World Workshop

Core Assumptions, Redux

I’m getting ready to run my first 5th Edition game pretty soon, and you know what that means – time to sink an unknowable number of hours into creating a homebrew setting! And since it was the most popular segment here, in the days when I used to update, I figured I might as well bring the World Workshop back from the grave!

A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe, Second Edition
Possibly the best “non-core” rolepalying book I’ve ever bought, in 25 years of gaming.

In addition to the 5e DMG, I’m using another resource: A Magical Medieval Society, Second Edition by Expeditious Retreat Press. I cannot recommend this book enough if you’re into world-building. I’ll probably write a whole post about it sometime, but suffice to say if you want your setting to really feel legitimate, especially in the context of social norms, politics, and demographics? This is the book for you. And, while it’s technically a 3rd Edition product, it’s practically system agnostic – at least all the best parts are.

Okay, core assumptions! The 5th Edition DMG presents five of them, so lets sink our teeth right in:

  • Gods Oversee the World: Yes and no. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never exactly been thrilled by this one. Having the gods taking too direct a hand in world events just cheapens the activity of mortals (at least from my perspective). The end result, for me, is a world with less nuance and potential for moral complexity. So, to that end, this one is a qualified “sort of.” I’ll be writing a whole post about gods and religion at some point, but the short version is that a person’s god (or gods) are mostly social and cultural – and the gods are distant enough that no one can prove, one way or another that one theory is “right.” Divine classes still exist, and they still worship gods for their power/spells.
  • Much of the World is Untamed: Another yes and no. Much of the world is untamed, but much of it is tamed as well. Rather than go for the traditional “points of light” concept I’m going for “beacons of light” instead. True nations do exist, carving civilized societies from the wilderness. But beyond those borders, there is an untamed world filled with horrors and incomprehensible dangers. I’ll talk more about those dangers below, under “Conflict.”
  • The World is Ancient: Yup. I loves me some history. I loved putting links to Arkhosia and Bael Turath into my 4e campaign, and I fully intend to do something similar here. I have a few ideas, but nothing too concrete yet.
  • Conflict Shapes the World’s History: Absolutely. Now conflict, as I’m defining it, comes in three different flavors – civilized, savage, and monstrous. While not a hard rule, where the conflict happens is typically the deciding factor. Civilized conflict happens inside the kingdom’s borders (e.g. a civil war), savage conflict happens on or near the borders (e.g. an orcish raid), and monstrous conflict trends to be found out in the wilderness (e.g. a clutch of wyverns). These things do cross over, but the point is that when a monstrous conflict happens in a civilized area? The people there don’t know what to do or how to handle it – which is where adventurers come in.
  • The World is Magical: Another qualified “yes.” I’m not running a low-magic game – magic items are a thing, as are wizards and sorcerers and everything else. But, at the same time, magic is going to be more rare than the typical setting, at least in the kingdom the campaign’s going to be set in. That’s for a handful of reasons – the main one among them is the legacy of a pretty devastating war with a much more magically-inclined nation that I’m sure I’ll talk about later. In short, players can still play magic-using classes without restriction – but magic items will be A) rarer and thus B) not for sale. I’m really going to push my players toward magical research – if you want a flame tongue you’re going to have go adventuring to find out how to make it yourself.

Lastly, before I wrap this thing up, I think a name is called for. I already know that I’m mostly going to be focusing on one specific kingdom for the campaign – other, bordering nations will be important but adventures probably won’t be taking place in them (but who knows how that’ll actually work out). So, for now the working title of this setting is the Grand Duchy of Timaeus.

Next time we’ll look at the Grand Duchy in a little more detail. Not quite “completely mapped out” detail, but we’ll look at how it functions and a bit of its history.

World Workshop

The World Workshop – The Celestial Blossom

Moving sucks – no surprise there, I know. However, this is a very different move than any I’ve embarked upon before, and the end result is that it’s taken more of my time and attention lately than I’d anticipated. For those of you following this blog, I want to say both thank you for reading and I’m sorry updates have been so few and far between lately.

I’d also love it if I could promise things were going to turn around, but I doubt I could deliver on that. I’ll talk in more detail about the forthcoming move, but the short version is that things are going to be a little sporadic for a couple more weeks.

Now then, on to the World Workshop! Today we’ll be discussing City C – better known to its Eladrin rulers as Surilphu and more commonly referred to as the City of the Celestial Blossom.

When I first conceived of this setting, I decided right away that I wanted the region to be defined by two powerful rivals – rivals that grew to become Kungarde and Magwer. While I wanted there to be a war between the two cities to be a matter of recent history, I didn’t want a “great war” that plunged the entire world into conflict. Which is why I decided the war would be fought on the large island between the two cities. My love of political complexity led me to want a city caught in the thick of the battle, neutral with respect to both sides, and surviving only through its own cunning.

Enter Surilphu – a city that is no match for either Magwer or Kungarde on the fields of either war or commerce, yet which somehow manages to outmaneuver both of them time after time.

