Category: World Building


I would also like to give some love to Zombie Nirvana for an AMAZING series of podcasts that deal with creating fantasy cartography using Photoshop. I recently listened to / watched the first 14 or so episodes and managed to create the following map for my homebrew world, Kildaire.

I am not going to continue the blog with any more posts regarding how to create a map–there are way too many other tutorials out there by people who are much more skilled with PS than I. This does not mean that I will not be continuing my blog on world building, it just means that I will start up soon with my newly redesigned map of Kildaire and being walking through the next series of WBing issues that need to be addressed.

I promise to be back real soon, once I get a few things over at Myth-Weavers settled down and rolling smoothly….

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Okay, so after taking a break and reflecting on my last post a bit, I feel that this information, to date, is probably pretty standard stuff—sorry if I have been boring you. Tonight I am going to work on getting the geographical landforms illustrated on the map and then, possibly, getting some of the locations placed and named. For the remainder of this map-making extravaganza, I have decided upon the two land map. It makes the most sense for these purposes for some reason.

So, I think it is time that we give out lands a name…something that rolls off of the tongue and it easy enough to pronounce. I cheated with my actual campaign setting, Kildaire, as it is a county in Ireland. Not a lot of people in my neck-of-the-woods know that though, so I went with it. For these purposes let us call the lands Tahqua.

So, as I look at the very general outline of Tahqua, the first thing that comes out is that it really needs some definition—some nooks and crannies and isthmuses and jetties or fjords.

So here is the outline from the original thumbnail drawings.

Now it is time to lay your paper over top of these shapes and make it more interesting…or add a new layer in Photoshop. I will illustrate my overlay in orange because it is my favorite flavor, except in Kool-Aid terms, then its green. Please notice a few things that may be considered ‘drastic’ changes to the perimeters…I do this mainly because I am a huge fan of plate tectonics and I like my lands to look like they may have, at one time, been one larger continent…again, Pangaea anyone?

Now that we have the lands set, it is time to get rid of the original, inspiration-granting thumbnail and get down to aquatics, flora, climatic oddities, etc. Because I am doing this in Photoshop, I found a few neat brushes that will help with the mountains and the trees—olde schoole map icons like ^ for mountains and the cloud-like trees with line trunks are totally acceptable (that is how I illustrated Kildaire).

So let me start with water features…I tend to favor lakes and rivers and the likes so my maps are typically heavy with these sorts of things. I will hold myself back a bit for this though. Not only do I just love the imagery that water can offer to a role-playing session but also there is the very real fact that it is just so much easier for the players’ transportation.

As you can see I have several major rivers, a mammoth lake and the area of 10 lakes. Remember that you map does not have to include every detail of the geography for your players…they should not be handed everything. It is nice to surprise them with a giant marsh where a sparse forest should be. Typically I just start drawing pretty freely with my rivers and there is little rhyme or reason at this point as to why I place them where I do. It helps to keep your mind open at this point and let things happen organically if possible. That being said, most of us have at least one ‘really cool’ land feature that we have to have…go for it! What I like most about the organic development is that it can really help you come up with interesting locations to explore. While I am writing this, I keep looking at the 10 lakes area and I am asking myself why are they there? Perhaps it is a very rocky, hilly area and they are present for lack of drainage. That works…meh. However, what if they were a series of ‘craters’ for lack of a better term, and they are all interconnected underground. Now, that means they can be home to very cunning dragons that use the underground waterways as a labyrinth to confuse their prey. To me, that is much more interesting.

For me, the next step is adding mountains. I like to get my elevation set early as it affects some of my later decisions (namely deserts). Again, going off of the plate tectonics interest, I typically have coastal elevation, which would be the cause of colliding plates forcing the earth upwards. This time it is not as extreme but there is still subtle influence.

So three mountain ranges have been established and they are all substantial stretches of difficult terrain. Please remember that fact; mountains = difficult terrain. That slows travel, possesses great threats to the characters, and makes for wonderfully well-defended strongholds.  You can also add any number of mountain rivers that are sourced from snow melt as well.  I will also note here that where there are mountains, there are foothills. I typically illustrate hilly areas but to keep this simple and clean I am going to leave them off.

