Today marks a year since I started working on Godsbarrow. It’s been a consistently fun process, and even when I’ve banked my creative fires I’ve still done something to make forward progress every single day.
You can find links to all of my Godsbarrow work, loosely organized, on the Godsbarrow handbook page.
Here’s my first Godsbarrow map:
Still a work in progress (as I’m re-drawing four regional maps, adding a fifth, and unifying them all at once), but here’s the map covering everything I’ve developed over the past year:
It’s safe to say that without Worlds Without Number [paid link] and Wonderdraft, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near as far as I have this past year — nor had nearly as much fun.
Assuming I don’t forget to do some Godsbarrow work tomorrow, here’s to day 366 of my worldbuilding streak!
Work on my first proper multi-region map for Godsbarrow continues apace. All of the settlements and roads are in place, I’ve tweaked a bunch of coastlines and island shapes and whatnot, and the center third has its mountains, fields, and most of its forests done.
I also dialed the white back by 90% in the Ice Courts, and shrank the area of the Abvärwinter in the west. A few rivers have moved, and Ahlsheyan has more settlements now. And of course Middenglum is being worked on along the way. (The little triangle of forts along the Ahlsheyan-Middenglum border has been fun to write up.)
Once I get all of the symbols redrawn — and finish Middenglum — I’ll go back in and touch up the colors, add a scale, and then step back and see how things look. If it all feels right, the final step will be adding a couple hundred labels to the map.
I’m not sure how to add region names, or if I’ll even be able to include them; I still need to wrestle with that one a bit more.
As of today, martinralya.com has been online for 13 years. (It wasn’t a blog until 2012.) I can’t believe it’s been that long!
2022 will actually bring three anniversaries for this site: the 13th overall; the 10th anniversary for Yore, which launched on August 28, 2012; and the first anniversary for Godsbarrow on March 16th. I guarantee I will forget at least one of them when the day rolls around!
While I’m creating Godsbarrow region by region, in “tiles” which are more or less square, I’ve also been stitching those tiles together into a larger map. As you can see on that map, it’s full of small and medium problems as a result of this rough-and-ready approach: almost nothing along the tile boundaries lines up perfectly, country names appear several times, roads begin or end at random because I forgot I had a road there on the neighboring regional map, etc.
And that’s fine! My main goal has been to safeguard my creative energy and preserve my forward momentum, and given that today is just 10 days shy of a year of daily work on Godsbarrow, that approach has been successful.
But I’ve always known there would need to be a cartographic reckoning, and I’ve kind of dreaded how much work it might involve. It hit me this morning that there would be more work if I continued working on the Middenglum map as its own entity, rather than slotting it into the multi-region poster map and finishing it there.
So I did a bit of poking around, found a Reddit post about copying and pasting landmasses, and gave that a shot. Wonderdraft’s polygonal lasso tool allows you to copy a landform on one map file and paste it into another map file, and it preserves any colors you’ve applied to the source landmass.
About 15-20 minutes later, I had this:
There’s still lots of work to do, but this approach saved me at least a few hours of painstakingly tracing coastlines. It also affords me a fourfold opportunity, one element of which came as a surprise:
Fix all the issues created by making these maps individually
Settle on a scale
Decide if I still like my mapmaking style
Tweak the landmasses
#1 is covered in this post. #2 is sort of an offshoot of #1, but involves less work. I initially chose a scale that seemed too small, then too large, and then stopped thinking about it and just kept making maps. For a finished poster map, I need a scale. In terms of my mapmaking style, #3, I still like it. I’m obviously not a professional cartographer, but if I bought a book with one of my maps in it I wouldn’t be sad.
Item #4 is what surprised me. Seeing the landmasses with no symbols or labels makes it so clear that I created this map as four squares and a rectangle, and highlights how I got better about making it look more natural and organic later on. The earlier top half, especially my first region, the Unlucky Isles, looks more “squared off” than the bottom half.
There’s nothing sacred about my maps at this stage. Godsbarrow is a world still in development, and I’ve certainly come up with stuff in the past couple months that needs to be taken into account in the write-ups for earlier regions.
Take the Red Flag pirates of Middenglum, for example. Warriors from Kuruni, always looking for a way to prove themselves, would absolutely be raiding the pirate isles of Go Quietly Strait. And the Brundiri navy, despite having its hands full in the Unlucky Isles, needs to patrol the southern Alpan Sea to keep those same pirates at bay. But when I created Brundir and Kuruni, Middenglum and the Red Flag pirates didn’t exist.