Surilphu (which is, incidentally, the name of the entire island as well as the city) was founded as a colony of Ravantamar the Adamantine Forest – a kingdom of the northern elves from across the Sea of Sadaelamar. Ravantamar was an elven nation that rose out of the dark age that followed the fall of Arkhosia and Bael Turath, much like the far-off (and now-fallen) human kingdom of Nerath. At its height, Ravantamar was a loose confederation of elven cities, bound together by a dynasty of Alexander-like conquering kings.

Of course, Ravantamar’s height only lasted for 80 years or so, which is why they don’t get much space in the history books. They made a big mistake and picked a fight with those religious nuts over in Magwer. Maybe I’ll tell that story some other time. The punchline, however, is that the war ended with Magwer victorious, Ravantamar collapsing inward and fading from history, and Surilphu ruled not by elves but by their cousins, the eladrin.

Surilphu is, among other things, a city of abject wonder and delight. Its population is almost exclusively eladrin – not because other races are unwelcome, but because they find the Celestial Blossom to be in many ways overwhelming. The city exists in the natural world and the Feywild at once, and as one travels through the city various arches, doorways, and other areas act as natural portals from one plane to the other. Spires of gleaming crystal rise from the earth in the Feywild, mirrored by buildings of marble in the natural world. As once walks down a street, gradually crossing from one plane to the next, the sights overlap and seem to devour one another. The eladrin seem unaffected, but the other races often find the view both beautiful and disturbing. In some places the two planes bleed together.

Furthermore, the politics are a minefield – Surilphu rose out of cunning and intrigue, and scheming machinations are what keep it strong. Surilphu sits between the two great power of the region, and when those powers make war the Celestial Blossom is always at risk of being crushed between them. To that end, the king of Surilphu plays each power against the other, ensuring Magwer thinks Kungarde is strong and vice-versa. It is in his best interests that both court for his favor and that neither ever receive it. The internal politics are no less complex – the eladrin know that scheming and cunning keep them safe, thus a never-ending series of intrigues and schemes serves as a form of Darwinian guarantee that the man (or woman) upon the throne is the craftiest and most deadly opponent in the game.

If M.C. Escher and Niccolò Machiavelli had a baby, it would grow up to be Surilphu’s city planner.

Ultimately, Surilphu exists to satisfy my urge to have a place that is just different and amazingly cool. I might only set one scene of a single adventure there in an entire campaign, but it’s a scene my players will talk about for a long time to come.

Ultimately I like to imagine a dinner party that is incredibly deadly – not because of magic or weapons, not even because of the possibility of poison (though everyone does have their own food taster) but because one slip, one wrong word and ruin will follow. High-stakes courtly intrigue is the sort of game I’ve always wanted to run but never really been able to pull off. Among other things, you need to have an entire group that’s really into the idea of the “bloodless battle” idea – and you need to be a really smart Dungeon Master, and much as I love it I may not be up to the challenge.

Alright, so that’s Surilphu. I realize I didn’t give much detail, just sort of touched on the neat things that make it iconic in my imagination, but that’s all I have for the moment. My players won’t be going there until the paragon tier, at least, so I don’t think I need to get into any more detail about it just yet.

Cartography fans will be disappointed by the lack of mapping tutorials or new maps today. My optical mouse is one of the things I’ve boxed up, and while some people might be able to do precision Photoshop work with a laptop touchpad, I’m not one of them. No new maps until I get to Ontario, I’m sorry to say.

World Workshop

The World Workshop – A New Take on an Old Favorite

Today we’re going to be discussing City B, which sits on what I have been calling “Cock Island” but which will, from here on out, be known as Duraun Jörgmadnr (dwarven for “isle of the serpent”).

The latest iteration of our map, finally with some water you might be willing to drink.
The latest iteration of our map, finally with some water you might be willing to drink.

Right off the bat, there were a couple of things I knew about City B – also known as Magwer (its people are known as Magwothi). Mostly I knew that I wanted them to be something a little different – a way to make something familiar and reassuring into something different and frightening. I wanted them to be at ideological odds with Kungarde – which would help explain the pressures that led to the war I alluded to a couple posts earlier. Most of all I wanted them to be the opposite of Kungarde – that is, not a bastion of freedom and racial intermingling – while at the same time not being evil.

Which brought me to my favorite fantasy setting subject – religion.

If you take core assumption #9 (“the gods are distant”) to its logical extreme, it stands to reason that the followers of the gods probably don’t know all that much about the beings they worship. Which opens up all kinds of exciting prospects for different flavors of a single faith coming into conflict with one another – which brings us to Magwer.

Magwer is a theocratic monarchy ruled equally by both king and queen. Specifically, the city traces its true founding back to the mythical figure of Magwoti – chieftain of a human tribe who led his people to the site of Magwer. Below the ground of this site was an already active dwarven city, and Magwoti sought and received the blessing of the dwarven thane to settle the lands above the city – an agreement known as the Deeping Compact. The humans built an aboveground city over the dwarves and the two lived together in peaces and harmony – for about twenty or thirty years.

