Much has been written about “World Building” in RPG’s, all it takes is a quick search to find a variety of opinions and concepts on the subject. It seems to me that a lot well meaning GM’s draw up a fantasy map with a previously created idea in mind. We have all seen those maps at the start of our favorite fantasy novels, and we tend to emulate them don’t we?
I say through that old boring concept out the window! The following is a list of a few ideas to get you thinking outside of the “Mountains in the north” box.
Every time I look at a fantasy map, the first thing that pops into my mind is "this looks like a great place to settle down and raise a family". What I mean by that is there are always a variety of nice looking towns, quite close together. There are usually mountains to the north, maybe a sea to the west and of course there are forested lands (Where the Elves are). Why can’t those Elves live in the desert anyways? But I digress.
I've often thought that the land should be just as dangerous as the monsters that live within it. Why not have large cracks across the land, caused by a shift from tectonic plates? A forest that is so dense that the only way thru it is either over or under it? One volcano, how about two!
From an adventurer standpoint, their needs to be a home base, a place to put your feet up, smoke your pipe and drink copious amounts of ale. Good locations for settlements are always close to a source of food and water. The obvious choice is the keep or border town. Bah that’s been done hasn’t it? Over and over again! Put that city or village deep within a forest, on the side of a mountain or deep underground.
Instead of having your map continues off the page north, south, east and west. Surround the entire maps edges in fairy darkness on all sides there is a nothingness that no one can fathom.
Islands are another great resource, everyone seems to think there's only one way off of them and that is by boat. Why not an underground tunnel that leads to each island? What about deserts covered in lava pools or a river that has been poisoned and is now a black tar like substance?
Elevation is another important thing to keep in mind when designing a world. Picture this, you are traveling south thru a forest, it slowly inclines to hills and then a picturesque mountain, on the other side of the mountains is a great drop off to the sea.
These are just a few ideas to help you re-think your map making and campaign world. Rather than emulate your favorite map or campaign world, create your own, but do it in a way that is entirely different than the norm. As I said, think outside of the “mountains in the north” box.
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