Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fantasy World Building, Part 1

This will be the first in a series of articles on top-down fantasy setting design. We're going to begin with a few assumptions.

Let us call the setting non-system specific, at least for now. With that in mind, we'd like the place to be useful in at least a somewhat broad selection of rules systems, specifically including D&D and its various clones. We might also add Rolemaster and RuneQuest (3rd edition) to the list as well. This will have ramifications down the line, as it will keep us from delving too deeply into certain things, like the physical mechanism behind magic.

With this in mind, the world (yet un-named) will be a classic or traditional fantasy world. At least some of the traditional fantasy races will be present. The most traditional of these are Elves and Dwarves, probably also including Orcs and Halflings. This implies to me a somewhat Tolkienesque setup, so let's play with that.

The structure of Tolkien's Middle-Earth is both epic and mythic. Let's keep the epic but aim for a historical feel rather than a mythological one. So we're going with a Tolkienesque feel but emphasizing the synthetic history of the work.

Let's pillage liberally from history. But direct, one-to-one analogues of historical cultures is something to be avoided, in my opinion - this is a trap that, say, 7th Sea fell into. However, there are certain historical/fantasy tropes that I simply can't resist borrowing. Vikings, for example. So that's where we're going to be starting.

This being traditional fantasy with its need for Clerics and other servants of the divine, let's assume that the Gods are in fact real. Having one set of gods for the whole world, even if they're known by different names in different places, feels kind of synthetic to me, and it makes a metaphysical statement that I'm not terrible comfortable with. Therefore, let us posit multiple competing pantheons of Gods, who are powerful but nothing like omnipotent. This matches up reasonably closely with how Gods were viewed in pre-Christian times.

I have a hankering to explore a semi-monotheism as well. So while some of the pantheons will contain a bunch of Gods of more or less similar power, one pantheon is dominated by a single Over-God and an array of empowered, semi-divine servants, more along the lines of angels than saints.

We'll be sticking to the traditional fantasy sphere, for now, so we're going to stay away from Asian analogues like a fantasy Japan or China. We can assume that something like those places exist, if the campaign warrants it, but we'll leave them off the table for now. This also means that we don't need to work out the whole planet.

Now I will sketch a map.

I'm not an artist, and don't have access to fancy artist's gear. So we're keeping this simple, and just using pencil and quarter-inch graph paper. I'm doing this with an eye towards a digital treatment later on, so I want to keep it manageable; specifically, I want to be able to scan the maps. So I divide my world into regions 5 squares high and 8 squares wide, and I make the coastlines and continental shapes more or less fit into the grid. This is tricky to do while keeping things looking somewhat natural.

The world map is just a rough sketch; I'll be taking each of these regions and blowing them up into full-page maps, which I will then scan into the PC. The sketch itself is never going to be seen again, so things don't have to match up perfectly; only the general flow needs to be preserved. I'll add lots of details, like islands, bays, lakes, rivers and such on the individual maps.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I'll tackle regional mapping.

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