Magwoti was a warrior and a war-monger, aggressive and brutal in his rule, and his people strayed far from home to make war on their neighbors. Eventually, their neighbors decided that it was perhaps time to be rid of the violent and treacherous Magwothi and banded together to assault the newly-founded city. The battles raged for sixty nights, but ultimately Magwoti was undone and led his people below ground to seek the asylum and aid of the dwarves. Combined, the two people drove out the aggressors and the dwarves remained to assist in the rebuilding.

Seeing the boons of the two people’s cooperation, Magwoti sought to sow the seeds of a new Deeping Compact that would forever unify his people with the dwarves and secure the might of Magwer by arranging for his daughter to wed the dwarven thane’s eldest son. The pledge of marriage secured, Magwoti then murdered the thane, the thane’s ailing wife, and then his own sons – ensuring that the newly-wed couple would inherit all authority over both man and dwarf. This done, he surrendered himself to the city’s own justice and was executed for his crimes – ushering in the reign of the first King and Queen of Magwer. The truth of the story is impossible to verify, but Magwoti’s willingness to perform horrific acts in the pursuit of a noble cause is a facet of the Magwothi character even today.

Unlike the oligarchic republic of Kungarde, Magwer is ruled by a dwarven king and a human queen – when a monarch dies, his replacement is selected by the priesthood of Magwer and the remaining monarch weds the chosen replacement. So it has been, since the death of Magwoti and the dwarven thane.

The priesthood is the other primary power in Magwer – and various priests fill governmental roles typically occupied by nobles in most kingdoms. The city of Magwer recognizes only two true gods – Moradin, god of the forge, and Erathis, goddess of civilization and law – whom they collectively refer to as the Divine Union. The priesthood acknowledges that a few other gods existed at the beginning of all, but have since been slain – specifically they acknowledge the previous existences of Corellon (who was weak, and thus died during the Dawn War against the primordials), Kord (who was slain in battle during the Dawn War – his final droplets of blood carrying on his legacy to its eventual inheritor: Magwoti), Io (who was tricked and betrayed – you guessed it! – during the Dawn War by the demon who is now known as Tiamat), and Pelor (the sole divine survivor of the Dawn War beyond Moradin and Erathis – who later betrayed the Divine Union and was struck down by them). They regard most other deities as demons or devils (Tiamat and Asmodeus) or non-existant fabrications of barbarians or pathetic fools (Avandra and Sehaine). The only other “gods” with a place in Magwer theology are Ioun, Bane, and the Raven Queen – all of whom have a subordinate role, like the saints do in Christianity. There are no Magwothi priests of Bane – only priests of Moradin, who belong to the Order of Bane (a politically important distinction).

Considering how Magwer is not the starting point for my campaign, I think that’s enough for now, so I’ll toss a few additional details out and call it a night. Magwer is very intolerant of religions that conflict with their own, considers the dragonborn a slave-race (for a couple reasons I might touch on next time), and tends to regard the divine power source coming from anyone who doesn’t worship Moradin or Erathis as “witchcraft” or demon-powered sorcery.

Next time I’ll be looking at City C – or Surilphu as the locals call it. A city of predominantly eladrin, Surilphu was once a colony of Ravantamar – an elven nation to the north that rose to prominence after the fall of Arkhosia. Lots more for mapping enthusiasts after the jump.

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World Workshop

The World Workshop – What’s in a Name?

A whole hell of a lot, as it turns out. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

It’s come to my attention that my somewhat painfully detailed description of how I’m mapping out this setting isn’t really of interest to everyone. Specifically those not interested in how to map or who don’t own Photoshop, may not find it very entertaining. Thus, my habit of intermingling setting development stuff with mapping tips, may make these articles of zero interest to some people.

To which I respond: my bad, I apologize. From here on out I’ll be writing setting development up top, detailed mapping instructions behind a jump. Hopefully that works out best. As always, comments are open.

So, naming. A lot comes down to names, at least for me. Names are power – a silly superstition, but true. I mean, City A? Who the fuck gets all inspired with awe at the majestic name of City A? Nobody, that’s who.

More than helping me to not feel like a moron when referring to a location, names inspire imagery and concepts. Baron Roderic summons up a very different mental picture than Rajah Vishal, doesn’t it? Naming, customs and culture are all tied together, at least in my mind, and having a name is (for me) often the first step in figuring out the greater details of a people, setting, city, or whatever.

The latest version of the setting map. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The latest version of the setting map. Click to see an enlarged copy.

The real development work begins today – after all, picking names for places (descriptive names at least) requires some decision on language. Picking the language used to name a place usually gives an indication of the dominant people in the region – and if it doesn’t, it suggests some sort of story about the place (if a dwarven city has an elvish name there’s got to be a reason, after all).

As an aside, having given it some thought, I’ve decided to go with the “ten languages” concept introduced in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I’m typically not a huge fan of the idea of a “Common” language spoken by all humans and at least understood by most other races, but like I said before – I’m embracing the core assumptions of the game, in favor of making this as smooth a learning experience as possible for my players. My players will be learning how to smash orcs and slaughter kobolds – they can worry about how to communicate next time around, maybe.

