Tag: water

RPG-ology #30: Story-based Mapping

This is RPG-ology #30:  Story-based Mapping, for May 2020.


I have mentioned before that I belong to a role playing game mapping group on Facebook.  Every day people post beautiful world maps similar to the ones pictured here and ask for feedback.

I am not a cartographer; I am not an artist.  When aspiring young artists send their work to me for my opinion I send it to my art director, because my opinion isn’t worth the price of a cup of coffee on free coffee day.  If they want to know whether it’s beautiful, well, as I often say, a thing of beauty was made by someone else, and they look nice enough to me.  If they want to know if the maps make sense geologically and geographically, I can point out problems (such as those we’ve covered in previous RPG-ology articles including #5:  Country Roads, #10:  Labyrinths, #13:  Cities, and #18:  Waterways).

But if they want to know if the maps are useful, it always makes me feel like that’s not really a good question.  I can’t imagine ever having a use for them—but it took me a while to understand why.

Map by Steve Gaudreau

When I start a map, I begin with the question, Where are my characters right now?  Unless I have a good reason to think otherwise, that is the middle of the piece of paper that’s going to be my map.  (Even when I make maps on a computer I generally have a “virtual piece of paper”, boundaries of the image file and a graph paper grid covering most of it.)  This probably includes a vague notion of Where is the rest of the world?, but as Max Smart once said, “I’m not saying that the rest of the world isn’t lost, 99.”  I need a vague notion of how the characters got here which contains some information about the rest of the world, but since they’re not going to live that part in the story I don’t really need details.

What I do need is the answer to two essential questions.  The first is What is around them that they are going to want to examine?  If they are in a village, I need an inn, stables, tradesmen and craftsmen, probably a constabulary, homes of those who live in town, and probably at least one place of worship.  If it’s a city, I’ve given myself a lot more work, because there are a lot of places someone can go in a city.  In most cases I don’t really have to know how far it is from London to Paris, but I do need to know how far it is from the rooming house to the grocery store.

Map of Kaiden by Michael Tumey

The second question is Where are they likely to go from here?  Not Paris, we hope, or at least not yet.  The first place they’re likely to go is whatever place I have planned for them to have their first adventure.  That might be a dungeon, or a ruin, or an office building, or a spaceship, but whatever it is, I now have to expand my maps to show how to get from here to there, and what they will find when they get there.

There will be other places where they will go.  If they acquire valuable objects, whether jewelry or magic items or tapestries or computers, they probably need to take them somewhere to sell.  That means I need a place where people buy such things, and I need to map the road between here and there and treat that place much as the starting point, creating what they are likely to see when they arrive.  But I didn’t need any of that when the story started; I only needed to have a vague notion of where it was and what was there, so I could put the time into creating the map later.

I’ve called this Story-based Mapping because it is fundamentally about creating the world to meet the needs of the story.  I’ll give kudos to Seth Ben-Ezra’s Legends of Alyria for using this concept.  His world, Alyria, has a handful of significant landmarks—a major city, a huge library, that sort of thing.  When the game starts no one has given a thought to where they are, and there is no map.  When someone says they want to go to one of these places, the plot and the dice dictate how far it is, how difficult it will be to get there, and from that point forward we know where that particular landmark is relative to where we started.  In fact, we might have established where two such landmarks are relative to our starting point but not yet know where they are relative to each other—the plot may at some point dictate that they are adjacent to each other, or that they are miles apart in opposite directions, or that there is an impassible mountain range or waterway or chasm separating them.

This is why those huge world maps don’t interest me.  When I’m running a game or writing a story I need the map to form to what I’m writing.  If I already have a complete map of the world and suddenly I need a pirate base somewhere near my port city, I have to scour the map to find an appropriate location for such a base.  If I’m working with a story-based map, I simply have to expand the map to include the cove or island or port that provides my pirates with a safe haven, and it can be perfect for their needs and pretty much anywhere I want it to be that the characters have not already investigated.

