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Godsbarrow: Why not create a world map first?

Writing yesterday’s post about banked fires and leaving countries partially unmapped made me realize how much I’ve thought about this stuff over the past several months, and how non-obvious some of it might be to anyone outside my personal flesh-prison.

I’m sort of mapping Godsbarrow the least efficient way possible . . . but stitching together my big map is proof that, for me, the dumb way that creates extra work in the future is the key to my success.

Why not start by mapping the continents?

I see gorgeous continent-level maps all the time on r/Wonderdraft. And it makes sense: Look how many things in the map below I will need to fix in order to turn X regional maps (the “tiles”) into a unified pan-regional map that spans a large chunk of Godsbarrow, none of which I’d have to fix if I’d started with a larger canvas.

Future Martin is not going to thank Past Martin for the extra work required to correct every boundary on this map

Hell, even if I’d stayed at the regional scale (rather than continent scale) but started with a six-tile blank map in Wonderdraft, filled it with ocean texture, and then added landmasses one region at a time, I’d wind up with a finished map that had none of the technical issues present in the map I currently have. But I know me: That blank space would have overwhelmed me, made this feel like work, and probably torpedoed the whole venture.

Every boundary, every thing I develop, is a constraint. Starting with continents establishes a whole bunch of boundaries right off the bat. Starting without even thinking about continents leaves all that stuff where it belongs, for now: nonexistent or purely notional.

Why? Three reasons.

Because WWN says so

Worlds Without Number [paid link] advocates strongly for not building stuff you don’t need, and I agree. More than three decades of gaming, including several abortive attempts at creating campaign settings which began, full of excitement, with me creating world maps, has taught me that I virtually never need to know about continents at the gaming table.

Is it nice to know what the Forgotten Realms looks like at a world map level? Absolutely. And maybe in a published setting with the scope of the Realms, I’d expect that. (Here, as a WIP on a blog, I absolutely don’t expect that.)

But in actual play, have I ever needed to know what the continents look like, or what the whole of Faerûn looks like? Nope. Not even once.

Which flows into…

Conversation of time and creative energy

I’m one guy, doing this for fun, not getting paid for it, with a finite amount of free time and creative energy, and spending those resources worldbuilding means I have less time and energy to spend on other things — including the more gameable aspects of worldbuilding.

If I spend a bunch of time and creative energy on a world map of Godsbarrow that I don’t even need, I might burn out. Even if I don’t burn out, I will have spent those resources making something I don’t actually need and placing constraints on my future worldbuilding.

Which flows into…

Because whimsical, improvisational worldbuilding is more fun for me

I’m not here to police anyone’s “lonely fun.” I upvote those gorgeous continent maps on r/Wonderdraft, and I love that folks are making cool shit even — especially — if it’s not how I might have made it. As my wife often says, with genuine affection, “You do you, Boo-Boo.

But personally I find it much more freeing, and more fun, to develop a Godsbarrow region without any real idea what’s next door. When I step back for a minute, as I did when stitching together that large map above, I see a developing setting that I never would have come up with this way if I’d sketched out all the coastlines for the large map at once.

Toriyama Akira and the art of improvisational creation

This connects nicely to having just finished watching Dragon Ball and started Dragon Ball Z. I was curious how much of Z Toriyama Akira had planned when he was working on Dragon Ball, and apparently the answer is “none of it, or at least not much of it, especially early on.” He was just doing what interested him, following his heart and seeing where it led him, and the end product — Dragon Ball — is full of whimsy and surprises and strange turns it likely never would have been full of if he’d mapped it out from the beginning.

Circling back to Godsbarrow, if I’d written up the Unlucky Isles knowing that a slug-god-kaiju was crushing mountains to the west (in Kurthunar) and the region to the south was locked in perpetual winter and populated by, among others, courtly werewolves and mushroom pirates, I would have written it differently. For one thing, I’d have had to hold a lot more ideas in my head while writing it. For another, I’d have worried about conceptually mapping out all of the nations’ relationships with places further away, which likely would have made me lose interest.

