RPG Design Journal #2: Mapping the Land


So, we’ve created a skeleton on which to hang our world. Time to start developing a space for the world to inhabit. Yes, its that lovely process that all DMs obsess over, its time to draw some maps!

Admittedly, map-making doesn’t necessarily have to be done this early in the design process, but I find it very useful to have a visual representation of the world to help contextualize ideas.

First, I’m going to need to decide what kind of map I want to make. No map can contain all the relevant information about the game world, so by deciding what kind of map to make, I decide what information is conveyed to my players.

Many fantasy maps structure themselves after Christopher Tolkien’s maps for his father’s Middle Earth.

Click here for image source

Tolkien’s maps are pretty remarkable in their detail – they show mountain ranges, coastlines, rivers, forests, national borders. There’s a lot going on here – which very much reflects the world of Middle Earth. But I don’t know if this is quite right for the world I’m trying to represent. My world isn’t one that’s well understood. I need a world that’s only beginning to be explored and understood by the players, a world that gives them only just enough information to get by on.

Following through on the idea of colonization, I took a look through old maps form the British Empire. Eventually I stumbled upon a map of South Africa from 1885.

Click here for image source

This map still has quite a bit going on, but it seems much less focused on the natural world of Tolkien’s maps and more focused on the urban world. There are rivers and mountain ranges, but they lack the sweeping grandiosity of a Middle-Earth map. The borders are emphasized with color, regional names and city names take precedent over natural landmarks. This is a much more empirical map than the previous, but its still a “sketch map,” as the title implies. Whoever made this map was much more concerned with creating a realistic portrayal of the land, but seemed to know more about the urban regions. This seems like a good map to build off from.

My first finished map

When creating my map I began by thinking about the placement of the forest. We previously decided that the forest would be a point of major conflict – a mysterious source of monsters and villains. Therefore, it seems only natural that the forest should remain unmapped. I could put the forest somewhere in the middle of the map, but I take issue with this for two reasons: 1) Putting the forest in the middle will take up a lot of space that I don’t know if I can afford to waste, 2) Putting the forest in the middle will make it possible for the players to get an idea of how large the forest is. I want the forest to seem to go on forever (Hell, maybe it actually does go on forever!), so I’m going to use it for the Northern border. Since this is a colony, we’ll make the southern region of the map a coastline. Much like our example map, we’ll mostly have cities along the south of the map (which makes sense – this is a colony with connections to an overseas Empire so there would be plenty of cities by the sea. The North is also hostile territory, so they’ll avoid settling up North unless they have a barrier like a mountain range to provide protection.) I separated the inhabited regions into three different colonies, with natural barriers of mountains and rivers separating them. I’m thinking the one to the west will be the first colony. As travelers moved further east different cultures developed as they were geographically separated, creating different regions. This will also help set up the political conflicts we talked about before.

A second, much larger, version of the map

I’ve also added a fourth inhabited region, and two uninhabited regions. Because the forest is such a threat, I imagined that there would be forts outside it, trying to keep an eye out for any unexpected monster activity, and maybe dealing with the first waves of monsters when the siege season came. It seemed a bit cumbersome to try and make a full line of forts (where would these colonies get the materials and men for such an undertaking?) so I added some mountain ranges/hills and created a trio of northern forts. This region – The Coalition – will be a conglomerate of the three colony’s military forces, a sort of paramilitary alliance. Now we have a way of further connecting our colonies as well as added political tensions, all three colonies need each other to keep the monsters from overwhelming themselves. The western and eastern wilds are left mostly blank. These can be unexplored regions with occasional wandering monsters and bandits, stock questing lands that aren’t as foreboding as the forest.

Finally, I don’t want to expand too much on the geography of the overseas Empire, since players wont be going there, but I did do a quick map showing the two landmasses relative to each other.

One is North, the other is South. Easy for players to remember.

These maps are even simpler, intended to show that the game world isn’t isolated.

Obviously there’s a lot that I skipped over. How did I name things? How did I decide to place the cities? How were the borders decided? There’s plenty more to talk about, but I don’t know if I can go into detail with all of it. For those who are interested I would recommend taking a look at Rich Burlew’s notes on worldbuilding. It covers a lot of similar info and goes into detail on some stuff that I’ll be skipping.

Now that we’ve mapped out a basic space for the game to be set in we can start developing some history to build lore with, develop some characters, and make a city.