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Published on August 8th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen

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Building Your Own World – Maps

Map Making for Fantasy Worlds

In the first installment of the Building Your Own World series, we went over some basics of world building. While a lot of that information is necessarily vague, due to the many different kinds of worlds you could make, today we’re going to focus on one aspect of world building: making maps. Maps are generally associated with either historical roleplaying or fantasy roleplaying, but you can use them to great effect in modern and sci-fi settings. Maps can be used either as additional player info that you can upload to your campaign’s wiki / Obsidian Portal page, or as a prop to be held by the players during the session itself.

For our map making journey today we’ll go from a blank ocean to a filled-in physical map of your setting. We’ll add continent shapes, mountains, and rivers. For the examples in this article I’ll be using screencaps of the map that I made for the setting I’m currently developing, tentatively called Kumarikan. Before we get started let me give a huge load of gratitude to the /r/worldbuilding community for compiling this amazing list of resources for world builders. If you’re interested in any of the information I reference here, you can find someone with a much more detailed explanation in that link archive.

elevation map of venus

Drawing the Continents

I personally find drawing continents to be one of the more enjoyable steps in creating a map for a fantasy world. There aren’t a lot of wrong answers at this step, and you can take your time to find the shapes that most please your personal sense of cartographical aesthetics. I personally like large continents, with lots of islands. I don’t know if it’s the influence of JRPGs, but I find a fantasy world without a ton of islands a bit uncomfortable, like it’s not quite finished.

The shape of your continents will drastically alter what kinds of peoples and cultures will appear in your setting. If you have one massive continent and no islands, then it’s likely that everyone in your world will live near the ocean- the mainland will be a desert without inland seas and trade is much easier and quicker over water than it is land. If you go the other direction and make most land masses islands, with few continents, then civilization may never get all the way off the ground in your world, due to lack of agriculture space (which means more people spend time gathering food instead of inventing new tools).

If you want to plan ahead a little bit, consider the following: on an Earth-like world, continents that lay east-to-west will generally have more migration of people than continents that align north-to-south. This is because people generally stay in climates they know, and have a more difficult time adapting to different climates. Compare the migrations of Eurasia to the migrations of the Americas- it’s much easier for masses of people to descend from the Urals into Europe than it is for Athabascans to move from Alaska into the deserts of North America (though both happened in our timeline). Also consider that technologies needed to adapt to the environment may change depending on where you are living, which also influences where people are willing to set up new homes.

Westeros UK

For Kumarikan I wanted to evoke an idea I’ve had for a while, that of a fantasy world with geography of a foreign planet. While Mars is cool, it’s a lot smaller than Earth and its elevation maps don’t really lend themselves well to imagining continents forming. Venus, on the other hand, is about the same size as Earth and has enough elevation variation that you could find places to call continents if you squint. The image above is an elevation map of Venus, to see what I’m talking about. You could take inspiration from places on our world- George R. R. Martin did with Westeros.

For our purposes I’m just going to ignore the fact that Venus’ oceans would be incredibly shallow, and just suppose that they’re more or less like ours, albeit a little less turbulent. Let’s take a look at Venus with an arbitrary sea level, chosen for the shape of the continents more than any sort of real accuracy of depth. The dark lines show where I drew the shoreline of land masses for Kumarikan, so you can see where I differed from the original:

kumarikan whiskeyginger worldbuilding

If you’re wondering, all I’m using is Photoshop and the Polygonal Lasso tool. I just select a shape, and then fill in the selection. You can get the water gradient by adding an Outer Glow to your layer. You can do an outline like I have above by altering your layer options so that your fill opacity is 0%. Turn the outline of your oceans into a layer mask that you can apply to any layer, that way you don’t have to worry about staying inside the lines while coloring or adding gradients later.

Adding Mountains

Now that you have the outline of your continents, you’re going to want to define the rest of the elevation of your world. Determine some of the large mountains ranges, and add those in until you’re satisfied. From there continue extending them with smaller mountains, and finally, hills. Depending on how you are showing elevation on your map, plateaus, valleys and canyons can be difficult to make read properly, so be aware of that. For this map I’m using “Sketchy Cartography Brushes” by Star Raven on DeviantArt.

