Let’s talk about a few types of maps you can build for your game.
There comes a time in almost every DM’s life when they want to move beyond the existing settings and create one of their own. Maybe you have an amazing story to tell, and it needs its own world to be told in. Perhaps you have a super awesome idea for a world and want to run adventures in it. Maybe you just like making up settings. Whatever the impetus, creating your own setting can be fun and rewarding both to you and your playgroup. In this ongoing series, we will look at the steps you can take to create your own setting (a process known as world-building), and we’ll look at some tips and tricks of excellent world-building and some common mistakes people make. Along the way, we will build our own setting and world.
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Last time on World Building Workshop, we talked about how to avoid some common Eurocentric cliches. The goal was to help move away from “default” maps and come up with a more interesting type of map. Today lets talk about a few types, or archetypes of maps you can build. We’ve already laid some of that ground work when we talked about the scope and scale of games. So we are looking at a roughly continent sized map, rather than a full world or galaxy. Lets dig into a few options and what they bring to a game.
The Archipelago Map
Examples: Lord of The Isles series, Earthsea series.
An archipelago map/setting can be a very interesting one for an RPG. Making you map a chain or series of varying sized islands will have a pretty profound effect on the type of game and the actives your players get into. Archipelago maps are great if you want to have a lot of naval combat, or adventures in your game. The need to travel from island to island by sea (or air or magic) dictates a lot of what happens in the game. Pirate or exploration games are perfect for this kind of map. On the other hand its not the best map for large land battles. You’ll also want to think about aquatic races, merfolk and the like can play a huge role in archipelago. Archipelago’s can also be an aid to worldbuilding, as you have very easily defined borders and can simply come up with a nation and culture for each island. If your not looking to get into a nautical side of things this is likely a map you want to avoid.
The Partial Continent (The Europe Map)
Examples: Fearun, Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time
The Partial Continent map is probably the most common map out there. This map depicts either a large part of a continent or one continent in a connected super continent (i.e. the European part of Eurasia). It tends to have oceans on 2-3 sides, often leading to the “unkown” or some exotic lands, and land on one or two sides. It’s a classic and as we’ve discussed its evocative of Europe. There are two sub-types of this map: The regional map and the known world map.
In the regional map the setting map is just a part of the world. You might even have a whole world map done up, but its not in use because the action is taking place in the one continent. The rest of the world is known and interacted with regularly, its just not some place you are going this campaign. The Known World map on the other is exactly what the title says. It’s a map of the known, or at least civilized world. Everything beyond the edges of the map is unexplored. This normally means the map is bordered by vast oceans. impassible mountains, or harsh deserts. If their are lands beyond the edge of the map they are either filled with roving barbarians, or Orcs etc., or a semi-mystical lands where only the bravest traders venture.
Depending on the exact lay out of the map, the partial continent map is good for a variety of game types. It lends itself well to most adventure types. The more limited region does mean that often it’s harder to get as wide a variety of climate regions. Since the ocean tend to be on the outside of the maps nautical matters then to be of less importance to the game. This is a great map for an “outside” invader type of game or story.
Examples: Codex Alera, Stormlight Archives, Khorvaire (Eberron)
This map type is pretty similar to the Partial Continental map. The main difference is that rather than showing a part of the land mass, it shows the entire of the primary land mass. This means that the map is normally edged with water on all sides. Like the other map, this two can fall into the Known World map or Regional Map subtype. By coving the whole map you do tend to have a more natural border to the map. This map tends to be bigger than the Partial Continental map thought thats not a hard rule. It’s good for just about any type of game or setting. Depending on how many islands you place around the continent, and what other continents are out there, nautical matter will play more or less into the game. This is a great map to use if you want to ignore naval and nautical aspects entirely. The main exception is that if you want to run an “outside invader” game they’ll will have to come by sea.
Examples: Game of Thrones, any “Mediterranean” Map, any “US and Europe” map
This is another pretty common map type. The key feature here is two (or more) land masses separated by a middle sea. The map does not have to cover the totality of either continent or landmass. While their can be more than two landmasses, if you have many more you start turning into an archipelago. This is an interesting and varied map type and lends itself well to several types of story. In particular I think its great for stories about exploration, clashes or cultures or any kind of two-sided conflict.
You can have a setting where one continent is advanced and the other is backwards, unexplored or fragmented, with players leading expeditions across the sea. You can have a great game about two rival empires, or cultural alliances, separated by the sea, battling. Or one about trade. The presence of a middle sea, acts as both a dividing and connecting feature. The game is likely to contain some nautical elements. Its great for having nautical phases, with some arcs set in one continent, then arcs set on the water, then arcs set on the other continent.While the landmasses do not have to be entirely separate, the middle sea is a major feature here.
These are just a few of the map types you can build. However at the scale we are talking, most maps will fall into one of these rough categories. At smaller scale of course you have a much wider amount of archetypes to chose form. In addition, depending on the fantastical elements in your world you could tweak these maps. Maybe there isn’t water, but lava, or the aether at the edges of your maps? Maybe your continent in underground, or in the Underdark, and doesn’t really fit any of these maps. Maybe its a stacked series of planes with portals between them. The more fantastical you get the more options you have, so feel free to explore!