I don’t think those huge maps are useless.  If you are creating a world for other people to use in their games, such as Krynn for the Dragonlance Adventures, having a map that shows where all the countries are located will help those other people run games in them.  But I think that something like the map of Middle Earth, while it might have been drawn from Tolkien’s mind before he started writing, arose organically from the story he wanted to tell:  I need hobbits to start in a quiet remote part of the world and travel a very long way through a lot of dangers but also a few safe spots and ultimately reach a distant dangerous place where they can destroy the Maguffin. Let’s outline what those dangerous and safe places are and where they are located, and then we can create the story to connect the dots.  So if I know what the entire story is before I start writing, I can create the entire map to fit it—but I never know the whole story, not when I’m writing it and certainly not when I’m “playing bass” for a bunch of players who are going to create the story.  I need to be able to create the world as the story needs it, not be locked into land masses and cities and waterways that were created in the hope that they would make a good place for a story.

I’ll probably be thrown out of the RPG Mapping group for this, but I hope it helps some of you understand how to approach making useful maps for your adventures.

Thanks to artist cartographers Steve Gaudreau of Map Alchemists and Michael Tumey for the use of their world maps.


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Sewers and Such

Someone once wrote that good Game Masters seem to know a little bit about everything. If it’s not obvious, this is because they need to know how the world works so they can make their own game settings seem real. I know this first-hand from years of running fantasy campaigns. At one point or another, I found myself digging into the details of agriculture, mining, free diving, sailing, carpentry, sheep breeding, the wool trade, and a dozen other subjects that I never imagined I would research. Of course, this is not limited to fantasy role-playing. When running Gamma World or some other apocalyptic game, a good GM probably needs to know a little about modern firearms, lasers, nuclear radiation, mutation, the ecology of a wasteland, etc. Running Traveller or another sci-fi game, the GM should probably know something about the vacuum of space, space travel, planets, stars, asteroids, comets, gravity, etc. You get the idea.

Not long ago, M.J. Young of the Christian Gamers Guild penned a few short articles on very generic topics, like waterways, country roads, and cities. Though at face value they seem too generic to be helpful, the articles can be surprisingly useful to GMs. Great GMs might know a little about everything, but they don’t start off like that. Everyone needs to pick up basics from someplace, and MJ’s articles were great for anyone not already knowledgeable about those topics. Even veterans can glean some points that they had never considered.

In this brief article, I‘ll touch on another topic that seems like it could be useful to many GMs—sewers. I cannot count the times that I’ve seen modules or homemade adventures with wererats skulking through labyrinthine sewers. Strangely, though I’ve been playing for over thirty-five years, I never played in or ran such an adventure. I recently decided to add a sewer setting to an ongoing campaign, but I realized that I had to find out something about sewers first. As with most things, one topic connects to many others. In this case, I found it tough to examine sewer systems without simultaneously looking at water supplies and plumbing. Read more

RPG-ology #13: Cities

This is RPG-ology #13:  Cities, for December 2018.


When I wrote about Country Roads I promised to return at some point and write about city streets.  However, as I thought about it, I realized that before you can understand city streets, you have to understand cities–why they exist, why they form where they do, and what factors govern their patterns.  So this is a look at cities; we’ll come back to the streets another time.

There are two general categories of reasons for cities to come into existence, which we can identify as commercial and governmental, and a few subcategories of those that have some impact on them.

The primary commercial reason for the appearance of a city is resources.  Chief among these are those related to water, in three distinct ways.

Cities grow at natural harbors, because of shipping.  Thus on oceans, but also on inland seas, huge lakes, and deep rivers, trade begins, shippers move goods in and out, and a city is built around the income from transportation.  Whether it is triremes bringing goods in and out of Greece, galleons carrying gold from Mexico to Spain, steamboats on the Mississippi, or oil tankers running between Kuwait and Perth Amboy, more goods move farther by water than by any other mode of transport, so where there is a convenient place for ships to load and unload, a city will form.