Today I’ll be sinking my teeth into what will be the starting region for my upcoming campaign, the area surrounding City A – known as Kungarde to its inhabitants. Built on the ruins of Nask Arag, an older city that belonged to the tiefling empire of Bael Turath, Kungarde was settled by one of the human tribes (the Kungathi) native to the surrounding area after that empire’s fall. Several other surrounding tribes migrated in later, resulting in a human-dominated population, with tieflings forming the largest minority.

I mentioned last time that Kungarde is a mercantile power where money is power, and that’s absolutely true – money determines everything. Whether or not you’re permitted to take up permanent residence in Kungarde is based on whether or not you can pay. Citizenship is likewise expensive, and most citizens are merchants. The city is ruled by a council of 200 Merchant-Princes – who acquire their seats on the council by auction. It shouldn’t be all that surprising then that most of the laws and edicts passed by the council are pretty self-serving. “The rich get richer” isn’t seen as a problem by the government of Kungarde – it’s seen as proof that the system is working.

One of the reasons I decided to have the city this way, is that it makes it very easy to introduce almost any concept into the city at a moment’s notice with the explanation “he/she/it is rich.” Thus Kungarde is the most cosmopolitan place in the region. Every player race can reasonably be found there, though some are more common than others. More than just player races are welcome in Kungarde, however – any race that follows the rules and has the coin is welcome. There are probably less than one hundred goblins living in Kungarde (and probably less than a dozen that are full citizens), but that’s not because goblins aren’t allowed in the city – it’s because most goblins don’t have the coin, and those that do typically break the laws and get themselves executed/exiled within their first year. The ones that last are civilized enough to behave (or clever enough to not get caught).

The same goes for the gods. All the gods presented in the Player’s Handbook have a presence in Kungarde, to varying degrees – Avandra’s certainly got the most temples and shrines (as well as the vast majority of temples/shrines built on government coin), as she’s the goddess of trade, while Bahamut or Moradin have very small followings. What I said about unexpected (i.e. “evil”) races, above, also applies to gods – so long as their followers have the coin to build temples and pay taxes, any order or religion can take up residence. Some are more likely than others, naturally – Bane, who is (at his heart) a war god who teaches that the strong are entitled to rule the weak, certainly has an active order in Kungarde. The Cult of Asmodeus, meanwhile, does not – they could if his followers weren’t so overtly evil. Freedom of religion doesn’t exempt a person from obeying those “no murdering” laws the city has.

So that’s a brief look at Kungarde. Next time I’ll be digging into “City B,” also known as Magwer – the largest and most powerful city on Duraun Jörgmadnr (formerly known as “Cock Island”).

Mapping stuff after the jump.

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World Workshop

The World Workshop – Major Cities and Terrain Colors

So, ten minutes after writing a post on how I won’t be posting much for the next few weeks, here I am writing a new post. What can I say? I’m tired and worn out and, though it does take concentration, mapping soothes me. I doubt I’ll be finished with this post for a few days yet, but we’ll see. (Edit: Obviously I was right.)

Where we left off last time: three major landmasses, a few smaller ones, and murky "water." Click to see an enlarged copy.
Where we left off last time. Click to see an enlarged copy.

So, when I left off last time I’d created an outline of our new setting: three major landmasses, a few smaller ones, and some murky “water” (that will look better later on, I swear). I mentioned having intentionally creating a couple landmasses to somewhat resemble other objects – enough so to account for them having interesting names, but not so much that they look fake.

Now, before I get into the next steps of mapping, I want to discuss cities. There are three major cities in the region – “major” in the sense that every other city, tribe, clan, or kingdom is defined by its relationship (or lack of a relationship) with those three. I haven’t decided on any names yet, so for now I’ll just refer to them as City A, B, and C.

City A is the largest and wealthiest city in the region, and is in the north-west of the largest landmass (the big one on the right). One of the two major powers, City A is inland, but there’s another allied port city not far away. The port city is effectively ruled by City A – and in another couple centuries, assuming both cities continue to grow, they’ll likely merge into one massive metropolis. A mercantile society, in City A the wealthy are the ruling class. Money and power don’t influence one another – they’re the same thing. I’m not positive on cultural influences yet, but City A is definitely the closest thing to a “melting pot” in the entire region – so long as they have coin, men and women of any ethnicity are typically welcome.

City B, meanwhile, is the third most populated and second-wealthiest city is the area. The undisputed power on “Cock Island” (that snake-shaped landmass in the top-left that I really need to rename), City B is a port city on the east of the peninsula. I’m not entirely sure how politics is going to work here, but it’ll be different from City A – I’m thinking some sort of theocratic system. I’m not positive on the details yet, but they’re definitely a less tolerant society. Not evil, just a little more rigid about their culture – and a little more inclined to defend it proactively, if you get my drift.

City C, meanwhile, is not on one of the three major landmasses. Instead it exists on the large island between Cities A and B. City C is more your traditional monarchy, though without the “divine right” overtones. City B is all about being fingered by the gods to take the lead – this king takes his authority through slightly more secular, “I’m six moves ahead of you on the chessboard and I have an army” methods. City C is also only a major power because of its precarious relationship with the other two – who fought a war that ended about twenty years ago, on City C’s island. I happen to like the idea of a crafty, politically scheming king (or queen, I haven’t decided yet) who is constantly playing a balancing game between these two major powers, all to maintain his own neutrality and his own independent rule.