If I synthesize all of my regional write-ups into a unified document, will I need to add and tweak some things? You bet. Just like my stitched-up map, what came later would necessarily prompt a gentle rearrangement of what came before.

But as a price to pay for capturing the original raw spirit of Godsbarrow, channeling that into the Unlucky Isles, stoking the fires of creation and diving in while they burned brightly, and creating something that I still want to continue developing eight months later, that is a vanishingly small price indeed.

TL;DR: Start small. Which is, like, the oldest RPG worldbuilding advice ever. This post explains why I started small, and why, eight months after starting work on Godsbarrow, I still love this approach despite the imperfections it introduces into the process and the WIP version of Godsbarrow.

See also: Yore

A lot of what I’ve said here also goes for Yore itself. This blog will be celebrating its 10th anniversary later this year, on August 28th.

I’ve been blogging since 2005, and Yore is my third RPG blog. I ran Treasure Tables (still archived on Gnome Stew) from 2005-2007, and ran and contributed to Gnome Stew from 2008-2016. I may have my math off a bit, but I believe I wrote 871 posts on TT and 453 on GS.

So not only does my post count here — 463 as of this one — exceed my count on the Stew, even prior to the actual 10th anniversary I’ve already posted on Yore for longer than either of my previous blogs. Yore is the one where I just do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it, whether or not that’s an efficient way to build an audience (it’s not), get pageviews (it’s not), create a brand (it’s not), make money (it’s not), or stay relevant in the RPG hobby as a whole (it’s not).

In other words, philosophically Yore is pretty similar to Godsbarrow. I loved blogging on Treasure Tables and Gnome Stew, and look back fondly on those years. But part of the reason I’m still blogging here, nearly 10 years on (and well past the heyday of blogs’ relevance in the hobby), is because here is the place I just do my thing. Or don’t do it. Or shift gears and do new things.

I know folks out there have gotten good mileage out of stuff I’ve posted here, and that brings me joy. I hope it continues to be the case. In the meantime, I’ll just keep puttering away and doing my thing.

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number. I’m using the setting-creation approach detailed in Worlds Without Number [paid link], which is a fantastic resource.)

6 replies on “Godsbarrow: Why not create a world map first?”

I think your approach is great, particularly given the results. I think it’s relatively common too; stories of how Over the Edge developed emphasize that it was a narrow thing focused on a play group… It’s the accumulation off that group’s experiences that became the published product.

I hope you get a chance to delve into this world, particularly the unlucky isles, additions around a game table. If be fascinated to see what changes in play, particularly given your stance that it’s a stop, not set in stone.

Me too! There’s some interest in my Seattle group, so it might happen.

I agree that there’s something different, and special, about campaign settings that have that lived-in feel, the ones that have been home to (and affected by) adventurers and shaped by folks other than the setting’s creator.

I applaud your knowledge of your work process and doing things the way that works for you. I also love this particular series. I think your world is going to be a fantastic place in which to play.
I will plug one of my favorite DnD books ever: the World Builder’s Guidebook for being an excellent resource that goes over how to eat the elephant both ways: Both world map that narrows down to small scale and small scale that balloons to large. But in your case, I recommend it primarily as bathroom reading because your approach is working great for you. :)

I love that book! I’ve definitely absorbed parts of it into my brain, probably without even being conscious of it. It’s high on my list of favorite worldbuilding books.

Revisiting it is a good idea. :-)

I was like, “damn, I’ve been following this guy since 2005!” but I couldn’t get the math right. I’m 34 now, and I’ve followed your exploits since I was a teenager. That’s when I remembered 3d6.org, which you actually forgot to mention in your post. Maybe not strictly a “blog”, just something us OG’s remember.
Long time fan, first time caller.

Whoa! I’ve never met someone “in the wild” before who knew about 3d6.org. That is one deeeeep cut. Thank you reading my ramblings all of these years!

If you add 3d6.org (and I agree, not a blog but sort of blog-adjacent), that gets us back to 2003. Go one site deeper, to 3oni.com — my first site on the public web — and that’s 2000. I attempted to index every feat in D&D 3.0, a venture that became steadily more ill-considered as time went on.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Sirus. You’ve made my morning! :-)

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