The following, by all conventional world-building wisdom, is terrible advice. Especially for GMs- this is really quite awful, terrible advice. That’s how we do it here at The Notebook GM, our first “advice for GMs and Worldbuilders” segment we are starting right off with this terrible advice.
But you’re probably going to follow it anyway, because it is really genius great advice.
Start with your world map.
“But Notebook,” you’ll say, “doesn’t everyone on the planet with half of a brain agree that you should start in the small microcosm of your adventure and build out so that your brain doesn’t collapse from the collected weight of an entire world when you’re really just trying to tell a story about a small-town elf who finds a cache of magic items and makes it big?”
And to that I say: “No my darling little crumpet, but that’s a great story idea, please promptly forget it so I can steal it; but also yes, that is what everyone says will happen and they are probably correct but hear me out.”
Once you agree to hear me out, which you’ve basically already done by clicking on an article called “Click Here To Receive The Best Terrible Advice You’ve Ever Gotten About Worldbuilding”, this is what you will hear (with your eyeballs):
It’s not about naming every hamlet in the backwater fiefdom of some town on the western border of the most desolate part of a mountain range’s backside; It’s about providing the “big picture” details that will make your scenes during the game a little more believable. I come from an improvisation background and a fair amount of what I say during gameplay is completely off-the-cuff because players will always always always diverge away from all of your carefully outlined NPCs and fixate on the halfling shopkeep that gave compliment to the paladin’s armor that one time. I, instead, run my games off of a couple of charts and writing down the names of things as I create them, but I do this against a background of general information about the world. Here is an example from a recent play session with my tuesday 5e group.
That is it, that and a table on page 274 of the DMG that helps you create stats for NPCS based on CR. It definitely isn’t the most exact system, but I tend to run a pretty loosey-goosey game in general and this allows me to stay nimble (especially as I have a particularly adept yet unpredictable group). That, I realize is not going to be a strategy that works for every GM, much as my strategy of drinking wine out of the bottle during the game is not a great fit for every table. But, by having a small list of “world atlas” facts about different places in your world you can make consistent references to “the big picture” without ever actually drawing it all out.
Except the world map. That you should draw out, and I’ll tell you why: A world map will, in and of itself, create story. Just look at the story of civilizations, conflicts, cultures and more in our own world. If it wasn’t so bloody cold in Russia they’d probably speak German right now. Except, if it was warmer in Russia they probably would have had an entirely different country and culture and stake in the war because they’d have access to different resources and a lot more of them would be food. Or it would be a desert, I don’t really know, I’m still not a climate scientist. The point is: these things really matter in a big way when it comes to setting up your culture and deciding what you do for resources, how you play with others, what you believe, what you eat, and all sorts of other really important stuff.
Recently I was tasked with helping @NatOneJustin create the world map for his upcoming 4e world of Dela (natoneproductions.com and Nat One Productions on youtube). Dela is a particularly special case because the story of the world itself was pretty malleable- what history we had was actually created by the group via a couple of sessions of Microscope (a game you should definitely check out by Lame Mage Productions). As I explained to Justin in our initial meeting about the map: topography and the placement of different political and physical boundaries are incredibly important.
One of the story elements of Dela that I created, pursuant to my lifelong love-affair with gnomes (yeah you heard me), was that the Gnomish people were the central banking and trading power in the Dela economy (they eventually became a kind of ice cold Vulcan/Gnome society because Justin couldn’t stand the idea of another quirky gnome trope). Since Dela has airship travel as canon it was important that the Gnomes control important airspace, or, in this case, a continuous strip of airspace that is crucial for trading and allows those who deal with the gnomes to bypass the hassle of passing through several different jurisdictions by another route. This way though the Gnomes control little in the way of actual landmass they can use the tariff savings inherent in staying within their airspace as a way to hold a firm grip on the trading economy.
Similarly, the nomadic elves needed, to be in conflict with the Fjaerbjorn (a race of sentient owlbears) due to some dispute over the elves yearly passage through Fjaerbjorn land. The bottleneck provided by the mountains encasing desert on the southern continent (more on that later) made a convenient point of conflict between the two races, since the mountains prevented the elves from taking a route that evaded Fjaerbjorn lands. By placing major capitals and cultural zones on a map you are better able to suss out who would most likely be in conflict, what ways trading caravans might take, what ports of call might hold the most power, and so on and so forth. Now, instead of having to write any of this stuff yourself you can use a relatively simple drawing (Impact Books has a great book about drawing fantasy maps that you absolutely need) to generate quite a lot of story on its own.
When making a world map the oceans and continents are born together. It’s a kind of Tao thing if you think about it, one creates oceans by forming continents, I don’t know- ask your guru. Anyhow, if one were to look at a map of our earth you’d notice that pretty much all of the best places are near the ocean. That is because it takes much less labor to transport something heavy across water than it does across land, fish are tasty when you hold them over fire and sometimes even when you don’t, and sunsets are pretty when you are sitting on the beach enjoying a fine pipe weed or Dwarven berrymead. Nearly all rivers that are worth anything lead to something closely resembling an ocean; this makes it incredibly easy (due to the labor concerns outlined above) to get things from where the things are (mountains for metal and stone, woods for wood, plains for grains) to where the people are (eating fish and staring at the sunset near the oceans). As is the entire point of this article, where people live has a huge effect on their culture and social mores. Warm coasts breed easy-going folk who prefer a life of leisure and comfort over one of strict industry and success. Northern coasts are known for salty fishing villages and saltier people, life is hard there and the water harshly punishes mistakes. Storms ravage coasts, and weather is often unpredictable. As such, these people talk about the weather a lot, much more than those who live in more static environs.
