D&D World Building Week, Part II: Cartography and Conflicts

The Island of Myros was the example campaign’s regional map.

Yesterday’s post described some methods for developing themes for a new D&D “homebrew” setting. With the brainstorming finished and a handful of guiding concepts at hand, it’s time to start building the framework for the campaign. In the approach discussed here, this step begins with a regional campaign map.

Creating the Campaign Map

The map could depict a small continent, a great plateau, a settled valley (like the Nentir Vale detailed in the fourth edition (4e) Dungeon Master’s Guide) or a portion of a larger continent; anything that works with the concepts you’ve generated inPart I is fine.

It’s important to remember that, at this point, this is the dungeon master’s (DM’s) map. As such, it can contain terrain or special map features related to the campaign’s theme that wouldn’t automatically be player knowledge, like lost ruins or monster lairs. The players’ map of the setting wouldn’t depict these special locations.Any cartography method that works for you is fine. A great place to visit for suggestions, advice, feedback and tutorials on creating fantasy maps is the Cartographer’s Guild.

For the example campaign, I used an old version of Adobe Photoshop to create the map. Other popular fantasy cartography programs include the GIMP (which is very powerful and offered free of charge), Campaign Cartographer, DunDjinni, and MapTool (which is also free). Drawing maps on computers isn’t the only way to do this; pencils and graph paper work as well today as they did for DMs 30 years ago.

Part I of this series showed that, due to the campaign’s guiding concepts, the map needed plains and highlands, along with some rolling hills for the Roman-inspired culture; and since we were using all of the 4e Player’s Handbook races, it would need some space and terrain for the demi-humans also.

With any map having physics similar to Earth, it’s a good idea to start with coastlines. Next, decide where the mountains are, since that will dictate where river systems begin. After drawing in mountains and rivers, put in forests. Consider rainfall for any remaining areas: those with rain will be plains and those without will be desert.

Next, take enough time to name almost everything. It may seem like a chore at first, but there are dozens of resources from which a DM can draw names, like a published atlas or mapping Web sites.

The graphic accompanying this post is the example campaign’s finished map, the Island of Myros. It is situated south of the Equator on a spherical world much smaller than Earth, so the north of the island is sub-tropical and the southernmost region has an arctic climate. The Roman-inspired culture, the Nurites, live in the northernmost section, where they live much as the Ancient Romans did. The highlanders, or Clurgish Clans, live on the slopes of the mountains southeast of the Nurites, and the Rohan-inspired culture, the Atherites, live on the southwest plains. A fourth human culture, the Varozians, dwell on the eastern plains; they represent the typical human civilization in D&D, sort of a mercantile, cosmopolitan mishmash of Conan, Excalibur and Tolkein, included for players who don’t want to be from the equivalent of Rome, Scotland or Rohan.

These human civilizations are separated by the Tanglewoode elves, and the dwarves of Oringard and Moratek. Dragonborn hail from the continent to the east of Myros, and the halflings and tieflings live among the humans.

The Charwoode and the vale west or Oringard are reserved for the monsters.

Creating the Conflicts

While the heroes are probably quite capable of disturbing the peace of your new realm all by themselves, it helps to have some regionial-level tensions or ongoing conflicts between campaign cultures at the start of the game; doing so can give players a starting point if they require one, and also offer the DM a few subjects for small talk when the heroes talk with NPCs. Any history text can provide plenty of inspiration for these conflicts; they can include wars, plagues, trade disputes, succession, religious conflicts, philosophical movements, and peasant rebellions. The DM can also add conflicts exclusive to fantasy, like wars with evil humanoids, undead dragons and such.

For the example campaign, I decided that all the human cultures were once part of the Nuric Empire. Taking a cue from the history described in the 4e Player’s Handbook, the empire crumbled when the human leaders cross-bred with infernal entities, giving rise to the tieflings. Thus, any tiefling can trace its lineage to a former Nuric ruling house, although only those tieflings residing in the north retain their lands and titles, where the empire still holds sway.

Building on that information, at the start of the game:

  • Any human not from the north has strong prejudices against tieflings;
  • Nurites view most other humans as rebels;
  • The Atherites think the Nurites are deluded, that the Clurgs are uncivilized swineherds, and that the Varozians are a bunch of effete hedonists;
  • The Clurgs think that the Nurites are dishonorable and power-hungry, that the Atherites take themselves far too seriously, and that the Varozians are greedy.
  • The Varozians like the Nurites because their minted currency is of uniform weight and quality; they like the Atherites because they’re poor at commerce and export cheaply; they like the Clurgs because they have a strong work ethic, and their weak economy makes for low wages; and they like tensions between groups, because those tenions create a need for troops, which create needs for goods and services.

To these tensions, we’ll add some fantasy elements:

  • While warfare has always been part of dwarven culture, the Clanhold of Oringoth sees no purpose in ongoing conflicts within the fallen human empire and it’s half-demon leaders. The clan has abandoned the surface lands to the lunacy of the humans, tieflings, elves and dragonborn.
  • A small subset of the Oringoth dwarves, noting increased aggression from evil underdark races, think alliances with these other races may still be worthwhile; these dwarves formed the Clanhold of Moratek. While diplomatic relations between Moratek and other races are still suspicious, at least they exist.
  • The elves see nothing but problems with the way humans wage war and dabble where they don’t belong in order to gain an advantage over each other. They only humans they socialize with are the horse-revering Atherites.
  • There have been reports of increased undead activity in the Charwoode, some claiming that an undead army is assembling in that cursed place. A handful of human and elven settlements close to the Charwoode have been attacked by undead in recent weeks.

Tomorrow, we’ll work backward from these conflicts to produce an internally consistent campaign history.


5 comments on “D&D World Building Week, Part II: Cartography and Conflicts

  1. […] & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I and Part II before continuing […]

  2. […] & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II and Part III before continuing […]

  3. Carahue says:

    One of the cities in your map is called Varos. Did you know that in Hungarian Város means city? Or is this just a coincidence?

    • Alric says:

      Just a coincidence – I tried to come up with something Roman-sounding. If I accidentally spoke Hungarian, I guess I wasn’t too close…

      Thank you for your visit, by the way.

  4. […] & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV before continuing […]

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