One of the traps that I fall into too often is trying to be super accurate with maps that lack enough detail to do justice to what’s in my head. This can result in a mess of mountains jumbled together, as I try to draw a range that’s fairly complicated using really simple iconography. When this happens, it’s best to determine which is the least essential information, then start erasing those bits until the map looks uncluttered. If you want to show more detail, you can always do a zoomed in version of that section later. Here’s Kumarikan’s mountain ranges:

kumarikan whiskeyginger worldbuilding

Drawing Up Rivers

Rivers and water features are very important parts of world building. People need fresh water to live, it helps with sanitation, irrigation, travel, trade and may even provide a power source if your world has water mills or dams. Rivers are kind of tricky to get right, but drawing your mountains first is key. You see, water always flows down hill (a revelation for everyone, I’m sure) and it always seeks the lowest point. That means that if you’re familiar with your elevation/topography, you’ll be able to track rivers easily across your world- right?

Rivers have many sources, but 99.9% of the time only one exit. Water flows from the mountains, either as rain or as glacial run-off, and two little streams will come together to form a creek, which flows into a couple of more to become a river, which flow together and eventually they go all the way to the ocean. That means that your rivers shouldn’t split up as they near the coast, they should converge as they near the coast. The only exception to this is if your river hits the ocean in a large, flat area- then it might create a delta as it goes the last little bit. If you have lakes, remember that they have rivers that feed into them as well as rivers that feed out of them. If a lake doesn’t have an exit that leads to the sea it will likely become like the Great Salt Lake or the Dead Sea, which means it’ll stink and nothing will grow there (there are some exceptions to that- see the Caspian Sea).

kumarikan whiskeyginger worldbuilding

Knowing Air Currents

If you’re having trouble coming up with reasonable rivers, or you want to know which areas should have more rivers, and which areas would be more dry, then you probably want to think about air currents on your world. Assuming your world is Earth-like, it’s going to have a very particular way of circulating air over the planet. With that wind comes clouds, which brings rain or snow, which causes rivers, lakes and etc. Areas of high rainfall might become rain-forests, and areas of low rainfall may become deserts.

I’m not an expert on this by any means, but the basics that you need to know to make maps are this: at the Equator there is a low density band that pulls air towards it (moving east to west because of the rotation of the planet), this usually creates wet environments like the Amazon or India’s monsoons. High pressure areas immediately next to this low density band have almost no rainfall, the density can deny moisture from forming (northern Mexico, the Sahara). The next band outwards from the Equator is a band of moist temperate zones good for agriculture (Argentina, northern United States, Europe), and after that you get another dry but cold zone as you near the poles (Patagonia, Siberia).

These areas of dry/moist are determined largely by air pressure, but there are other factors. If you note that an air current is going over a large body of water before getting to land, you can suppose that the air will pick up moisture as it ravels across the water, “pushing” that moisture onto the coast that it runs into. Mountains are another important feature, as clouds that run into mountains will usually dump their contents before getting over to the other side. This means that one side will be lush, while the other side is much drier (see the rain-forests of India vs the dry Himalayas, or the damp Willamette Valley vs the dusty Eastern Oregon plateau).

I’ve decided that my world is warm enough that there are no permanent ice poles, and I’m assuming temperatures are warmer all over the planet, with snow only appearing on the mountain tops.

kumarikan whiskeyginger worldbuilding

 

There is still some work left to do to bring this map all the way to the finish line, but this will get you past the first several steps at least. Now that you have rough areas of hot/cold, wet/dry, you can start adding in trees for areas that are highly forested, or cities where people have settled. In our next world building article, we’ll look at that second part of the map making process.

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About the Author

Luke Turpeinen

was raised by lava wolves deep in the Vesuvian sulfur jungles. He played board games with his family often. The discovery of games like Risk led him to the 1993 TSR classic Dragon Strike which fueled a life long love of games. Luke tends to like games that have high production values, quick-to-learn rules and hard-to-master strategies. Current Favorite Game: Argent: the Consortium.



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