Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Two

[image description: map of the fictional kingdom of Aredia, which is used in a Medieval role-playing game. Public Domain,]


If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map; otherwise you’ll never make a map of it afterwards.

~J. R. R. Tolkien

Your initial map can be as simple as you need it to be. It doesn’t have to be this daunting task that I foresaw it being, which kept me from doing it for the longest time. If you intend to eventually include it in publication you can always go back and elaborate on it. But no matter how simple, I highly recommend you create a map at some point, and it should be pretty early on in your worldbuilding. It will help to keep things straight in your head and lead to less confusion and inconsistencies in your writing later on (of course, to any Gamemasters reading, this pretty much goes without saying).

As a young Dungeon Master I often drew maps by hand with a pencil and graph paper, but there is software to help with map-making nowadays. For example, one of my favourite online tools, Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator, is what I’ve been using now that I’m finally getting around to mapping the world my current work in progress is set in. In the recent past I would use Photoshop to create my maps, but that was a long and laborious process. There are better options. Check out this handy list of map-making tools, for example.

The type of map you make will depend on the scope of your story–and you may not know what that is yet, which is fine. If you feel like doing so at the outset, creating a world map is a great start, because it doesn’t limit you or the characters in terms of geography. But if you know your entire story is only going to take place on a single continent, or an island or archipelago, or even just in a small village, town, or shire (or whatever you call your counties, boroughs or provinces), you obviously won’t need a world map. This will not be the case for Gamemasters most of the time, unless they’re only running a one-shot. Chances are an ongoing tabletop role-playing campaign is going to involve a fair amount of travelling, perhaps even globe-trotting (assuming your world is spherical). But regardless of whether your first map is a world map or just a map of a much smaller locality, you can always add maps as needed, either expanding a local one to a global one all at once, or producing more local maps for adjoining areas as characters explore their world, or turning the world map into a full-blown atlas with the addition of more detailed maps of significant locations, such as villages, towns, and cities.

Of course, the wider the terrain your story covers, the more complicated your worldbuilding will become, which is why I advised earlier to keep track of things like locations and their place-names. That being said, if you want or need worldbuilding software that will help you to organise your story, characters, locations, and so forth in addition to managing your maps, all in one place, you might consider either Campfire Pro or Campfire Blaze. I haven’t tried either yet but I’ve been hearing good things about the latter. From their website:

Campfire aims to provide an environment with more structure than a simple wiki- or document-based tool, but not so much structure that it stifles creativity.

The structure that Campfire imposes is as follows: 
  • Your story is made up of CharactersPlot, and World.
  • Characters are the active agents that drive change. Their actions shape the story.
  • The Plot is a collection of story events that occur in the story. Story events usually involve characters.
  • The World is a collection of locations in which the story takes place.

Based on this philosophy, Campfire Pro provides seven major views by default: Title Page, Characters, Relationships, Timeline, Character Arcs, World, and Encyclopedia.

Here’s a tutorial video that demonstrates what you can do with your maps in Campfire Blaze:

[Embedded YouTube video: Maps – Campfire Blaze Tutorial]

An important thing to consider when you’re making your map is how you plan to represent topography (if at all). In other words, how will you indicate land elevation or features such as mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, and the like? My earliest maps were quite crude (even the digital ones) when it came to this. For example, here’s a detail of one of the first maps I made in Photoshop which illustrates the way I used to render mountain ranges:

[image description: detail of map made in photoshop featuring crudely and simply drawn mountain ranges, basic rivers and a lake. image copyright 2021 by strider lee.]

Of course, as I indicated earlier, map-making tools like Inkarnate can help you create much more professional looking maps with a lot less effort. The style of map you want to ultimately create (as well as whether or not it’s intended for publication) will also determine how you render different types of terrain, elevation, and so on. Many fantasy maps are made to look antique, for obvious reasons. But you may want your maps to be more modern-looking, or even to resemble a satellite photo with 3D rendered topography! It’s totally up to you.

One unlooked-for benefit to mapping my fictional world, which I discovered as I filled in my map with more and more places, was that more and more stories started to form in my mind. I began writing history not only for these places, but backstory for my characters as well, as I imagined which of these fictional locales they hailed from, and why they left home, even as we often do as we create our player characters for a tabletop role-playing game. My world was beginning to take shape, and the best thing about it was, it had already begun to take shape slowly in the stories, revealing itself little by little, not bombarding the reader with all sorts of facts and histories and place-names.

You might write tons of backstory, much of which may never find its way into your stories or novel(s), or even your role-playing games. But it is there for you to draw upon, to reveal slowly, to have your characters refer to. Its mere existence will almost certainly add depth to your fantasy world, because even if the reader or player doesn’t know it’s there yet, you do, and this will come through in your storytelling, adding glimpses of the bedrock of reality beneath your whimsy; the solid foundation you have built under all of your magnificent castles in the air.

Next: Languages and Systems of Writing

Previous: Introduction

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Two

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