Mountains, next to oceans, are the main currency of the topographical world map. The barrier provided by a dense mountain range makes commercial travel difficult if not impossible and personal travel a matter of serious discomfort. Especially if the mountains also serve as a national barrier there is little impetus to maintain an easily passable road for invading armies to march in on. Because of the horrible things lurking in the oceans traveling long distances over water isn’t really your best bet in most cases, which has both stifled inter-species interaction to a certain extent and given enormous power to the Satyr of Hooftrod Pass. The trip takes a long time and is nearly impossible without a Satyr to guide you. Guiding merchants, travelers and adventurers, combined with the long reach of the Satyr-run Bards of the Northern Pass and their ethos of adventure and storymaking, give the relatively small Satyr population enormous clout in the world. Mountains breed giants, are littered with caves, and almost certainly have a couple of lost cities kicking around. They hold ancient vaults and the silence of long bygone battles. They breed hale folk who often have truck with birds of prey. Difficult terrain, steep drops, climb checks, and questionable rope bridges are all key to the mountain oeuvre.
Mountains, by diverting moisture and weather patterns, are responsible for the creation of deserts in many/most/all cases. I don’t know, ask a climate scientist, but I know it happens and it is helpful when making maps. Deserts landscapes are rife with tropes, some more acceptable than others, and provide for an excellent excuse to play with exhaustion and starvation mechanics in your game. These mechanics are often seen as a life-saver in desert scenes because “yup, you come over the dune and you see… more sand” is hardly gripping prose and once can really only describe the way the sun oppressively beats down on you in so many ways. Deserts, however, are often much more lively than they appear, especially considering most everything wants to kill you here and the uneasy terrain can make for some great navigation challenges. Those that live in deserts are often used to surviving on little to nothing. These are people that waste nothing, and rarely trust outsiders. An invited guest, however, is fawned upon and granted every hospitality. To share resources is seen as a great gift in a land with little and bartering and gift giving customs are common in desert cultures.
Forests are the next most obvious thing on a map, especially when the cartographer draws them out as tiny individual trees.
While most fantasy gamers see forests and think “That’s where the elves go” there are many elements to forests to consider. The three primary types of forest: jungles, seasonal forests, and taiga- while they all may look similar on your map- imply vastly different ecologies and thereby vastly different cultures and concerns. Bugs are not nearly the scourge in the often frozen taiga that they are in rainforested areas, depending on what you consider a remorhaz taxonomically speaking. Similarly, while a rainforest is in bloom pretty much year-round and fruit is ubiquitous, the denizens of a large deciduous forest may have an autumnal festival devoted to the harvesting and pressing of fruits for wine and mead. The Dwarves of the Northern Trunks, especially near the giant flora and fauna of the Great Stag Forest have taken to riding giant gliding squirrels found there. In addition to being a tremendous amount of fun the nimble creatures are extremely helpful in their clashes with the Storm Giants of the Bigstep Islands. Mango-wranglers in Azodomena sneak through the valleys and into the dense jungles of Terrodomena in order to gather the large sweet fruits growing there. In Obleeq the rainforest was a psychedelic affair, dense with vines and the sounds of hidden birds and bugs, strange plants and fungi abounded and this vast store of resources made the elves that lived there world renowned for their alchemists and apothecaries.
Swamps are everywhere in the fantasy genre. The hedge witch, the “introductory crypt of introduction to how this game works”, and the “kill 8 crocodiles because I have a golden exclamation point over my head” quest all take place in swamps. Swamps are thick, wet, smelly. Hard to pass and rife with threats swamps are often home to very colorful folk, the kind of folk who don’t get visitors much on account of taking a boat is both faster and more comfortable. The mystical herb that you need to complete the poultice that will finally cure the horrible poison that has been coursing through the veins of The Protagonist will probably be here. Some horrible monster that uses the murky water as cover as it harries you towards its den or mates is probably here. There is definitely a hilarious scene where your bard loses his favorite boots to a failed dexterity save here.
The subject of subterranean RPG adventures has been so thoroughly canvassed that I shan’t canvass it further other than to say this: if you draw a couple of dark holes in mountains and hills on your map players WILL go to them and assume that there is treasure or dragons or something.
These features also, of course, tie into the economies envisioned as each region will have its own set of resources depending on what kind of environment they live in, obviously orcs living in the desert aren’t going to have a shipwright in every village just as dwarves living in the cold, dense forests of the Northern Trunks probably don’t know much about big game fishing.
Keep in mind, not every map has to be a work of high art. I’m going to open myself up a bit here and actually show you the map I made of Obleeq when we were first starting Nat One. This is the map I ran the entire game off of, with a couple zoomed in maps of individual islands in order to help plan sessions. These maps were not meant to be admired by the masses, only to help generate some consistency of backstory and to decide who had what resources.
The halfling island had trees that sprouted up scores of feet in minutes, making one craggy cliff-face the only safe area to have a city and making their relationship with the orcs all the more important as the more muscular race helped them harvest the nearly unlimited lumber and craft the finest wooden ships in the world. The Dragonborn, living on the edge of a desert and in the shadow of a volcano, were known for their city of glass, melted and molded from the desert itself.
The little story details peppered throughout this article are meant to show the little ways that geography can be used to drive story and help you make the world feel consistent and lived in without spending 12 hours deciding exactly how the ascension of nobles in the Elven kingdom 2,000 miles to the south works. If you want to do that, more power to you, scroll back a couple of entries and read about the class structure of Old Erevor.