Map Heresy

Most of the advice I see about creating a campaign setting starts with making a map. I used to start with a map but I don’t anymore.

“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.” J.R.R Tolkien

“With the Black Company I took advice from Fritz Leiber who was my mentor and who said “Don’t draw a map because if you draw a map, as soon as you start drawing the map, you start narrowing your possibilities”. ” Glen Cook

A few years back, I ran a campaign with a question I wanted to answer. I had a lot of obligations at the time and wanted to know…

How little world building and prep can I get away with and still create a fun experience for the players?

It turned out that I didn’t have to do very much. I used published adventures, free adventures from the One Page Dungeon Contest, and material I borrowed from other bloggers mixed with a few of my own creations. It ran for a good nine months before life got in the way. It was a good run and it helped to inform my current campaign and another project I have been working on.

One major lesson I learned from that campaign is that the map is not the place I need to start when world building. This is heretical. It is common advice from old timey game masters and designers to start with a map. Some fantasy fiction writers start with a map. For me, the map is not the place to start. I have come to a position in the middle of the Tolkien/Cook spectrum. I do make maps but I don’t start mapping until the project is far along in the process. The map is not a useful constraint early in the project but is necessary and useful when deciding on the fine details.

That leads us to the question of where do I start? The answer is, “It depends…” It depends on what the ideas I have stirring in my head at the moment I’m working on a new campaign. I may have an idea for an interesting villain I want to create, a challenging location, a situation that the players find themselves in or an adventure concept I want try out. Whatever it is, I write that down. I may do a complete write up or just jot down the idea and start brainstorming. The main focus is being clear about the emotional experiences I want to produce. That knowledge informs the towns, cities, NPC’s, and adventure locations that I need to generate.

There is a point in the process of creating the campaign, I need to start mapping. I don’t start mapping until the geographical relationships between locations becomes relevant and necessary to determine. There is not a precise point in my world building process that I start doing this. It could be within the first week of work on a campaign or months into it. If I know that I want the thieves guild to be the main focus of the campaign why does it matter where the head waters of the Great Canal come from? It doesn’t, so I continue to work on the motivations and schemes of the guild master.

One reason I don’t start with the map is that it’s an inefficient use of time. Mapping is part of the nuts and bolts mechanisms of the game. Time, travel distance, random encounter building and internal logic of the setting are all considered when I map. If I start with the map, I always end up changing it. If I start with a map and then build out the NPC’s, monsters, points of interest and so forth, I realize something important won’t work on the map that I made and I have to choose between the map or the element that I think is important. I end up redrawing the map.

When I do start to map, I start with a very rough draft. In the low prep experimental campaign I learned I didn’t need to have a complicated or pretty map. Here is an image of the map that I used for the first three months of the campaign.

A pretty map is nice to have and I do make them but they are not necessary. Something very simple is all that is necessary. You merely need to be able to know where everything is relative to everything else. If I am on the King’s Road, I need to know if I go north when I get to the barrow lands until I get to the hills to search for the lair of the hill giants who raided the fief last summer.

As long as you know where everything is at, how long it takes to get between places and, who or what is where then you have all you need in a campaign map. This is what works for me. Perhaps starting with NPCs, what you want your cities to feel like, the major monsters or the high concept of the campaign will work out better for you too.

I will be putting the specifics of how I create campaign settings into my quarterly newsletter. If you would like to find out more, sign up.

2 thoughts on “Map Heresy

  1. Pingback: World Building: Character Groups – Grumpy Wizard

  2. Pingback: How Many Wizards? – Grumpy Wizard

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