World Building 101: Here There be Dragons…

I love maps. Not the new, highly accurate, full color satellite maps, now—I’m talking about the kind drawn on faded parchment, where the margins have “Here there be Dragons” and the oceans are depicted with sea monsters frolicking. Whenever I get a new fantasy book I always, always study the maps before I begin to read, and frequently refer back to them throughout. Maps help to make the fantasy world more concrete.

When world building for your D&D game, a map can be an invaluable asset, but it can also become a straitjacket, restricting your options. Maps can show the distance between point A and point B, or where the borders of two warring nations are, but if your map is sufficiently detailed you may find your players observing that “there’s no forest here, look at the map!” or similar objections. You might also find that if you detail too much, you’re limited by what you’ve drawn—because the geography has been made concrete by the map, it becomes that much more difficult to change it later.

Another problem that can arise with creating a fully detailed map early on is that it leaves little room for your players to contribute their own ideas for where they come from, or the kinds of things that they’d like to find in your world. If you’ve detailed everything for hundreds of miles around your campaign’s focal area, the character who wants to have eked out a living in a harsh, rocky desert and learned to survive that way may have difficulty reconciling that concept with the lush temperate forests and wetlands you’ve already placed on the map. Worse, if you had no intention of ever travelling to those wetlands in your game, you’ve inadvertently created a pre-emptive block on that particular concept.

When you create your maps, then, it’s best to leave some areas labeled as “Terra Incognito”, or to restrict your focus specifically to regions that will be covered in your campaign. You might consider sketching an outline of a continent or region and marking specific points of interest on it as they come up in your game, creating a living record of areas explored and adding details as you go. You might consider assembling your group together over the outline of the rough map, and asking them to detail regions themselves, making the geography and makeup of your campaign world a collaborative effort. Or, you might not create large maps at all, instead focusing your cartographic inclinations on particular regions specific to your campaign—such as the one presented in the DMG.

Whatever you decide, there are a few things that you’ll want to have in mind when you’re creating maps:

  • Borders: Where are the borders of different regions in your world? Remember that countries or domains are often delineated by terrain features such as mountain ranges, rivers, or coastlines, and frequently cannot be drawn with a ruler. Do the borders shift, or are they stable and unchanging?
  • Natural Features: What kinds of features dominate given areas? Heavy forests, swamps, savannah, grassland, tundra—any environment that can be found in the real world can exist in your setting, and you don’t always have to obey natural laws in your setting. Mountains can be bigger, rivers longer, oceans broader than in the real world. That’s a part of what makes it fantasy.
  • Fantastic Terrain: Of course, limiting yourself to terrain that can be found in our world is not necessary. Anything you can imagine, from mountains of floating glass and crystal to forests of twisted rocky spires as far as the eye can see, works great in a fantasy setting. Be careful not to overuse these fantastic elements, though, as it can be difficult to maintain a sense of wonder when everything encountered is fantastic—it doesn’t feel as special after awhile.
  • Constructed Features: Cities, castles, ruins, or even massive monuments from ancient and long-gone empires can be points of interest as well. A massive wall, a system of highways, or a circle of monoliths with unknown purpose, anything that has been constructed by intelligent life, rather than shaped by nature, can also be noted on the map. As often as not these can become adventure sites, or at least somewhere where an encounter or two can be set up.
  • Climate: How’s the weather? Does the campaign take place in a tropical paradise, or a scorched wasteland? All sorts of climate and weather can work, including the fantastic. If you want to have a scorching desert next to a frozen tundra, you can do that in fantasy—it may create an interesting story hook to find out why there’s such an anomalous climate shift. An endless lightning storm over a certain area might be caused by some dark power. Bear in mind also that climate tends to have a very real effect on the local costume and customs of people living in the region.
  • Population: Who lives in the region, and where are the centers of population? Why are the cities located where they are—is there a crossroad that turned into a major trading center, or a rich vein of minerals around which a mining town has grown? Questions of culture, law, and demographics are better left to other areas of campaign design, but applying some rationale to the geographical location of important population hubs can help to lend veracity to the campaign world.
  • Distance and Scale: An important part to remember is that your map needs to represent a consistent scale. This can come into play when trying to determine how long it will take to get from point A to point B on the map, or just the relative sizes of different features. Be careful not to confuse your scale, though—or else you might end up with a Stonehenge that’s in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.
  • Travel: What options exist for travel? How fast is each typically? In a campaign setting like Eberron with magical rail systems, you might be able to go from one point to another quite quickly compared to a setting where your main options are on foot or on horseback. Are there roads? Rails? Riverboats for hire? Can you simply sail up the coast, or hop in an airship? Especially important to consider when your campaign is set in a kingdom or empire—communication and trade are critical for maintaining an empire or even a large kingdom.

Mapping your campaign can—and should—be an ongoing process that continues as long as your campaign runs, but the ideas discussed here should give you a good place to start.

Comments (4)

Andy (February 25th, 2010)

Maps are truly cool. Here’s another thought to chew on: what’s the border of the map? Every map is limited. Every map has a border. That border is a frame for the map; it gives the map context, and a reason to exist.

sturtus (February 25th, 2010)

Fantastic series on world building. Enjoying it all.

I’d like to recommend Campaign Cartographer as a cartography application. That mixed with Photoshop has created many fine overland maps and world maps for my campaign world.

It’s Windows only, but an enterprising Macxpert can use Wine and WineBottler to get it working on the Mac ;)

Brandan Landgraff (February 25th, 2010)

Campaign Cartographer looks good but the price tag may deter casual users or cross-OS users from investing in it. The cross-platform open-source program MapTool is available free and I’ve used it personally while creating maps for my own campaigns. It can also be used as a virtual tabletop, which to offline groups matters little but for online groups can be excellent. It does have a bit of a learning curve, though, but I believe almost any cartography software comes with that to get a really good looking map out of it.

Stormcrowe (March 7th, 2010)

Excellent advice on mapping. I just recently started mapping out my homebrew world using Photoshop. It seems a bit intimidating at first but there are good tutorials on Youtube for photoshop and I found a gem of mapmaking in

Comments for this article are closed.