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): As snow-covered terrain, 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
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
Vineyards: Vischer vineyards, a few squirts of #735B79, brush opacity 0.25
Snow-covered terrain: #FFFFFF, brush opacity 1.0, with brush opacity 0.5 around the edges and a few squirts of #847F6D (opacity 0.1) mixed in to break up the whiteness a bit
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.
Start with a blank map, just coastlines. Add dots for major settlements, and color the hexes around them to identify the “core regions” of different counties/duchies. Then roll dice to expand those counties, determine undeveloped regions, and create enclaves.
The end result looks dandy, but — perhaps more importantly — this mapping methods looks like a lot of fun and seems like it would produce a gameable map.
Jedi Blackbird is more structured than its inspiration, but only a little. That’s a good thing: Lady Blackbird is brilliant, but I want a hack of it to do something more than just reskin the characters and call it a day. Jedi Blackbird does more.
It’s still every bit as delightfully brief: two pages of sparse background, one page of GMing notes, and the characters. Boom.
The added structure comes from the premise:
NOW, word has arrived from the distant Outer Rim that the renegade padawan ORDO VALLUS has established a holdfast on the junk world of KONDU. The Jedi Council has hastily dispatched three Jedi aboard the starship BLACKBIRD. Their mission: to bring Vallus back to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, where he will stand trial.
Vallus has an agenda; it’s covered in the GMing notes. The PCs are on a mission, and on a specific planet, which fits well for Star Wars. But beyond that, things are wide open — there’s no plot to follow, no rails to ride. (JB tweaks more things about LB than just the setting and structure, too; those are also in John’s notes.)
I’ve already printed this out and added it to the folder full of zero-prep games that rides in my gaming bag.
Index card mapping
I dig Dungeon World, and John’s tips for fitting a satisfying, emblematic DW experience into a typical four-hour convention event slot look good to me. But what really grabbed me was his mapping technique, which uses index cards.
Here’s why this sounds amazing:
The map will be a grid of index cards arranged where everyone can see. […] A map made of cards is super flexible and totally lets you earn your Draw Maps While Leaving Blanks merit badge. See, if you want to add a location between two other locations while you’re in the middle of play, you can just insert a card in between those two locations.
This turns the map into a pointcrawl, a variation on a hexcrawl that uses more abstract mapping and travel rules, on the fly. Which is brilliant!
For a longer-term game, pin the cards to a corkboard or stick them to the table (or a portable surface) with poster putty(paid link). Or hell, just take a picture of the map and rebuild it for each session (until it gets large enough to need a more streamlined solution).
This is one of those mapping techniques I can’t believe I’ve never thought of using before. It has so many applications to different types of game, and it’s right up my alley.
 I suspect I’ll write a post about that folder before too long. I love zero-prep grab-and-go games!
Via private G+ share, I followed a link to Alex Wellerstein‘s NUKEMAP — disturbing and depressing as a real-world visualization tool, but in gaming terms, perfect for nuking the Earth as part of post-apocalyptic setting creation.
NUKEMAP lets you choose a place on the map, the yield of the weapon, and whether it’s a surface strike or an airburst, and then click to see the radii of destruction, fallout, casualty estimates, and more. I nuked Seattle with a W-78 delivered via a Minuteman III missile, ticked the boxes for surface burst, casualties, and fallout, and got this result:
Making a custom Zone map for Mutant: Year Zero (paid link)? NUKEMAP seems like it’d be a great place to start. Rolling up on one of the cities that got nuked in the original Twilight: 2000 (paid link) timeline? Pick a yield, NUKEMAP it, and think about how it would look in the game.
As a person, I’m both repelled and fascinated by nuclear weapons. The circumstances of their testing, the reasons they exist, and their effects on real people are profoundly disturbing.
In one of my college film classes, I got to watch Bruce Conner’s Crossroads. It was a life-altering experience. Which sounds so clichéd, right? But for me, in this instance, it was true. Almost 20 years later, I can still remember how I felt watching Crossroads: I felt like the bottom had dropped out of the world. (As far as I can tell, it’s only available online in excerpt form, but imagine watching 37 minutes of that, on a full-size movie screen.)
But as a gamer, I’m equally fascinated with post-apocalyptic settings, nuking things until they glow, and seeing what happens next. There’s something deeply appealing about apocalypses of all kinds in game form.
NUKEMAP sits at the intersection of thoughtful consideration of the real-world devastation caused by nuclear weapons and the escapist fun of romping through post-apocalyptic worlds. It’s a nifty tool.
The Cartographic Review is a big book of maps, running close to 90 pages with a map per page. Some maps span multiple pages; most are fantasy, but there’s some sci-fi (and otherwise repurposeable) stuff in there as well.
If you’re familiar with Dyson’s blog, Dyson’s Dodecahedron, you already know what his work looks like. But if not, you’re in for a treat. Here’s one of my favorite maps from the book:
Most pages look something like that one, featuring a map and a few paragraphs of text related to the dungeon/environment. Some include exterior views, like this spread:
And some are isometric:
Alongside a host of dungeons and buildings, there are also a set of hex maps that make me wish I had a whole book of these. Here’s my favorite:
Flipping through it, I didn’t come across a single map I couldn’t see myself using at some point. Crypts, caverns, weird towers, sprawling dungeons, crumbling manors, temples, settlements — these are the bread and butter of fantasy gaming, and the Review is packed with them.
As a physical artifact, the book is fantastically useful. Being coil-bound means it will lay flat at the table, and being printed on non-glossy paper means you can key these maps in pencil (or pen, etc.) on the fly, as you need them. Of course, you can also prep them in advance, but I hate prep and love improv, so doing it during play appeals to me.
The Dodecahedron 2015 Cartographic Review is a steal at $16 (remember to always check for Lulu coupons before ordering — those discounts come out of Lulu’s end, not the creator’s). I look forward to the 2016 edition!
Alex Schroeder‘s Gridmapper is a free, online dungeon mapping tool. That’s a pretty crowded space these days, but Gridmapper stands out. Gridmpapper is a fantastic mapping tool, easy enough to use that I get my ideas down as fast as possible, but not so simple that it lacks options.
I’ve experimented with lots of different dungeon mapping options, and Gridmapper is my sweet spot. One of my favorite things about it is that instead of adding rooms to a blank grid, which sometimes paralyzes me (so many choices!), you carve gridded dungeon rooms out of a blank canvas. That shouldn’t feel different, but it does.
Here’s the screen you’ll see when you first access Gridmapper:
All you need is your keyboard and mouse, and no drawing skills are required. Which is good for me, because I’m not good at drawing dungeons.
The learning curve is shallow. Fiddle around for 10 minutes, and you’ll be set.
Unlike some other map-creation options, Gridmapper gives you angle corridors, round rooms, a host of symbols that will be familiar to anyone who’s cracked open an old TSR module, and an expandable canvas/mapping area.
Here’s a dungeon (approximately 37 rooms) I knocked out in about an hour (including time spent thinking about what might inhabit it, etc.):
You can save your maps, export them as images, share them as links, and generally do what you need to do to make further use of a map you’ve created online. Anytime you save a map, it gets added to the Gridmapper wiki (so be aware of that, if you don’t want others to see it).
It even offers the option to use a map in an online game: Everyone loads Gridmapper, accesses the same (presumably sparse) map, and then a designated mapper adds to it live. Every 20 seconds, it saves and the rest of the group can see it.
Lastly, Gridmapper is fun to use. Maps sometimes feel like a chore to me, but making them with Gridmapper falls squarely into the category of play.