caught in the cross-fire of two warring nations. Some players may have no idea that nations are at war due to being sequestered in the wilds.

Inside-Out Map Building

The best way for new DMs to create their world maps is by keeping it simple in the beginning. There’s no need to have an entire world developed for your first session. If you start your adventurers in a small, simple town you’ll have less to worry about when beginning your campaign.

Chances are that you’ll find it easier to start small and build your way out. In fact, this method tends to lend itself to spontaneity. Changes in the story can sometimes make it necessary to drop in a town or dungeon that wasn’t previously on your map. There’s also a chance that you miscalculated the scale of your world and now everything is too far apart, making travel a nightmare for your players.

When building your world, we recommend you use the following guide for creation: Town -> City -> Region -> Continent -> Planet -> Celestial bodies. Build your world as though you’re zooming out on your map, starting at the location you began your campaign. It’s ok to leave building your entire world for another day. We’ll cover the best methods of world building in another post.

Easy Map Generation

The last step to creating your world is to physically generate it. There are a number of different methods you can use, each with their own benefits.

Computer Generated Maps

This may be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the options. Map making software guarantees neat, colorful maps. Any imaging or photo editing software, like Photoshop, Affinity, or GIMP, can be an extremely useful tool provided you already know how to use the software.

If not, there are other easier to use alternatives. Inkarnate is a very accessible way to create your maps. Little to no artistic skill is required to use it. Dungeon Painter is a free to use site that has templates for ground, walls, and objects. You can also use Dungeon Painter Studio, which is still in early access on Steam.

Maps and Forum Advice

You’ll never find people more enthusiastic about a topic than on a forum. You can get ideas from other posters who are always happy to help. You can also submit your created maps to get feedback and (hopefully constructive) criticism.

Reddit has a number of forums dedicated to this topic, but we would suggest /r/worldbuilding and /r/dndmaps for your uses. The Cartographer’s Guild specializes in fictional maps, and they also have members proficient in historical and contemporary maps. If you find a map on any of the forums, I’m sure whoever created it wouldn’t mind you using it for your own personal game. Just make sure you give credit where credit’s due.

The Macaroni Method

As always, there’s a much easier and faster way to make a map. We refer to it as the Macaroni Method. You only need to follow a few simple steps to master this method:

  1. Get a large piece of paper or poster board.
  2. Grab your favorite box of uncooked noodles (I like elbow noodles).
  3. Pour some of the contents of the noodle box onto your poster board.
  4. Trace the outline of wherever your noodles landed on the paper with a pencil.
  5. Behold the wondrous shape and dimension of your new continent!
  6. Repeat for each landmass as necessary.
  7. Arrange each landmass until you’ve filled your planet to your liking.
  8. Optional: Make some homemade mac and cheese with your elbow noodles.

And there you go: one perfectly adequate world map in half the time and effort.  All that’s left is filling in locations and topography that will be important to your story line, which can be just as random as your noodle drops. If you’re all out of noodles, another method is to take existing maps and modify them to your needs. Flip a real world map upside down. Smash countries and continents together.

Get inspiration from the real world and other fantasy worlds. Video games are full of maps just begging to be re-purposed. If you’re short on time, don’t bother trying to reinvent the wheel; use what’s already available. We have a number of map makers displayed on our resources page if you need inspiration.

The Takeaway

You can create the maps and geography of your world any way you want. There’s literally no wrong way to do it. But if you start small and expand as the story progresses, you might have an easier time all around. Just giving your players a taste of the world at first will be enough to get them curious about what else your world has in store for them. Try to keep in mind how your geography effects your world as a whole. But ultimately, do whatever works best for you, even if it’s just throwing noodles around.

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