Last month, I started thinking about the major cultural groups in the world and how they interact with one another. As a side-effect of this process, I also started to get a general idea of what the world looks like. The Empire stretches to a major coastline, which is probably far away from the imperial capital (which is probably in the middle of the main continent of the game world). There are at least three major island nations off this coast, one of them very mountainous. Of course, so far I only know about the Empire and the people that it hasn’t taken control of yet. To give the world some depth, I’ll also need to know something about the cultures that have already been subjugated. I decide that a map will make this easier, since it will suggest some natural boundaries between different groups of people.
Before I can start mapping the world, I need to decide what the planet looks like. Is it round like Earth? A hollow world? Sitting on the back of a giant turtle? Since I don’t want to get too weird, I decide that the world basically follows earth rules—it’s a wobbly sphere that orbits around a single star. Just for the hell of it, though, I decide to give the world two moons. At the very least, this will require me to account for the second moon when I start working on mythologies and religions, which will make it a little harder for me to get lazy and just file the serial numbers off myths from our world. The other things in the sky—comets, constellations, and the like, will wait until I start detailing the cultures and how they think the world fits into the cosmos.
The extra moon should probably have some effect on the tides, and therefore possibly on the look of the coastlines, but since this isn’t hard sci-fi and I could care less, I’m not going to figure out the specifics. If anyone asks, my answer is that the two moons’ masses, distance from the planet, and relative masses even out to something similar to Earth tides. They can figure out the math behind it themselves if it’ll help them sleep better at night, but I’m not going to bother.
Just to keep things interesting, I decide that the only major variation from our world is that the intensity of the tides depends on the distance between the two moons. When they’re far apart, the seas are unusually calm. As they get closer to one another, the tides become more violent, with tsunami-like waves hitting the shores when they are aligned. I want these alignments to be regular enough that sea-faring and coastal communities will have to adapt to them, but not so frequent as to cause major cultural changes (or require constant moon tracking for GMs using the world). Right now I’m thinking the moons catch up to one another every 5 or 10 years, but I’m not ready to set anything in stone just yet.
At this point, I know what one coastline of the main continent of my world looks like, but haven’t really thought about the rest of the world. ProFantasy’s Fractal Terrain software can generate random maps, and with a bit of fiddling around I come up with a way to create a world with the features I’ve already decided upon while still keeping some randomness. To do this, I start with a random world with no land masses, then slowly raise the global land level until some islands and a decent-sized rise from the depths of the sea. After that, I raise the land level of specific parts of the world to build up my island nations. The only thing I’m missing now is a desert, which every good fantasy world needs. Playing around with the temperature and rainfall controls on the program takes care of this problem, eventually giving me a map that looks like this:
The Empire exercises varying levels of control over the entire continent, with its seat of power somewhere on the sea just north of my carefully-created desert. Since the starting point for the world is along the coastal border of the Empire, the two imperial cities of most interest will probably be located at the mouths of the rivers that run east-west across the western plains. Not far off the coast between these two rivers lies the mountainous, kidney-shaped island where the Sages live, with the Pseudo-Britons just to the northwest of them. The Picto-Vikings are on the crescent-shaped island to the far northwest.
This map shows the entire globe, and I decide that none of the world is completely unknown to the “civilized nations.” While the entire world is known, it has not been fully explored. Some of the more remote islands are probably semi-legendary, with the only information about them coming from sailors who somehow ended up there. The large island in the southwest corner of the map is probably the closest thing to a “New World,” since it’s far from the center of the action but can still be reached without long treks across the open seas. Since I want an age of sail element in the campaign, the three islands to the south of the Sages’ island will serve as known but exotic lands where pirates, gentlemen explorers, and other adventurous types do their thing. Most of the islands of the West will likewise be exotic but largely unconquered lands, since the empire prefers hordes of horsemen to nautical power.
Just looking at the map is giving me some ideas for what other kinds of people live in the world, but before I get into that I probably need to answer some more general questions about the world. For instance, what kind of monsters and traditional fantasy races live here? What kind of technology is available? What’s magic like? Find out next month.