There are also two other important cities of note. New A is the second-most populated city in the region, is a port city in the north-eastern corner of last major landmass in the bottom left of the map, and is (unsurprisingly) a subject of City A, which founded it. And lastly there’s Io’Rasvim – which, translated from Draconic, means Treasure of Io. One of the original seven city-states that formed the ancient (and long-fallen) dragonborn Empire of Arkhosia, Io’Rasvim is a ruin – surrounded by mystery and rumor, whispered of but never visited. I’ll discuss it in depths some other time – I mainly mention it because I like that name, and don’t want to forget it. Perhaps you’ve already assumed this, but Io’Rasvim can be found on the “claw” island.

Alright, now that I have a better idea of what’s going on where (at least the broad strokes), I head back to the map to add some more details. So far I’ve got just a broad idea of where the landmasses are – today I’ll be adding some coloration to define different terrain types (plains and grasslands and desert).

Also, before I start, I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit where it is due – I’m creating these maps using a method derived from Ascension’s Atlas tutorial over at the Cartographer’s Guild. He’s a genius, and I’m just lucky he’s willing to share. 90% of this method is his, if not more so.

Picking up where we left off last time, grid (highlight), grid and base should all be hidden, the other layers should be visible. Duplicate ocean twice – name the new layers hills and land (from top to bottom, your layers should go: base, hills, land, ocean). Hide hills and start working in land, then Filter -> Render -> Lighting Effects. This brings up a panel that lets you control a bunch of lighting settings. Set the Style to Omni (make sure “On” is checked), Intensity to 6, Matte to -100, Material to 100, Exposure to 0, Ambience to 8, Texture Channel to Red (make sure “White is high” is checked), and Height to 100. Then drag the radius of the light source out so it is as wide as the entire map is. Lastly, you’re going to create four more light sources, each one of the same size and using the same settings as the first. Place one on each corner of the map, and one in the center (if you’re not grokking the written instructions, check out the screenshot) and then hit OK.

Word to the wise, the larger your map is, the more memory this takes. It took my computer almost two minutes to apply the effect after I hit OK – I strongly recommend saving both before and after you apply a major effect. Trust me, if your system crashes you’ll be glad you did.

Alright, now keep land as the active layer, and then ctrl-click on base (the little preview pane on the left, not the name itself) to select all your landmasses. Invert the selection (Shift-Ctrl-I) so the water is selected, then delete and deselect. Now we’ll add some coloration with Layer -> Layer Style -> Gradient Overlay. Set the angle to 120 degrees, the blend mode to “hard light,” the opacity to 100%, and then click on the gradient color (the actual color, not the drop-down arrow to the right of it) to bring up the gradient editor. An ordinary gradient transitions evenly from one color to another. We’re changing that by creating four points of transition (called a “stop”). Each stop is represented by the little color-arrow on the bottom of the gradient, and you add new ones just by clicking the finger pointer anywhere in the area. The stops should have the following settings:

  1. Color: Papyrus (RGB: 240, 230, 190). Position: 5%.
  2. Color: Dark flesh (RGB: 218, 192, 148). Position: 25%.
  3. Color: Olive Green (RGB: 64, 80, 24). Position: 60%.
  4. Color: Olive Green (RGB: 64, 80, 24). Position: 100%.
Some terrain coloration makes the regions of our map more distinct, giving us an idea of what sort of places these landmasses are. Click to see an enlarged copy.
Some terrain coloration makes the regions of our map more distinct, giving us an idea of what sort of places these landmasses are. Click to see an enlarged copy.

Hit OK, which will close the gradient editor, and then jump to Outer Glow in the panel on the left. Leave the blend mode on “screen,” reduce the opacity to 25%, change the color to a light blue (RGB: 64, 200, 255), and set the size to 45px. Hit OK, and you can see the results on the right.

Just a quick note about that gradient overlay – if I were mapping an entire world, instead of doing an in-depth mapping of a region, I’d have left the angle at 90 degrees – maintaining a strict North <–> South terrain transition. I’d have also added a 5th stop using the color white, to represent the arctic regions in the far north. So, if you’re following along and trying to map a whole world? Now you now.

So, we’ve got some basic terrain definition and coloration set up. Next time I’ll toss in some hills and mountains. See you then.

World Workshop

The World Workshop – Mapping Basics

I’m big on geography, when it comes to settings. More importantly, I prefer to get at least a rough sketch of the area done early on in the process – making all the important decisions about a setting first, then mapping it out, leads to things being too neat in my opinion. Much like having a history that’s well thought-out and logical, a geography that perfectly complements the details of the setting almost immediately rings false and kills the suspension of disbelief.

The Earth is as it is, and we have to make do with it. I tend to inflict similar inconveniences/cruelties on the population of the worlds I design.

So today, I set out to really sink my teeth into the geography of this world and at least get started on a proper map. I’ll warn you right now, this article is going to read in a lot of ways like a Photoshop tutorial.

