Monday, November 28, 2011

World building from the map up...

A long time table-top RPG player and game master, I like me a good setting as much as I enjoy creating 'em. I would spend hours over a table with dozens of pencils and a stack of paper -- early on I used square-grid or hexagon-grid sheets, and then moved onto blank sheets.

It's important to say that world building from the map up is always a map in progress because at any given time you can draw a tighter map, focusing on a very specific area with fully-detailed roads, villages, towns, farms -- even that oak tree where young love blossoms.

My world building rarely begins with a coastline. Most of the time it starts as a few letters. An "M" to represent a mountain. See it? Two snowy white peaks... Then as I draw them I change up their size. The larger the M, the bigger the mountain. If I think of a name for the mountain range, I just jot it down somewhere nearby. Then, as I cluster them together I start to think about who would live there. Dwarves? Ogres? Bears? Snow leopards? Wolves? The list starts to form. Keep in mind they're just lists. This is world building, not an enemy list for your heroes. It's all in progress so at any time you can draw a line through any of those creatures, but never erase them. Ideas shouldn't be erased. They should be edited. Modified. Edited into a final draft, much like your story.

And as I would overlap those letter M's some of them get sent into the background. And as I did that I would jot down other enemies. You see the trigger here is what inhabitants and what creatures co-exist and which ones don't.

Eventually, I'll move into other geography. Rivers get the squiggle and bend, just like a letter S, snaking through the world. What might those rivers be like? Roaring, calm, shallow, deep, murky, a gate to the elemental plane of water? You see the goal of a map isn't to immediately define its function. It's to give you seeds...

A map is the place(s) in which your characters live and thrive. Civilizations build and fall over time. Within them are people busy in their routines, hopes and dreams. They have troubles, near and far, some visible, while others search for power.

The important thing to remember here is geography becomes a foundation, not a limitation.

Your characters might feel trapped by the conditions of their life--but that's human nature, not the order of the natural world. Think about why people live in a forest, a mountain, along a river or coastline. Do these people need resources? That's a given. More importantly, what are these people like? Peaceful? Warriors? Farmers? Builders? Or, are they refugees, driven out of their homeland there by some tyrant? Where they exiled as punishment? Or, have they always lived there, perennially, able to trace traditions to their first ancestors? And if they can, how do they? A town square? A monument?

As these details emerge in the map, so will the societies in which your characters live, their political views, cultural expressions, and ultimately the place that gives birth to the heroes that will shape the world as they journey through that map.

Seeds...

Pencils at the ready...

... and...

M...

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