Creating a fantasy world means creating maps early on. The key is to keep the map on a sketch level as you are outlining because you will have a lot of moving parts. It doesn’t matter if this a region, continent or the whole world. What matters is that is big enough to cover your plans for the world, and yet leave space to add details and revisions.
There are some things to consider, so let’s get started.
Cosmology and Geography
I assume many do not make a big deal out of this and “earthlike” is implied. Earthlike is the obvious option if you do not have anything unusual in mind, or just want to create the next Westeros.
Keep it simple. I want emotions and story, not a long-winded explanation of fictional flora and fauna, whenever I read. Maybe I am leaping here, but I assume others feel the same way. You may want to point out that this is not Earth, but don’t get carried away. You already have a lot going on if your genre is fantasy. Horses in Westeros is called “horses” for a reason.
Note that the Dungeons and Dragons tradition has a broader scope whenever discussing cosmology. None of this affects your first map, but it is worth mentioning as the word cosmology in D&D implies a multiverse, the existence of multiple universes and alternate planes.
Example: The Big Planet
When you decide the physical world, you will save yourself a lot of headaches if you keep the world as earthlike as possible.
A friend of mine accidentally made his world ten times the size of the earth and had to suffer all kinds of jokes. We figured the planet was low on metal and everybody was giants wielding wood weapons and wearing straw-armor. Or something similar. I can’t vouch for the science myself.
Creating believable maps takes careful study. Cartography is not my forte so I will not address this in great detail, but there are a few guidelines that will make your map sufficient for your story or game.
- Mountains are not scattered about – except for perhaps the occasional Lonely Mountain.
- Chains connect mountains and create rain shadows.
- Water follows the path of least resistance.
- Coasts are never straights.
- The landmass does not line up with the edge of your sheet.
Example: The Continent of Blocky Coasts
There are several reasons I argue you should go as big as possible on your first map. I mapped what I needed when I needed it when I started out, and my teenage-self figured the maps looked fine.
The problem was that the maps did not look as good when I put them together. The coastline looked like four similar-sized blocks of land mashed together. Redrawing the map at that point would change my perception of the relations between the nations, in addition to the redrawing, and was not something I wanted to do.
Races and Migration
You should make sure the races and cultures are spread out in a manner that makes sense to you. Make sure you have an idea of how they interact. Finally, make sure they overlap, so you have areas of conflict. Embed conflict in the map if possible.
You must also consider how the climate affects the race and ethnicities.
Again earthlike is your friend. You do not have to research why, if you distribute the race and ethnicities like on earth. Lazy perhaps, but it is a shortcut most will accept without blinking.
You should also consider making unique names for you new unique culture. First, your culture probably deserves it. Second, using earth names may hinder the development of your culture. If you, for example, use the term “Viking” for your northern raiders some of your audience will forever associate them with earth’s Vikings, and you will never sell them the uniqueness of your creation.
The Dothraki of Westeros was called that for a reason. “Steppe folk,” or something similar, would not have realized their full potential in the readers’ imagination.
Conflict and Choke Points
Race, culture, strategic positions and choke points are crucial to conflict, which you need for your story or roleplaying campaign. Look for ways to increase conflict when you review your first region. Who hates who and why?
You should identify any choke points on the map, like mountain passes or great rivers. You have your map sketch, placed the races and pondered on migration. Now you should be able to zero in on any conflicts on your map.
Real-world Choke Points
- Valletta on Malta’s unique location in the Mediterranean Sea was critical during both the crusades and WW2.
- Venice, another crusader city, controlled the Mediterranean Sea with its location and naval power.
- Port Said and Izmalia’s proximity to the Suez Canal make them ideally suited to control the connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.
- Cristóbal proximity to the Panama Canal makes it ideally suited to control the connection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
- Ceuta and Gibraltar proximity to the strait between the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean ideally suited to control the connection between them.
- Likewise with Malmö and Copenhagen’s proximity to the Danish Strait.
The Story Arcs
Plotting the story as you draw the map should help you with both endeavors. Creating the world with a specific story in mind sounds like sound advice. It gives you focus, and it is easier to resist the temptation of droning drone on about elven kings, and significant artifacts of ages past the heroes never will acquire.
If the story is a city-based series with warriors and rogues in a city – say like Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar – then the regional map is a backdrop.
On the other hand, if your story involves travel if, for instance, your characters are on a hero’s journey, the map shapes the story and vice versa. Using the Lord of the Rings as an example, Hobbiton is on one end of the map, while Sauron’s tower is on the other, and Tolkien scatter about the fellowship’s allies (Rivendell and Lorien) and the darkest moments (Moria and Helm’s Deep) along the way in the second act
I argue you should brainstorm a couple of new world-shaking conflicts as you start. These disputes will allow you to foreshadow future stories efficiently. Also, creating those additional conflicts will undoubtedly add texture to the backstories, and add gravitas to your story even if you never get around to tell those additional stories.
Example: the Pikeman With No Past
I was thrown off track when I had this veteran of several wars in one my unpublished short stories, and I realized I did not know about the wars in question.
These wars would undoubtedly shape the character even if I kept quiet about the backstory.
So my backstory grew with 15 000 words, and I could put off actual useful writing for a few more days.
The Wonders of the World
If your world has spectacular sites or wonders, you want to establish them early.
First of all, it makes sense for people to know about the wonder. It does not mean that you should drone on about it during character generation, but it may be beneficial to have it on the map. People will ask if it is of interest.
Second, the wonder will build more tension and gravitas if established early. People will ask and wonder about it, and the story will grow in the retelling. You may get new ideas with the passing of time, or make connections that initially were not there. Time builds momentum and impact.