That’s Future Martin’s problem, and it’s one I’ve known about from day one. I love the raw fire of creation, just Naruto-running through region after region and keeping that fire stoked — and I know that if I’d started with a blank version of this six-tile poster map, 1) I probably wouldn’t have gotten very far, and 2) even if I did maintain my momentum, it would have felt boring and same-y compared to the weird, vibrant stew of ideas that has emerged by doing it one region at a time.
For the second poster map, once Middenglum is done and I’ve polished the current poster map, I probably will start with a larger blank canvas and fill it in one region at a time. I have a year of experience following the Worlds Without Number approach, and a year of work upon which to build, and I think I can thread the needle of staying loose and creative while also avoiding the need to redo another giant map in 2023.
Updated later in the day to add: Even with the landmasses, water, and colors in place, redrawing all the symbols and paths is slow going. I’ve spent about four hours on this today, and I’ve got all the settlements and roads and about a third of the mountains/hills done.
I believe it’s possible to copy all the symbols on one map and paste them onto another, but only as a sort of “flattened” single image which cannot be edited. While redrawing everything is certainly slower, it also gives me the opportunity to tweak as I go (e.g., I said southern Ahlsheyan was more settled, but didn’t actually have that many towns; let’s add a few).
After wrapping up my fourth region, the Ice Courts, I wasn’t sure what to work on next. I slept on it and decided to fill in the blank tile on my poster-size map.
Growing up on TSR box sets, with their gorgeous rectangular poster maps, I couldn’t resist the urge to finish out a map that shape of my own. So I started my next write-up, fired up Wonderdraft, created an all-water tile to work with, and started roughing things in.
Long ago, the Ahl named this area Mē Dān Gēŋ (“me dayne geeng”), which means “land of no opportunities” in Ahl. Despite its inviting protected bays, the whole area is so inhospitable and resource-poor than the early Ahl wanted nothing to do with it, and that has largely held true to the present day. Over time, Mē Dān Gēŋ became “Middenglum,” a dreary place full of society’s dregs and cast-offs. Bandits, pirates, fugitives, and scoundrels of all stripes wash up in Middenglum.
It took me a few days to get the landmasses and their coastlines right, and my initial concept of Middenglum evolved along with them — which is one of my favorite things about this type of lonely fun. Once I knew I was filling in my poster map, I looked at all of my favorite fantasy stuff and saw that most of it was on that map: dwarves, gnomes, mushroom people, werewolves, wintery places, sword and sorcery weirdness, non-Tolkien elves, and plenty of squabbling nations, intrigue, and skullduggery.
But one thing was missing: slimes. I adore D&D-style oozes, slimes, gelatinous cubes (my favorite D&D monster), molds, and the like.
So Middenglum is the birthplace and homeland of the null slimes, a species of sentient, psychic oozes who most often dwell underground. Most never leave Middenglum proper. But among those who do interact with the wider world are some of the most sinister threats to surface-dwellers in all of Godsbarrow.
Longtime readers may remember null slimes from Bleakstone, the fantasy setting I started developing here on Yore some years back. Like other elements of Bleakstone, they’re an idea I quite like that needs a little refinement. With a few tweaks, they’ll fit right into Godsbarrow.
The map will probably change (I like the strong Mordor energy of those mountains, but right now they look a bit too engineered), and the regional overview still isn’t in its final form — but Middenglum is well underway.
Today I wrapped up my second region of Godsbarrow, the fantasy campaign setting I started working on earlier this year: the Gilded Lands, situated just to the east of my first region, the Unlucky Isles.
The Gilded Lands are anchored by Kadavis, the largest and wealthiest of the six nations that comprise this region. With its obsession with ostentatious displays of wealth and status, the near-universal cultural practice of wearing elaborate masks, and the magic-rich blight of Nus Palavar, the haunted graveyard of Kadavis’ small gods, decadent Kadavis has a swords and sorcery vibe to it.
The other nations of the Gilded Lands are quite different. Garshán is a land of gnomish traders who prize efficiency in all things. Many Sou gnomes also make their home here (albeit temporarily). In the south, expansionist Lonþyr plunders the Mormú-Hús Mountains and fights with its neighbor, Yrfeđe — once part of the same country. Yrfeđe is a dark place with a bit of a Norse vibe, defined by the predations of the seemingly unstoppable đargnr — the “sleeping shadows,” who emerge from the woods at night to feast.
Kostivolsk, a sinister halfling theocracy, keeps the đargnr on the other side of the border by sacrificing their own people to their oppressive deity, Xlě̀-Ceth. Centuries ago, the church began a ritual that has continued, unbroken, to the present day: Kosti dance or chant without cessation, until they drop dead. That endless sacrifice pays their god to shield Kostivolsk from the đargnr.