Also, credit where it’s due – until I discovered Ascension’s Atlas Style tutorial over at the Cartographer’s Guild, my mapping skills were mediocre at best. I used mapping software like Campaign Cartographer 3 or Fractal Mapper (both perfectly good programs) and depended on them to do 95% of the work. If you’re looking to learn how to design your own, great-looking maps, I strongly recommend Ascension’s tutorial. I no longer follow every single step to the letter, but it is still my main reference when mapping.

The quick map sketch I did in the hotel room. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The quick map sketch I did in the hotel room. Click to see an enlarged copy.

So first off, let me get that sketch back up here. If you take a look at the enlarged version, you’ll notice that the map is 15 “units” long and 10 “units” wide. I haven’t decided how big the area is, so each unit is going to wind up being somewhere between 100 and 200 km. I’ll figure that out later.

Before I do anything else, I need to get the basic file set up. I’ll be doing all this mapping in Adobe Photoshop CS4. I’ve also decided that I want the option of taking this thing into Kinko’s (or wherever) and getting a decent poster map run off if I want it. I check common poster sizes online, and decide to map a map that’s 30 inches x 20 inches. Since I want it to be of print quality, I set the resolution to 300 pixels per inch (pppi) – if I were just going to display this on the web, I’d set it for 72 ppi, because browsers can’t display more than that. I give it a white background, and get started.

The basic grid, 15 by 10. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The basic grid, 15 by 10. Click to see an enlarged copy.

Next I set up the grid. This is pretty easy, I just do a 1 pixel-wide straight line every 600 pixels, dividing the entire map into 15 sectors horizontally, and 10 sectors vertically. I do this in a separate layer, which I call grid. The only problem is that, because the file is so big, I need to zoom way the fuck out (8.33%) to see all of it at once – which means I can’t actually see my grid. So I create another layer above it, named grid (highlight). I ctrl-click on grid to select the same area, then hit Select -> Modify -> Expand and set the expansion to 5 pixels. The selection widens by 5px on every size, and I fill it with bright red. Now my grid lines are 11 pixels wide, and perfectly visible. Ugly, but visible. I hide grid for now – the red grid is just a guide, I’ll worry about how it looks on display later.

Okay, now to actually start mapping. Just as an aside, I’m going to ignore the grid and grid (highlight) layers. Unless I specifically mention them, they always stay on the very top.

The primordial soup that your world will rise out of. Don't worry, it'll get prettier. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The primordial soup that your world will rise out of. Don't worry, it'll get prettier. Click to see an enlarged copy.

First of all, make sure your colors are set to the default black & white (D) and select the background layer. Filter -> Render -> Clouds, then rename the layer clouds. Right-click on clouds, select Duplicate Layer and name the resulting layer ocean. Create a new, empty layer, and name it base. Then fill (Shift-F5) base with 50% gray (you don’t need to change your color selection, 50% gray is near the bottom of the drop-down). At this point your layers should be in the following order (top to bottom): base, ocean, clouds. Set the blend mode for base to “hard mix” and you’ll get a sort of Rorschach-looking mess, displayed above.

Next, make sure you’re working in the ocean layer. Select the Brush tool (B). I use the “Soft Mechanical 500 pixel” brush, but keep in mind my map is 9000 x 6000 pixels, so that’s not that big – select an appropriate brush accordingly. Set flow to 10%, and then use the brush to shape your landmass – white is land, black is the water.

The basic outline of my setting: three major landmasses and a half-dozen or so smaller islands. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The basic outline of my setting: three major landmasses and a half-dozen or so smaller islands. Click to see an enlarged copy.

The final results are on the left. You may notice a couple of details about my landmasses, specifically the large one in the top-left and the island to the right of the middle. I like islands that vaguely resemble things, like the “boot” of Italy. So the grouping of islands in the lower-middle, for example, looks like a three-toed foot with claw on the heel. And, while I’ve given the peninsula in the top-left the nickname “Cock Island,” it’s actually supposed to resemble a serpent.

I’m actually very hopefully that, once I get some more terrain features on there, it looks a little less phallic. I guess we’ll see.

To finish up mapping for this week, right-click on ocean and duplicate it – the resulting layer will be called ocean copy and should appear right underneath base. Shift-click on base and then on ocean copy so that both layers are selected. Right-click on either one and select Merge Layers. The end result is that base and ocean copy should combine into a single layer, called base (everything will still look the same, however). Hide the grid (highlight) layer and then, making sure that you’re working inside base, Select -> Color Range, set Fuzziness to 200, then click on some of the black “water” area with the eyedropper, then hit OK. Hit the delete key, and all your solid black “water” will be replaced with a sort of murky, cloudy mixture. You can make the grid visible again now, if you want. This is as good a spot as any to stop, for now.

You may be wondering how this is going to turn into a map that doesn’t look like some kid’s crayon scrawling – a kid who only has black and white crayons. I wondered the same thing – but trust me, something good is going to come out of this. You’ll be surprised.