After the elevation comes the vegetation. Typically I have several large stands of forest and they vary from coniferous to deciduous. I love large stands of Jack Pines, where the lower branches die off and create an open, easily traversable area for characters. I also favor sugar maples due to the intensity of fall colors, which can create very dramatic imagery for gaming.

Notice how I have 2 different tree icons in place—these can represent either coniferous versus deciduous trees of they can be used more literally as being spooky willow trees and barren hardwoods…its totally up to you.

Now, as I mentioned a bit earlier in the mountain section, I like to use my mountains to create interesting climactic issues. For this last portion of mapping, I am going to use the westernmost mountains to create a rain-shadow, or absence of rain, which will produce a desert area. Deserts offer a totally different aspect to gaming—an aspect where survival is pushed to the Nth degree. I played in an online, homebrew setting where the animals could smell fresh water for miles away and they were upon that smell in minutes. It was devastatingly difficult and frustrating as your character could very well risk their life for taking a drink (which was probably being taken to avoid risking their life).

That is, pretty much, establishing your terrain for a continent. Please do not feel like this is all that you can do because the possibilities are endless. In a fantasy setting, anything is possible and this will become extremely apparent when I show you Kildaire, Land of the Five Ashes where there is a two-tiered ocean, which separates Kildaire (the mortal continent) from The Land of the Five Ashes (the home of the gods).

The only thing left for this map is to add some underlying color for the oceans and for the land. This is extremely simple in Photoshop so here is my final product for this phase of WBing. There is a distinct lack of a compass indicator as well as a distance key on this map. I am going to leave that up to you for now. I have always used the very simplistic rule that ‘North is Up’ and, for these purposes, distance is not an essential element right now.

Roll your Spot checks now as I will be coming back soon with cities and named landforms amongst other things which really get us into the meat and potatoes of WBing!

For this portion, I am going to show you how I address one of the base issues in creating a defined world.

Geography, for me, is a very crucial element in world building [WBing]. I like to know what bodies of land and water I am working with. However, to date, I have only created one or two continents at a time and I have never addressed the issues of an entire planet. Furthermore, I have very little interest in Cosmology, so I have never worked on how multiple planets interact with each other. This is my preference and you may decide that knowing how many planets, suns, moons, constellations, etc. there are in your campaign setting [CS] is very crucial to how weather, travel/navigation, etc. operates…. that is awesome!

So, with Geography being so important to my WBing process, I find it best to physically define what the land looks like. For Kildaire, I went through dozens of pieces of sketch paper trying to come up with a land that I deemed suitable for my purposes.

I am going to demonstrate this process, step by step, so that you can have a visual.

Step 1: Scribbles (blind or otherwise)

As you can see, I basically just put pen to paper (figuratively seeing as how I mocked these up in Photoshop) and allowed my hand to scribble and squiggle. Try not to over-think this process…your imagination already has some preconceptions as to how this will form, so let your brain translate those energies via your hand.

After you have a page or two or twelve full of doodles, you must now start scanning them and looking for individual ones that stand out as having potential. Perhaps this is done by a process of elimination or maybe there are a few that seem really interesting to you right away–whatever works for you. It is important to remind yourself that this is preliminary—you will have time to refine the drawing later.

Here are three that I believe have potential.

Out of this batch, there are a few that were immediately eliminated (i.e. the Playboy Bunny-esq one in the upper right corner). The highlighted three show the most potential aesthetically and also, in the case of the two with multiple pieces of land, the potential for border tensions/political issues.

I am going to break down, briefly, why I picked each one of these three individually.

This single continent has aesthetic appeal in that the lower left segment is a large peninsula and it is bordered on it’s right side by a very large bay. To me these two features are appealing to me as it offers a portion of the continent to have drastically different political views on the peninsula in comparison to the ‘mainland’. Peninsulas are harder to defend, are more susceptible to weather, etc. All of these issues come in to play for me during this process.

The two continents here have a nice feel to them. There is a play of dominance and yielding between the two. That may be reading into the sketches too much, but believe me, if the shapes of your lands give you ideas that you could incorporate as underlying mood or overarching plotlines then you are that much farther ahead of the curve. I also really appreciate how this came out because the two appear as if they could have, at one time, been a part of the same landmass….Pangaea anyone?