And at the center of it all is Mormú, the greatly diminished homeland of the Grshniki gnomes, and the source of much of the region’s wealth — most of which has been plundered by its neighbors. A pale shadow of its former glory, Mormú is divided over whether to give up and be absorbed by another nation, or continue their ceaseless guerilla war against the larger powers that they’ve waged for centuries.
Mapping and developing the Gilded Lands
This time around, I played a little looser with the Worlds Without Number steps — and having already done a whole series of step-by-step blog posts about creating the Unlucky Isles, I didn’t repeat that part of the process.
For the Gilded Lands, I started with the map. At any given stage of the WWN development process, my map was typically a step or two ahead. This was a fun approach, and it felt more organic. Whenever I was in the mood to draw, I worked on the map; when I wanted to write, I wrote.
I still consider the Unlucky Isles to be the default starting location for a Godsbarrow campaign (if there were ever to be a Godsbarrow campaign!), so I won’t be zooming in to detail out a smaller section of the Gilded Lands map just now. (For the Isles, I zoomed in on Sanχu, a province in Brundir.)
Here are the Gilded Lands and the Unlucky Isles together on one map (sorry about the seam!).
I did my best to get my two maps to line up, but from Wonderdraft’s perspective I’m doing this all backwards; I should be creating a continent-level map and then using the software to zoom in on regions. But I prefer this approach, where I’m letting my ideas flow and not hemming anything in about what’s outside my immediate area of focus.
For example, wanting to know more about Kadavis — which is on the eastern edge of the Unlucky Isles map — is what prompted me to work on the Gilded Lands. Feeling like there should be a big east-west “spray” of mountains in the Gilded Lands, and just going for it, is what gave rise to my favorite nation in that region: Mormú, the besieged, greatly diminished, fractious kingdom of the Grshniki gnomes, beset on all sides by hostile powers.
I’ve got a full region worth of write-ups to proofread and turn into blog posts — and while I work on that, I also need to get rolling on a third region! As with the Isles, the Gilded Lands feature multiple countries that extend off the regional map. These serve as anchors for adjacent maps, like Kadavis did for this one, and “seed the ground” for future development.
I don’t know where I’m headed next. After writing about the Gilded Lands a little bit every day for the past 10 weeks or so, my instinct is to shift my focus elsewhere — maybe explore Ahlsheyan and points south, or go north and figure out what’s going on around (and on) the Lachyan Sea.
Last Wednesday, my Seattle group started up a new D&D campaign set in a friend’s homebrew world. She unveiled the map for her setting, and it was amazing — pro-level cartography, tantalizing and inviting and clear, both functional and beautiful. She mentioned in passing that she’d created it in Wonderdraft, a mapping tool I’d never heard of before, so after the game I asked her how hard it was to create a map that awesome using Wonderdraft.
Not that hard, she said.
Now, to me that sounded like Michael Jordan casually sinking shots from mid-court, one after another, without even looking, while saying “It’s not that hard.” But she gave me some benchmarks for why it wasn’t that hard, how it involved a lot of painting (a plus for me), and how much simpler it was than learning Photoshop. That last one was key, because I’ve dabbled with Campaign Cartographer and it 1) felt a lot like trying to learn Photoshop, which I found to have a cliff-shaped learning “curve,” and 2) made me want to give up my worldly possessions and go live in the woods as a hermit.
So I took the plunge, watched a couple YouTube tutorials (D&D Breakfast Club’s tutorial 1 of 4 and Icarus Games’ video on transferring maps to Wonderdraft), and within 15 minutes I’d determined that 90% of what I wanted in a professional Unlucky Isles map was something I could do in Wonderdraft — and, like my friend said, it wouldn’t be that hard.
TL;DR: The new map of the Unlucky Isles
This map took me about 20 hours to make (including time spent finding assets and learning how to use Wonderdraft):
And here’s its predecessor:
I was worried I’d have to create every map twice so that I could take advantage of Worldographer’s numbered hexes, a feature not found in Wonderdraft. But Wonderdraft has a robust user community, and that community has created a tool to give you numbered hexes. I also realized that while I always build my maps with old-school hexcrawling in mind, 99% of my fantasy RPG play has not been old-school hexcrawls.
In fact, 99% of that play has been in games that would benefit more from a Wonderdraft-style map than an old-school hex map. I’ve also found that I’m not taking advantage of one of Worldographer’s killer apps, which is the ability to map the same setting at the world, continent, and more local levels (with automagical terrain generation and child maps). And when I can drop a hex grid on my Wonderdraft map, run an addon to number those hexes, and have the best of both worlds (no pun intended), that really seals the deal.
