Welcome back, Gentle Readers. This is the second in a series of articles about designing a new world, one which I intend to use specifically for D&D Next. In the first article, I mentioned my usual starting processes and outlined the basic feel of the campaign – medieval Europe with a sort of “points of light” aspect, deliberately recalling times like the Interregnum period of the Holy Roman Empire and the Anarchy period of England, when there were no strong central powers, and many people took advantage of that fact to establish their own little footholds of power.
Besides doing lots of reading on these periods, my next step is to start to define the world further in terms of geography. And for that, I need….a map.
Start Big, Start Small
Conventional wisdom right now says that there’s no point in a DM designing a whole world. What needs their attention is just the small part of the world the next adventure happens in.
Now, I can agree with that on some levels. It probably isn’t necessary to develop an intricately detailed culture for the Kingdom of Kalduras if it’s on the other side of the world from where you’re setting your campaign. But I do think it’s worth investing at least some time knowing what else is out there. Some players like to know a little something about the places they come from in order to develop their character backgrounds. This is why settings like Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, and Golarion are all relatively well fleshed-out places.
While I won’t develop everything about everywhere, knowing what the major continents are…or whether your world even has continents (or is more like, say, Iomandra)…can help you later on when the players are asking questions. Yes, there are many islands, and piracy is rife in those regions. Yes, I can find a home for your Aztec shaman character. And so on.
Having said this, it’s also good to simultaneously start small. If you’re going to have the players spend a protracted period of time in one place, it’s good to know something about the place they’re spending time in. Are there going to be recurring NPCs? What services are available to them? Is there a Temple where they can be healed?
For purposes of this campaign, I intend to begin by running Keep on the Borderlands, so a lot of the starting small details are all set for me. Instead, I will concentrate on a “Big” element that I always like to have before the first session – a world map.
Do It Yourself
The best way to develop a world map that’s going to best fit your campaign’s needs is to draw it yourself. Whether you invest in a program like Dundjinni or Campaign Cartographer or do it by hand on paper, this allows you to draw details that you intend to set adventures around, which is, of course, the whole point of having a campaign world in the first place. If you intend to have adventures where the players seek a forbidden temple in the middle of a mountain range, it’s probably useful to put that mountain range onto your world map, so you know where it is.
There are lots of articles out there on how to draw a world map, and I don’t intend to replicate their advice here. To help you find these articles, here’s a link to a Google search that turned up some of my favorite counsel.
Use an Existing Map
There are many resources of fantasy world maps that other people have created out there. A quick search for “Fantasy World Map” reveals dozens of web sites with cool maps available for use. Choose one, and go to town.
For this campaign, I’m delving into my pack-ratty nature. Way back in the late 80s, early 90s, I collected a number of products for the now defunct Hess Games. Hess Games produced a number of very high quality maps, including castles, dungeons, cities, and a world. These came in colored 8×11 envelopes, and I snapped up every one of them, because I love those sorts of products. But for some reason, I’ve never used a single one of them. They’ve sat on my shelves for over 20 years.
But no longer!
I decided as I began this project that I would use all of these map packs to help develop my new world. When I started working on it, I pulled out the world map and had a look. I’d looked at it before, of course, but my thought was always, “This is beautiful…but I have a campaign world already. I don’t need this.” So it would go back into the envelope and get put away. But now, I have no campaign world, and I could finally use this high quality map.
I’m very fortunate in that the world map comes with both a big, beautiful poster map and a small 8×11 map of the same world. That will allow me to scan the map in so I can work it in Photoshop, adding layers with colors, texts, and details that I can have as DM-only and hide when I show the map to the players.
So What’s on This Map?
Looking at my map, the first thing that strikes me is that there’s really only one continent. Could there be others on the opposite side of the world? There absolutely could, but it might be interesting if this is the only continent on the planet as well. I don’t have to answer this question now. It may be that there are other lands, but this is a big enough real estate chunk for me to not have to worry about it for now.
The second thing that strikes me is that there are three very distinctive circles on the map. These appear to be made up of islands, and the natural curvature of the continental land mass. It immediately makes me think “impact craters.” I’ve always loved images of incredible craters…ones that formed lakes miles across. I once misunderstood something I heard in relation to the Chicxulub Crater on the Yucatan peninsula and believed that the whole Gulf of Mexico was an impact crater.
Although I’ve since come to understand that’s not the case, there are coastal features that are made up of impact craters, such as Chesapeake Bay. These three sites on my map could be massive fantasy based impact craters. Are they the sites of terrible Far Realm creatures falling to Earth? The detritus of a cataclysmic battle? The footprints of a God? I don’t know yet, but I look forward to figuring that out.
I notes that there are also many islands, including some that might be large enough to be thought of as sub-continents or even continents in their own right. I’m glad there are many islands, because another module I’d like to run is the Isle of Dread and it seems like it would fit right in.
Alright, so we have our feel (Interregnum Europe) and now our map (taken from this old Hess Games product). We still don’t have some crucial elements, like a theme or a name for the campaign, and we’ll look at some of these pieces next time.