Granted, to me, this one almost has too much going on. I included it anyways for demonstration purposes. Talk about having border/land struggles and an easy way to incorporate several types of political systems. This one could also be a great way to separate different racial groups if your world is not racially inclusive. In my studies I have learned that it becomes more difficult for a political system to govern its populace the farther away from the core the location is. This is crucial to remember in fantasy settings and that is what intrigues me the most about these three lands. Long and skinny is a ruling body’s nightmare and that, or course, creates great flavor history for your CS.

So this is Step One. Once you have selected which base doodle you are going to run with, it is time to break out a clean sheet of paper and a light table or create a new layer in Photoshop.

Roll your Spot checks now as I will be getting the next segment up very soon. Within the next few posts, you will be able to see various aspects of the major undertaking that I have been piddling with for the past several years…Kildaire, Land of the Five Ashes.

I cannot tell you how many worlds swim in my imagination. I am unsure if I will ever be able to fully actualize all of them, even if I worked at it full time. I have, since I started RPing, always been fascinated with campaign setting and world building. That being said, I have never played in or ran a game based in a manufacturer’s campaign setting. I have always been content frolicking through the core-book’s lands or the homebrew worlds of my DMs. I know of Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and DragonLance, yet I have always resisted playing in them (there is one major exception and that was playing a short-lived campaign in the DragonLance setting, where Dutch’s knowledge is so damn extensive that he was only comfortable DMing in that capacity…and hey, I wanted to play damnit!). The same goes for Earthdawn and Shadowrun too. I never wanted to set sail for Thera or play in Hong Kong—the core settings of Barsaive and Seattle were more than enough for me.

This leads me to a nagging question: why is that? How could I get so much satisfaction out of so little content (lets compare the almost non-existent amount of setting info in the core D&D3.5 versus the seemingly endless stack of splat books for the FR setting)? The answer, I believe, is intrinsic. To me, less is more. There is an exception to this but I will get there in a minute. Less information to start off with (flavor wise, not mechanically speaking) allows one’s imagination to really take off, conceptualize details that ultimately helps the game feel very personal as well as molding the setting to perfectly fit your character. If I want to live in a hamlet called Glammis that was a matriarchy decided upon by an old crone’s reading of chicken bones, then hey, guess what…I can. Obviously the stipulation to this is DM approval but I have never had an issue (especially in tabletop groups) getting a DM to accept the ideas that I develop for character background and flavor. This open-endedness is what makes RPing such an enjoyable endeavor for me—I have a hand in shaping the world my character is involved in. Even as I began to DM, I always allowed my players the opportunity to create their character’s hometown and any flavor components that they wanted.

There is the above-mentioned exception however. Remember?

“To me, less is more. There is an exception to this but I will get there in a minute.”

Well, for me, more is far more satisfying…when it is YOUR OWN WORLD! There is nothing more pleasing that designing an entire world, from shape to geography to climate to politics to pantheon. It truly is, for me, probably the most gratifying process in RPing (okay, okay…next to seeing a character progress from level one onwards). I am somewhat unsure as to why I have such drastic views between these two areas or why I shy away from campaign settings. I think the issue lies in knowledge retention. I have a difficult time grasping settings that I do not have a hand in creating. How could I embrace Earthdawn’s Barsaive or Seattle in 2072 then? My only explanation is that I was much younger when I started playing Earthdawn and I spent a great deal of time with eDubs on the shores of Lake Michigan reading splat book cover to cover for weekend and weekend. That utopia of childhood memories is so deeply ingrained in me that I am pretty positive that I will never forget the settings or concepts of Earthdawn or Shadowrun…ever.

This all being said, I want to talk extensively about my process for world building in the near future. I want to share how I begin getting the myriad ideas, intricacies, quirks, and oddities from my convoluted mind out on to paper. I hope this will also allow me to refocus my mind towards a few lofty projects that I have in store for Kildaire.

Roll your Spot checks now as I will be writing new posts that deal with my aspirations for Kildaire very soon.