View Full Version : Tips for Worldbuilding

11-09-2012, 05:13 PM
Hi all. I don't know how other people feel about this, but I think people might find it useful to have tutorials not just about map-making, but also about how to build their worlds. I haven't found anything else like this on the forums, so thought I'd start this thread. I'll try to post stuff about how history works, and how cities grow (urban history is my forte), but please feel free to ask questions or make your own contributions.

I hope this is not the wrong forum for this type of thread. If it is, could someone please move it to where it belongs.

11-09-2012, 05:15 PM
Here's my first post (and it's a long one):

So, you want to build an empire, do you?

Most empires in history began in self-defence. Say you’re the king of a tribe, the Cartographii, and you are worried your big strong neighbour, the Artistae, are going to attack you. Well, the smart thing to do is attack them first.

Congratulations, sire, you won.

Now you rule a larger territory, and so you can start to grow. More land means more food; more food means more kiddies; more kiddies means more warriors; more warriors means your new neighbours, the Writerians, are starting to get nervous. You know what to do: attack!
Right, well, now you rule over three tribal territories. So, more land means more food; more food means…you know the rest. So it goes on, until your empire is large enough that its nearest neighbours are no longer a challenge for it.

Of course, a lot of empires die in infancy: you might lose the battle with the Artistae; you might win that battle, but lose to the Writerians; you might win both of those, but lose to whoever comes next. Other factors come into play, and these can be much more varied – better weapons, more organised troops, smarter strategies, sheer dumb luck.

As a general rule, though, empires start off as aggressive nations. The Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Romans, the Aztecs are perhaps the best example of this. Even empires we think are ‘good’ because they are ‘civilised’ follow this pattern – Alexander the Great shot first and asked questions later; the Islamic caliphate began by defending the faith from angry neighbours at M’dina; the growth of the British Empire was largely accidental.

The British are interesting, actually. Suppose you’re one of the decision-makers in Whitehall. Your army has been attacked in a province of India (lets say, Punjab) by an Indian king (who is doing exactly what all leaders should, attack the enemy before they attack you). You beat the Punjabi army, but you don’t want them to do this again, do you? With a sigh, you realise you only have one sure option – occupy their capital, set up a new administration, make an agreement with the local elites, establish a garrison.

Now, it doesn’t always happen exactly like this. The Phoenicians built their empire through new settlements; rather than conquering the native people, they’d put a small tradepost on the coast, and they could then trade with the locals, without the expense of trying to conquer them. If they felt their land was threatened, however, then they are left with only one choice.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Why would one tribe want to attack another in the first place? Can’t they all just live in peace? I have a little theory about this, one which, as far as I know isn’t backed up by any historical literature, but is what I observed from reading history books.

There are two reasons one tribe will attack another: self-defence, population pressure. Note, this is all probably simplifying these processes enormously, but go with it, it does make sense.

Self-defence: as discussed above, you want to protect your tribe so you attack first. In this instance, your goal is to eliminate the threat from an enemy, and so you need to destroy the enemy. This can be done through killing them (Mongolian solution), enslaving them (Spartan solution), or sacrificing them on a bloody altar (Aztec solution).

Population growth: when your own tribe is starting to burst at the seams, there isn’t quite enough for the young fellas to do, there’s starting to be discontent because the economy is slowing down (a modern concept, but still applies to early times), you want to resolve the problem. Attack a neighbour. Depending on how it is conducted – i.e. as a raid or as an invasion – it will give either booty or land. If you raid the enemy, you get their stuff, but they remain in place and so you go back the next year (Vikings). If you invade, you want their land, which you can then give to your young fellas, they can farm it, and you have enough food and work for your population (I don’t know for sure, but I think this is what happened in China). In this case, you are trying to take the enemy’s land, rather than take out the enemy. You dont want to enslave them, because that’s just another burden. Instead, you push them off their land, and keep it for yourself. They then go harassing someone else as they try to find some land of their own.

One last thing. Empires acquire momentum. When you get to that point where you look around and see the charred remnants of your enemy’s flags, all have fallen before you, you have no more enemies on your frontiers, then you need to decide what to do next. You can’t just say, well, enough’s enough, too many people have died, let’s call it quits; I’m happy with my territory, anyway. No, your troops won’t let you. Conquest makes them rich. It adds land to the empire, which you can then use to reward your allies and veterans, and besides, now you want specific things – I really want those shiny ore mines that you have, friend, give them to me now. Those spices look good, care to let me have some? Hence, the empire rolls on. Historically, every empire has continued to grow until it either meets a stronger opponent than it (Persians v Alexander; Aztecs v Spanish; arguably Napoleon v. Russians/British/Prussians etc) or it overreaches itself, and collapses under the strain (Romans, Ottomans, Islamic caliphates, Mongols). Every new province needs to be secured with troops, administrators, etc. And they all need to be paid.

So, when building your empire, remember, no-one sets out trying to build an empire. You get one by accident, and then you don’t know what to do with it. For a while, empire-owning is profitable, but eventually, if you let it grow too big, it just becomes expensive to run.

Hope people find this useful.

11-09-2012, 07:16 PM
Very informative. Thanks for sharing and have some rep for a great subject. :)

*EDIT* apparently I've repped you recently and have to wait to do it again but consider yourself symbolically repped !!

11-10-2012, 10:04 AM
Good post!

Another reason for attacking another country is to simply justify your armed forces that could have been stood up to protect against another country, but that threat has deminished or been resolved. I guess this could fall under population growth, but I think it fits better under internal politics and averting civil unrest.

Another issue would be environmental; famine, diease, drought, and earthquakes flooding. These things may cause a peaceful nation to take drastic action to save their way of life. My thoughts generated by your post. Thank you.

11-16-2012, 05:02 PM
Yeah thanks Rodan. Good points.

I'd probably say the first of those things is to do with the whole 'momentum of empire building' thing. Once you have an army, you have two choices: leave it doing nothing (in which case it gets either lazy and bad at fighting, or bored and keen to find some violent outlet, possibly involving your royal palace) or send it elsewhere. In other words, once you've got the army, if you don't use it, you lose it (and everything else). That's the Roman story. Just as an aside, when reading about empires in history, you tend to find their growth is always linked with some 'great leader' - it's easy to forget that the soldiers who are doing the fighting are not just parts of a machine, they're real people; they have their own fears, hopes, wants, etc. Often it is that reality, rather than some ruler far away, that effects historical events.

I'm unsure about the environmental factor though. There doesn't sound like anything wrong with the idea, but I don't know of any empires that have gotten started due to some kind of environmental event. I can think of a few that came to an end - the Minoans, Mayans and Greenland Vikings being prime examples - but none that started. That's actually not entirely true. The Mongols, arguably, started rolling across Asia because their grazing land was shrinking. But it's hard to be sure, since they also had a very aggressive culture, and Ol' Genghis unified the tribes for self-defence reasons, not to gain more land. At least, as far as I know. Also, I can easily imagine that empire's might start in the future because of environmental causes.

Anyway, food for thought. I thought tomorrow I'd try to write about the origins of cities.

11-17-2012, 07:48 PM
Okay so, as promised, these are some thoughts about how cities start.

What gives a city its shape, how does it grow and change, and where should you put it in the first place?

The first thing you should probably know is, how is the city being founded? Is this the whim of some tyrant, a mad but possibly brilliant ruler who plans to build his own mini-utopia? Is it merely a practical response to a practical problem – a fort for soldiers or a workers camp near some important industry? Is it, perhaps, going to start just because a group of families say “you know what, I reckon we’ll stay here”? Or possibly it was because there was a handy road/bridge/crossroads/ford etc. and it seemed like a good idea at the time? All of these have happened historically, although a fantasy setting might offer new reasons for founding a city.

Where to put a city can be incredibly complicated or simply simple, depending on how much detail you care to go into. I think I’ll keep it simple: water, food, building materials. Without these, a city cannot exist. Water is obviously the first consideration, but remember, if your settlement is going to become a large city it needs enough water. A meagre little stream won’t satisfy a hundred thousand people, will it? Ideally, therefore, you’ll be looking for a river. Rivers are better than lakes because they not only bring fresh water in, they also take used water out. If you don’t fancy a river settlement you can also look for a spring (particularly handy for hilltop settlements and forts), aquifers or groundwater storage (to be honest, I’m a bit fuzzy on these; I assume they’ll be of most use in deserts, but I’m sure there are other guild members who know more than me about this). If all else fails, you can try to bring water in (i.e. aqueducts or even caravans, but now you’re getting desperate). If imported water is your only option (i.e. there are no rivers, lakes, springs, aquifers) then your city is not going to last long; building aqueducts might be something you do when the water supply gets too dirty, but by then you’ll already have a large city, surely?

Don’t forget dinner. I’m not going to get all technical about this. Food comes from the ground, from water, or possibly from the wilderness (i.e. hunter-gatherer). A city that depends on animals hunted nearby or gathered plants might be an interesting idea, but how big will it grow, really? Pre-modern fishing can support a small-medium population, but the best option is farming. Obviously, farming needs suitable soil. A rocky island in the middle of nowhere isn’t going to grow very much, is it? Good soil is rich in nutrients, and that usually means it is full of organic (plant or animal) material. Forests are good – all those fallen leaves turning into mulch, what could be better? Volcanoes have also got a reputation for producing extremely fertile ash-based soil. Try googling ‘best places for farming’ and see what you get.

