Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Importance of the World Map

Adventurers are a crazy breed: Battling monsters, delving into dungeons and traveling the world in search of fame and fortune. As a GM you probably have plenty of books covering monsters and a stack of dungeons on-call but what do you do when they tread off the beaten path and strike out into the wide-open world? Do you make something up or do you already have the situation under control? Published campaigns offer the convenience of pre-existing and professionally crafted maps so there's no big problem there. What about homebrew games though?

For a long time I ran a very run-and-gun style world. My original world map -if you can call it that- was more of a vague diagram than anything else. It was created as we played; every adventure led to a new place for the players and for myself to discover. It's not a bad way to play, it just became cumbersome. I found the players asking legitimate geographical questions that I didn't have an honest answer for. Questions such as "How far are we from town? How long is this trip going to take / how long have we been on the road?", were often answered with an arbitrary number. It may not make a big difference in the grand-scheme of the world, but I don't want to cheat the players either. I should be flattered that they have so much interest in the world we've created, not worried that I might give them wrong or even worse, confusing answers.

Our original world map: Simple AND misleading!

Keeping these thoughts in mind, I finally decided to sit down and flesh out our campaign world. The task was much more daunting than I anticipated. I was intimidated by geographical features and land shapes. I started asking questions like "What is the determing factor for the creation of mountain ranges, where should they go?" and "Can I put a river here? It makes sense for the story but I don't know if it's scientifically sound." I began scouring the internet looking for answers. Unfortunately the only thing all that reading provided was an increase of my own self doubt.

I stared at my blank Photoshop screen for a moment before saying to myself, "Who cares? Just draw the thing already!" So I did.

Once I tossed away my worries and doubt I found world-building to be a very organic experience. My original goal was to create a functional map with illustrated borders and geographical features. What I ended up with was a multi-layered Frankenstein of cartography! Once the borders were down I started adding rivers, then mountains and forests. Once those were in place I began plopping down capital cities and surrounding villages and once those were in I couldn't help but add roads and trails... I was out of control!

My first geographical map! Not too shabby if I do say so myself... and I do!

My end result is -in my opinion anyway- pretty impressive! It isn't just a map for show, it's a functional tool for our game world. I can open it up at any time to figure out where the adventurers are and where they can go from there. I kept it in layers to make interpreting it easier. If I don't need to see the roads or borders, I can turn them off. I've even got a handy layer that tracks where their various adventures were and where they've traveled. Picture the flight scenes from Indiana Jones. Yeah, kind of like that.

While I haven't presented it to the players yet, I've already found the map an invaluable tool. I've already discovered some of our in-game travel was gruelingly longer than it needed to be. I've also been able to use it to establish weather conditions and general climates for different areas. It's awesome!

In this closeup I've made the roads/trails visible as well as the adventurer's trail so far.

Our map is in no way complete, but with how much enjoyment I've had while crafting it, I'm sure it will be soon! How do you feel about world maps? Do you use them in your games?

Thanks for reading and until next time, happy gaming!

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