Water is also a necessity of survival.  Great cities don’t generally form spontaneously in arid deserts, unless there is a reliable water source available.  People need water to drink, but also to raise crops and livestock, to wash, and for a wide variety of industrial purposes from making paper to cooling nuclear reactors.

Water is also one of our earliest sources of power after slaves and draft animals.  Water turning wheels drove early mills for grinding grain, and eventually drove machinery that wove cloth and created many other products.  Today, at least part of our electricity is generated from moving water.

Thus if you have a natural harbor, or a river or large lake, or even a spring, it can become a reason for a city to appear.

Of course, water is not the only resource that causes cities to appear.  Mineral wealth, from coal and limestone to gold and diamonds to petroleum and natural gas, invites prospectors to gather forming communities that grow into cities.  Nor are natural resources the only economic inducement.  If there is a city at South Bay Harbor and another at North Lake Port, and one at Eastern Inlet and another at West Mountain Mine, there will be roads connecting these places–but the road from Eastern Inlet to West Mountain Mine will cross the road from South Bay Harbor to North Lake Port, and the traffic through there makes it an ideal spot for commerce, and thus if the problems of food and water can be solved easily, a city will form at the crossroads.

As we said, though, not all cities are begun for commercial reasons; some are started for government reasons.

The most obvious of these are forts, from walled cities more ancient than Jerusalem to medieval castles to cavalry troops posted in the American west.  Governments decide that they need to defend something–land, resources, people, transportation routes–and build a fortress.  People recognize that the existence of the fort means protection from whatever danger is perceived, and so collect near it.

Military forts tend to be extremely well designed for their original purposes; armies tend to be that way about encampments.  Thus within the walls of the fortress housing and facilities and accommodations for food, water, ammunition, supplies, vehicles, animals, and anything else deemed necessary to the local military effort, will have been carefully organized.  The problem is that foresight is not always perfect.  Sometimes the situation at a particular location becomes more contested than anticipated, and troop strength has to be increased, doubling or tripling the population inside the walls.  If this continues intermittently for long enough, the fort might be expanded, but the expanded fort will be less efficient than the original simply because it has to be built around what already exists.  If it is not expanded, it still will be modified, as facilities intended for storage become barracks for troops, new structures are constructed in open spaces to provide protected storage for the displaced goods, and the original plan is altered in uncounted ways.

The placement of forts is frequently sensitive to geography.  High ground is typically advantageous, so mountains and hills are often choice locations.  Often they are intended to control movement, such as passage through a mountain pass or at the mouth of a river, and will be placed above or even in the middle of such a bottleneck.  Artificial hills and even islands have been built to support such forts.  Water is again often a factor, not only because the keep needs a water supply but because rivers and lakes form natural moats which help protect that side of the fort.

Of course, outside the walls the only control the military has over the rising city is the ability to insist that nothing be built within a certain distance of the walls–after all, when the hordes come, whether orcs or Huns or Vikings or Apaches, they will readily use any such structures for cover, so the army will not permit them too close.  Thus other than that clear space, the town will grow haphazardly into a city, unless some government takes control of it.

Military uses are not the only governmental purpose that will create a city.  Sometimes they are created for administrative purposes.  Washington in the District of Columbia is such a city, built to a plan because the nation needed a centrally located seat of government to oversee law and taxes for the thirteen states that was not itself part of one of those states.  The oldest sections of Philadelphia were designed by its founder, a man granted a huge amount of land to establish a colony who had the foresight to recognize that this riverport was going to be a major hub in the development of the surrounding land.  It is thought by some that Emperor Nero set fire to the poor section of Rome (and blamed the Christians) so that he could take the helm in what may have been the world’s first urban redevelopment plan.  Such planned cities appear in places where the governments think them convenient for the purpose–centrally located in the geographical area, or on land with the potential to become a major economic center, or in sparsely populated areas where the government wants to encourage some kind of development, whether agriculture, industry, or tourism.

So these are the major reasons why cities appear where they do, and when you’re designing your world maps you should think about what cities are where and why.  That will then give you the points you need to connect with your country roads, and frame your map.


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