Whoa, that’s too many cities! And too many people
Redoing this map — and expanding it — in Wonderdraft prompted me to name a lot more stuff. While browsing r/Wonderdraft I came across a comment on a user’s lovely map about there being too many settlements (not a universal truth, but a salient point for an RPG setting), and that plus my own mapmaking made me realize that I had too many cities in the Isles. I’ve wondered whether the Isles were too populous ever since I started ballparking the numbers, but this threw it into sharp relief.
So, a reckoning. I wiped out all the labels I’d created on my first big “map day” (after jotting down all the names for future use), rolled up my sleeves, and tucked into some revisions.
I’m leaning on two sources here, and moving WWN itself to the background (because those numbers skewed high): Medieval Demographics Made Easy (MDME), which the ever-brilliant S. John Ross has graciously made freely available with a very permissive license (and, as such, is now hosted here on Yore); and a Medium post by Lyman Stone looking at the same topic through the lens of Game of Thrones. They’re in broad agreement, which is good enough for me.
Let’s start with approximate hex counts, not worrying yet about what might count as wilderness (except in the lone very obvious case):
Arkestran Dominion: 215 hexes not counting the Wastes
Yealmark: 41 hexes
Brundir: 420 hexes
Rasu Miar: 165 hexes
Mainland Kadavis: 133 hexes of Kadavis proper on this map
Meskmur: 115 hexes
Ahlsheyan: 225 hexes on this map
I’m mapping in 6-mile hexes, which contain roughly 9 square miles. Ross and Lyman agree that a medieval (~1,000-1,500, more or less) population density of 100 people per square mile was an outlier reserved for only the most populous, arable nations. At 900/hex that’s 1,100 people/hex fewer than WWN posits — and most countries in the Isles will be well below 100/square mile.
Ross notes that 14th century England had about 40 people/sq. mi.
Lyman notes that if you average the figure from 1,000 to 1,500 CE, Scotland had about 4-8 people/sq. mi. (and, disagreeing with MDME, England comes out to 11-30 people/sq. mi.)
Whichever stat you use, the country I tend to treat as my benchmark for medieval population figures — England — has a lot fewer people/sq. mi. than my original estimates for the Isles. There’s also the whole fuzzy consideration that while the average medieval European country was just rotten with hamlets and thorps and whatnot, so dense with settlements that you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting the next one over, worlds designed for D&D-style adventuring need blank spaces.
Just to get the ball rolling, let’s say Brundir has 40 people/sq. mi. (420 hexes, not counting any as wilderness). That’s 151,200 people. WWN and MDME would both put about 5,000 people in Brundir’s largest city; WWN postulates about 15,000 in cities nationwide. The next largest would be 2,500. Both of those are pretty small cities — in fact, MDME doesn’t even consider a settlement a city if it has fewer than 8,000 people in it.
So how about Brundir with a population density of 75 people/sq. mi.? That gives Brundir the following stats:
28,000 in cities
9,300 in the largest city
3,780 sq. mi. of territory (420 hexes)
1,575 sq. mi. of which is farmland (175 hexes, using MDME’s formula of 1 square mile of farmland supporting 180 people)
That feels more right to me than my initial WWN-driven population estimates. I don’t need to delve any deeper for the time being, but when I do this is the route I’ll be following.
Two things that have really been making Wonderdraft sing for me are Mythkeeper, a free tool which automates adding new assets (symbols, etc.) to Wonderdraft, and the Cartography Assets site, which is chock full of free and paid Wonderdraft asset packs. I fell in love with symbols pulled from old maps, so all of the forests, mountains, etc. on my Unlucky Isles map are drawn from historical examples.
For the sake of my sanity — and so that, if you like, you can create maps in this style — I’m recording some of the Wonderdraft choices and options I’ve used to create this map. Some things, like the map textures, are visible on a finished map when you load it in Wonderdraft — but many are not. Which of the seven sets of mountain assets did I use? What brush opacity did I color them with? That’s what this list is for.
In general, I’m always using brush #3 (the blotchy spray), and varying scales but usually 50% or below. All the names (Vischer, etc.) refer to assets or asset packs on Cartography Assets.