Also, I realize I spent more time talking about Photoshop layers and brush flow fuzziness whatever-the-fuck than I actually did about the setting itself. My plan is to mix discussing mapping techniques with overall setting development, but those of you reading may only be interested in one subject or another. I could separate the two, if people would rather be able to selectively choose which to read. Comments are on and opinions are welcome.

World Workshop

The World Workshop – Core Assumptions

Even though it’s only been two days since I made the initial post introducing the idea of what I’m calling “The World Workshop,” I’ve been aware I was going to be doing this for over a week. The rough sketch I uploaded last time was something I hammered out in a Whitehorse hotel room after all. So, even though I haven’t been talking about it, for the last ten days or so I’ve been thinking about what exactly I wanted to do.

So, today, I threw most of my ideas away.

It wasn’t that they were bad ideas – it’s just that they were very typical ideas for me. I said in my very first post that Dark Sun influenced the way I think and write, and that’s very apparent in how I tend to design settings. Much as Dark Sun turned elves into nomadic thieves and halflings into cannibals, I tend to look for traditional fantasy tropes to turn up on their head. Which is fine, great, dandy – except as I said before I’m expecting to be running a game for a bunch of people who’ve never played D&D before.

Sitting down to take my first whack at this thing, I realized that in some ways the setting is analogous to a pair of training wheels. Training wheels aren’t pretty and they aren’t flashy – what they do is prop the bike up while the rider learns how to pedal and steer. In the same sense, my natural instinct to create special effects and systems to reflect how different this world is should maybe be curbed. If someone is playing D&D for the first time ever, maybe I should just let them focus on mastering the basic fundamentals of the wizard class without dumping defiling and preserving on top of them.

This sort of changes things for me, in that I’m effectively making a commitment to operating within the bounds of “high fantasy” – the idea being that, if a player saw the Lord of the Rings films, he or she will be more or less prepared for the rules by which this world turns. Basically, I want to make the setting cool – but not so cool that players are distracted from learning how to play the game. This means some of the things (alignment and religion come to mind almost immediately) I would ordinarily change, I’m going to leave alone or at least make only minimal alterations to.

I’m actually kind of excited about this – approaching setting creation in this way is a new experience for me.

So, I’ve stated that my overriding goal is to maintain the core assumptions that the Dungeons & Dragons rules are built upon. Obviously, the first thing I need to do is take a look at those core assumptions – which can be found on page 150 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide:

  • The World is a Fantastic Place: This isn’t really a problem. Magic is magical, mortals can channel the powers of the gods, elementals and demons and dragons all exist. I’m not about to change any of that.
  • The World is Ancient: Hell yes. I love history, and I love to draw upon my knowledge of history when creating adventures. I have every intention of providing plenty of forgotten tombs, lost temples, ruined cities and other exciting venues that hint at things long gone. I intend to make as much use of the “official” history as possible, not so much Nerath as the older empires of Arkhosia and Bael Turath.
  • The World is Mysterious and Monsters are Everywhere: These two core assumptions collectively form the basis for the “points of light” concept. Effectively the theory is that the majority of the world is uncivilized, untamed, and dangerous – the various civilized settlements form the myriad points of light in the darkness of the world. One of the core concepts I mentioned last time was that I wanted to put a greater emphasis on the city-state than the nation-state, and that fits this model perfectly – and gives ample reason for why the countryside beyond the immediate reach of cities and towns is so plagued by dangerous creatures.
  • Adventurers are Exceptional: In my opinion this holds true for any campaign (chronicle, whatever), in any game system, run by any but the greenest Dungeon Master (Gamemaster, Storyteller, whatever). The simple fact is, the players are the main characters of the story being told. Period. It’s about them – make it about them. Being exceptional doesn’t automatically mean going for the Fellowship of the Ring style where every party member is the heir to the throne, an elven prince, or an immortal wizard whose duty is to unite all mankind in opposition to the Dark Lord. It just means that what they do has impact, and is important – hell, the absence of this is one of the key reasons I could never stay into World of Warcraft for more than a few months at a time.
  • The Civilized Races Band Together: Another one that never exactly thrilled me. The different races are, well, different – and not just in terms of ability and skill bonuses. They’re different people, with different values, and different cultures – and so the idea that humans, dwarves, elves, dragonborn, etc. all live together in peace and harmony? Just doesn’t sit right with me. With this one I’m going to do my best to tread the middle ground – mingling between the “civilized” races will be common enough (at least in most places) but at the same time, I’m also going to put a lot of effort into seeing to it that each race has its own distinct feel – several feels, actually. It always bugged me that in most fantasy (games or fiction) humans break down into different ethnicities, but the elves (or whoever) are just one ubiquitous mono-people.
  • Magic is not Everyday, but it is Natural: Much as I love the whole “she’s a witch! BURN HER!!!!” routine, I do have to admit that creating a society with that attitude toward magic isn’t exactly the most nurturing environment – new players might decide its just makes more sense to pursue a divine or martial class. So magic, in and of itself, isn’t going to be considered an abomination that must be destroyed, nor are wizards and sorcerers automatically seen as evil criminals. That said, there are magical practices that are going to get you in trouble – death cultists and demon worshipers, for example, may find themselves in pretty hot water if they don’t keep their less savory practices a secret.
  • Gods and Primordials Shaped the World: I don’t particularly have a problem with the “default” creation myth – that the world was shaped by the primordials out of the Elemental Chaos, then given civility and permanence by the gods. The notion of a war between gods and primordial in the ancient prehistory of the cosmos is also fine with me. What I’m not so keen on is everyone and their uncle knowing that. Partly because of my own preferences as regards religion in the game, which I’ll discuss below.
  • Gods are Distant: Not distant enough, in my opinion. It always struck me as odd that common, everyday people in almost every Dungeons & Dragons setting just take it as written that there’s a whole whack of gods out there. I understand the concept of polytheism, but everything just always struck me as being far too neat and tidy where gods and religion were concerned – something I personally suspect has more to do with Christian outrage over D&D “promoting devil-worship” in the 80’s than anything else. Mostly, I just want there to be a little more ambiguity about what a god would actually want, whether god A actually exists, whether god B would be his ally or enemy, etc. The pantheons of most D&D campaigns just feel a little too ThorPrayer to me.