When it comes to farming, also give some thought to what kind of farming. Are you farming crops or keeping livestock? Crops generally produce more food, but are actually a lot harder to keep going. You have to wait a full year for your next harvest, you need to keep the yield protected and stored (which may mean keeping it dry, keeping rats/birds out etc.), and you need to irrigate. Animals, on the other hand, are ready to go. Chickens give you food most days of the week. Think about how many people you can feed with a single cow, or sheep for that matter. And then there are the additional benefits – wool, leather, bones for toolmaking etc. You don’t need to bring water to your animals, because you can bring them to the water, and if you have to move (eg to start a new town) you can take them along. The downsides are that they take a long time to mature, and (unless you live somewhere cold) you can’t store the meat for long. In ancient times, the Germanic tribes depended on livestock much more than crops. What does this have to do with cities? It’s about how much land you have and how it is used, and how many people you can support. You might find large farms outside the city walls, or most people keeping a few chickens or a pig in their backyard (which means they need to HAVE a backyard).

So, that’s food.

I won’t worry about building materials; it’s pretty self-explanatory really. Just give some thought as to where they get their building materials (incl. for different social classes), how available those materials will be in any location, and how suitable each type is (eg stone doesn’t burn but is heavy and will get very cold; bricks require an industry to produce them and money to buy them; wood is convenient and warm but can also be dangerous).

Lastly, it’s obviously important to think about why people live where they live. If they are worried about being attacked, they’ll choose somewhere high or easily protected; if they feel safe they will probably live somewhere they can make a living, either through farming, manufacturing, services (eg pilgrims) or trade.

So, if you want to build a city – and you want it to be historically realistic – here’s a checklist of things to know: where do they get their water/food/building materials? Who is founding the settlement? Why has a particular site been chosen? You need ALL of these things, not just some of them.

I think that’s enough for today. To be honest I was hoping for a better response, and so I won’t add any more of these essay-like posts unless people sincerely want more. Also I’ve definitely forgotten to include many important points. So please, provide your ideas, questions, comments, critiques, and happy worldbuilding.

PS: I should include a warning. Be aware, when starting down the road of uber-realistic world-building that it can be a trap. You spend so long trying to make things ‘right’ that you don’t get round to anything else. I’ve grown heartily sick of trying to make every detail of my worlds make sense, and now deliberately just go with what feels right. Some people are happy to take this path, and good luck to them. But don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

11-17-2012, 08:10 PM
Don't worry too much about the apparent lack of response. This thread has had almost 300 views in just a couple of weeks, which isn't bad at all, especially for a non-art thread. I find the discussion interesting, but I'm not prone to much in the way of responses.

I'm looking forward to a discussion of how population densities arise on terrains, especially with regards to central place theory, and then how that might play into city and nation development.

11-18-2012, 11:01 AM
I for one DO appreciate the work and effort that is going into these posts, but like waldronate I have little to add. I find this kind of stuff interesting from a knowledge point of view, but the "uber-realistic world-building" thing is one of those things that I do not excel at. By any stretch of the imagination, and I just go with the flow. Make no mistake, I most likely will refer back to these types of threads from time to time, but not necessarily for my world building, but when my own curiosity asks a question.

Please do not abandon these efforts. Lessons in real world knowledge are too valuable to be forgotten in a place where fantasy runs amok...like here ;)

11-18-2012, 03:09 PM
Ditto: excellent material, well presented. I have little in the way of objections or additions, hence no input. Thank you!

The last bit about over- engineering one's world -- right! Plausible and done beats exact and stalled. And close-enough and fun beats dead-on that turns into a chore!

11-18-2012, 03:35 PM
I think these are great. I don't build worlds but I've really learned a lot about the way thing actually work from this series. Thanks so much for taking the time to post these. :)

11-18-2012, 04:53 PM
Thanks for those comments, they're very encouraging. Being still fairly new here it's hard to tell what is a normal amount of response and what isn't. I'll continue posting, perhaps on a weekly basis.

Unfortunately, central place theory isn't my strong suit though, so you might need to wait a while for that one. :)


11-18-2012, 05:37 PM
Response to posts waxes and wanes due to interest and ability to post something that's relevant to the thread. I generally only post in threads that I can contribute to or to just say "Thats really good" and this thread is "really good" :)

12-08-2012, 12:20 AM
New member Okami recently asked where people start with their maps, and since I’ve been neglecting my duties in this thread (it’s harder than I realised to think of new topics), I thought I’d post some ideas. These are ideas for starting new worlds, not new maps, but I’m finding the line between the two is starting to get rather blurry.

So, you want to start a new world, do you?

Unfortunately, because of the topic, I’ll have to try not to ramble all over the place.

The first step is to decide why you want to create the world. There’s the obvious answer (eg. setting for a fantasy novel or game), but what specifically do YOU get out of it – is worldbuilding just a chore that has to be done, or does the activity itself give you pleasure? If the first is the case, you’ll probably want it over quickly; if the latter, you’ll be more willing to put time and thought into your work.

Because that’s the second thing – how much time are you willing to spend on this? If you plan on working out every detail of your world from the Big Bang to the present day, you’ll still be going when your 83 years old, and that’s even if you started when you were nine and spend 22 hours of every single day working on it. If you worldbuild for the fun of worldbuilding, that type of commitment might suit you. If you plan on publishing your book next year (and you are not approaching your 83rd b’day), maybe not.

Of course, everybody has their own way of doing things. Some people like to start at the beginning, and work each detail out in a systematic way (top-down); others like to start with one thing (a town, a city, a country, a person) and develop it in extreme detail before expanding to the next area (bottom-up); a third and sometimes underestimated approach is to just start wherever you feel like. All of these have advantages and disadvantages.

This is where you are trying to create the planet in a systematic way. I think most people realise that everything is interrelated, and the changes from one thing to the next are usually causal (i.e. one event is the cause of the next). To make this approach work, it is best to be clear on certain universal constants – water runs downhill; geographic features experience erosion from wind and water; heat is distributed on a planet according to distance from the sun. So, putting that together, here’s an example:
• you want to include forest-dwelling elves;
• you need to know where the forests are going to occur;
• to find your forests, you need to know about rainfall and temperature (and, depending on how detailed you choose to get, things like soil fertility could also be considered);
• temperature and rainfall are affected by topography (both of these contain some universal constants; I might write about them sometime, but, in the meantime, look online for Geoff’s Climate Cookbook, a great resource for meteorological world-builders); and
• topography is affected by plate tectonics (also contains universal constants; also something I might write about sometime).

Plate tectonics, generally speaking, are where you get to be creative – they should follow some rules, but otherwise, you can make them up. For this reason, people often like to start with plate formation or landmasses. I would actually recommend starting a little earlier than that – begin with your planet’s star, moon/s and solar system (this applies to fantasy AND sci-fi – remember, jsut because the inhabitants of your world don’t know about planets orbiting suns, doesn’t mean YOU can leave it out). Why do outer space first? Mainly because you’ll need to do them eventually, they’re not too tricky, and it’s handy to get them out of the way. Also they do have some visible effects – eg. on daylight hours in different latitudes, average temperatures, year length, even tides (not to mention whether said planet can sustain any life at all). I’ll possibly write about solar systems/stars in the future too – I seem to be getting quite a list ready.

(Here’s a personal tip – another place to start is with a name. I find names really difficult, and if you’ve got a name, it automatically makes your world a bit unique, and that means you’ve got a bit more of an attachment to it).

Advantages of top-down: as you keep going, you know that everything is consistent, because it is all worked out from beginning to end, rather than middle to end to beginning, back to end, and then returning briefly to the middle etc. If you like to have this certainty and/or you like to have highly realistic and consistent worlds, this is the method for you. Top-down also helps you to include things you might overlook, like mineralogy – this could seem like overkill, but wouldn’t it be handy to know your iron-age Empire does, in fact have access to iron?

Another advantage, entirely dependent on your personality, is that top-down is a great way to learn. To do it 'properly', you need to become a scholar of geology, meteorology, anthropology, linguistics, biology etc. (By scholar, I simply mean, spend some time googling, perhaps get a book about the topic etc; research each topic until you are comfortable with your level of knowledge). This leads to the...

...Disadvantages: top-down is a LOT of work. It is, in fact, physically impossible to finish a top-down world. Obviously, therefore, you need to find shortcuts – I’ve developed a shortcut system for doing cultures, which I’ll write about tomorrow (even more to add to the list), so see that for an example.

Another disadvantage is that, if you started your world wanting an elven forest civilisation, you might get to the end and find that, realistically, there are no suitable forests for those elves to occupy. The only suggestion I can make is to either swear and give up on elves (‘bugger!’), start again (‘BUGGER!!!’), or relax your standards for realism and just add the bloody forest wherever you feel like (‘phew!’).

Lastly, top-down can get boring. Here’s a personal example – I went back to the beginning with a world I had been working on for about a decade, to try and redo it top-down style. Even though I like learning all that great sciency stuff, I never got beyond the meteorology. You can end up getting bogged down, and if you partuclarly like creating cities/histories/personalities etc, you might get disheartened if after many months you still have started a single war, or drawn a single map.

The bottom-up approach begins with a single, small-scale starting point, and builds outwards from there. Where you choose to start depends entirely on what aspect of a world you most want to craft – if kingdoms are your thing, start with a kingdom; if you’re into monsters/intelligent lifeforms, start with those. If you’re a complete beginner, my main advice is, don’t bite off more than you can chew. A simple village can be more than enough – you can spend time working out the local history, politics, economy, and fauna/flora, as well as who’s who, where’s where, and what’s what. I think you’ll also find that whoever your audience is (readers, gamers, online map-making enthusiasts) will appreciate a really well-fleshed out but small location, much more than a huge but vague landscape.

Advantages: as mentioned earlier, if you’re a bottom-up kind of person, you can start where you want to start. This makes it perhaps a bit more interesting for you. Also, this approach might reveal things to you about your world that you didn’t know – if you’ve ever heard writers saying that ‘the characters tell me what to do’ and haven’t understood it, take heed: it does actually happen; those writers are not completely bonkers (but they are almost certainly slightly bonkers). When you are writing a character – say, Sir Heroic the Hero – and on every page Sir Heroic does some good deed, you, the writer, do not have the power to make Sir Heroic do something bad (at least, not without some damn good explaining): you have lost control of the character. The same is true of worlds: if your precious village is located in a desert, you cannot sudeenly decide they all wear heavy furs. Getting a bit off topic here: the main point is, knowing a great deal about one thing can help you to develop those things nearest to it, and so on.