An early mention is increasingly important if the wonder is a future adventure site for one of your stories, or you just want to establish some critical locations for future use. Even if it is not featured prominently, the wonder will be in the back of people’s minds and add texture to the world.
The great architectural achievements of the world say something about the folk who built them and have importance long after the builders are gone. For instance, the pyramids say something about the ancient Egyptians and must be mentioned, even if they do not play a role in your murder mystery in the court of Ramses II. How would the life and career of Alexander the Great look if he did not have the pyramids to obsess over?
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
As a Reminder, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:
- The Great Pyramid of Giza
- The Lighthouse of Alexandria
- The Colossus of Rhodes
- The Mausoleum at Helicarnassus
- The Temple of Artemis
- The Statue of Zeus
- The Hanging Gardens
I just realized I did not know all of the ancient wonders. Who says you can’t learn something from blogging? That, or play Sid Meier’s Civilization.
Example: The Suddenly Appearing Tower of the Dark Lord
If you think you need a Tower of Sauron somewhere at some point, you want to establish the location early on, even if only in brief passing.
Consider this tower ruin as an example, and decide which is better.
- An ancient massive tower ruin lies in the southeast, dark and deserted. Once it was the lair of Dark Lord of sorts, but now it is no threat. Over time orcs appear in the area, rebuilds the tower, and the good folk of the world begins to whisper that the Dark Lord has returned.
- After years of traveling in the area, you notice one morning a massive tower ruin southeast of your home city. Worse yet, is teeming with orcs, a mysterious Dark Lord is their ruler, and they have declared war on the good folk of the world.
Sure, if this is a roleplaying game any player who shows up for a good time will ignore the oddity of suddenly appearing dark tower, and just get on with the story.
That said, building tension over time usually better. Sauron’s Tower appearing on your map late in the story may be a bit awkward and most certainly destroy any element of surprise.
You should give your characters the same attention as the story arcs. The arrogant noble needs a great city, or at the very least a keep to dwell. The barbarian needs a cold north to hail from, your Highlander needs a highland, and the Amazon may need an isolated sub-tropical island. Your crusaders need a religious battleground somewhere.
Who are your cast of characters? What are their current and potential in the future? Make sure they all have a home somewhere on your map
Trade is vital for prosperity and technological advances, and also feeds greed and power – and thus great stories. What is picked up where and sold to whom? Trade will shape your world.
- The British cotton imports from India.
- The dried fish export from Northern-Norway to Germany.
- The slave trade from Africa.
- Ireland without potatoes.
Who benefited? Who paid the price?
The trade centers are sites of power in your world, so you should have an idea of who trades what and where. Where do they come from? Conflicts will emerge as you iron out the details and create your stories.
Wilderness and Monster Areas
You also need to consider just how civilized your world is, meaning do you have large areas of wilderness on the border of your map. From where does the next orc horde come?
Keep in mind to include space for your monsters so give some thought to the population density, and perhaps the world’s history play into the current population density.
Is civilization on the rise for the first time, or is it in decline? Who built all the ruins currently populated by the monsters?
Humans and orcs rarely get along, and your poor dragons need their desolations. Your region needs a sizable wilderness to sustain the monster population. My mistake was populating my world too densely, so whenever I needed an orc invasion, I had trouble explaining from where they came. If you sometime in the future come up with a dark lord of sorts, you want a nice patch of a wasteland for where he can rise.
Unfortunately, creating my world, I did not foresee the need for enough wilderness to sustain excess monster hordes. Luckily I was the only one that cared, but it still bugs me.
Consider this list as you work out the details for your map.
- Trade routes
- Choke points
- Cast requirements
- Wonders of the world
- Story arcs
- Wilderness areas
- Monster areas
You want to be brief and focus on the action when you present a new region of your world. That said, there are things to consider, even if you keep the answers to yourself at the start.
Revisions and retcons may not be in your story’s best interest, so consider this checklist before introducing a region of your world.
- Consider class requirements. Your druids and rangers need wilderness to be valid character options.
- What is the most significant city in the region, and why?
- Remember only a small percentage of the pre-industrial population lived in cities. Any region should include lots of farmland.
- What are the civilized races and cultures?
- What are the four dominant languages?
- Are names universal or tied to specific languages or cultures?
- What are the three most dangerous monsters in the region? Where is the biggest dragon? Where is the local imprisoned demon lord? Are they any Slumbering Evils in the region?
- Where is the local monster horde? When did they last invade, what do they want and when are they likely to return?
- Where are the wonders of the region? Are there any significant set pieces that hint of grand adventures and epic conflicts?
You should be able to return to your stories properly after going back and forth between the map sketch and the rough story outline a few times. Make sure you allow yourself some room to maneuver.
Sprinkle your map of hints of greater things to be fleshed out later. Even if you decide on a local city story, for now, you should allow yourself design space for later. Perhaps you have a Dol Guldur on your map, but it currently appears empty and deserted?
In closing, remember the 80/20 rule?
- Creating A Fantasy Setting
- Fantasy Races For Your Roleplaying Game
- Create Fantasy Names and Languages
- Writing Fantasy Timelines
The Reading List
The following includes affiliate links.
Tor posted an amusing article by Alex Acks about Tolkien’s Middle-Earth map. Criticizing Tolkien is heresy, of course, but the article is an entertaining and enlightening read nevertheless.
Anyone interested in fantasy maps should take a peek at the Cartographers’ Guild.
How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps by Jared Blando (2015) is the step-by-step book that teaches you how to draw a world map. It seems promising if you are prepared to do the steps the book prescribes (I was not), but it is worth checking out if you are prepared to put in the hours. The book promises no shortcuts, that’s for sure.