Mountains: Vischer or Widman mountains, #976035, brush opacity 1.0
Snowcapped peaks: Just paint the tips #FFFFFF, brush opacity 0.5
Volcanoes: Van Der Aa mountains, AoA Volcanoes Pencil smoke, #976035, brush opacity 1.0
Snowbound mountains (as in the Ice Courts): Paint the tips #FFFFFF, brush opacity 1.0, then add light squirts of #976035, brush opacity 0.25, just to break things up visually
Barren hills: Ogilby hills, #C8AD93, brush opacity 0.5
Verdant hills: Vischer regular hills (which are grassy/overgrown), so far only painted as forests
Forests: Vischer or Van Der Aa assets, with individual Vischer trees mixed in, #74A035, brush opacity 0.5; usually I add a few squirts of #2E6020, brush opacity 0.5, for variety
Deep Forests: #2E6020, brush opacity 0.5
Dead trees: Mix of default dead trees and Zalkenai’s dead trees, black, varying scales, #828864, brush opacity 0.5
Marshes: Vischer wetlands assets, with a few Widmer individual trees mixed in for variety, #37835E
Aausti marshes: As above, but instead of individual trees mix in Ogilby scrubs
Scrubland: Mix of Ogilby and Vischer scrub, #BAB26D, brush opacity 0.5
Farmland: Vischer furrowed fields, #BAB26D with a couple blasts of #74A035 for good measure
Broken lands: Popple hills, so far only used in the Atrachian Wastes so they were painted as dead trees
Devastation of The God That Eats: As broken lands, but without the hills and with Ogilby heaths
Vineyards: Vischer vineyards, a few squirts of #735B79, brush opacity 0.25
Snow-covered terrain: #FFFFFF, brush opacity 0.1, applied in single-click “squirts” with the widest brush possible for the terrain, aiming for a light, blotchy whiteness
Ruins/mysterious towers: Vischer ruins and monuments mixed with Van Der Aa towers, with Popple scrubs thrown in until it looks right; #828864, brush opacity 0.25, with a few squirts of brush #1 around it for blending
Weird obelisks: Vischer ruins and monuments; colored #828864, brush opacity 0.5 (So far, only used for the Thefaine in Aaust.)
Settlements: Custom Colors assets (included by default), #00000
Cities: Circle with dot in the center, 50% scale
Capital cities: Circle with star in the center, 50% scale
Raise/Lower Landmass Tool for coastlines: Roughness 2
Labels: Gentium Book Basic Bold (included), outline #000000 thickness 1 (except for bodies of water)
Nations: #B93841, font size 48, curvature 0.15, always horizontal
Cities, capital cities, towns: #B9B4B4, font size 20, no curvature, always horizontal
Castles, forts: As cities, but font size 14
Ruins: As castles, but curvature -0.2 instead of horizontal
Large bodies of water: #7EABA1, font size 36, outline 770C232C, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
Small bodies of water: As large, but font size 14 or 24
Rivers: #B9B4B4, font size 10, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
Major geographic features: #B9B4B4, font size 24, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
Minor geographic features: #B9B4B4, font size 14, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
I also like to mix in squirts of brush #1 (spray paint), 0.5 opacity, to blend the transitions between painted areas (primarily the default “not arable” beige and “arable” greenish-brown).
Non-English letters in labels
I’ve found that it can be handy (on PC) to have the Character Map app open for easy cutting and pasting into Wonderdraft labels. Every character won’t paste, presumably because my Wonderdraft font choice doesn’t include it — but enough do for me to get the job done.
And on the language front, Lexicity is another awesome resource for dead languages. It’s not as straightforward as Palaeolexicon, since it curates links rather than simply presenting dictionaries — but it has a lot of resources to offer.
Wonderdraft isn’t as simple as Worldographer. For the purposes of creating a setting using Worlds Without Number (paid link), it is 100% Too Much Gun. When I’m working on a setting, creating a polished, beautiful map is a step that becomes a vast gulf between me and producing actual gameable content, and it leads to abandoned projects. It’s the antithesis of WWN’s highly successful “never give up your momentum, never stall out trying for perfection” philosophy.
But at this stage, with a full cycle of WWN’s region creation and kingdom creation under my belt (as in, I could run a game set in the Isles tonight), and as I’ve already moved on to a second region of Godsbarrow, making a pretty map of the Isles isn’t a roadblock of any kind. I don’t need it, and it’s not holding anything up; my Worldographer map is perfectly functional for play.
There is, however, no substitute for sitting down to play and having a gorgeous map in front of you — one that raises questions, makes you want to explore, and makes the setting feel real. If you’ve ever opened up an AD&D Forgotten Realms product and unfolded one of those glorious maps, you know that feeling. I want that for Godsbarrow, and I hope my map succeeds at that goal.