Also, when everything else in your world is going badly, it feels good to know that at least one part is done well, and you can always scrap the crap and keep what’s sweet.

Disadvantages: if you are keen on realism (or more specifically, in-world plausibility, an UTTERLY ESSENTIAL ASPECT OF ALL WORLDBUILDING), and you have your carefully crafted village (or whatever), you might be a bit miffed if it turns out that your village, when placed in its wider context, is not realistic at all.

I should say, to be honest, I don’t have too much experience with bottom-up methods, so I might have left important things out. I’d appreciate it if someone could perhaps give some of their own experiences about the pros and cons of bottom-up worldbuilding.

That’s probably enough for today. I had intended on doing the third approach as well, but this has (as usual) become rather a long post. If you’re still with me (frankly I’m amazed you made it this far), I’ll try to include the ‘wherever you want’ approach with my culture suggestion tomorrow. I'm also happy to take any questions/comments. Till then, happy worldbuilding!

PS: Check out Okami’s post that I mentioned at the beginning – jbgibson’s answer I think is particularly good. (URL: http://www.cartographersguild.com/general-discussion/21300-where-do-you-start.html#post202240)

12-09-2012, 01:54 AM
As promised here’s part two of starting new worlds (also a quick apology for the utterly unacceptable typos yesterday; I’m ashamed). Previously, in ‘Tips for Worldbuilding’ – I talked (at great length) about the advantages and disadvantages of a top-down and bottom-up approach, and tried to give an idea of where to start for each. This time, I thought I’d look at the ‘start wherever you want’ approach.

Starting wherever you want simply means starting your world/map with an idea that really appeals to you. Maybe you want to create a world inhabited by walrus-people. Or a planet with two suns. Or an archipelago in the shape of a spiral. All of these are fine. If, however, you don’t have any ideas, try thinking differently about old ideas (but do not, under any circumstances, create a world that is basically a copy of someone else’s work). The worst type of constructed world that exists (in my opinion) is a clone of Tolkien (or any other fantasy writer who has ever existed); one of the best types of constructed world are ones which slightly twist the Tolkien/fantasy stereotypes. Try comparing Terry Pratchett with the Warhammer universe – both of them are full of fantasy cliches, but the difference is, Terry Pratchett has twisted the cliches, and Warhammer sticks them in virtually unchanged. The same is true of historical inspirations – why bother creating ‘The Empire’ when you might as well just say ‘Rome.’ This is my personal mantra as well as pet peeve – if there’s no real difference, then there’s no real point in doing it; it’s been done.

So, if you are still struggling to come up with ideas, here are a few (hopefully) useful ways of twisting the old cliches:
1. Think them through to their conclusions. Here’s an example I used in a world of my own: you are a dwarf, you have short legs, lots of muscles, and cannot run very fast. Someone wants you to charge at the enemy lines wielding an axe. What do you say? If it was me, I’d be saying “Is this a JOKE!!!” Why on Earth would dwarves want to fight their enemies up close? Logically, it makes much more sense for them to keep their distance – hence, in that particualr world, dwarves are famous for their marksmanship, rifles, and crossbows, not for their berserker strength. See, it’s logical? See? See?
2. If you look at the old stereotypes, there are some things that cannot be easily changed. Eg. what is a phoenix – it is a bird that resurrects itself in a ball of flames. That’s a cert, right? So, think of the ways you can change within those boundaries. Phoenixes are always portrayed as eagle-like – why? Because it is more majestic, and everyone agrees a phoenix should be majestic. That’s where you have a chance – what if you don’t want majestic phoenixes? What if you want yours to be more like a magpie than a falcon? What does it mean if they are? In the same world as my gun-totin’ dwarves, I said that the phoenix is about the size of a pigeon, and very common. From that simple idea I was able to deduce that they are probably also urban pests – if, like pigeons, they roost in roofs and eaves, every time a phoenix dies it risks starting a fire that could destroy the whole city. Damn nuisances. So the old cliche is twisted by thinking differently about it. Here are some free examples for you: are dragons always carnivores? How do wizards earn a crust? Is necromancy always wrong? Try challenging your own views/beliefs, and see what you come up with.
3. This is probably the easiest method: simply add something which seems normal to the cliche. Most fantasy tropes are too simplistic, that’s their problem. Elves are always this, dwarves are always that, and orcs are always, y’know. Your elves might seem like the old stereotype of forest-lovin’ hippies, but they could be IN ADDITION TO THAT, really keen on competitive sports, like football. What if your orcs, as well as being brutish and warlike, were also nationalists – they want a country of their own, to represent orc-interests in the diplomatic scene. What if you have centaurs forming communist parties? Fantasy worlds are not just about dirty cities, wars, feudalism, and some trade – they should be just as complicated in their politics, philosophy, culture and so forth as the real world. At least, if you want them to seem plausible.
So, a summary is probably in order:
• First, remember – it’s your world. Make it however you want to make it; put in as much detail as you want to put in; leave out as much as you want to leave out. I would also add: make it something you are proud of; you chose to make this, so make it the best you can.
• Be original – it is better to come up with your own ideas than to simply rehash other peoples’ and your audience will thank you for it.
• Be aware of why you are doing this – it is a lot of work, no matter which approach you choose, so be sure that you are actually getting some kind of reward out of it, even if (especially if?) it is only your own satisfaction.

I would say happy worldbuilding at this stage, but instead it’s straight on to………

12-09-2012, 01:55 AM
I also promised yesterday to include a method for creating cultures. This is the method I use, and its purpose is to A. speed things up, B. make your cultures interesting, and C. ensure your cultures are developed in response to their historical/environmental circumstances. You should know, though, that this is not a quick-fix – it might be faster, but you still need to put in some work. Also, clearly, this is what works for me, it might work for you. If you don’t like this, if it aint down with your respective grooves, try something else.

Anyway, here goes. Think of a culture like a family tree. You have a starting culture in the way distant past, which has diverged into new cultures, which also diverge and so forth. This is how the Indo-Europeans developed – the Proto-Indo-Europeans split into the Anatolians, Celts, Germanic peoples, Balts, Slavs, Greek-peoples etc. The Anatolians then became the Hittites, Lydians, Lycians etc., while the Greeks became Arcadian, Aeolic, Ionic, Doric etc. Now expand that out to each branch of the language group (i.e. ‘culture family’), and more than just two ‘generations’, and you have a lot of cultures. I don’t recommend doing something that extensive – keep your groups a bit smaller – only two or three divergences each time, and about four or five generations: a total of 1+3+(3x3)+(2x3)+(2x3) = 25.

Okay, that’s still a lot, but here’s where things get a bit simpler. Think of one thing about your original culture – let’s say, their word for king is ‘bubbles’. Now, those first three cultures will all have a variation on the word ‘bubbles’ for king – bupples, tubbles, bobbles. The cultures that come from them also make variations: buples, buphles, bupres; tibbles, tebbles, tabbles; bobbles, pobbles, wobbles, and so forth. Language is another of my not-strong-suits, but if I can, I’ll give some guidance on linguistics sometime. My main point is, in this instance, with only small variations along the way, you have 25 languages for the price of your one starting language (and that’s only the modern languages; say nothing of the historic ones you made up along the way).

So here’s my method – start with our first culture, and think of something interesting/unique about it, that is linked to its circumstances/environment. Once done, move onto the next generation. Now you have two tasks – think of how the previous cultural trait will have changed (if at all), and think of a new one. Keep doing this until you get your modern cultures.

Here’s an example from one of my worlds a long time ago: a people known as the proto-Darians were hunter-gatherers; whenever a baby was born, the father would go on a hunting party for one animal, and the child would be named after that animal. For example, you might be the proud father of little Bear, or Fox, or Owl. And young Bear would be expected to grow up to be strong, while Fox will one day becme cunning, and so forth. The child could only be named when the father had brought back an animal (and, obviously, if your a father-hunter and you see a rabbit, you leave it alone, because no-one wants to be Rabbit’s dad, do they?).

The proto-Darians became the Darians, and the Darians are farmers. Therefore the original business of hunting an animal becomes obsolete, and those names (Bear, Fox, Owl etc.) are given without all that fuss, although probably to bestow the same characteristics. Voila, I have a method for naming all successive cultures that come from this one, and it only took one idea. The Darians also introduce something new – they tie ribbons to the eaves of their buildings, of different colours, to represent the winds. This then gets added to the list of traits to be thought of next time. Continue with this until you reach the present day.

Now, granted, that does ound like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It really isn’t. You only need one idea for each culture, after all. Depending on how inventive you are, you can get an entire ‘culture family’ – which might amount to as little as half a continent, and sometimes a whole lot more – in about a day, maybe two or three.

The question remains, why choose my method rather than just inventing a culture for all your modern nations/tribes? The reason is, by going my way, you get a much more fleshed-out culture – you don’t have one thing per culture, you have one thing that is unique to that culture, as well as all that ancestry that they’ve inherited. And that’s the second thing – because cultural traits are shared by sibling nations, you develop a plausible level of similarity between different nations, without them being identical. Think of Europe, for example – the culture of modern Spain is very different from that of Germany or Russia (despite having some similarities), but only slightly different from Portugal, while Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark have similarities, but also important differences. That’s the effect I’m trying to get, and hopefully you’re trying to achieve, too.

Of course, you can complicate things if you want – you could take into account transfer between contemporaneous cultures, some cultures not surviving to the present, some cultures dominating others and so forth. The beauty is, this method allows you to choose how much effort you want to put in.

