Location, Location, Location

by Nancy Schultz

Not everyone uses them in the same way, but from miniatures to table top to computer RPG's, maps are just about omnipresent. They can be simple sketches or in-depth three-dimensional dioramas. They can be purchased for worlds such as Forgotten Realms, or pulled from sites such as National Geographic for a modern game. They can be drawn by hand, by computer, or be nothing more than notes so that the game master remembers the general layout of an important place in his game. Dioramas can be folded card-stock, carved Styrofoam, or molded plaster or styrene. Whatever form they take, maps are a basic part of building a world: Where does everything go.

Campaign maps cover the scope of the game, be it a neighborhood, city, county, province, country, continent, planet, system, or star chart. They can be built from the very small, covering only what the game master wants to start with and building out as more of the world needs to be detailed, or start as large as a whole planet and then detailed down to those areas where the player characters come from, and where they start, with open patches in between. Sometimes the whole world can be intricately detailed even before the first session of play, leaving little room for a game master to add a new spin when needed, but leaving little ambiguity. They can be designed from scratch, or published worlds can be purchased. All of these options have their share of benefits and problems.

Creating a world from scratch, especially for a fantasy campaign where the world can get high levels of detail and attention, can be very satisfying. The world is unique, no matter how many sources it borrows from, and the game master can place whatever sort of geography and political boundaries she desires. The down side is that even with software packages such as Campaign Cartographer and it's add-ons, creating a map from scratch can be difficult and time consuming as the game master works out the level of details, tries to get the land to lay right and flow properly, and in general work it all out. Fractal Terrains and similar products can make getting the landscape realistic easier, but make it difficult to get the land to have the desired features in the desired locations. Purchasing a published world or basing a game on modern earth can provide a lot of the details, and take care of many of the headaches, but there will still be areas the game master needs to fill in, or change, for her own game. Those changes can end up being problematic if one or more of the players knows the area as well, or better, than the game master (either due to living there or also possessing the same resources) and the flow of the game disrupted while the game master's changes are questioned.

Highly detailed worlds are excellent for allowing players free reign on where they go. If the place is mapped out, then there are no questions of what it looks like, what the players have to go through, or how far away it is. They can just go and the game master is ready. However, detailing like this, even just on a mapping level, takes a lot of time in laying out cities and towns, roads and borders. This doesn't even get into the questions of culture, dress, language and the like, which will be discussed in future articles. Worlds that are more sketched out, covering only what's needed for a given adventure may require less preparation, but run the risk of contradiction if the game master doesn't keep good notes.

When developing a setting, keep the scale of your campaign in mind. If the game isn't going to be leaving the city, then there's little need to map the surrounding land. A few notes on the geography around the city will do for a guideline. If the campaign is going to be a globetrotting one, then mapping cities that your players are never going to visit has little value beyond intellectual exercise and completeness sake.

When making a map of just about any scale, from a room in a building to a whole world, the first consideration should always be the geography. On large scale maps, political borders are usually influenced by geographic features, which themselves are creations of topography, geology, temperature and rainfall (and sometimes magic or other unusual circumstances.) That's not to say that all of these features need to be tracked to make an accurate map. However, a desert that abuts a tropical jungle indicates an abrupt change in rainfall that needs some explanation to be "realistic." Mid scale maps, such as cities and towns, are also subject to the geography of the land as well as the growth of the city. One that grew up over time at a crossroads will have a jumbled, sprawling feel, while one that was deliberately planned will generally be more neatly laid out. Rivers and older roads will need to be accommodated, as will shorelines and the topography of the landscape. Features such as rainfall and temperature tend to have less impact on the design of a city and more impact on the architecture of it's buildings, which brings us to the next scale of map. Buildings will be influenced by geography, climate, economics, function and the architectural fashion of the time it was built. Again, it seems like a lot to keep in mind, but it's more a matter of perspective. If there is a sprawling mansion in the middle of a shanty-town, again there is a question that needs to be answered. Function is also a feature of mapping out an individual room. A modern banquet hall and a medieval great hall may both see wedding feasts, but they are laid out quite differently.

Of course, all this mapping is for nothing if it can't be communicated to the players. Providing them with their own copy of a map is one solution, and suitable for campaign and city scale maps. Individual buildings, especially the classic dungeon, are another matter. Description is an excellent method, but assuming the eyes and ears of the player characters can make it difficult to detail all the appropriate information. Dioramas are a visually pleasing option, but take up space. After all, how much room is left on the average gaming table once all of the books, character sheets, drinks, chips, and pizza are taken into account? Not to mention the re-usability of the diorama is always a question. Spending time and money on something that can only be used once is a luxury most gamers don't really have. Perspectives Pro (again from Profantasy) is one option. Images can be printed showing the scene in perspective. Of course, the downside is that the scene is shown from a single angle, and the bulk of the icons available are fantasy oriented. For modern games, and with minimal work they can be adjusted for some historical and fantasy settings, a home design floor plan can be used. There are several on the market that are under $20, and if the game master runs from her computer she can provide an appropriate "walk through" view of the room from whatever angle the players enter from.

There are a lot of factors involved in creating a map, and we've only scratched the surface. But then, World building is never a simple task. In future articles, we'll look at creating cultures, languages, and races; what world building means for those using published worlds or the real world and follow some examples of world building using both my current Mage: the Awakening campaign and the world I created for this year's attempt at NaNoWriMo (with a report on how successful I was as well).

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