There are places that don’t yet exist where stories happen. And because stories by name and trade are most definitely my business, mapping these worlds becomes something in between the vital and the sacred.
There are many ways to begin this kind of process. Most often, I start with a single short story, which shines a flashlight on one part of the geography, unfolds one aspect of culture. I have an anchor then. A thought to return to in strange lands.
But when I’m creating a world for others to explore, through a game? There has to be more detail from the start. People go poking their noses into all kinds of things. You can’t just rope off an area with caution tape and tell your players “you can’t go here yet, I’m not done making it.” Well, you can. Many video games stop you from going past the borders of the map, simply as a constraint to game size and detail. It’s worse when something internal to an area is closed off for no believably explainable reason. Blizzard did exactly that in World of Warcraft with Hyjal, which players couldn’t access except to exploit terrain or character spawning glitches. It left the world feeling unsatisfying and incomplete. There was a sense of glee in trying to explore places you “weren’t supposed to get to,” like the Ironforge Airport, which you could only see flying over one of the set “flight paths” for paid air transport, simply because the players were told through the rules of travel in the world, “you’re not supposed to be here.” Since that time, with the revamping of the game, Blizzard has addressed many of World of Warcraft’s unfinished bits, but I’ve not come back to enjoy them.
Blizzard has always provided me with an example of “what not to do” in world building. Not that everything they’ve done is wrong; there is much that they’ve done right in visually constructing localized landscapes that were at the same time alien, believable, and beautiful. However, the lore and history that fills their world, Azeroth, feels as slap-dash and nonsensical as their “zone” placement and transitions. Geography by variety, and history by committee. Azeroth’s past reads like a history book from a century ago, listing great deeds by important people (and in this case imaginary gods and creatures), with very little space for the mundane. It strikes me that the mundane in a history is what allows a player the space for their own narrative.
So when I begin building a world, I start with a map and let the geography tell me something about the people, like this:
It’s a bit of an archipelago. I like archipelagos because I like sea travel. So these people are going to be highly dependent on the sea. They don’t have a lot of land, so that makes large scale farming an interesting proposition depending on the terrain of these islands, but it does not rule out livestock.
Then I fill in the names. Sometimes they all come out similar, like in this case, which suggests to me the people of this area are all of one culture and speak the same language. Either that, or the map maker doesn’t care what the native populations call their lands, and the map maker’s culture thrives on travel and exploration– a future or present imperial power. Here, I think the islanders share related languages and cultural notions. I think that, despite their separate identities from each of their islands, they are more amenable to one another than to those from the mainland, who would then be viewed as outsiders. A bit on the clannish side. “Stay out of our fights and triumphs, you wouldn’t understand.”
From here, I have a framework. From here, it’s beginning to remind me a bit of Greece. I may use ancient Greece, Japan, Scotland, and Indonesia as examples, as ways of thinking about how those who live amid so many islands have related to one another in the past. I still have to decide how close to this imagined world’s equator this dappling of islands lays, and I still have to review climate, current, wind, and plate tectonic information before the shape of these lands are finalized. There is not going to be perfect precision here. Just enough to make sense. Just enough to not be a generic fantasy world map with little thought to why a desert is a desert.
It also has the feel of something only half-explored. The mainland there? It bleeds out into white space. It’s unknown. There are no road blocks saying “you can’t go here,” but there is an emptiness to be discovered. If I started a game in this world right now, and my players wanted to go off in that direction, I would be creating the ground under their feet at this point, without a finish to the lands in that direction. Less than desirable. I have also to flesh out the remainder of this world, the placement of continents, the most likely points for cities.
But I have a start. One that makes sense. An imagined place that feels like a real place, waiting for people to fill it and tell their stories.
Which brings me to my real purpose: I want to run a game again. I want to fill this world. So I will be telling stories to help populate these maps. I will be choosing a game system to govern the expected realities of its denizens. The question is, do you want to come along for the ride?