Well, I hope people found that useful. To be honest, I think I presented it as a bit of a sales pitch, so if anyone does try it and find it good/bad/whatever, I would really like to know, as well as questions/comments etc. Also I’m aware there’s a whole lot more to culture that isn’t covered here – fear not, I’ll get there eventually. These last few posts have been a bit ranty – I’ll try retunring to the more scientific stuff next time. Happy worldbuilding.

12-12-2012, 08:58 PM
Very informative and helpful, thank you for sharing!

12-13-2012, 05:41 PM
Thanks. Glad you like it.

12-17-2012, 03:57 PM
Excellent resource! Well thought out!

01-01-2013, 12:03 AM
Great thread! I've really enjoyed reading through it.
Something I'd like to add, and it applies to both populating the world and it's cultures, is the consideration of topography and climate. Going back to Britain, the land is mostly rocky and suitable for hardier, more sure-footed animals, such as sheep. The sheep is very well suited to both the land and climate of the British Isles and pre-modern England was economically built upon its wool market. During the 1200's, England had a population density of roughly 40 people per square mile and the diet consisted mainly of simple grains, tubers, and the ocassional lamb. It wasn't until the Admiralty really got going in the 14 and 1500's that England decided they could kick everyone's buttocks and became a world power/empire. Conversely, France has a population of almost triple England's density due to a favorable climate and far fewer rocks in the local gardens, and they were able to expand their power center beyond the Isle de France much more quickly then England could get off the cliffs of Dover. France also had a bit more room to expand initially. Spain of the time, being largely hills and plateau, developed a bit more slowly than France but more rapidly than England. A better food supply in the existing realm allows for quicker growth in that same realm.

02-03-2013, 09:19 PM
Fantastic read - I like the way you point out how in order to do a proper top-down, you need to learn more stuff. Informative!

02-04-2013, 04:15 PM
Thanks for that praise. I've been meaning to update this thread for a while, but, as usual, everything else happened instead. I plan to get back to writing these tips in the next few weeks.

Kaelin's right, by the way, about population density. I think the situation regarding the growth of the British, French and Spanish empires is a bit more complicated, though. In Britain, for example, the admiralty was only one component of the nation's rise; politics, economics, technology, and even religion had a part to play, as well as wider historical events.

02-07-2013, 12:02 PM
TheHoarseWhispere - great set of posts about worldbuilding!

I'd like to add a couple of things, if I may ...

The first is trees. Or, rather, the lack of them. The effects of settlements on forests is huge. If you ignore settlements constructed as part of a defensive line or in order to mine a particular mineral then most settlements start life as some kind of market for either goods or people. The inhabitants will need houses, workshops, stores, barns, etc. These may come to be built out of brick (or out of quarried stone if they are rich enough), but often these will be made from wood. If you think of roundhouses they are made primarily of wood, and thatched. Fencing is normally formed of wood. All these wonderful hand-built homes will also require heating. Granted, later towns may use fossil fuels of some kind or another, but the vast majority will be using wood fires for heating and cooking.

The pressure on local forestry will be immense, and areas very quickly become denuded. This is great (after a fashion) for local farmers who gain more land for crops and animals ... but I often see on maps (and I am not having a pop at anybody at all when I say this) cities and towns surrounded by huge swathes of thick, pristine woodland. In my experience, and if you look at satellite images of towns and villages, the predominant land use around settlements is open fields.

The second thing is ... waste disposal. Sanitation. Its a dirty word, but somebody has to do it. (I feel I should apologise for that ...) Granted, there is evidence that the Indus Valley civilization had "urban sanitation", and Rome certainly understood the concept of sewers and whatnot. However, primarily it wasn't until the late Middle Ages that sanitation was found again in settlements. Had Ancient Rome not 'fallen' then perhaps it would've been different, but if you look at examples from today's developing nations then its clear that sanitation is something that not every civilization grasps fully. (I could make a really bad joke about the 'bottom up' method ... but I won't ....)

02-09-2013, 09:28 PM
I've read up on this thread over the last few days, and I'd like to give some encouragement regarding your excellent work. I'm a natural sciences major in college, because I love to know why things work the way they do. This started with worldbuilding many years ago. I understand all the points you make in your top-down guide, and they are familiar from guides or classes I have had in the past. But here, the material is more well-organized than I have ever seen, and despite being familiar with the sciences involved already, I consider your post an invaluable organization tool. If you turned this thread into a blog, I'd subscribe - a book, I'd buy it. I hope, in whatever format, you do keep working on this.

02-09-2013, 10:19 PM
Thanks Tomalak. I do intend to continue writing these tips (when I find time, which seems to be never), but I might have to disappoint on the organisational side - these are mostly just cobbled-together thoughts (and rants) on worldbuilding. With your background, you could probably correct me when I make (inevitable) errors, though. Thanks again for the feedback.

02-11-2013, 09:56 PM
One of the neat things about fantasy is the opportunity to fudge the rules. You've got the patterns down pat, so even if there's a detail out of place it's probably not worth worrying about. I will keep an eye on this thread in the future. Speaking of which, I was wondering:

In one of your early posts (So you want to start a new world, do you?, on 12-07), you mentioned Plate Tectonics, that they are easy because you can be creative with them - I am often more creative with guidance; do you have any advice on how to do Tectonics, or at least where to start?

02-12-2013, 12:23 AM
Plate tectonics was going to be my next post, and I was hoping to find time this weekend/next week. That said, I've noticed that there's at least one other person (Hai-Etlik, I think) who's a real expert on tectonics, so hopefully there'll be plenty of additional comments on that one. It may have been a bit disingenuous to say that they're easy, though. I remember restarting a world three or four times because of plate tectonics, and eventually just giving up.

02-12-2013, 02:06 AM
It sounds like a post worth waiting for. I look forward to it!

02-13-2013, 11:21 PM
Well, after a long hiatus, I’m back with more worldbuilding tips. This one is about plate tectonics.

Many people begin their worldbuilding adventure with tectonic plates. It is a logical first step, and they set up the foundations of the world being built. Plate tectonics are largely responsible for the shape and arrangement of continents, the creation of oceans, and landform features like mountains, volcanoes and rift valleys. Once you know where your continents are, and how big they are, you can move on to meteorology, precipitation, establishing biomes, and generally deciding where life occurs on your world. And all that starts with plate tectonics.

My goal in this post is to look at what they are, and how they work, and give some tips on how to design them for your world. To make it a bit more user friendly, I’ll also post it in three separate goes.

A warning: this is a complicated subject. A lot of what follows is quite technical. I’ve also tried to simplify it, which means it is not 100% scientifically accurate, but it is hopefully accurate enough for your purposes. To put it simply: if you are having difficulty, ask a question. I can guarantee someone on the CG will try to help.

So, let’s get started.

What are they?
Tectonic plates are pieces of the Earth’s crust which…… wait, let’s go back a step.

A Kindergartener’s introduction to Earth’s internal structure (and other planets, too)
The core is the inner part of the planet; it is very hot, very dense, and has a large role to play in Earth’s gravitation pull. It is also not very relevant to plate tectonics;

The mantle is the middle part of the planet; it is perhaps easiest to think of it as a layer of molten rock (geologists would shake their heads at that, but we’re worldbuilders, not geologists). Due to the forces of thermodynamics…… hold on, what was that??

(Thermodynamics: the relationship between heat and energy/work. Put simply, when something is cold it condenses and sinks, and when it is hot it expands and rises; this is one of the simple scientific principles that governs many aspects of Earth’s systems. So, back to the Earth’s mantle…)

…as I was saying, due to the forces of thermodynamics, the stuff of the mantle (i.e magma) moves. It is hottest near the core, and so the mantle gets very warm there, and expands, causing it to rise through the mantle, leaving a vaccum that is filled with cooler stuff (magma); this process continues and forms a current of moving molten rock (magma);

The crust is the rigid outer layer of the planet; it is what we Earthlings know and love as the surface. Now, to understand plate tectonics you need to understand what the crust is actually like. Unfortunately, all this life and water on Earth’s surface makes it hard to see the true nature of the crust, but don’t worry, there is a solution.

Try looking for pictures of Jupiter’s moons, Europa and Ganymede. Y’see how they’re covered in lines? Those are fissures in the surface caused by stresses (heat but also gravitational pull). Even though it is made of stone, over geological time, it behaves like old leather or semi-dry clay – it bends and distorts, but the stress of doing so creates seams which crack and buckle, and may, after too much pressure, snap off the main crust entirely. The lines that appear are known a faults, and I’ll get back to them in a little while.

So, to put all that together: a planet with a hot core causes convection (movement) in the mantle; movement in the mantle causes the crust to flex and distort; distortion of the crust causes cracks to appear (faults) which can eventually grow large enough to break apart; when they break apart a new plate is formed.

Back to: What are they?
Now, this is where we started. Tectonic plates are pieces of the Earth’s crust which float on top of the mantle, and are constantly bumping against each other. Imagine a lake with two boats on it – the boats will bob around, and move slightly according to the currents. They probably won’t collide, though. Now add more boats – so many that the entire lake surface is covered in them. They can no longer move without hitting one another. It’s the same thing with the planetary crust and its tectonic plates.

When a part of the mantle is exposed, it cools and forms a new area of crust. That is why the entire surface of the planet is formed of tectonic plates/boats, and there is no exposed mantle/lake between them. They are constantly moving, but there is no space, so they jostle agaisnt each other, bumping here, and moving apart there.

So that is what tectonic plates are. That clear?

02-13-2013, 11:24 PM
How do they work?
You need to know that there are two types of tectonic plate, and three types of tectonic boundary. Boundaries occur where two plates meet. The three types are convergent, divergent, and transform boundaries. The differences between them is the main point of this section.