Alright. So, I’ve gone over the core assumptions – made note of which ones fit perfectly, and which ones will need some minor adjustments, and made sure that the concepts I established previously will work with those assumptions. Next time, I’ll tackle some of the broad strokes of the setting – expanding on those core concepts I outlined earlier, and getting started on a proper map.

World Workshop

If I had a hammer, I wouldn’t actually build anything with it, just try to make a better hammer

Write what you know. I think everyone has heard that little nugget of wisdom, whether they want to be a writer or not. I don’t remember where I first heard it – though it’s been tossed my way many a time since, when I’ve mentioned being blocked or stuck or hard-up for inspiration.

It’s good advice. I should listen to it more often than I do – my last two serious forays into writing fiction were A) a detective novel set in Los Angeles (a city I have never been to and know little about) and B) a vampire novel set in the 1800’s (a period I’ve never spent more than a couple hours studying) in Marseille (a city I have also never been to and know little about).

So, you know, I suck. And both those novels remain incomplete.

Okay, that’s a lie. Both those novels remain barely started. There, honesty – I smell personal growth.

One thing I do know about? Is creating a setting. Detailing a world – building internal consistency and logic. Drawing disparate elements together to form a cohesive (but not uniform) whole. I love making settings, whether for writing fiction or running roleplaying games, or whatever. I love the sort of architectural approach where I look down and put the entire puzzle together.

Of course the problem is that, typically, when I finish making a setting? I often don’t do anything with it. My ex was the one who pointed this trend out to me – I’d more or less overlooked it for over a decade. She spotted it pretty easily – probably something to do with the dozen spiral notebooks I had kicking around our apartment, each one filled with dozens (if not hundreds) of notes on settings, how magic worked, who ruled what country, etc. etc.

Write what I know? I know world building. So, you know, here we are.

Before he stopped updating regularly to deal with an unspecified illness, Rich Burlew – the genius cartoonist/game-designer who brought us the Order of the Stick (if you like D&D and haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read all 727 comics in his archive starting at the beginning – I’ll wait) – did more than just do a webcomic. He also posted cool articles on gaming. My favorite series of articles he wrote? The New World in which he (you guessed it) created a new campaign setting, for all the world to see.

So I’m going to totally rip him off.

I mean, why not? I’m going home (to Ontario) sometime around the end of August – and I’ve already decided that I’m going to run a 4e game when I get back. I also decided that, since pretty much every one of my players will be brand-new to the game that I should not start them off with Dark Sun. I just don’t think I could run a “newbie-friendly” Dark Sun game – my nostalgia for that setting is too tied up in the cruel brutality of that world. I’d rather run a more “traditional” D&D campaign first, get my players into the game itself, and then run a Dark Sun campaign later.

One nice thing about that attitude is that it gives me an excuse to create a new fantasy world – something I haven’t done in a couple of years (my world-building stuff has mostly been creating secret societies of vampires in Earth’s history, or magic in the shadows of modern-day California, or whatever).

So I gave it some thought while I was on my trip about some of the core components I wanted incorporate into the setting. Right away I decided I wanted there to be lots of water, with more than one major landmass – I tend to focus on inland nations a lot, and I though having lots of opportunities to travel by sea (not to mention fight pirates; every setting is made better by increasing the potential for pirates) would change that up a bit. My recent focus on both Dark Sun and classical history has left me liking the idea of powerful city-state, rather than big nations. Conflict is always good, so I’m going to have two – maybe three – regional powers all vying for supremacy with one another in all spheres of influence: military, political, and mercantile.

The quick map sketch I did in the hotel room. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The quick map sketch I did in the hotel room. Click to see an enlarged copy.

So, what I wound up doing was cranking out a quick sketch while I was in my hotel room, which I snapped a picture of using the digital camera (I don’t have a scanner). I used Photoshop to sharpen the image and up the contrast, so its a bit easier to see. I’ll be doing a proper map as I write these articles.

Alright so, lots of theory, not much detail this time around. I’ll probably be updating this section at least once a week – maybe more often, if I want to have everything ready by the time I move.