The two types of tectonic plate are continental, and oceanic. The main difference between the two types is their mineral composition. Oceanic crust is denser, and therefore heavier, than continental crust. So, if we return to the boats analogy, imagine if some of the boats have 2 people inside, and the others have 10 – the heavier boat will sit lower in the water. Because oceanic crust sits lower, therefore, it is where all the water naturally drains to, and hence we get oceans. The continental crust sits higher, and so is not covered in water (actually, the edges of continents often are underwater, forming continental shelves; I’ll probably try to do a landforms post sometime in the future to cover these things). Just to be clear – the Pacific Ocean has its own tectonic plate; the Atlantic Ocean does not have its own plate.

Now, let’s get back to the different kinds of plate boundary.

Convergent boundaries are where two plates collide. The collision causes one plate to slide underneath the other one, getting pushed down towards the mantle, where it melts. This process is known as subduction, and creates a large trench at the subduction zone. Clearly, the heavier plate (eg. an oceanic plate) is more likely to get pushed down, which is why trenches usually appear in oceans and not on land.

As one plate gets pushed down, the other (usually the less dense) gets pushed up on top of it. I made a comparison to old leather and semi-dry clay before. Leather is flexible enough that it can be bent easily, but rigid enough that it doesn’t want to be distorted – the result is that it buckles. Another comparison would be when two cars collide, and the bonnet is compressed. Now imagine that happening at a much slower rate and on a much greater scale, and you’ll end up with something like the Himalayas or the Andes. Therefore, mountain ranges often form along convergent boundaries. If you take a look at a satellite image of a mountain range you’ll see that they often run in long parallel ridges – this is a result of this process, and may help you design geologically plausible mountain ranges.

When the subducted plate gets to a certain depth (70-80 miles, according to Wikipedia) it melts, and the magma rises. This results in volcanoes which either form part of the larger mountain range, or create whole new islands. These usually sit very close to the trench and are always on the uplifted side of the boundary.

Convergent boundaries can be:
• Oceanic-Continental: forms subduction zone (trench) and mountain range. Examples: oceanic plates being pushed under South America forming the Andes; Australasian plate getting pushed under the Eurasian plate forming Indonesia.
--> If you look at a map of plate boundaries, you’ll notice that ocean-continent boundaries often hug the edges of continents (as in South America, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan).
This will become important when we look at designing tectonic plates for your world.
• Oceanic-Oceanic: generally the same thing as above. This is the type of convergence that causes volcanic island arcs which are not part of larger mountain ranges
• Continental-Continental: neither plate is subducted, but both buckle, forming a mountain range.

Divergent boundaries are where plates move apart (or more accurately, where the underlying currents of the mantle push them apart). Where two things move away from each other you get left with a gap between them. In this case, that gap gets filled with rising magma (forming volcanoes), which then cools and forms a new area of crust. On land, this becomes a rift valley; at sea it forms a mid-oceanic ridge. As the divergence continues, these features grow bigger and bigger. Rifting areas on land or underwater are always volcanic.

When a rift formed between Africa/Europe and the Americas, it drove the two continents apart and the rift kept getting bigger and bigger. The result is what we now call the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s still growing. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is continuing to get wider, and in places (i.e. Iceland) it pokes above sea-level. If you lived on one side of Iceland and your friend lived on the other, each year you would be slightly further away from each other.

As the magma exists the fissure between the continental plates, it rises and then cools; successive layers of that gradually raises the height of the seabed on either side of the fissure, resulting in the ridge. As the magma rises and cools, it forms layers. Therefore the Atlantic Ocean is being created from the inside out, and the oldest bits are on the edge.

The Great Rift Valley in Africa is another (rather obvious) example of a rift valley that is continuing to grow. A chunk of south-eastern Africa is slowly tearing itself away from the main plate (which brings up a point – plates change. They continue to grow, shrink, divide, and, presumably, combine even as you read this). The Red Sea is where a rift valley has been flooded.

So, to recap: convergent boundaries are where plates collide, divergent are where they separate; when plates collide (in most cases) the edge of the continental crust gets destroyed (subducted and melted to become part of the mantle again) and when they separate new crustal material is created. Y’see – it’s all one big cycle.

Transform boundaries are where two plates slide alongside each other. They do not create or destroy crustal material. They are somewhat trickier than the other two, and probably less relevant, but I’ll try and give them a general overview.

When plates separate, the resulting fault (divergent boundary) is not uniform along its length. This results in rifting areas forming blocky segments, rather than continuous lines, and new seams emerging as they separate. It’s a bit hard to understand, and I’m not 100% myself, but I’ve attached an illustration that hopefully makes it clearer.
• The left diagram shows a single black line, which is the divergent boundary
• The middle diagram shows how that has separated as blocks rather than a continuous fault; the red lines are transform faults (they extend beyond the divergent boundary, which is shown by the area in the red outline)
• The right hand diagram shows what happens as they split apart, moving at different rates. The green spot (which could be a mountain range, a geological layer, or even an island) gets cut in half.
The San Andreas fault in the United States is on a transform fault, which means it is moving at a different pace to the rest of mainland America, and will, one day, be ripped away from the rest of the continent. New Zealand also has a large transform boundary across a part of it. As usual, doing some quick online research can give you a good visual idea of what a transform boundary can look like.

02-13-2013, 11:25 PM
Tips on Designing Tectonic Plates
I think that’s probably enough on how tectonic plates work. That’s 2000 words of text in the paragraphs above. The last thing I wanted to do was give some advice on how to apply all that info to worldbuilding.

If you are designing tectonic plates for your world, you need to be aware that, although it is a creative process, it is based on scientific principles which can only be ignored through magic (and weird magic, at that).

The first thing to remember is that when one continent is moving away from another, it is almost certainly moving towards a different one. Therefore if Continent A has a divergent western edge, then it will probably have a convergent eastern one. This is not always the case, but it is a helpful rule to keep things simple.

Second: oceanic plates are heavier than continental ones, and therefore get subducted under the latter.

Third: planets are round. If you have a continent going off the eastern edge of the map, you’ll find the rest of it on the western edge. This is particularly important when doing the north/south poles. Tectonic boundaries do not go to the north pole and just stop.

Fourth: look at maps of the Earth. There are many online maps of Earth showing the tectonic boundaries and plates. Look at how many there are, and how they vary in size and shape. Some are huge, others are tiny. Mostly they are large and blocky shapes, but sometimes they are a bit more unusual (eg the Austral-Indian plate). Notice also that plate boundaries do not exactly imitate coastal boundaries – many continents are surrounded by seas and oceans which are still included on their plate.

Fifth: while looking at Earth’s tectonic plates, don’t forget that the entire Earth is covered in fissures, and the maps tend to only show those which are clearly defined and large-scale. Other faults exist, and may have some similar attributes to the ones described above, but are less visible at a global scale. This is also worth bearing in mind because, in a few million years, those minor faults might suddenly start to grow.

Sixth: still looking at the Earth maps, search for patterns – they are rarely coincidences. Here are two that I’ve noticed:
• As I mentioned previously, convergent ocean-continent boundaries often seem to hug the shape of the land (as in western South America, southern Indonesia, Japan, parts of the Mediterranean, and New Zealand)
• If you follow the line of divergent boundaries around the world, you’ll find they all seem to be part of the same system. It runs from north of Iceland, down the Atlantic, underneath Africa and Australia (with a branch rising to the Red Sea), underneath the Pacific and up the eastern edge of the Americas. That is an almost continuous line of divergent boundaries, which is never interrupted. A similar thing can be seen with convergent boundaries (from Europe/Mediterranean across southern Asia to Indonesia, rising past Japan to Siberia and jumping over to Alaska, and then sort of running the length of the American coast to the southern tip of South America). Why does this pattern exist? It goes back to my first tip – if it is splitting along one seam, it is being joined along another.

Seventh: landforms. I did say that I would write about landforms in a future post, but since I don’t know when that will be, I’ll give a few brief comments here.
• Mountains: on the non-subducted side of convergent boundaries. Volcanoes are often included, near the continental margin. Also appears where two continents collide.
• Island arcs: often volcanic, these form along convergent boundaries out at sea, on the non-subducted side.
• Trenches: these occur where one plate slides under another (is subducted)
• Rift valleys: obviously, where two continental plates diverge. Often volcanic, and the rising magma tends to form mountainous terrain. These mountains usually have a different character to convergent-zone mountains.
• Mid-Oceanic Ridges: where oceans have grown between two continents. If these rise above the sea level they form islands (like Iceland) but that appears to be rare (at least, it is rare on Earth today).
• Volcanoes and earthquakes: these go hand in hand with tectonic activity. Whether it is converging or diverging volcanoes seem to appear; they are less common far away from plate boundaries. Earthquakes are also common near tectonic boundaries, including transform boundaries. Just ask San Franciscans.

Lastly, when drawing tectonic plates on your map, I would recommend using different colours (or at least different line styles) to designate convergent, divergent, and transform boundaries. I also highly recommend that, at convergent boundaries, you show which side of the fault is being subducted and which isn’t (again, look at Earth maps for some ideas). This will help a lot later when adding landforms and ocean-forms, like mountains, volcanoes, and trenches.

I think that’s it for plate tectonics. A huge topic, and this post has probably left things out (or gotten them wrong). As usual, any corrections, questions or comments are welcome.

[EDIT: the university semester resumes in Australia soon, so I don't know how long it will be before I can provide any more tips. I'll still read people's comments, and try to respond to quick questions, when I am able]

02-23-2013, 01:16 AM
Excellent post, a commendable combination of science and simplicity. I would like to point out that, while laregely review, I did find parts of it educational as well as interesting - in my classes it was never deemed worthwhile to explain where plates came from in the first place, as modern geographers are more interested in what they are doing now (although, I am not a Geology student...). So you've taught me something - thank you.

I was hoping to hear something about how to approach this from a creation perspective. Your guidelines are very well planned for what to do with your boundaries, but do you have any advice on planning those boundaries in the first place?

02-24-2013, 02:14 AM
Thanks Tomalak, glad you liked it.

Can you explain a bit more what you were hoping to hear? I'm not sure I understand your question. Do you mean the process of designing the layout of landforms across a planet?

02-24-2013, 11:01 AM
TheHoarseWhisperer I must have missed the updates you've been posting :( I'll read through this once the kitchen finishes kickin my butt :( Briefly looked at the tectonic info, this is something of interest so I will read in more closely as soon as I get the chance, thanks for the info.

03-02-2013, 06:59 PM
What you have posted is a great explanation of the forces involved and how they interact - one of my personal difficulties in mapmaking is having a place to start. Blank pages don't work well for me, which is why I usually start my maps with a PS filter - it's something to work from. When looking at tectonic movement, I have trouble figuring out how to draw those early plates. Do you have any advice for the early process?

03-03-2013, 05:56 PM
Alright Tomalak, I'll try to keep this brief (said optimistically), but hopefully you'll find it helpful.

1. a good place to start is with a piece of paper, a pencil, and an eraser. Sometimes you don't even need the eraser. Basically, just draw lines. More and more lines. Start with long lines - maybe one line which goes from one side of the page to the other, while making waves and arcs. Then add another line that comes off the first and doubles back to hit it again. And add more lines. Then add some more lines. Don't go overboard, obviously. I find it helpful to have a map of Earth's tectonic plates in front of me, just to give a sense of how many plates there are, their shapes and their sizes. But the main point is, draw. Don't overthink (it is a serious problem). Just draw. If you get nervous when you see a blank piece of paper, destroy its blankness. Paper is cheap, practice is good. If you draw on a computer using a mouse, your lines might wobble a bit. That's good. You can undo things if they don't look right (that's really really good). I think it's worth drawing on paper and on a computer. They are different and doing both will help develop your mind. When you see what you have drawn, and when you compare it with what you know about tectonics, you'll start to see the mistakes, and where it still needs work. So that's just a general piece of advice.

2. this is a bit more specific. What's the PS filter you use? Is it Render Clouds? I sometimes use render clouds, and it's good because it looks natural and it is random, which is fun. So, I'm going to assume you have a randomly generated set of landmasses/continents. Here's something to try:
- look for places on your map which might mark tectonic boundaries. For example, if you have a long narrow sea (such as the Red Sea or the Mediterranean) that might mean the continents are tearing away from each
other, so put a divergent boundary through there.
- look for areas of coastline that are not too jagged (don't have too many inlets, peninsulas, bays, etc.). The west coast of South America is a bit like this. That is where a mountain range has been thrown up over a
convergent boundary, so put one of those along that area.
- look at the oceans. Are they large and roundish (like the Pacific) or long and rectangular (like the Atlantic). If the former, they might be sitting on their own plate, so you draw a line that goes around the ocean, not
necessarily keeping close to the edges (again, keep an eye on an Earth map); if the latter, they might be the result of a rift that got too big, in which case put a divergent boundary running most of the way down the
- if you have islands in the middle of nowhere, they might be sitting on either a convergent or divergent boundary. Islands which are long-ish (eg. Papua New Guinea, Japan, Cuba) are on convergent boundaries (if you
have one side which has a jagged coastline and the other side of the island is smooth, you know which side to put the tectonic boundary (see above); islands which are round (like Iceland) are rarer and often sit on
top of divergent boundaries (the same place as the mid-oceanic ridge from the previous point). Add the lines as necessary.

If you do those things, hopefully you will now have a handful of tectonic boundaries placed. Now start joining them together, and adding more as necessary. Remember, tectonic plates will usually not cut straight through a continent.

If you're still having difficulty, you can just draw a line around each of your continents so that they all sit on their own plates, and then divide up the ocean afterwards. This won't give you a perfect tectonic map, but it might help you get started. After that, you can edit as much as you want until you think it looks right.

And lastly - I can't stress this enough - remember that planets are round. If you have a border going off the east of the map, make sure to continue it on the western side; if you have one going into the north or south, that is slightly more complicated, but I explained all that in the previous post.

Does that help? Let me know if it doesn't, or if you're still having problems.

03-09-2013, 02:45 AM
This is a great guide! I just found it today, and read all of it in one sitting. HoarseWhisperer, I find your writing easy to read and very informative. I will definitely be thinking more about tectonic plates when I design maps.

03-12-2013, 11:21 PM
Alright Tomalak, I'll try to keep this brief (said optimistically), but hopefully you'll find it helpful.

1. a good place to start is with a piece of paper, a pencil, and an eraser. Sometimes you don't even need the eraser. Basically, just draw lines. More and more lines. Start with long lines - maybe one line which goes from one side of the page to the other, while making waves and arcs. Then add another line that comes off the first and doubles back to hit it again. And add more lines. Then add some more lines. Don't go overboard, obviously. I find it helpful to have a map of Earth's tectonic plates in front of me, just to give a sense of how many plates there are, their shapes and their sizes. But the main point is, draw. Don't overthink (it is a serious problem). Just draw. If you get nervous when you see a blank piece of paper, destroy its blankness. Paper is cheap, practice is good. If you draw on a computer using a mouse, your lines might wobble a bit. That's good. You can undo things if they don't look right (that's really really good). I think it's worth drawing on paper and on a computer. They are different and doing both will help develop your mind. When you see what you have drawn, and when you compare it with what you know about tectonics, you'll start to see the mistakes, and where it still needs work. So that's just a general piece of advice.

This. This is exactly what I needed

2. this is a bit more specific. What's the PS filter you use? Is it Render Clouds? I sometimes use render clouds, and it's good because it looks natural and it is random, which is fun. So, I'm going to assume you have a randomly generated set of landmasses/continents. Here's something to try:
- look for places on your map which might mark tectonic boundaries. For example, if you have a long narrow sea (such as the Red Sea or the Mediterranean) that might mean the continents are tearing away from each
other, so put a divergent boundary through there.
- look for areas of coastline that are not too jagged (don't have too many inlets, peninsulas, bays, etc.). The west coast of South America is a bit like this. That is where a mountain range has been thrown up over a
convergent boundary, so put one of those along that area.
- look at the oceans. Are they large and roundish (like the Pacific) or long and rectangular (like the Atlantic). If the former, they might be sitting on their own plate, so you draw a line that goes around the ocean, not
necessarily keeping close to the edges (again, keep an eye on an Earth map); if the latter, they might be the result of a rift that got too big, in which case put a divergent boundary running most of the way down the
- if you have islands in the middle of nowhere, they might be sitting on either a convergent or divergent boundary. Islands which are long-ish (eg. Papua New Guinea, Japan, Cuba) are on convergent boundaries (if you
have one side which has a jagged coastline and the other side of the island is smooth, you know which side to put the tectonic boundary (see above); islands which are round (like Iceland) are rarer and often sit on
top of divergent boundaries (the same place as the mid-oceanic ridge from the previous point). Add the lines as necessary.

If you do those things, hopefully you will now have a handful of tectonic boundaries placed. Now start joining them together, and adding more as necessary. Remember, tectonic plates will usually not cut straight through a continent.

If you're still having difficulty, you can just draw a line around each of your continents so that they all sit on their own plates, and then divide up the ocean afterwards. This won't give you a perfect tectonic map, but it might help you get started. After that, you can edit as much as you want until you think it looks right.

And lastly - I can't stress this enough - remember that planets are round. If you have a border going off the east of the map, make sure to continue it on the western side; if you have one going into the north or south, that is slightly more complicated, but I explained all that in the previous post.

Does that help? Let me know if it doesn't, or if you're still having problems.

Yes, I use render clouds. Again, this is really great - I cannot thank you enough for breaking the tought parts down for me.

03-13-2013, 12:06 AM
This is a great thread! Right up the alley of what I'm trying to do with my world! I'll throw in my thoughts as I go, and reading all or yours! So far, very interesting and brain teasing, and I'm only on page 1!

That said, still on page 1, so sorry if this has already been said but I want to get my thoughts down now before I log off.

There are two reasons one tribe will attack another: self-defence, population pressure. Note, this is all probably simplifying these processes enormously, but go with it, it does make sense.

Another issue would be environmental; famine, diease, drought, and earthquakes flooding.

You both have some pretty good reasons for the beginning of Empire, but a few additions/subtractions. War takes a lot of people, and people take a lot of food. Thus disease is not a likely war starter, at least not the kind of war that builds mighty empires. Also famine is unlikely, unless the target is still fertile and/or well stocked. If the latter, then the conquerors run the risk of depleting the reserves and preemptively aborting their empire building potential.

Additional causes are a culture that is based on raiding deciding to put down roots in the acquired territory (Arabs to the Sassanid, Ottomans supplanting Byzantine, Mongols replacing everyone); shortage of some supply or resource needed or strongly desired by the initiating nation; and outside pressure, where a people are forced to flee from some horde that is invading their ancestral lands (the Avars, Magyars, Huns, Turks, Mongols, etc all drove waves of people before them into the lands they hadn't quite gotten to yet).

Hence, the empire rolls on. Historically, every empire has continued to grow until it either meets a stronger opponent than it (Persians v Alexander; Aztecs v Spanish; arguably Napoleon v. Russians/British/Prussians etc) or it overreaches itself, and collapses under the strain (Romans, Ottomans, Islamic caliphates, Mongols). Every new province needs to be secured with troops, administrators, etc. And they all need to be paid.

Just a minor argument here, depends on the Caliphate in question. The Rashidun fell to civil war, and the victorious Omayyad collapsed from internal revolution as well. And the then victorious Abbasid from external pressure in the form of the Mongols. I'll cede the point to you regarding the Ottoman and Fatimid Caliphates though! =)

Also, adding a reason for collapse, internal incoherence/lack of political unity. Alexander's Hellenic Empire became the Diadochi states, Genghis Khan's Mongol empire became the Kipchak, the Chagatai, the Ilkhanate, and the Yuan. With those two examples, thiscause seems to me particularly likely when the Empire is massive and founded quickly by a single great leader with several powerful generals and no clear heir.

Aaaand, that does it for my input from page one. I'll finish the thread tomorrow!

03-13-2013, 06:46 PM
@Tomalak: no worries. You're welcome.

@ SaberDart: thanks for the praise. Those are some very good points you make; I can't disagree with any of them. I was going to comment on your suggestions, but I don't think I really have much to add. Environmental factors could contribute to empire-building, even if they are not the decisive factors (eg Vikings in Iceland and Greenland during the Medieval Warm Period); Hungary, Moorish Spain and Mughal India are some more examples of raiding cultures putting down roots; the search for a particular resource can be illustrated with the British and Indian tea or the Dutch and Indonesian spices (although they were looking for commodities rather than strategic resources); people fleeing another aggressor - I meant to include this myself, but apparently forgot, so thanks for adding that one.

I don't know much about the Omayyad or Rashidun, but is it possible that their internal problems arose from the expense of maintaining a large empire? Rome was already falling apart from within before the Germanic tribes appeared, and that was largely because the Empire was too cumbersome to easily govern. I think that's true about empires built by one leader, and it's usually because the empire grows too large too quickly, and so there is no chance for a civil administration to be developed. The empires, therefore, are shortlived. Just goes to show, doesn't it - bureaucracy is a good thing.

03-15-2013, 09:52 AM
@TheHoarseWhisperer: good point with the environmental contribution. I'd still be leery of crediting the environment's contribution as being resposible, but I can totally see how it might make it easier for an invader to establish themselves, or for an extant empire to fend off invaders.

I don't know much about the Omayyad or Rashidun, but is it possible that their internal problems arose from the expense of maintaining a large empire?
Not really, at least not for the Rashidun. That collapse was mostly political intrigue. That first caliphate was ruled by the immediate successors to Muhammad: Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali, and there was a succession debate right off the bat between Abu Bakr and Ali. The Caliphate collapsed when Ali's son Hassan ceded the throne to Omar's powerful cousin Muawiyah (who ruled from Damascus, and had quite the army at his command). When Muawiyah died Hassan tried to re assume the throne, but Muawiyah's son Yazid killed him, cementing the new Omayyad Caliphate in Damascus.

But, I suppose the Omayyad fall could be seen as overreach. So, fine. You win. =P However, the problem was less expense, and more oppression/poor governance in the fringes/cultural differences with the fringes. Which I suppose is a good additional reason for collapse, cultural incohesion.

04-02-2013, 05:32 PM
Great read and very informative, TheHoarseWhisperer. I'm currently redrawing my maps from a tight focus on a singular region to the broader top-down view of the entire continent. I'll be incorporating many of your ideas and comments into the recreation of my world.

One comment on the expansion of empires: religion. I don't believe this was mentioned previously. A good example are the Crusades. While there may have been natural resources or military advantages to the capture of Jerusalem, the city and region hold religious significance for three major religions. The battle for control over this region has persisted to this day due to religion.

04-09-2013, 04:35 AM
Sorry to those people who commented for not responding earlier.

Mojarda: you're right about religion as a cause for empire-building (although my personal opinion is that it is over-used in fantasy worlds). A point to you.

SaberDart: my grasp of history is improved, thanks to your comments, so thanks for that. Perhaps the point to emphasise is that, while the comments I've written are my attempt to simplify historical processes into ready-to-use patterns for our worldbuilding friends, it is still a simplification, and reality is always more complex, and offers more opportunities than one person can ever write. So if anyone is building a world and they get stuck, find a history book (or science, or whatever the issue is). You can't beat research.

04-16-2013, 12:59 PM
This thread has helped me re-think the lay out and design of my world. While i have been researching this topic, i also came across a free downloadable PDF that covers some of topics in this Thread. I think combining these two resources has helped me considerably.

I'm not sure about the rules on posting links to other sites or not, but since the PDF is free (and legal) i don't see the harm. But for the sake of being on the safe side, i'd suggest people google, A Medieval Magical Society Guide to Mapping. it can be found easily at DriveThruRPG.

While i am still far from honing my mapping skills, hopefully i can get close to the talent i have seen while browsing the gallery here.

05-10-2013, 09:37 AM
Okay, I feel inclined to input even if my advice may not be fully sound or somewhat touched upon in earlier postings.

When developing a culture/kingdom/country and their history prior to when your map is dated or your story. It's vital you think about the chain of people within the society both famous and infamous. The one who held the respect of most of their peers for some reason or another. Was it "inherited" by their royal parents, if so, what did they do with it. It could be very much helpful to create an entire family tree for royal bloodlines and find at least one person in each generation that did something to change things up. This is where having an established database of names comes very much in handy.

Did they go with the culture or do things differently that challenged people's thinking? What were some of the challenges the society faced at the time? Were they the one who created the modern farming scape for the society by domesticating the dangerous wildlife beyond the plains to the north, and henceforth allowing them to start settling in the north? Were they the one who became the most well respected general throughout their nation's history because they're the only general with the balls to put himself on the front line when the situation called for it (like holding a mountain pass)?

Who came along and made things hell for the nation? That one self-obsessed ruler who cared nothing for the life of others? What weird stuff were they into? Were they Empress Potema of the TES universe who was involved with Necromancy? Or were they just a total evil like prickjob like Nero who burned down half of Rome, blamed it on the Christians so he could slaughter more of them, and then used it to build himself a mansion using nearly all of Rome's Treasury? And how far back did this put the nation? Or what did they lose to surrounding nations because of it? Was the change irreversible, or did the maniac die off soon enough so that not all was lost?

Did the little things they said leave a big impact on people? And what do other people of that culture say when they look back on them or the events they were apart of? Rather than just giving a general idea, develop actual quotes by either randoms or their contemporaries.

Make their inventors, scientists, authors, and arcanologists as famous as our own. When people look back on the greats like Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Nikolai Tesla, Einstein, Aristotle, and what not, there's a lot more than just their inventions people admired, and then tried to imitate with themselves or see as ideal.

As for those, indicate the impact on society, did they discover the concept of smokehouses by accidentally leaving their large cut of meat inside a smokey factory-size forge overnight and find it wasn't spoiled? And did this in turn allow settlements to be less dependent on a constant of game and expand in other regards? Freeing up their time to build more houses, dig more wells, etc.

I hope this helps at all.

Oddly Otter
05-29-2013, 01:20 AM
I really like this thread and I'm working my way through it but it has definitely helped me already and I appreciate the time and effort you've put into it. It has already caused me to rethink a lot of my worldbuilding I've already done!

05-29-2013, 06:39 PM
I thought I'd post on an aspect of world-building that can be a lot of fun, is pretty quick to do, and can really benefit the realism of your world. I am assuming you've worked out the geology and geography of your planet. The deserts and rainforests and mountains are in place, and it's ready for you to start populating your nation states. Or is it? Where did all of those people come from?

If you want a realistic scientifically-based world, your people originated in a single place, and then migrated to populated the rest of the world. How they did this, and where they went, will determine things like where your oldest civilisations are, where well-established nation states are and where the "wilderness" is where wild tribes still rule, and civilisation builds walls to keep them out.

The first step is deciding where your people came from. Humans were an evolutionary product of their environment, and it took the combination of a key few characteristics to produce intelligent bipedal tool-users. You're looking for wide-open spaces in a warm climate, without many trees, and relatively flat. For our ancestors it was the open savannah of East Africa around the Rift Valley.

Once you've found your point of origin, simply think about where people would logically move, based on various environmental pressures and changes. As it becomes warmer the tropical regions become more difficult to survive in, but higher latitude climates became more friendly, so people will move toward the nearest pole - just as humans did, heading north. When it comes to migration, movement patterns can be applied using the same logic you use to determine the path of your rivers - the path of least resistence. Primitive humans don't cross mountain ranges or seas, or deserts.

As you track the migration of peoples, they'll encounter different landscapes that will dictate how civilisation evolves. Human civilisation emerged when humans found the fertile regions around the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These regions were a land-bridge between Africa and Eurasia. During preceding extinction events the surviving species had been pressed into this region resulting in extraordinary biodiversity. All of the eight founder crops and all of the major domestic animals were native to this region.

When your populations reach particularly fertile and supportive regions they'll settle, and if resources and animals are abundant you will see the emergence of early cultivating societies - recent examples of the sort of culture you'd expect include the pre-European Maori in New Zealand. If you have a complex enough network of these settlements trading with each other in a central area, those settlements at trading cross-roads will grow. Where trade routes between multiple larger settlements meet you will get civilisation.

Initially, civilisation will be city-based, with somewhat vague borders, extending as far as the cities can project their power. Beyond this lies the territory of minor settlements and nomadic peoples - let's call it wilderness. Where major civilisations encounter each other you will get treaties that formalise rigid borders. Likewise, where empires venture into "wilderness" but find the local groups of people particularly troublesome they might erect border fortifications - such as the Romans build along the Rhine and Danube.

Generally speaking, if you're depicting the early days of human civilisation you won't have solid borders. As human society advances, eventually the wilderness will disappear as it's either claimed by civilisations or its inhabitants establish their own.

05-29-2013, 08:08 PM
Yeah I think you're right Gumboot (and thanks for posting, by the way; especially good to see another Australasian, even if it is from across the Pond ')). The dynamics of human migration are extremely complex, but I think you've given a good description of prehistoric migrations.

One thing I'd point out, though, is that in some cases people did cross seas. The Australian Aborigines and Pacific Islanders are two examples: the Aborigines came to Papua and Australia across a narrow (but very deep) sea trench in Indonesia, where the Wallace Line divides the fauna of Asia from that of Australia/Papua; the Pacific Islanders performed an even more remarkable feat, settling thousands of islands across the Pacific Ocean and covering huge distances, without knowing what they'd find. Of course, they did that many many many millenia later, but it was still impressive.

Then the other thing to mention is the first occupation of the Americas: about 25,000 years ago (if memory serves), when the sea levels were lower, peoples in Siberia crossed the land bridge of Beringia, arriving in Alaska. Much f North America was covered in continental glaciers, but these early settlers followed an 'ice free corridor' to reach the warmer climes in the south (another possibility is that they travelled in canoes down the Canadian coast). Now that sea levels have risen, Beringia is underwater; it wasn't until archaeologists realised that the Bering Strait was once land that they worked out how America was settled. The other thing to remember, though, is that when those settlers were going from Siberia to Alaska, it isn't as though they knew what was waiting for them ahead. They set off, possibly following the herds of animals they hunted, and over a long period of time (don't know how long; at a guess I'd say a few centuries) they gradually drifted onto modern America.

Anyway, I can't find any fault with Gumboot's post. If you want a tip on how to apply that suggestion, just make a copy of your world map, decide, as Gumboot says, where people originated (it could have been in different places, especially if you are having multiple races), and draw lines showing where they'd go. As G. said, people take the path of least resistance, and also they are only meandering along - it will be many many generations before they travel a long way. Also remember that all the diversity that exists in Earth's human population started in one place, so there's no need to have lots of points of origin unnecessarily.

I might also take this opportunity to respond to some earlier comments:
EpicSpire: thanks for your thanks. The PDF, which I have seen mentioned elsewhere in the forums, is a good one, and I don't think there are any problems posting external links here.

Oddly Otter: thanks for reading

Vurtax: For a long time it was a tradition of history to examine the deeds of 'great men' but that's changed a lot now. Historians and archaeologists are these days usually more interested in the lives of the ordinary people who lived in a place. I think there is some merit to considering the actions of individuals. There are definitely a few occasions when one person has changed their world: the purges of the Soviet Union were very much down to one person, Stalin, and his paranoia. Genghis Khan, Christopher Columbus, Winston Churchill, Julius Caesar are other examples. In most cases, it might be possible to argue that if Columbus hadn't sailed to the Caribbean, someone else would have done (i.e. the time was right for the Americas to be 'discovered') but that doesn't change the fact that he was the one who did it. And, as I mentioned, historians tended to focus on 'great leaders' and so it is likely the historians of your world will also have that focus. My tip to worldbuilders would be to be careful not to over-emphasise such events. Thanks for the post, Vurtax.

05-31-2013, 01:11 AM
Point of fact on migrations & the new world - the exploration of berengia wasn't a journey to an unknown land. It was expansion & diaspora. The same peoples that had been spreading throughout southern & eastern Asia also explored north. These peoples were still in the hunter-gatherer stage and had to keep moving in search of food. As populations in a geographic area rose & the size of an individual tribe did not (it capped at about two-dozen), tribes had to either compete for territory or go looking for more. As they were by nature already nomadic, staying in one place likely never occurred to them.

Most interestingly in the the colonization of the new world (at least to me), is that it appears to have happened in three waves. The result is three different groups whose genetic phenotype had developed separately. The first group was most likely the one that settled North America (iirc), the second that found that land occupied and peopled Central & South America, and the last are the northernmost peoples (inuit, etc.) - which is why the Inuit are so similar to the Chu Che peoples of northern Siberia - they are in fact still related.

The point of all this, is that when you look at the movement of peoples across your world, never assume that a group stops doing something. Yes, a given culture may settle down in an area - but what do they do next? Do they stay a single culture? Do they break off splinter cultures? Remember that population growth will always happen when food is abundant unless some predator or health hazard is keeping the population low. This will generally mean expansion.

01-28-2014, 04:53 PM
Very cool Thread! the sheer scope of building a world is astounding but this makes a bit more manageable. Thank you for this.

01-31-2014, 05:56 PM

One can make fun maps out of migrations. If this doesn't change for you, save it and open with something that displays animated gifs reliably.

Morsels of backstory: the "winter" and "summer" referred to below the dates are the depth and peak of a climate cycle rather shorter than earth's. The indicated glaciation is consequently nowhere near as severe as an Earthly ice age. The cycle was intended to have forced a whole series of historical migrations, both of people and of animals. We never made full use of it, but it made for better plausibility for some of the "mixed people groups thrown next to each other" you often get with shared worlds.

Some of the movements are simple migration, and others are intentional imperial expansion. Wish I'd thought to code the arrows to indicate which was which.

This was on a shared world so I did not have free rein outside the area that wound up labelled Kubu peoples on the last map. I made some guesses and some other nation owners approved my supposition, others simply didn't care about the distant past.

The 'dire washout' was the breakout of a glacially-dammed lake.

01-31-2014, 05:59 PM
Oh wow that's remarkable! :D

02-08-2014, 01:00 AM
Great read. Thanks.

02-09-2014, 03:57 PM
Woah! These are great :D

Just a thing on Tectonic Plates. In large Oceanic plates you can get these things called 'hot spots' which are beleived to be where the plate begins to weaken in the middle and causes magma to rise up and cool causing small island in the middle of the ocean. This may be a very good tool for some stories. Massive ocean seperating 2 continents seemingly untravelable due to distance, but a small island make it just about do able? An island in the middle of the sea with some powerful magician living in iscolation?

I'm new and have no experience with finishing a world but if you make a list of things you want to cover, I and others may be able to help?

03-10-2014, 11:09 PM
Great posts, I agonize about the same things. I would like to add Trade, Transport and Sanitation. One of the most under appreciated aspects of the world is moving water. Water in, **** out. A river provides all of these things. Irrigates crops, provides fish, brings boats (an efficient form of transport in a pre-industrial world) and carries away waste. Cities grew up around markets... weekly, monthly, yearly. A good market and people stayed, as long as there was a market. 2 pence? Is that the same 2 cents worth?

03-10-2014, 11:45 PM
Apologies, I missed several pages of posts before I opened my mouth. I see three great threads (courses) here: Planets, Geology and migration; Empires, Kingdoms, Politics and Collapse; Cities and Population Growth... I love all three, are there separate forums (classrooms)?

03-11-2014, 12:11 AM
Thanks KartoKilt (and everybody else who has commented here). I really should make some more posts to this thread since it seems pretty popular. I'm planning a lengthy series on the form/history/growth of cities, but I don't see it happening in the next few months. Sorry to those people following this thread, and be aware, I haven't forgotten about it.


03-13-2014, 12:29 PM
If I may expand DEMurray's comment (http://www.cartographersguild.com/tutorials-how/20743-tips-worldbuilding-3.html#post207379) on trees a bit...

After reading a fair number of academic guesstimates, I've developed a short set of 'rules of thumb' for forests coverage.

Rule 1. If there were no people, forest coverage is immense. Trees tend to win over grass if the climate supports both.

Rule 2. For civilized but not industrial civilization there's a simple relationship between deforestation and population density, excluding the bottom 15% extremes. At 50 people per square km mi, forests are reduced by 50%. At around 85 pop/kmmi^2 forest coverage has been reduced to ~15%. At this point a severe change in slope happens, and the curve runs from here through ~12% coverage for 160 pop/kmmi^2 to the extreme point of ~7% for 200 pop/kmmi^2.

I want to accent that very last point. For pre-industrial age (ie before about 1800 in US and western Europe) it sort of looks like there's a cap on population density of 200 people per square kilometer mile. It's basically a Malthusian breakpoint. Even with that there's about 7% of forested land that's just too inaccessible for use, too marginal for farming, or whatever, and it remains untouched or replanted.

It looks like a depopulation event causes reforestation. From what we can tell, the depopulation of the world in the mid to late 14th century was accompanied by an increase in forest coverage. Sure it was "new growth" forest, but it was reforestation nonetheless.

The above is a general guidance. As an example that emphasizes DEMurray's point, Scotland pretty much deforested itself despite remaining under 60 pop/kmmi^2, and despite heavy use of peat for heat. My theory is that it was because so much of the land was marginal for farming; that it took more acreage to feed a population and so more land needed cleared, but I'm just guessing from available estimates.

Post-industrial, by the way, appears to maintain a pretty constant 6 to 9% forestation rate regardless of average density. Food production gets more efficient per acre, and population growth increases local densities instead of spreading.

edited to correct units of measure. deleted km and replaced with mi.

04-12-2014, 08:21 PM

I just registered the other day and am officially in love with these posts!

04-12-2014, 08:59 PM
Thanks Dave.

04-13-2014, 05:27 PM
@kirkspencer (http://www.cartographersguild.com/tutorials-how/20743-tips-worldbuilding-6.html#post240578) Using the data you so generously gathered, as well as some gratuitous rounding to make my math easier on me, I created an equation to find the (approximate) forest reduction as a percentage, given the population density and vice versa.
y=0.45x+17So, if you have the population density (in people per square mile), to find the approximate forest reduction (as a percentage of original forest), multiply the PD by 0.45 and add 17. To go in reverse (FR to PD), subtract 17 and divide by 0.45. I'm not sure why you would have the FR and not the PD, but it might be useful somehow.

Method Comparison:


The blue line is your data, and the red line is mine. The yellow line is something of a combination of the two where the slope is 0.535 and the y-intercept is 0, so that it meets both the first and last of your data points, but still remains linear, like mine. Obviously, mine is less accurate than yours, but it does allow for a (kind of) easy method to calculate forest reduction (or population density, if need be).